Keyshia Cole, "Just Like You" (Geffen Records)
Keyshia Cole's latest album works the space between club-hoppin' hood rats and lovesick college grads with the finesse of, that's right, Mary J. Blige. Making good on the buzz of her BET reality series, "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is," she puts an end to any doubt of who is the heir to the queen of hip-hop soul's legacy. Cole's vocals are pared down and focused with a confidence that takes many young artists much longer to cultivate.
"Let It Go" (featuring Missy and Lil' Kim) laced the airwaves and clubs earlier this year with the tried-and-true loop of Mtume's classic "Juicy Fruit." New discoveries such as "Didn't I Tell You" back up Cole's vocals with a heavy-hitting beat and a guest spot from Oakland homey, Too $hort.
Things become dicey when ballads such as "I Remember" cue up. The orchestrated, soap-opera-friendly track attempts a refinement she has yet to grow into. The album's biggest crime is the mesmerizing "Same Thing," clocking in at only a minute and a half! "Got to Get My Heart Back" grooves like Blige circa her "My Life" years. Though clearly still in the process of evolving, Cole delivers one of the most underrated R&B albums of the year. -- William Ashanti Hobbs
Common, "This Is Me Then: The Best of Common" (Red Int/Red Ink)
Chicago-based rapper/actor Common deserves a definitive retrospective collection, a set of carefully chosen songs that represent his depth and development as an artist. This compilation means we'll have to wait a while for that. It pulls almost exclusively from the first three albums of the rapper formerly known as Common Sense. While this mercifully excludes songs from the "Electric Circus" debacle, it creates a incomplete portrait of the artist as a young man.
It may come as a surprise to those who know the rapper from his Gap commercials to hear Common's '90s rhymes, which now seem top-heavy with diggedy-dated pop-culture references and Jurassic slang. "Take It EZ," with its jazz loops and thick beats, is one of the few tracks from his debut rendered timeless by producer No I.D.'s still-crisp production. Other tracks such as "Heidi Ho" will have you wondering what made Common outlast the rest of hip-hop's class of 1992. Fortunately, his classic release, "Resurrection," is well-represented here, with four cuts, including the song that led to a much-publicized feud with another rapper/actor Ice Cube "I Used to Love H.E.R."
Along with his newer material, this collection also lacks non-album songs from this period such as "The Bitch In Yoo" and "1999," which were crucial to his career. With the addition of some uneventful collabos with Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Cee-Lo thrown in, this compilation sounds like an attempt to fill record company stockings and makes little sense. Craig Belcher
Rufus Wainwright, "Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall" (Geffen)
In June 2006, Rufus Wainwright played two nights at Carnegie Hall, performing songs from Judy Garland's two-night appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1961. He re-creates her original show in slavish detail, down to the costume changes, concert posters and set list, which includes songs by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart.
This two-disc souvenir of the show may be the ultimate moment in a career that has grown dispiritingly self-indulgent. After two albums of sophisticated Broadway pop and SoCal folk rock, Wainwright has released three albums of impenetrably operatic meditations on gay love and romantic loss. Obviously more accessible, "Rufus Does Judy" settles for merely re-creative rather than interpretive.
"I feel like Judy Garland's secretary," he remarks at one point, suggesting the banality of the undertaking. Sure, Wainwright has a great voice for these show tunes, one that easily conveys their emotional grandiosity, but it's difficult to shake the sense that the primary audience is Wainwright himself. Stephen Deusner
Karen Dalton, "Cotton Eyed Joe" (Delmore Recordings)
There are few singers whose level of melancholy and soulfulness you can actually compare to the vocals of Billie Holiday. Sixties folkie Karen Dalton is one of them. Although her career never took off, and she died a junkie on the streets of New York in the '90s, Dalton was a pivotal figure in the early Greenwich Village folk scene, playing alongside Bobby Dylan and Fred Neil (both of whom cited her as a favorite). This haunting two-disc live recording captures an intimate club performance at The Attic in Boulder, Colo., from 1962. A decent audience recording by Joe Loop, the mesmerizing solo performance is a real treasure, featuring beautiful harmonies and spacious guitar playing.
Dalton lived near the club with her daughter in a shack with no electricity so most of the crowd likely consists of friends. Playing 12-string guitar and banjo, she navigates folk material with spooky blues grit (for a 20-something girl) and complex, jazzlike nuances. Particularly moving is her mournful, personalized version of "Red Are the Flowers," an anti-war song Fred Neil wrote after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Neil would sometimes admit, when Dalton sang his material, he would actually forget that he wrote it. She was that good. And these Loop tapes are a must-have for anyone into early '60s folk. Brent Baldwin
Duchess of York, "Era in Static"
You just can't put a price tag on talent. Nor, it seems, an accurate age. Suffice to say that Duchess of York, formerly The Rising Sons, plays beyond its years and gets better with every performance. And like Kings of Leon or, let's see, the Jackson 5, the tightness of the band may be in the blood. The Yorks' blood, that is: singer/guitarist Michael, bassist/brother Austin, guitarist/brother Beck. Along with drummer Constantine Giabos, they've been tight since practically the womb, one would imagine, and all share a vision for the purest, loudest kind of rock.
That vision is given ample opportunity on "Era in Static," the group's first full-length, with jangly guitars, long, sweeping solos, and unexpected twists and turns that defy its high-school origins. Also heard are all the elements of the ancestors, bands like The White Stripes, Zeppelin and, ah, the long and venerable list on their MySpace page. How they'll distinguish themselves against those noble forebears will be the true (and most interesting) challenge for Duchess of York. For now, their boundaries are defined by the underwear-thrower "Animal City," which is straightforward and great loud, and the sublime "Shine," which throws off a lovely, mellow light. It's carried by Michael's voice, which continues to shape the sound as the edge is worn off his teenage rasp. Somewhere down the road, they'll be prepared to consider the deepest blues from which the bands of that MySpace list first emerged. Brandon Reynolds
Teddy Pendergrass "Essential Teddy Pendergrass"
The king of vocal seduction returns with Essential Teddy Pendergrass, providing all of his baby making hits including "Close the Door," "Turn Off the Lights," and wedding favorite "You're My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration." The set also includes newer releases "Joy," "It Should've Been You," and a duet with resurgent diva Whitney Houston "Hold Me," that were absent from his last compilation. The endurance of his music speaks for itself. So turn off the lights, light a candle, and relive special memories with Essential Teddy Pendergrass. - Maree Morris