UGK, “UGK (UNDERGROUND KINGZ)” (Jive Records)After five years and numerous release-date shifts, a proper UGK album is finally ready to hit stores. Still criminally slept-on by the masses, the duo of Bun B and Pimp C certainly makes up for lost time here with a 29-track double-album that proudly flies the flag for Southern hip-hop. The OutKast-featuring “Intl’ Players Anthem” could be the best recent rap song without an obvious hook (don’t miss the hysterical video). The production is at times old-school to a fault, but the music is always engaging, even when the same topics get repeatedly recycled (running the game, snitching, the trouble with women). That’s the real thrill of “Underground Kingz”: hip-hop unburdened by trends and concerned with nothing more than telling it like it is.
Zap Mama, “Supermoon” (Heads Up Records)Marie Daulne, founder of Zap Mama, has been a major figure in world music since the early ’90s, crunching genres from Congolese traditional to rap via what was initially an a cappella quintet. In all that time she’s never released a tighter, more immediate record than the new “Supermoon.” Daulne wrote four tunes on the album, co-authored the remaining seven songs and produced and handled the vocal chores and vocal arrangements. Drawing on the talents of Tony Allen, Meshell Ndegeocello, Tanja Saw, David Gilmore, Bashiri Johnson and Will Lee, Daulne sketches from a vivid musical palette. She reworks a song from an African children’s game (“Kwenda”), re-creating it as a funkified, beat-heavy bomb track. The title track — Daulne’s rejection of the role of superstar — is a midtempo pop song, performed with a basic quartet, while “1000 Ways” features the sort of wildly creative vocalizations that made Zap Mama famous in the first place.
Various aritists, “The Hottest State” (Hickory Records)A wide array of artists lend their talents to interpreting the music of singer-songwriter Jesse Harris on the soundtrack to this upcoming Ethan Hawke-directed film. Harris, widely known for his Grammy Award-winning work with Norah Jones, wrote every song here including two score arrangements, and he and Hawke handpicked the artists to perform their take on the tracks. Of particular note is the bare-bones, intimate performances of Willie Nelson on “Always Seem to Get Things Wrong,” Emmylou Harris on “The Speed of Sound” and M. Ward on “Crooked Lines.” Elsewhere, Argentinean newcomer Rocha lends her soft, sweet vocals to Spanish and English versions of the film’s main track, “Never See You”; Bright Eyes offers a fuzzed-out electronic take on “Big Old House”; and the Black Keys add a welcome blues-rock touch to “If You Ever Slip.”
Okkervil River, “The Stage Names” (Jagjaguwar)It used to be that Okkervil River’s Will Sheff couldn’t sing worth a damn, but things change. His whirly yelp, still unsteady, is here as much a fantastic destructive force as it is a story’s fragile narrator. This nine-song collection revolves around the themes of movies, fiction, fame and (naturally) death. The cerebral lyrics take center stage while the band rocks out much harder than it did on 2005’s melancholy “Black Sheep Boy.” Opener “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” sears with poetry and an instrumental freak-out. “A Girl in a Port” is a tender though jagged modern ballad that sets up the appropriately titled “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” (a line from a Joni Mitchell song). Loads of clever pop culture references grace “Savannah Smiles,” while “John Allyn Smith Sails” samples — what else? — “Sloop John B.”
Kat DeLuna, “9 Lives” (Epic Records)On her debut album, 19-year-old newcomer Kat DeLuna offers a unique blend of pop, R&B, house, hip-hop, bachata, dancehall, merengue and opera — and surprisingly pulls it off. With vocal strength reminiscent of the late, great Selena, the Dominican-bred chanteuse might just be starting a musical movement all on her own. On the Elephant Man-assisted “Whine Up,” the bilingual crooner flirtatiously sings about her desires to get close to a fellow on the dance floor. She also chants about falling in love with an island boy on the bachata-laden “Am I Dreaming.” But not all tales are of blissful teenage lust. On the conga-tinged “Love Confusion,” DeLuna sings about the perils of loving someone not worth her heart, while “Enjoy Saying Goodbye” might just empower women to walk away from a destructive relationship.
Luke Bryan, “I’ll Stay Me” (Capitol Nashville)Listening to Georgia native Luke Bryan sing about trucks, Mama, red-eyed gravy and wrestling hogs and gators, you realize he knows of what he speaks, at least in general terms. And that’s the attraction to this fine record. Bryan, who co-wrote 10 of the 11 cuts, doesn’t break any new musical ground here (he follows in the well-worn footsteps of greats Randy Travis and Alan Jackson), but he doesn’t have to. He’s unapologetically country, and that’s why he stands out from the pack — authenticity is his greatest trait. Highlights include the chill bump-raising “The Car in Front of Me,” the coming of age “First Love Song,” the down-home romper “Country Man” and the playful tale of getting naughty and naked in the woods, “Over the River.”
Simple Kid, “2” (Yep Roc Records)Irish singer-songwriter Ciaran MacFeely’s (aka Simple Kid) 2004 effort, “1,” was one of the most underappreciated debuts of that year, marrying his slack, stoner-y and at times fuzzed-out acoustic slide with elements of Britpop. Musically, it was all lo-fi; lyrically, the songs were clever, catchy and charming. Follow-up “2” is a headphone record full of more of the same and then some (like the solo acoustic, barely finished demo “Old Domesticated Cat”). With any luck, songs like “The Twentysomething” (”Always running, man, away from something”) and “The Ballad of Elton John” could be the ones that connect with his generation.