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Carolina Chocolate Drops "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind" (Music Maker)

Goes well with lost music styles, Carolina-style barbecue and string bands.

Traditional American music is a mishmash of influences from many different cultures. Much has been made of the presence of the British Isles in bluegrass and old-time fiddle music; less has been said about the influence of African culture. It most certainly exists, as evidenced on this first album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Focusing heavily on tunes from North Carolina's Piedmont region, specifically those of the great Joe Thompson, the Chocolate Drops' sound is high-energy and the arrangements, though sparse, are well-thought-out and not lacking much. Fiddler Justin Robinson is backed by banjoist Rhiannon Giddens and multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons. Tunes such as the title track and "Starry Crown" show this young band's mature understanding of the very stylized melodic and rhythmic structure that typified the black string bands of the early and mid-1900s.

On this album, the Chocolate Drops show great reverence in unearthing tunes and styles not heard by many, even aficionados. Check them out at www.sankofa **** — Joshua Bearman

N.W.A. "The Best of N.W.A.: The Strength of Street Knowledge" (Ruthless/Priority)

Goes well with a copy of Mike Davis' book "City of Quartz" and a mix of more positive hip-hop.

Everyone by now knows the importance of L.A. crew N.W.A. It popularized gangsta rap, the commercially dominant form of hip-hop, with the runaway success of its multiplatinum 1988 album, "Straight Outta Compton," and served as a launching pad for the careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

The question is whether N.W.A.'s success is something to be celebrated. The three full-lengths N.W.A. released in its short career are packed with graphic violence, misogyny and homophobia. But all the rampant negativity — which the crew has rightfully been called out for — has to be measured against the group's contribution to detailing life in a turn-of-the-millennium ghetto, with vivid tales of police brutality and entire communities hollowed out by drugs.

This compilation, the latest in a long line of repackages, is the best single-disc explanation of why the group continues to be name-checked. From crude underground singles like Eazy-E's "Boyz-N-The-Hood," to the shattering "Straight Outta Compton," to later songs like "Appetite for Destruction" and "Real Niggaz Don't Die," which show Dre's burgeoning production genius, almost everything that mattered is here, and most of it is still highly listenable and entertaining. Discuss amongst yourselves whether the world is better off with this music in it. ****—Mark Richardson

Nas "Hip Hop Is Dead" (Def Jam)

Goes well with superstar producers and Jay-Z.

One can rightfully ask what business Nasir Jones has in putting such a blasphemous title on his eighth album, especially since his former nemesis Jay-Z became his ambassador. Initial controversies aside, one of the most inconsistent legends in the genre has assembled an album worthy of keeping company with his "five mic" classic debut, "ILLMATIC."

His first album on the venerated Def Jam label features a historical collaboration with Jay-Z ("Black Republicans"), but Nas refuses to rest on that alone. His introspective metaphors and memorable imagery spark undeniable chemistry, especially on tracks produced by über-whiner Kanye West (the pensive "Still Dreaming"), the peerless Dr. Dre ("Hustlers") and the ever-expanding on the highly engaging title track.

In "Carry On Tradition," Nas chastises rappers who have no love for the culture and manufacture fake beefs, like with WWE wrestlers, to keep weak careers on life support. Luckily, Nas proves the opposite of his album's title. Once again, one of the dons has come back to smack these lieutenants and street soldiers into position. ****— Willie Hobbs

King Khan and the BBQ Show "What's for Dinner" (In the Red)

Goes well with The 13th Floor Elevators, The Sonics and German punk clubs.

These two guys from Berlin (via Montreal) are responsible for one of the grittiest, most entertaining rock 'n' roll albums of last year. Coming off like a retro '60s garage-rock act at first, BBQ (Mark Sultan of Les Sexareenos/Spaceshits fame) and King Khan (also a Spaceshit) create a huge lo-fi sound bigger than its parts. They skillfully combine the orgiastic fury of punk (including a great cover of the Circle Jerks' "Operation") with dirty blues and soulful old-school R&B, while keeping everything believable, even complementary.

Sultan is a one-man wrecking crew, howling like a man on a precipice, playing trashy guitar and drums (mostly with his feet), while Khan provides additional fuzz guitar and singing, including great doo-wop moments that fit surprisingly well. Stripped-down, moody garage-rock stompers such as "Zombies" would make the Ramones' rotting corpses grin, while the catchy ballad crooner, "Why Don't You Lie?" sounds like a lost midnight AM radio classic. The blistering punk screamer "Learn My Language" warms this rickety heart in a mere 12 seconds flat.

This follow-up to the duo's excellent debut on Goner Records is infinitely more exhilarating than any rock you'll hear on mainstream radio or MTV — even though it hearkens to yesteryear. **** — Brent Baldwin S

Local Bin

Marlon C. "Ain't That Da' Truth" (Deep-N-Soul Entertainment)

Goes well with the neo-soul sound and famous cousins.

It's not easy to thrive in the shadow of a famous relative. Just ask Marcus Vick. But Richmonder Marlon C.'s future may be brighter than that of his infamous cousin, D'Angelo. After a couple of false starts in the music industry, he recently dropped his first album, "Ain't That Da' Truth." The singer/rapper mixes hip-hop, soul, gospel and blues in a release that easily distinguishes itself from what passes for R&B today.

Whether he's rapping about temptation ("Nothing but the Devil") or singing about patience ("Love Is a Garden"), Marlon C. brings a raw, emotive quality to his music that rings true. Even the tired skits that interrupt the songs don't disturb the groove. An accomplished musician who has worked with Raphael Saadiq, Angie Stone and Joi, Marlon C. handles all of the production duties himself and carries the load with relative ease. With a bigger budget and the creative oversight that a major label provides, he could readily fill the void left by the apparent demise of the neo-soul sound. ***— Craig Belcher

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