Gnarls Barkley, “The Odd Couple”If Gnarls Barkley’s debut, “St. Elsewhere,” was the sound of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green tinkering around with the creation of their bizarre surf-pop/psychedelic hybrid monster, “The Odd Couple” is the sound of that monster escaping from the lab. It’s also about a thousand times darker. Danger Mouse goes from gospel to pop to spooky, often in the same track, and Green sets a new vocal bar on the desolate, acoustic-flavored nightmare ballad “Who Will Save My Soul.” Zippy first single “Run” and the vaguely romantic rubber ball “Blind Mary” are the only things here that approach the sonic territory of “Crazy,” and there are times when Green’s quavering falsetto gets downright evil. It seems that the more comfortable the principals get with Gnarls Barkley, the more haunted Gnarls Barkley gets. Stronger, too.
Panic at the Disco, “Pretty. Odd”Panic at the Disco’s sophomore set has a lot more cheery moments and fewer busy elements than its smash debut, “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out,” and, much like the exclamation point now absent from the band’s name, the superfluous noise is hardly missed. In a Beatles nod, the album begins with the crowd-noise-enhanced intro “We Were Starving” before “Nine in the Afternoon” bursts with upbeat power chords and a singalong chorus. There’s plenty of twee to go around, including tracks like “That Green Gentleman,” “Behind the Sea” and ballad “Northern Downpour” — surprising, considering the band’s previous penchant for darkness on “Fever.” 15 tracks of welcomed live drum sounds, symphonies and stacked harmonies.
Flo Rida, “Mail on Sunday”In 50 years, it’ll be a curious thing that the best-selling digital single of all time once belonged to Flo Rida and that the song, “Low,” powered the phones of hip-hop heads and sorority girls for months and months. “Low” is a well-deserved monster, and Flo Rida’s relatively long-in-coming debut album sports precisely all the ingredients required of a rapper these days: production that sounds like money, exuberant materialism, several verses by Lil’ Wayne and a singular desire to keep people’s attention for very brief periods of time. Flo Rida’s flow is an engaging/ringy-dingy/he-sounds-like-Nelly thing. But his hooks can be rock-solid, and his interest in gleaming synthesizerism (opener “American Superstar” comes into “Tubular Bells” territory, really) helps set him off from the legions of rappers clawing over one another to break out of the South.
Lionel Loueke, “Karibu” The Blue Note debut of Benin-born guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke arrives as an ear-opening delight after his five-year span of creative bloom. Not only did Loueke record two fine CDs for indie ObliqSound (one as a member of the collective Gilfema), but he was also enlisted to perform and record with such top-tier jazz artists as Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. All three praised Loueke’s singular style of jagged geometric shapes, shifting time signatures, ebullient African-pop groove and sweet lyricism, which are on full display here. The nine-track journey, which opens with the sunny, syncopated title track and ends with the juju-like “Nonvignon,” marks this year’s first major jazz revelation.
She and Him, “Volume One”Indie-movie princess meets indie-rock prince in this collaboration between Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, featuring a bland name and even blander album title. Luckily, they’re the most awkward things about this surprisingly rewarding collection of dusky, mesquite-flavored torch songs. She and Him ducks the celeb-novelty thing thanks mostly to Deschanel, who penned nine of the album’s 11 tracks and spends much of it channeling Neko Case in a voice that’s just fine, if occasionally (though endearingly) rough. It’s best heard on the wonderfully brittle “Change Is Hard” and a slow, sexy take on the Miracles’ “You Really Gotta Hold on Me.” And if Ward knows anything, it’s how to work up spare frontier shuffles, all covered in echoing dobro and dust. She and Him feels like a class project Ward and Deschanel get to do because they’re famous, but “Volume One” is a fine use of their privileges.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, “Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947”
The concept here is nothing short of brilliant and, as is usual with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, the picking and singing are outstanding. Skaggs wanted to introduce the music of the founding fathers of bluegrass to his fans and, hopefully, a new generation, so he and his band covered a dozen classic songs first recorded by Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys during the years 1946-47. The period represents an important snapshot because Monroe’s band of that era included singer/guitarist Lester Flatts, banjo player Earl Scruggs, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts. Skaggs and his crew treat the music with the respect it deserves, giving new life to old gems. Scruggs, the only surviving member of the pioneering band, guests on “Goin’ Back to Old Kentucky.”
Caribbean Jazz Project/Afro Bop Alliance, “Caribbean Jazz Project/Afro Bop Alliance”The Caribbean Jazz Project, led by marimba and vibes wiz Dave Samuels, put together this album with Maryland-based outfit Afro Bop Alliance. The vibe here is a distinctly Latin, big-band trip on songs by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and several Samuels originals. Nineteen musicians played on these tunes (most of them sax and horn players), giving the set a powerful brass/reed sound. Their stellar cover of Coltrane’s “Naima” comes our way via a highly syncopated arrangement, nicely layered horns and solid solos from Samuels and saxophonist Steve Williams. Another intriguing number is the Samuels original “Afro Green,” a more darkly colored piece with an interesting, dissonant dynamic at work, particularly between the horns and Harry Appelman’s piano.
The B52s, “Funplex”The B-52s have always operated in a retrofuturistic galaxy where the watusi meets interplanetary synths. On their first album in 16 years, the “Love Shack” has morphed into a mall-like “Funplex.” Shellacked with Keith Strickland’s surf guitar, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s honeyed harmonies and Fred Schneider’s campy exclamations, just about every track’s obsessed with sex. Sex is dancing! Sex is a road trip! Sex is a cocktail party! Schneider’s horny hollering soon turns cringe-worthy. But the club-ready hooks are the real point here. Just like everything since 1979’s “Rock Lobster,” “Funplex” works best when the voices blend into the momentum.
Counting Crows, “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings”“I’m just trying to make some sense outta me,” Adam Duritz tells us early on in “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings” — an angsty quest he’s stretched across five Counting Crows studio albums. Fortunately, Duritz and company know how to make that conundrum rock with anthemic ferocity or treat it with melodies so plaintive they positively shimmer. All those virtues are intact here, a concept piece of sorts on which the first, hard-rocking half of the album revels in sin, or at least sinful intent, and the second exhibits the contrition of Sunday morning. The band stretches out in some new directions on the trance-y “Washington Square” and incorporates psychedelic overtones into “Insignificant” and “Le Ballet d’Or.” “You Can’t Count on Me” sounds like the flip side of a Bruce Springsteen love song, and such tracks as “1492,” “Cowboys” and “Come Around” rock with sweeping dynamic energy.