Madonna, “Hard Candy”Madonna makes producers, producers don't make Madonna. The diva plucked William Orbit, Mirwais and Stuart Price from electronic music obscurity, meshing her own pop sensibility with their sonic specialty. But for "Hard Candy," Madge hooked up with name-brand guys like the Neptunes and Timbaland, and even brought on Justin Timberlake as a writing partner. What results is, expectedly, of-the-moment and radio-ready. "4 Minutes," with Timberlake, is already a top three Billboard Hot 100 hit, and harmonious ballad "Miles Away" might be some of her best work yet. But it feels familiar. "Miles" is a close cousin to Timbaland's "Apologize," "Spanish Lesson" is a dead ringer for N*E*R*D's "She Likes to Move," and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" instantly recalls Timberlake's "Cry Me a River." That's par for pop acts when they collaborate with producers who are bigger stars than they are. But for a vanguard artist like Madonna, it feels like a bit of a concession.
The Roots, “Rising Down”It's a dark and stormy night on "Rising Down," the Roots' 10th disc. There's a sense of sonic dirt, political sharpness and clenched-teeth purpose that may be the result of label woes (the disc opens with a '94 phone screaming match between band members), or it may be just thanks to an ongoing, if kind of unbelievable, need to prove itself. Temporarily put on hold is the Philly collective's long-percolating propensity for slow-rolling, low-light grooves, and the first salvo of tracks come like a series of punches designed for a second-round knockout. Elsewhere, "Criminal" and "I Will Not Apologize" find the group making its most acute, nail-driven points in years.
Portishead, “Third”Sandwiched in the fertile years that separated grunge from the Spice Girls was Portishead, a band that didn't change, start or inspire much of anything. But its two albums of trip-hop noir are suspended in the memory of that generation, beautiful and singular. Eleven years later, "Third" doesn't fit in the canon. The torch song melodies and crackly samples are gone, replaced by psych-guitar and gothic folk. Tense elements like a skidding tire thump ("Plastic") or an angry shaker ("We Carry On") put the entire collection eternally on the ledge, teetering between order and oblivion. Pitch-shifting strings punctuate the background like reminders of the cinema of the past, but this Portishead doesn't wink at anything, eschewing style altogether.
Ximena Sarinana, “Mediocre”
As a generation of Mexican artists shaped by MTV, MySpace and YouTube finds its musical voice, it has often come out sounding like earnest mimicry of Anglo pop-rock or a style-over-substance indie pose. Though singer/songwriter Ximena Sarinana's remarkable alt-pop-jazz debut recalls Fiona Apple's best brooding melodies, it carries an emotional truth all its own. The seamless piano- and guitar-driven production perfectly complements Sarinana's crisp, soaring vocals, which occasionally bite the audience, lovers and herself in the process of seeking approval.
Lil Mama, “VYP: Voice of the Young People”Fans of Lil Mama's infectious "Lip Gloss" have been waiting nearly a year for the release of her debut album, wondering perhaps if the CD would emphasize this young MC's desire to join the ranks of New York's rap elite or to turn Miley Cyrus devotees into hip-hop heads. "VYP: Voice of the Young People" suggests that those two goals needn't be mutually exclusive. Presiding over tracks produced by A-listers including Dr. Luke, T-Pain, Cool & Dre and Scott Storch, Lil Mama shows off some impressive verbal firepower here, like when she challenges her skeptics over a booming trash-can beat in "One Hit Wonder." Yet she never goes long before reminding us of the value of a killer chorus, either; in "Broken Pieces" she even pulls off an unlikely emo-blues ballad.
Steve Winwood, “Nine Lives”Steve Winwood has made a career out of offhanded excellence, quietly exploring an ambitious musical synthesis that occasionally connects with the pop mainstream, but more often floats in its own kind of rock muso universe. "Nine Lives" follows suit with a set whose nine songs display an ensemble sensibility that gives a generous allotment of sonic room to members of Winwood's band — especially flutist Paul Booth and percussionist Karl Vanden Bossche, whose polyrhythms percolate throughout. "Nine Lives" starts off with the gritty acoustic roots sound of the defiant "I'm Not Drowning," but "Fly" returns us to the airy, expansive kind of arrangement that Winwood does so well, and "Raging Sea" incorporates funky guitar licks and subtle Hammond organ fills. Recent concert partner Eric Clapton provides some stinging work on "Dirty City," while "Hungry Man" stirs in African flavors and "Secrets" heads in a Latin direction.