Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis, “Two Men With the Blues”At first blush, this odd-couple billing would seem like a bizarre musical gumbo. “Two Men With the Blues” is the recorded evidence of a two-night Jazz at Lincoln Center summit in January 2007 and an album whose enviably assured vibe pretty much drips out of the speakers. “Blues” is more of a relaxed, jaunty toss-off of well-known numbers (“Georgia on My Mind,” “Stardust,” “Basin Street Blues”) than anything terribly revelatory, but given the names on the marquee, that’s more than enough. When Willie Nelson settles into “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and Wynton Marsalis powers a mighty brass section through “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” all you really need to do is sit back and dig it.
Nas, “Untitled”Unlike most MCs, Nas can put an entire genre on edge with one word, or lack thereof. His untitled album, formerly dubbed ”N+gger,” could have been just another big idea wrapped in unfocused songs and chalked up as a publicity stunt. Instead, the veteran MC seized the opportunity to convey his idea of the black man’s experience in America. From “Project Roach,” where Nas says that the NAACP’s burial of the word “n+gger” was pointless, to “Untitled,” which discusses Louis Farrakhan’s role in America, the Queens MC impresses his listener while provoking social and political thought. DJ Toomp, Stargate, Salaam Remi, Polow Da Don and newcomer Jay Electronica contribute lush tracks with strings and airy melodies, giving Nas the freedom to dissect the North American black experience with more intelligence than hip-hop has displayed on a mainstream scale in years.
Randy Travis, “Around the Bend”Randy Travis’ 1986 emergence as the leader of a fresh crop of country music “youngsters” came with a deeply reverential nod to the makers of what was once considered authentic, unvarnished, old-school country. Now, after an early-millennium shift into no-doubt-about-it Christian country, Travis returns with a somewhat more mainstream country release. “You Didn’t Have a Good Time” is a gut-wrenching “ballad of the bottle” that holds out hope for redemption, while “Every Head Bowed” is a riotously funny look at blessings that heat up as dinner cools down. The title song is a bluesy, country reflection on life and death, with a stinging Telecaster solo sealing its place in tradition and modernity. As if almost effortlessly, Travis proves track after track the difference between bravado and stone-cold brilliance.
John Mellencamp, “Life Death Love and Freedom”Searching for a ray of lyrical light in John Mellencamp’s latest treatise on the state of the world proves consuming but largely fruitless. That, however, makes the album all the more compelling. Its unrelentingly bleak landscape, populated by plain-spoken narrators and richly detailed characters and settings, leans more on the death part of the title equation, with pointed side trips into the political climate and philosophical essays like “John Cockers” and “For the Children,” in which Mellencamp seems to question his own capacity for the continuing struggle. T Bone Burnett’s austere and atmospheric production brings a fresh kind of texture to the performance aspects of Mellencamp’s songs, and his bonus DVD mix in the new HD CODE format lives up to its promise for richer and more articulated sound quality.
The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive”Just in time for summer — the perfect season for its classic rock-inspired songs of young love, townies, house parties and part-time jobs — the Hold Steady makes good on the promise of 2006’s acclaimed “Boys and Girls in America” with “Stay Positive.” This time, Brooklyn’s working-class heroes have stepped up their musicality (harpsichord is featured on “One for the Cutters”) and melodic balladry (“Lord, I’m Discouraged” is an aching prayer), while still providing their signature cacophonous anthems with songs like the barn-burning ”Navy Sheets,” with backing vocals from Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood. Frontman Craig Finn sets religious metaphors to a woozy acoustic backdrop (“Both Crosses”) and nods to Jersey Shore-era Springsteen (“Yeah Sapphire”). As usual, it’s sweet, intelligent and thoroughly rockin’.
Bajofondo, “Mar Dulce”
This Argentine-Uruguayan crew originally used the band name Bajofondo Tango Club. It recently reduced the name to Bajofondo, in recognition of the fact that the music the band is creating reaches beyond tango. That’s evident with opener ”Grand Guignol,” which blends a heavy drum ’n’ bass bottom end with the sweeping flourishes of tango. It’s an unexpected pairing of visceral beat and florid romanticism, but it works awfully well. Tango remains the constant for Bajofondo, but the 17 tracks offer quite a few variations on a theme. Elvis Costello delivers a guest vocal on the dreamy tune “Fairly Right,” and singer Veronica Loza is strong on the uptempo “Tuve Sol.” Shrewd electronics endow the tango theme of “Pa’ Bailar” with quite an extraordinary sting.
Wire, “Object 47”It’s been said before, but Wire’s music has never sounded dated. More than 30 years on from the release of the seminal post-punk band’s debut, “Object 47” is at once warmly familiar yet not a “return” to any particular sonic period in the group’s convoluted history. Upbeat opener “One of Us” is as catchy a pop song as Wire’s ever committed, seemingly marking a left turn from 2003’s more esoteric, explosive album “Send.” The pulsating “Mekon Headman” and entrancing head-nodder ”Perspex Icon” keep the mood going, lacing sugary chorus hooks into propulsive rock rhythms. There’s some hard stuff here too — menacing closer “All Fours,” for example — but certainly nothing that makes the band sound out of touch, unoriginal or old. It’s vital, quintessential Wire. In 2008, no less.
Delta Goodrem, “Delta”Five years after establishing herself as Australia’s premier female vocalist, 23-year-old singer-songwriter Delta Goodrem at last earns stateside launch, thanks to resuscitated Mercury imprint Decca. Overseas, this is Goodrem’s third album, a vivacious 12-song showcase of versatility and melodic mastery led by celebratory piano romp “In This Life.” Equally affecting are sweet, redemptive midtempo ballad “Believe Again,” frolicking reggae finger-snapper “You Will Only Break My Heart,” somber confessional “God Laughs” and a remastered encore of “Born to Try,” the stunning ballad that first propelled Goodrem to the top in 2003.
Kakande, “Dununya”Kakande revolves around the superb artistry of balafon virtuoso Famoro Dioubate. The balafon, essentially a West African xylophone, is not an easy instrument to master, but Dioubate, a native of Guinea, is descended from griots who were playing gigs in the Mande Empire in the Middle Ages. Dioubate cut this fine album in Brooklyn, working with nine musicians to create 11 songs that strike a lively balance between West African traditional music and a wonderful improvisational sensibility. Such tunes as “So Si Sa” and “Nina Kaba” have an enthralling rhythmic circularity and a deep, expansive groove. ”Mariama Traore,” “Souaresi” and the title track, on the other hand, evince a more traditional feel, though even here Dioubate’s arrangements suggest that he’s very much at ease contemplating his tradition with a 21st-century musicality.