Linda Thompson, “Versatile Heart” (Rounder Records)Linda Thompson’s third solo album (five years after her last, “Fashionably Late”) shines a spotlight on her children, Teddy and Kamila, and their close friends Rufus and Martha, the similarly musical offspring of the Wainwright clan. The kids are all over the room, playing, singing, writing, co-producing in various combinations. With Thompson’s deep roots in Anglo-American folk music a given, the new generation gives her vitality and a sense of renewed purpose on such clever art songs as Rufus’ “Beauty” and Kamila’s strangely bewitching “Nice Cars.” There are old folk tunes (“Katy Cruel”) and Thompson’s originals that sound like old folk tunes (“Whisky, Bob Copper and Me”). The spare but elastic settings enhance Thompson’s honky-tonk originals like “Give Me a Sad Song” (written with Betsy Cook), and “Do Your Best for Rock ’n’ Roll” (written with Teddy) is a shrewd variation on a formula that belongs in the permanent jukebox at Graceland.
Various artists, “High School Musical 2” (Walt Disney Records)If at first you don’t succeed, try, try ... whoops. Disney did succeed with “High School Musical,” to the tune of 7 million albums sold worldwide, a catalog of DVDs, a concert tour, stage and ice shows, and lyrics that every teen on the planet knows by heart. “High School Musical 2” doesn’t dance too far off the beaten path. The full-cast opener, “What Time Is It,” even references its predecessor’s closing “We’re All in This Together” as it sends the kids of East High School off for a summer vacation filled with the requisite romantic tribulations, light class warfare and, yes, a Midsummer Night’s Talent Show for everyone to strut their stuff. The music again skews toward hip-hop beats and hooky pop melodies, and such tracks as “Work This Out,” the sports-themed “I Don’t Dance,” “Bet on It” and “All for One” make you feel like Backstreet not only is back, but never left.
Terence Blanchard, “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” (Blue Note Records)What started as a gig scoring Spike Lee’s HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke” has been imaginatively expanded by trumpeter Terence Blanchard into this epic-length, orchestral-string masterwork. As the two-year anniversary of the New Orleans deluge approaches, the Crescent City native delivers his compelling and poignant reflections on the catastrophe, with the support of his quintet and the 40-piece Northwest Sinfonia. In the tunes, there is anger and angst, lush melody and woeful wails, pockets of grace and flood waters of melancholy. Four “Levees” numbers are in the mix, with revitalized arrangements, including the prodding, ominous “The Water” and the painfully anguished “Funeral Dirge.” Of particular note are three impromptu short “ghost” pieces, as well as originals by Blanchard’s band members, highlighted by pianist Aaron Park’s lyrical gem “Ashe” and saxophonist Brice Winston’s heart-rending “In Time of Need.”
Gaudi + Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, “Dub Qawwali” (Six Degrees Records)We have an unexpected pairing on “Dub Qawwali” — electro-dub savant Gaudi and the late, legendary Pakistani qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Working with recently discovered Khan vocal tracks, Gaudi has artfully crafted a surprisingly profound blend of Qawwali music and dub reggae. Qawwali is the music of Sufi mysticism, and Khan was surely one of the greatest of qawwali singers. Gaudi has shown a keen sensitivity to Khan’s legacy and Sufism in creating the 10 tracks on this disc. Sometimes the reggae vibe is pronounced, as on “Ghamgar Bare Ne” and “Ena Akhiyan Noo”; on tracks like “Bethe Bethe Kese Kese” the dub component is more subtle, in this case anchoring the bottom of the track. The result: a brilliantly realized concept and a stirring world music album.
Blaqk Audio, “CexCells” (Interscope Records)Blaqk Audio made its presence known on MySpace earlier this year before revealing itself as the electronic side project of AFI’s Jade Puget and Davey Havok. With “CexCells,” the pair delivers an emotionally charged collection that pays homage to pioneering dance/rock/electronic acts like Depeche Mode, Visage and Human League. Havoc’s vocals, at times, even recall those of League leader Phil Oakey. Puget’s programming and keyboard work, meanwhile, would not sound out of place in a DJ set by Paul Van Dyk or Tiesto — particularly on tracks like “Again, Again and Again” and “On a Friday.” Album opener “Stiff Kittens” is equal parts AFI and Information Society, while closer “Wake Up, Open the Door and Escape to the Sea” is primed for chill-out lounges.
Junior Senior, “Hey Hey My My Yo Yo” (Ryko)Danish duo Junior Senior named its debut album “D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat”; its lead single, “Move Your Feet,” ricocheted around the world, causing much dance-floor damage along the way. The b-b-beat continues on “Hey Hey My My Yo Yo.” In fact, the songs here are more catchy, and yes, more fun. “Hello/Hip Hop a Lula” is a bouncy delight, with props given to Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” Even more delightful is “We R the Handclaps,” which features backing vocals by Le Tigre. But one track stands head and shoulders above all else: “Take My Time,” with the unmistakable vocal stylings of the B-52’s’ Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, who know what it means to dance this mess around.
Lori McKenna “Unglamorous” (Warner Bros./StyleSonic)Lori McKenna’s major-label debut, which comes after four independent releases, may be one this year’s best country albums. McKenna says her songs are a collision of autobiography, observation and a vivid imagination, and there’s plenty of proof here to back her up. The rocking and insightful “I Know You” name-checks D.H. Lawrence and could only be written and sung by a woman who has been married for 19 years to the same man. Likewise, “Your Next Lover” is an interesting and odd look at the insight gained from a lifelong love affair. The title cut, which speaks of drinking wine from a jelly glass, faded curtains and TV dinners, is right of out blue-collar America. And co-producer Tim McGraw, whose wife, Faith Hill, recorded McKenna’s songs on her “Fireflies” album, proves to be a fine harmony partner on “Drinkin’ Problem.”