Alicia Keys, “As I Am”Alicia Keys’ considerable talents are no secret six years after her auspicious debut, “Songs in A Minor.” However, those gifts shine with a ripening maturity and depth on her third studio outing. From the opening strains of the classical overture that introduces this aptly titled album, Keys continues to fearlessly resist the cookie-cutter norm. On her most personal record to date, love (of self, a significant other, family) and life lessons are the primary themes. The strong stories that Keys spins are complemented by deft musical arrangements that integrate more rock and pop into her enriched old-school vibe. Beyond hit single “No One,” notable tracks include the female anthems “Superwoman” and “Go Ahead,” and the drum- and horn-embellished “I Need You.”
Jay-Z, “American Gangster”
Jay-Z’s non-soundtrack to “American Gangster” uses a fictional framework as an excuse for him to re-address matters he’s been writing about forever — which is fine and all, but a new Jay-Z record about the hustler’s lifestyle isn’t that surprising. What’s more notable are the telling gems hidden within the Frank Lucas outline: Smirkingly christening himself “Gray Hova” gives Jay the chance to weigh in on Don Imus and Britney Spears, and declare all rappers “actors,” brilliantly positioning himself above the game while still keeping a large foot in it. The “Gangster” portion of the record is, as you’d expect, effortlessly strong. The production — heavy on contributions from a 1970s-obsessed Diddy, is hit-or-miss.
The Hives, “The Black and White Album”Seven years after breaking out of Sweden’s eternal garage-revival scene, this color-coordinated quintet has somehow created its liveliest, most playable album. Its cartoon-tuneful energy pogos all over the place: an opening volley of blowing stuff up (“Tick Tick Boom”), an expert AC/DC homage about being broke (“Square One Here I Come”), equestrian Pixies new wave (“Giddy Up!”), 1966 frat-rock party voices, Motown basslines under laughs and cackles and yelps. Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist has an awesome knack for turning simple declarative mantras into hooks (“I was right all along,” “I can’t go on and I gotta get goin’,” “Whatcha gonna do? Here he comes for you”). And when tempos occasionally downshift (Eric Burdon’s baritone verses on “Won’t Be Long,” creepy crawly keyboards during “Puppet on a String,” even a robotically falsetto-ed Prince-circa-“Kiss” attempt on the Pharrell-helmed “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.”), the fun still doesn’t drain away.
Somewhere between brain music and body music sits Seal. His enlistment of former dance/electronic artist Stuart Price to produce his fifth full-length doesn’t represent a move in one of those directions. After Seal’s singular baritone — which is getting even more pleasingly throaty as he ages — the songs are the focus here. Some hum and build like good club tracks (“Loaded”); some launch as acoustic guitar pieces and pick up steady kick drums along the way (“Dumb,” album standout “Rolling”). But they’re all melodious, lyrical and as intimate as any singer/songwriter’s sparser work. Even a duet with wife Heidi Klum (“Wedding Day”) is more sweet than saccharine.
The Killers, “Sawdust”They’ve released only two albums, but thanks to the dictates of international appeal, the Killers have amassed an impressive collection of B-sides and assorted rarities. “Sawdust” sweeps up 17 of them, and while it doesn’t have the cohesive impact of “Hot Fuss” or “Sam’s Town,” it’s an appealing set that brings a bit more breadth and depth to the group’s catalog. Included are such outtakes as “Sweet Talk” and “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf”; covers of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay,” the First Edition’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet”; and a spare reworking of the “Sam’s Town” title track. The group’s present is represented via the new “Tranquilize” featuring Lou Reed, whose sophisticated dynamic attack indicates the Killers may have some surprises for us on their next album.
Levon Helm, “Dirt Farmer”In 1998, the singer of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was almost driven down by throat cancer. Almost, but not quite: “Dirt Farmer” is former the Band-member Levon Helm’s return from voicelessness, and he’s used the unexpected opportunity to express his deep and abiding devotion to the roots music he first heard growing up in rural Arkansas. Helm’s singing is more ragged for the wear, but his weathered tone suits traditional material like “False Hearted Lover Blues” and “The Blind Child.” Produced with rough-hewn tenderness by Helm’s daughter Amy (a member of Ollabelle) and Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, the album also includes tunes by Steve Earle as well as Buddy and Julie Miller, the latter of whom add old-pal harmony vocals to “The Mountain.”
Celine Dion, “Taking Chances”
Celine Dion’s 10th English-language studio album and first in three years showcases an artist eager to escape all preconceptions. On “Taking Chances,” the world’s best-selling female artist lets go of diva serenades in favor of true grit. All elements signal fresh direction, from producers Ben Moody, Linda Perry and Ne-Yo; lyrics that address edgy life lessons; and vocal technique foregoing creamy polish. Still, authenticity commands Dion’s mission. The midtempo rock title track is destined for AC’s top 10, while other radio triumphs include the empowering “My Love” and a rowdy cover of Heart’s “Alone.” Also noteworthy are the Janis Joplin-esque “That’s Just the Woman in Me” and “This Time,” a chilling socially conscious rock ballad about a battered woman.
Duran Duran, “Red Carpet Massacre”If her name hadn’t been Rio and she’d never danced on the sand, it’d be easy enough to evaluate this solid collection on its own merits. Alas, Simon LeBon and company have a lot of baggage, and their latest effort doesn’t match the neon-lit glory days of yesteryear. In a bid to attract new fans, the band collaborated with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, who manage to make a few tracks sound modern and fresh. First single “Falling Down” is upbeat and danceable, while “Nite-Runner” borders on funk. But when left to its own devices, Duran Duran takes the path of least resistance on songs that sound like older versions of Bloc Party and the Kaiser Chiefs. A few underage folks might find themselves drawn in, but it’s up for debate whether “Carpet” will welcome newcomers into the fold.
Boyz II Men, “Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA” Responsible for bestowing incredible harmony upon early-’90s R&B, Boyz II Men always sounded like they were straight outta Motown. So it’s only fitting that the quartet would cover classics from their Motown-era predecessors. Here, there are goodies like the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” and the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears.” While the majority of the cuts expertly merge the group’s melodic vocals, the aggressive chants of Edwin Starr’s “War” are unbefitting an act known for silky ballads. Staying true to the original versions of songs, the compilation offers little if any innovation, but that barely matters. If Boyz II Men were to time-warp back to the ’60s, with the right matching attire and nifty two-steps, they’d blend right in.
Os Mutantes, “Live at the Barbican Theatre 2006”Despite a 28-year live layoff, Brazil’s finest oddball psych-rock combo, Os Mutantes, is sharp beyond belief on this double-disc concert set. Recorded in London last year at the start of the group’s brief reunion tour and released via David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, “Live” has just the right balance of styles. There’s staccato, Tropicalia-style rhythms of “Dois Mil E Um” and “A Minha Menina”; the fuzzy guitar freakouts of “Top Top,” “Balada Do Louco” and “I Feel a Little Spaced Out”; and more straightforward, accessible pop numbers, such as the Beatles-esque “Tecnicolor” and “Virginia.”
Shaggy, “Intoxication”Shaggy uses “Intoxication” to once again show that while he and his crew can crank out solid pop, they can match it with cuts that genuinely rock the dancehall. The thing is, everyone knows he can do pop. What he needs to do now is just crank out a full disc of bangers. It’s the point proved by his new album’s boastful opening track, “Can’t Hold Me,” and the raunchy rhythm driving the sexy title song. The foundation of the disc is aimed at the airwaves, and a few songs could easily see chart action. Most are collaborations, like the Rik Rok vehicle “Bonafide Girl” (which lifts the guitar part from Desmond Dekker’s “007 Shanty Town”). But best is “Mad Mad World.” With Sizzla’s soulful hook strewn over a Dre-worthy beat and head-nodding rhymes, it’s a fusion of both sides of Shaggy.