Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, “It’s Not Big It’s Large” (Lost Highway Records)The secret of Lyle Lovett is that it’s hard to tell what the secret is, in much the same way that the title of this record is funny, although it’s hard to put a finger on why. But it’s probably enough to say that Lovett is among the planet’s most rewardingly consistent songwriters, and anyone enamored of his idiosyncratic history will find nothing wrong with “Large.” Fans of his gospel leanings will be extra pleased: The record opens with the insistent rave-up “I Will Rise Up” and closes with “Ain’t No More Cane,” both of which take full advantage of Lovett’s churchy aspirations, though faith is redemptive in the former, necessary in the latter. Satisfyingly intact is Lovett’s perfectly crisp voice, his band’s good-natured, big-booted Texas choogle and his ability to break hearts with a minimum of words and images.
Paul Anka, “Classic Songs, My Way” (Decca)On the surface, it’s a punch line: 66-year-old crooner attempts a Tony Bennett return to cool by covering Van Halen and the Killers in big band style. But maybe because of his hit songwriter’s ear or his five young daughters, Paul Anka’s interpretations (here and on 2005’s “Rock Swings”) aren’t campy — they’re insightful. Who knew that Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” had the lyrical cadence and melodic pop to work as a finger-snapping Count Basie-style show-opener? Or that Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” could conjure an Edward Hopper lonely diner tableau as effectively as Sinatra’s “One for My Baby?” Hearing Anka sing “Mr. Brightside” is like catching your dad watching “Flavor of Love.” But piloted by thoughtful arrangements and Anka’s still-youthful voice, “Classic Songs” bridges the generation gap like blue jeans and iPods.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, “Lifeline” (Virgin Records)Only 18 months after his ambitious solo double-disc, “Both Sides of the Gun,” Ben Harper returns with his eighth studio album and his best in years. Recorded with the Innocent Criminals at the end of a long world tour, “Lifeline” is a gorgeously underproduced, laid-back, acoustic-based soul/rock album whose minimalist vintage feel recalls Van Morrison and Bill Withers. Groove-heavy cuts like the mellow “In the Colors” and “Needed You Tonight” add a breezy R&B vibe, while gospel backing vocals sweeten uptempo standouts like “Say You Will” and “Put It on Me.” Saving the best for last, the closing title track offers a soulfully pulsing man-with-guitar confession. “Lifeline” is a classic-sounding album that reminds us of the power and beauty of simplicity.
M.I.A., “Kala” (Interscope Records)Even more so than her arresting 2005 indie debut, “Arular,” M.I.A. comes off as a globetrotting activist on sophomore effort “Kala,” draping myriad Third World sounds over club-happy beats. She’s a revolutionary leading a class war on “Paper Planes” and pounding the door of a Hummer on “Bamboo Banga,” all while disguising a political message with richly textured electronic sounds. She quotes the Pixies, samples the Clash and turns a Bollywood show tune (”Jimmy”) into a string-driven scorcher. Elsewhere, she squeezes a groove out of the crisscrossing rhythms of “20 Dollars” and lets the murky, African bassline of “Mango Pickle Down River” envelop her. She does this all with charmingly homemade-sounding production values. Perhaps that’s why superstar producer Timbaland sounds out of place on “Come Around,” his sex-obsessed verses momentarily killing M.I.A.’s multicultural buzz.
Casting Crowns, “The Altar and the Door” (Beach Street/Reunion Records)On Casting Crowns’ third studio album, the Georgia-based band demonstrates the musicality and insightful songwriting that have made it an instant Christian music sensation. Frontman Mark Hall has a gift for penning songs that avoid cliches and platitudes, instead thoughtfully examining the complexities of living a Christian life. He does so again on such compelling songs as “Slow Fade,” a ballad about how small missteps and moments of compromise become a slippery slope. “What This World Needs” is a hard-rocking look at society’s ills, while “Prayer for a Friend” serves as a perfect showcase for the warmth and integrity in Hall’s voice.
Emily King, “East Side Story” (Lifeprint Prods./J Records)One of this year’s more auspicious debuts is by 22-year-old Emily King. The New Yorker delivers a soulful collection of songs that resonates as much from her skill as an observant storyteller as from her tasty melange of R&B, hip-hop, folk, jazz, rock and pop. Writing since the age of 16 and influenced by her jazz-duo parents, King outlines complex situations using simple yet ear-pleasing melodies and relatable imagery. The biographical “Colorblind” draws on the sometimes painful experiences she encountered as the daughter of an interracial couple, while heartless capitalism is the focus of the soul-and folk-infused “Business Man.” King’s emotive vocals and second-nature musicianship shine on “Walk in My Shoes” (a bonus track version features Lupe Fiasco) and a passionate turn on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Various Artists, “Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection” (Shout Factory)Chicago’s Vee-Jay never had the cachet of Chess, the cultural influence of Motown or the longevity of Atlantic, but from its start in 1953 to its financial ruin in 1966, it was one of America’s most artistically varied black-owned labels. This four-CD set tells the musical story. In the ’50s, Vee-Jay was a powerhouse of blues, R&B, doo-wop and gospel. It released immortal doo-wop tracks like the El Dorados’ “At My Front Door” and the Spaniels’ “Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite.” By the early ’60s, Vee-Jay was knocking out pop hits by black acts (Betty Everett’s “Shoop Shoop Song”) and white acts (the Four Seasons’ “Sherry”). Vee-Jay’s owners lacked financial savvy and lost not only the Four Seasons but the Beatles (whose tracks that the label released, such as “Please Please Me,” are missing here). But musically, especially when it came to roots music, the label rarely faltered.