Kanye West, “Graduation” (Def Jam)For Kanye West, “Graduation” is the next natural step in a progression that began with his 2004 debut, “The College Dropout.” Plucking from influences as disparate as Daft Punk, U2 and the Rolling Stones, West focuses on such inspirational tracks as “I Wonder.” Beyond his trademark looped samples, West stretches the production with synthesizers and arena-ready tracks like “Champion.” The gritty “Barry Bonds” featuring the ubiquitous Lil’ Wayne would’ve been better saved for a mixtape, but “Big Brother,” West’s ode to Jay-Z, has lyrics introspective enough to make fans cry. “Flash Lights” does a great job of reintroducing “Miami Vice”-esque keys, while “Good Life” featuring T-Pain is an instant hit. An impressively creative hip-hop album that could inspire West’s peers to try new sonic avenues.
Kenny Chesney, “Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates” (BNA Records)Like his hero George Strait — it’s no coincidence that he guests on “Shiftwork,” a sticks-in-your-head blue-collar anthem that fits both men like a glove — Chesney gets better with age. There are radio hits here: “Never Wanted Nothing More” has already hit No. 1, and second single “Don’t Blink” is off to a fast start, but there’s depth, too. “Dancin’ for the Groceries” represents what might be a country first — a song about a single mom who strips to make ends meet. On “Wild Ride,” Chesney takes a Dwight Yoakam-penned rocker up a notch, complete with talk-box guitar and a down-and-dirty Southern rock vibe. “Demons” is a self-examination of the singer’s struggles with women, whiskey and weed. And laden with horns and island rhythms, “Got a Little Crazy Last Night” is straight out of the Jimmy Buffett songbook.
50 Cent, “Curtis” (G-Unit/Interscope Records)Delayed release dates, slow-moving singles and G-Unit restructuring made 2007 a rough year for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. Now, “Curtis” seems to be a mirror of where the MC is in his career: muddled. Though the album is good, for an artist of 50 Cent’s caliber, it’s not great. “I Get Money,” “Man Down,” “My Guns Go Off” and the Mary J. Blige-assisted “All of Me” partially redeem his pop forays, and it’s nice to hear his gruff street stories and charming lyrics. Sadly, those aren’t in abundance on songs that too often sound like 2007 versions of earlier hits. “Fully Loaded Clip” successfully updates “How to Rob,” but neither “Follow My Lead” nor “Amusement Park” truly recaptures monster smashes like “21 Questions” or “Candy Shop.” In the end, “Curtis” just doesn’t offer enough of the old slick-talking, charismatic 50 Cent.
Joe Henry, “Civilians” (Anti-)
The superb “Civilians” succeeds not only as a melodic collection of poignant short stories, but also as a potent picture book of America gone wrong. Joe Henry’s catchy lopes, waltzes and piano-led songs are steeped in an American roots-music sensibility with hints of jazz instrumental finesse. Lyrically, we’re treated to telling snapshots of a general in civilian clothes who “draws a napkin battle plan” (on the title track), an artist who hopes despite grim rage (“I Will Write My Book”) and baseball icon Willie Mays spotted in a Scottsdale, Ariz., Home Depot (“Our Song”). It’s the last-mentioned number, the best of the batch, that anchors the disc with its theme of regret over national ruin and greed.
Ann Wilson, “Hope & Glory” (Zoe Records)This debut solo album from Heart’s Ann Wilson is hardly a go-it-alone affair. Of the dozen cuts, only two feature Wilson without a little help from her friends; the remaining 10 find the singer sharing the mic with guests including Elton John, k.d. lang and Rufus Wainwright. (Three cuts costar Ann’s sister Nancy, which technically makes a quarter of the disc a Heart album.) “Hope & Glory” — which contains 11 covers and one original — is rich in pleasures, even if it plays more like a highlight reel than a thoroughly imagined work. The centerpiece is a folk-funk take on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”; Wilson emphasizes the tune’s menace, but also draws out its vulnerability. Other gems: Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson,” with lang, and Neil Young’s “War of Man,” with Alison Krauss.
Dee Dee Bridgewater, “Red Earth: A Malian Journey” (DDB Records/EmArcy)In pursuit of her African roots, vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater delivers this striking melange of mainstream jazz and traditional Malian music. Largely recorded in Bamako at the studio of the late Ali Farka Toure, the disc steers clear of merely flavoring jazz with African music in lieu of full immersion. Malian musicians inform Bridgewater’s approach and delivery. She updates her duet partner Oumou Sangare’s gently lilting “Djarabi” with a soulful arrangement (“Oh My Love”) while she skips through Ramata Diakite’s poignant “Mama Digna Sara Ye (Mama Don’t Ever Go Away).” Straight-up jazz tunes like Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” get treated to new readings steeped in Malian rhythms. A festive collaboration.
Black Francis, “Bluefinger” (Cooking Vinyl)Cause for celebration: Erstwhile Pixies frontman/rock ’n’ roll lifer Charles Thompson is back for another round, this time reclaiming his “old” stage name Black Francis and rocking out harder on record than he has in years. For “Bluefinger,” Francis drew inspiration from iconic Dutch musician/painter Herman Brood, whose mercurial, drug-fueled life and dramatic suicide color most of the album’s lyrics. The Brood cover “You Can’t Break a Heart and Have It” is one of the high points, a furious power-trio jam on the barrelhouse blues number, complete with backing vocals by Francis’ wife, Violet Clarke. “Threshold Apprehension” has angular guitars, lung-busting lead vocals and “oo-wee-oos” by Clarke that should remind listeners of the Pixies’ Kim Deal. But no less enthralling is laid-back fare like “Discotheque 36,” its easy groove informed by Thompson’s recent forays into Americana.
Red Stick Ramblers, “Made in the Shade” (Sugar Hill Records)The Red Stick Ramblers are clearly preoccupied, in a most admirable fashion, with a full immersion in the music of southwest Louisiana. The tune “Katrina” is a typically Cajun rejoinder to the hurricane’s aftermath; a response grounded in a ferocious rhythm and the dual fiddles of Kevin Wimmer and Linzay Young, which do most of the talking. After assaying a lyrical rendition of Bob Wills’ “Don’t Cry, Baby,” they tear through an enthusiastic cover of Belton Richard’s “Laisse les Cajuns Danser,” then follow with a high-voltage take on Clifton Chenier’s classic Zydeco number “Hot Tamale Baby.” It’s enough to drive a Yankee to learn to dance the two-step.