By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Various artists, Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop). It's a rare tribute album that can both beautify the original recordings, which were always pretty stark, and increase the listener's understanding, which used to wander out of focus. You can admire Nebraska by Springsteen, or you can love this.
Various artists, Better Than Fruitcake(Sound System). Nineteen St. Louis artists turn in their takes on Christmas, mostly on extremely short notice. Individually, most of these are better than could be expected (with maybe three outright losers); put them all together, you get a genuinely new look at the holiday, one filled with laughter, terror, awe, joy and beauty.
Brian Blade Fellowship, Perceptual (Blue Note). On his second recording as a leader, drummer Blade blurs the boundaries between jazz, rock and other genres without falling into the "something for everyone" trap. Mesmerizing music from a true "band."
Cubanismo! Mardi Gras Mambo (Hannibal). This great Cuban band headed to New Orleans, teamed up with fine musicians such as John Boutte and Donald Harrison, and the result is a great record that exposes the Latin roots behind the Big Easy mix of jazz, R&B and blues.
Georgie Fame, Poet in New York (Go Jazz). Yes, he's the same guy who recorded "Yeh, Yeh" during the '60s British Invasion -- and worked with Van Morrison for many years. Fame also makes great jazz vocal recordings like this one. If you're a Mose Allison fan, pick up on this or any of Fame's other recent stuff. It's all excellent.
Charles Lloyd, The Water Is Wide(ECM). This Memphis-born sax player first hit his stride in the late '60s with his great quartet. He's still around and still creating a wonderful mix of lyrical, complex, impassioned music.
Joe Lovano, 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note). One of the finest sax players on the planet pays tribute to the great New York jazz scene of the 1950s -- and composer Tadd Dameron. Lovano takes plenty of chances in a variety of settings and makes every one pay off.
Danilo Perez, Motherland (Verve). This talented Panamanian-born pianist continues to explore the common ground between jazz, Latin rhythms and the folk songs of his native land. And he continues to produce startling, mesmerizing music.
Paul Simon, You're the One (Warner Bros.). Simon continues to fold an array of Third World rhythms into his music, and he's become so successful at it that the sound seems totally natural. Add a large helping of his finely crafted, intelligent and heartfelt lyrics, and you've got another classic.
Steely Dan, Two Against Nature (Warner Bros.). Speaking of classics, Becker and Fagen have given us one as well. Their latest inspired exploration of the dark side of humanity hits home with a mix of mordant wit, hip arrangements and slick, slinky grooves.
Irma Thomas, My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn (Rounder). Get the "soul queen of New Orleans" together with one of the finest writers of soul songs ever, and you've got a combination that's a natural winner. Just get out of the way, roll the tape and enjoy the results.
Robert Ward, New Role Soul (Delmark). Ward, who started his musical career back in the late 1950s working with the likes of Wilson Pickett, may be the most underrated guitarist in blues and R&B. This is his first recording of new material in five years, and it's a barn-burner.
Built to Spill, Live (Warner Bros). Doug Martsch can write songs just as catchy as Bob Pollard's; he just takes six minutes to get them done instead of 45 seconds. On this double live LP, the songs stretch and breathe even more, making it heaven for fans of indie guitar rock.
Beachwood Sparks, Beachwood Sparks (Sub Pop). Creating harmony-drenched AM-radio pop with a strong but not overpowering country tinge and enough vaguely psychedelic bits to keep things interesting, Beachwood Sparks come off like an Elephant Six band gone Byrds instead of Beatles.
Go-Betweens, Friends of Rachel Worth(Jet Set). Picking up right where they left off a decade ago, the Go-Betweens are reunited, and the melancholy feels so good. The smartest songwriters of the '80s, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster are still crafting brilliant jangling odes to the tragic and glorious unfairness of love.
Elastica, The Menace (Atlantic). Picking up only vaguely near where they left off half-a-decade ago, Elastica have augmented their punkish pop with bloopy new-wave keyboards, ending up sounding a bit like the Fall, circa 1985. The Fall's Mark E. Smith even guest-rants on a couple of tracks.
Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). Toning down doesn't mean turning down. It also doesn't mean selling out. Sleater-Kinney transcend hyphen rock (punk-rock, girl-rock, Olympia-rock) and now just straight-up rock.
Olivia Tremor Control, Singles and Beyond (Kindercore). Although technically a reissue, the ridiculous obscurity of most these singles and compilations tracks makes this a new release to all but the most dedicated eBay bidder. The shorter time frame imposed by the 7-inch single format forced the band to play up their pop hooks somewhat, but some of this stuff would be just plain weird at any length.