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NEW YORK (Billboard) - Everything's wacky in Chicago hip-hop these days: Kanye West is all mopey and contemplative, while Common has just landed on Planet Rock. The title track of the rapper/actor's latest uses the entire soundtrack from the Atari 2600 edition of "Super Breakout" to set the tone for a synthetic, sexified club record that'll bring in new fans while probably alarming old ones. As was the case with John Legend, who beamed into the club on his latest, the initial effect is jarring, even in its star's capable hands. But it also settles in nicely. "Announcement" benefits from a slinky beat that lets the MC breathe, "Make My Day" issues some California love courtesy of Cee-Lo, "Gladiator" is a great old-school brag rhyme, and the pro-Obama preacher "Changes" lets the old Common back in the door.
ALBUM: THE GREATEST HITS OF THE EIGHTIES (Arista Records)
With a Christmas single on the adult contemporary singles chart for the second year in a row and a fifth sold-out year of live shows, Barry Manilow's millennial presence continues to dazzle. Following "The Greatest Hits of the Fifties" (No. 1 debut, 2006), "Sixties" (No. 2, 2006) and "Seventies" (No. 4, 2007), "Eighties" is already off to a merry start with a No. 14 debut on the album chart. Manilow's gleeful duet with Reba McEntire on "Islands in the Stream" proves what a master arranger/interpreter he is, taking an overtly familiar hit and recasting it honorably. The same holds true for "Right Here Waiting" and "Have I Told You Lately." Most surprising are "I Just Called to Say I Love You," now a lite rhumba, and "Never Gonna Give You Up," where Manilow busts a groove. There's a lot of uncertainty in the world, but "Eighties" is one sure thing.
ALBUM: CALL AND RESPONSE: THE REMIX ALBUM (A&M/Octone)
Remix albums rightfully have a bad rep. Too often they're merely contract satisfiers -- easy ways to give big artists something fresh on the shelves or to separate dedicated fans from more of their dough. But "Call and Response" is everything the format could and should be. The band enlisted names big and small to get deep into its two-album catalog, and judging from the thoughtfulness of the contributions, they're all pre-existing Maroon fans. Swizz Beatz uses an uncharacteristically loose and light hand on "If I Never See Your Face Again"; Mark Ronson gets Mary J. Blige to contribute a great vocal to his funky take on "Wake Up Call"; and Pharrell Williams' "She Will Be Loved" is lo-fi and completely devoid of schmaltz or radio trickery. No one was trying to make new hits here or take their stock remix loop and carelessly plop it over an unrelated melody -- they seem to just really love the songs.
ALBUM: IN THE CITY (Cash Money/Universal Republic)
Kevin Rudolf is a new face in pop -- but not to those who pay attention to liner notes. The New York musician is one of producer Timbaland's resident studio aces, with playing credits on albums by Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, the Black Eyed Peas and Tim himself, and that pop/rock/hip-hop cred has made him the first non-rap artist signed by Cash Money Records. "In the City" is not a musician's album, however; Rudolf is as much of a top 40 aspirant as any of the folks he's worked with, and the dozen tracks on his solo debut, on which Rudolf plays nearly everything, hew toward the hooky, tuneful and danceable. The three collaborations with rappers -- including first single "Let It Rock" with Lil Wayne plus hookups with Nas and Rick Ross -- are thumping, synthesizer-heavy club anthems. Other tracks are brightly uptempo and, in spots, new wavey, while mellower moments have the pop mainstream firmly in their polished cross hairs. On the six-and-a-half minute "Great Escape," Rudolf laces guitar and piano solos and displays some of the chops that could separate him from the pack.
ALBUM: SINGS MURDER BALLADS AND DISASTER SONGS (Tompkins Square Records)
Amid daily news of tragedy and economic collapse, now is either the worst or best time to release a collection of songs about death and mayhem. But either way, this album from country legend Charlie Louvin, who began his career with his late brother Ira in the early '40s, is a welcome remembrance of traditional American folk music and its role as an ancestor of today's news cycles. Louvin's once-crystalline voice does wear his 81 years, but it also carries deeper understanding of the heartache central to the disaster songs he first recorded decades ago, including the adapted spiritual "Wreck on the Highway," the coal-miners' lament "Dark As a Dungeon" and the tragic waltz "Mary of the Wild Moor." The songs don't vary greatly in rhythm or simple sing-song melody, but they are stories as much as tunes, and Louvin and his first-rate musicians are engaging storytellers indeed.
ALBUM: CHOPTEETH AFROFUNK BIG BAND (Grigri Discs)
This Washington, D.C., crew, assembled by bassist Robert Fox and guitarist Michael Shereikis, was inspired by the musical legacy of Nigerian icon Fela Kuti. The album opens with "Struggle," a thunderous bit of Afrofunk that does, indeed, invoke the Fela Kuti vibe. Chopteeth's reach extends beyond Afrofunk, however. "Upendo" is all about South Africa, including a lyric sung in Swahili. Malian griot Cheick Hamala Diabate joins the band on "Wili Nineh," working a song that, appropriately, praises the band members. The closer, "No Condition Is Permanent," features D.C. rapper Head-Roc in a bangin' rap-Afrofunk fusion that sounds exactly like something Fela would be into, were he alive and kicking.
ALBUM: TESLIM (Self-released)
Teslim's Kaila Flexer and Gari Hegedus are, respectively, a violinist and an instrumentalist of bewildering proficiency who plays the oud, lauoto (an eight-stringed Greek lute), frame drums and viola, among others. Together they make exquisite music, drawing inspiration from Sephardic, Greek and Turkish traditional sources. Their tunes are exotic, and their virtuosity is spellbinding. "Ajuar De Novia Glana/Timarxou Street Dojo" is a medley, blending a Sephardic tune with a Hegedus original. "Stone's Throw" is a gorgeous original number by Flexer, with Hegedus on viola and guest Olov Johansson on nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle). Another Hegedus original, "Patalouda" ("butterfly" in Greek), is a string tour-de-force, featuring Flexer on violin and Hegedus on cura saz and divan saz (Turkish stringed instruments).