T.I., “Paper Trail”It’s been a tumultuous year of offstage drama for T.I., but “Paper Trail” finds him back in the driver’s seat. The MC reasserts his lyrical skills on tracks like “I’m Illy,” clearly recorded during his house arrest stint on weapons charges, where he speaks frankly about his life. The Kanye West-produced “Swagger Like Us” featuring Jay-Z, West and Lil Wayne is a clear highlight, as is the Rihanna-led “Live Your Life.” Despite appearances by Swizz Beatz, John Legend, Usher and Ludacris (surprising, considering their long rivalry), the focus remains squarely on T.I. Rather than giving in to his situation, T.I. has embodied literature’s most popular archetype — the survivor — by transforming his woes into a reflective, enjoyable album.
Robin Thicke, “Something Else”Don’t take the title of the follow-up to 2006’s platinum-plus “The Evolution of Robin Thicke” as a sign that this well-connected R&B crooner has changed his style the way he did between his grab-bag 2003 debut and “Evolution.” Long on breathy sensitive-male ballads about how he understands your hopes and shares your desires, “Something Else” picks up right where Thicke left off with the last album’s hit single, “Lost Without U.” Given his weakness for bongos and syrupy strings, the new set isn’t without a whiff of schmaltz; more than once you’ll think he’s about to cover “Take My Breath Away.” Fortunately, Thicke’s strong singing — and a few winning uptempo numbers, including the infectious “Magic” and the R. Kelly-ish “Sidestep” — right the ship.
Nelly, “Brass Knuckles”There’s only one track on the new Nelly album that doesn’t include cameos from such urban-music A-listers as T.I., Snoop Dogg, Usher and Fergie. Considering that “Brass Knuckles” is the St. Louis rapper’s oft-delayed follow-up to 2004’s somewhat underwhelming “Sweat”/”Suit” project, skeptics might wonder if the sprawling guest list is an admission of fading commercial prowess. So it’s to the MC’s credit that “Brass Knuckles” feels like a party. Check out “Body on Me,” on which Akon and Ashanti surround Nelly’s verses with singsong melody, and “Let It Go,” where the headliner rides a funky Neptunes beat. Nelly and his high-wattage pals throw down with abandon, not anxiety.
Pete Seeger, “At 89”The folk icon’s first record since 2003 is less an album than the audio version of whiling away an afternoon at Seeger’s upstate cabin. It’s a pleasingly indulgent collection of songs, stories and detours that will be something of a treasure for longtime fans and packs at least a dozen treats for relative newbies. (There are 32 in all, 26 previously unrecorded, including stories, introductions and at least one “Nameless Banjo Riff.”) Seeger grudgingly nods to his own mortality on tracks like the extremely sweet “Little Fat Baby,” a growin’-up narrative. Best of all is “False From True,” a ragtime throwback that finds Seeger settling into a sweetly melancholy tale of nostalgia, hope and “separating false from true.”
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conquerer”Six years after his last set of original material, Jackson Browne has a lot to say — no surprise. The veteran troubadour has never pulled his lyrical punches, and “Time the Conqueror” muses on Browne’s usual mix of politics and the human condition, with a dose of nostalgic sentimentality that bears all the rich melodic and intricate nuance of his vintage work. He asks, “Why is impeachment not on the table?” in “The Drums of War”; trips through the horrors of Katrina-battered New Orleans in the gritty “Where Were You”; and questions U.S. foreign policy on “Going Down to Cuba.” The past, meanwhile, informs “Giving That Heaven Away” and “Off to Wonderland,” in which Browne recalls innocent days of “living with an unknown band” and laments that the halcyon era “didn’t really leave us with the love to find our way.”
Paul Motian Trio 2000+2, “Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. II”This is certainly a recommended album for anyone who harbors a penchant for the more abstract jazz forms. Drummer Paul Motian leads a trio — Larry Grenadier (bass) and Chris Potter (tenor sax) — and augments his threesome with pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, alto sax man Greg Osby and viola player Max Manieri. The seven tracks include five original pieces, though the two covers, “Till We Meet Again” and “If You Could See Me Now,” are so thoroughly reinterpreted that they may as well be originals too. Osby and Potter embark on an extended flight of free-form fancy on these tracks, quite vividly on “The Third Walk.” The vitality of the disc’s improvisational impulse is most compelling on the tune “The Divider,” a striking ensemble performance that’s equal parts discipline and spontaneity.
TV on the Radio, “Dear Science”On “Dear Science,” TV on the Radio utilizes the same recipe that helped it cook up indie cred with its critically acclaimed albums “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes” and “Return to Cookie Mountain.” Take Tunde Adebimpe’s gritty, eerie vocals; add skidding industrial beats; and top with the heavy orchestrations of producer David Sitek. It’s all well and good, but we’ve mostly heard it before. There are cool sounds to explore, like the choir of reedy voices on “Golden Age,” the ’70s exploitation movie guitars of “Red Dress” and the dramatic piano ballad “Family Tree.” Yet without any true progression from previous work, “Dear Science” seems destined to be the wallflower in TV on the Radio’s catalog.
Ani DiFranco, “Red Letter Year”Ani DiFranco’s 16th studio album is unlike all the ones that came before it. There are still the incisive metaphors, the artfully wielded acoustic guitar, the political made personal and back again. But the dominant force on “Red Letter Year” is contentment rather than restlessness. The 37-year-old singer-songwriter is a new mom in love with her daughter’s dad, and the experience has saturated every element of her work, from the warmed-up sound of her voice and guitar to the lessons learned at the end of her familiar narratives. “I don’t mind traffic cops or the TSA/Long as I’m with you I’m having a good day,” she sings on “Smiling Underneath,” about the peace of happy coupledom. That’s not to say that she’s gone soft: The longtime activist still takes on nuclear energy (“The Atom”), religion (“Alla This”) and all incarnations of the patriarchy.