Mariah Carey, "E=MC2" (Island)
For much of her career, Mariah Carey seemed like a cipher, a conduit whose multioctave voice communicated no inner thoughts of her own but instead channeled the sentiments of expensive songwriters and producers. Amazingly, her colossal 2001 flop "Glitter" and its disappointing follow-up "Charmbracelet" marked a turning point, and in 2005, she returned reinvigorated on "The Emancipation of Mimi" -- and more commercially viable than ever. "E=MC2," though terribly titled, tops its predecessor with strong songs that not only give Carey a chance to show off her pipes, but also a means to express what sounds like genuine resolve in her voice on "I Stay in Love" and real hurt on the Scott Storch-produced "Side Effects," her voice aching as she confesses she's "still dreaming 'bout the violent times." "Bye Bye" and "I Wish You Well" both recall the sappiness of her early '90s materials, but it's just another side of Carey, who finally sounds like an agent in her own career. Stephen Deusner
Packway Handle Band, self titled (self-released)
If you haven't been paying attention to underground bluegrass music, here's an update: The Packway Handle Band from Athens, Ga., has been taking over the world, touring both coasts as well as the U.K. and Europe. This five-piece band crafts a sound that is high-energy, heavy on the blues, and frequently leaning toward postmodern. The bulk of songwriting is by mandolinist Michael Paynter (playing left-handed and upside-down, by the way), whose lyrics cover anything from the ills of liquor ("Gets Me Every Time") to the natural disconnect between two people ("Strangers"). Fiddler Andrew Heaton is responsible for the album's two strangest songs "Earl the Duck," featuring fowl gender confusion, and a song about the universal existence of evil in an almost traditional gospel track, "Satan's in Space." Each band member can both pick and sing; the vocal arrangements are heavy on the harmonies and the solos are creative. To some (including this reviewer) an electric bass is anathema to the bluegrass sound, but even this can be overlooked in the face of all the positive aspects here. Josh Bearman
Tokyo Police Club, "Elephant Shell" (Saddle Creek)
Ontario's Tokyo Police Club has been very deliberate in its output, releasing a few EPs on Toronto-based Paper Bag Records before signing to Saddle Creek. Such a gradual build-up means the band is less likely to go the way of Cold War Kids, Birdmonster, or Tapes n Tapes blog-feted groups that either quickly disappeared or stumbled on follow-ups. In other words, you might actually be hearing about them in a year. Unfortunately, despite their professional patience, Tokyo Police Club still sounds like a typical blog-rock band on its full-length debut, "Elephant Shell," which channels white-male, 20-something angst via heavily arpeggioed guitars, half-hearted hooks, wallowing vocals, and post-Interpol ambience. There are some standout moments here and there the handclaps on first single "Tesselate" and Greg Alsop's slicing high hat on "The Baskervilles" but not enough to sustain a complete song, much less a full album. Touring hard and recording purposefully have obvious helped the band develop its chops, but now they need to do something about personality. S.D.
Flight of the Conchords, self titled (Sub Pop/HBO)
Forget about Tenacious D. The new kings of the musical parody duet are two deadpan guys from New Zealand: Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, otherwise known as Flight of the Conchords. Their hilarious HBO show became an instant cult classic for its dry wit and creative use of original pop music in a sitcom about the fictional struggles of their band. Critics love them, too, partly because their musical skills are no joke; they even won a Grammy earlier this year for best comedy album. Now comes the soundtrack from the first season of the show, produced by the funky Mickey Petralia (from Beck's "Midnight Vultures"). Most of the fan favorites are here, sounding close to their TV appearances from the memorable hip-hop parody ("Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros (feat. Rhymenoceros and Hiphopopotamus)" to believable, faux-odes to Serge Gainsbourg, Prince and David Bowie. These guys make it all sound easy, moving effortlessly between genres with melodic and catchy material whose strongest point is, predictably, funny lyrics: "My rhymes are so potent that in this small segment/I made all of the ladies in the area pregnant/Yes, sometimes my lyrics are sexist/But you lovely bitches and hoes should know I'm trying to correct this." But most people who will buy this CD have probably already downloaded similar versions of these older songs which makes this endeavor seem like cashing in on the Grammy win rather than a necessary step. Because of the writer's strike, the second season starts later this year. Brent Baldwin
DVD: Various, "Wholphin No. 5" (McSweeney's)
If you're a fan of short films and haven't heard about Wholphin, "the DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films," shame on you: March to Chop Suey Tuey and shower cash on owner Ward Tefft like he was a stripper and you were Pacman Jones. This year's James River Film Fest featured the magazine's assistant editor presenting several highlights from the series most notably, an insightful documentary about a vibrant and courageous 13-year-old Yemeni girl struggling against her patriarchal culture ("A Stranger in Her Own City," from issue No. 3, Fall 2006).
The latest installment, No. 5, offers another engrossing collection of short films, vivid modern animation and startling documentaries. The diversity of these DVDs makes every installment worth watching at least once, but highlights here include two documentaries, one a disturbing story about a land dispute between two elderly Native American women and the U.S. government ("American Outrage"), another about the growing, Internet-fed phenomenon of competitive Rubik's Cube players, or "speedcubers" ("Piece by Piece"). There's also an over-the-top, gut-busting animated short, "Chonto" by Carson Mell, about a burned-out musician and his relationship with an adopted chimp and annoying roadie; and a Michael Chabon story adaptation, "House Hunting," starring Paul Rudd and Zooey Deschanel as newlyweds. B.B.