Randy Newman, “Harps & Angels” (Nonesuch)
Before soundtracking Disney flicks made him the Susan Lucci of the Oscars — he finally won on his 16th nomination — Randy Newman laced his ragtime-pop compositions with wicked sarcasm and irony so subtle that many listeners were outraged when he sang “Short people got no reason to live.” Newman returns to his old show-tune-inspired sound for “Harps & Angels,” his first album in nearly a decade, with his crackling wit intact. The title track riffs on the afterlife before ending “Let's go get a drink,” and “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” tries to find a historical ruler worse than the current administration, but comes up hilariously short. “A Piece of the Pie” and “Korean Parents” are ostentatiously orchestrated, as if taken from the flop stage production of “America! The Musical.” It's difficult to hear “Losing You” and the closer “Feels Like Home” without envisioning a montage of computer-created toys, but no one does easy sentiment or uneasy laughs better than Newman. — Stephen M. Deusner
Sugarland, “Love on the Inside” (Mercury Nashville)
The going criticism of contemporary country music is that there's not enough country in the music and too much rock. But Sugarland's third album, despite its terrible title, makes a virtue of that equation. The duo borrows from '80s arena pop, hair-metal balladry, Southern rock and Top 40 to get these songs across; there's even a live cover of the Dream Academy's “Life in a Northern Town” on the expanded edition. Sugarland doesn't care a whit for down-home authenticity, and its worldliness instills the album with an unexpected joyfulness that colors every note. But that's only the group's second-best trait. First is Jennifer Nettles' voice, one of the best in Nashville. She belts soulfully on the not-sappy-at-all “Joey” and sasses playfully on “It Happens” and the hilarious “Steve Earle.” At times, she has to work hard to salvage the lesser material, but more than the duo's previous albums, “Love” shows off her range and presents her as Sugarland's — and country music's — true star. — Stephen M. Deusner
Billy Joel, “The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition Box Set” (Sony/Legacy)
Like his mentor and vocal forefather Ray Charles, Billy Joel didn't have a lot of success with his first few albums. By the time he was about to record his fourth album, Joel was in danger of being known as the Piano Man and getting dropped from his label. Then came 1977's “The Stranger,” the record where Joel's rock-and-pop blends hit their stride and he became known as a master craftsman. This pivotal album has been repackaged with a DVD of a lost United Kingdom concert, a documentary of the making of the record, a concert from 1997 and a remastered version of the original album, which produced the hits “Only the Good Die Young” and “Just the Way You Are.”
Also in the box is a replica of Joel's handwritten song notebook, a fold-out poster and a glossy booklet. Of all the goodies, the documentary is the most compelling item. Joel explains the genesis behind nearly every song on the album from his motorcycle-filled garage.
The live disc, recorded at Carnegie Hall a few months before “The Stranger” was released, finds Joel not as the Piano Man, but as an Angry Young Man, performing the prelude to the latter song with dexterity and ferocity. Of course, the songs of “The Stranger” are here in all of their remastered glory. As a qualified audiophile, I can tell you this version of the album sounds, in my professional opinion, real good. With all the information in the box set, there isn't much about “The Stranger” that we don't know. Except for the meaning of that unsettling album cover, which appears to have escaped Joel's mind permanently thanks to whatever he was into at that time. — Craig Belcher
Hamburger James, “Last Plane to Memphis”
If your band is going to play “bona-fied, Dixie-fried rockabilly,” you better make sure there's a memorable lead guitar player. Luckily for locals Hamburger James, they have a man called Slawdaddy leading the six-string attack. The name alone wins him points. Dedicated to “female Elvis” Janis Martin, whom they once backed, Hamburger James' debut album is more early rockabilly than anything else, but there are clear nods to country laced through the songs, and the spirit of Elvis' vocals is alive in singer Andy Vaughan.
All the songs here wear their influences proudly and would sound fine in an old-school juke joint, or maybe Shenanigan's: “Rumble Tonight” takes its cues from Little Richard; “Everybody Loves Me” tosses in some Buddy-Holly-Jerry-Lee-Lewis-styled hiccupped vocals; the ballad “Wait for the Morning” could be a lost Roy Orbison track, without the haunted, heavy reverb, and guest Jennifer Vaughan adds a stiff shot of female vocals to the rollicking “Bang Bang.” Throughout these nostalgic sounds, all four band members do a nice job evoking the period, particularly drummer Bill Pettus, and of course, Slawdaddy.
In case you're wondering about the band name, Hamburger James was the guy who used to be in charge of buying burgers for Elvis and who once stole the King's drugs and nearly got whacked for it. He also probably can take a little credit for Elvis' colon weighing 30 pounds when he died. — Brent Baldwin