NEW YORK (Billboard) - Those who thought Taylor Swift was a big deal after the release of her first record should be prepared: The country singer is about to get way bigger. Though they’re written by a teenager, Swift’s songs have broad appeal, and therein lies the genius and accessibility of her second effort. The insightful “Fifteen” (“In your life you’ll do greater things than dating a boy on the football team”) will connect with teens looking for hope and with adult women looking back, while the sparse “White Horse” will appeal to anyone who’s experienced love lost, which is to say, everyone. “Hey Stephen” (“All those other girls, they’re beautiful but would they write a song for you”) displays Swift’s confident sense of humor, and “Breathe” (written with Colbie Caillat, who sings on the track) is a love-gone-wrong song suitable for women of all ages.
Most teen Disney heroes have got nothing on David Archuleta. The 17-year-old “American Idol” contender has one of those once-in-a-decade pop voices: A silky tenor with a natural melancholy that makes him a heartbreaker by default. His charming debut exploits that very quality with some strokes of pop genius, like “Touch My Hand,” a temporary love ballad to the pretty girl in the front row, and “Your Eyes Don’t Lie,” a Jonas Brothers-do-“No Diggity” ditty with a fair amount of crooner slink. But Archie is at his best on the bleeders, like piano ballad “To Be With You,” and “Angels,” the Robbie Williams cover he saved from obscurity on “Idol.”
Unless you’re an astute T-Pain follower, you may not have realized he hasn’t released an album since May 2007. That’s because he’s been nearly as ubiquitous as Lil Wayne in the guest appearance department since then, adding his Autotuned voice to tracks from Wayne, Ciara and Ludacris, among many others. So what’s the difference between T-Pain the guest and T-Pain the featured artist? Not much, but that’s OK, thanks to a winning mix of humor and sincerity. “I don’t need your sex/I’ll masturbate,” he sniffs on the Kanye West-featuring “Therapy,” while “Chopped & Skrewed” is a comic tale of being hoodwinked by a woman. But there’s more substance here than on past albums, particularly on the Eric Clapton-sampling “Change,” and T-Pain seems comfortable leaning in a poppier direction on tracks like “Can’t Believe It” featuring Wayne.
Between Q-Tip, Guns N’ Roses and Eminem, it’s a big fall for the long-missing. But will “The Renaissance” justify the wait for anyone besides those still rocking faded Tribe gear? Q-Tip’s honey-dripped vocals are welcome in any context, but this set shows him plunging hard into the loverman R&B that made women love the voice and brothers dig the lyrics — hence the cameos by D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq and Norah Jones, who sounded considerably more comfortable guesting with Mike Patton. Tip hits his stride on “You,” a tale of suspicious minds with a nagging beat, and there are a few highly welcome moments of rat-a-tat freestyle on “Dance on Glass.” But his jazzy vibe, once novel and aggressively refreshing, seems buried here in a curiously midtempo sea of slow jams and hook-challenged R&B.
Former Alabama lead singer Randy Owen’s solo debut walks a fine line that will please both Alabama faithful and new fans. Owen, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s 11 cuts, and producer John Rich have found a way to create an album that is familiar and refreshing. The Dolly Parton-penned “Holding Everything” with Megan Mullins is a powerful country duet in the tradition of Crystal Gayle and Gary Morris and easily the album’s best cut. “Pray Me Back Home Again,” written in the wake of 9/11, and “Braid My Hair,” about a young cancer victim, provide the album’s most poignant moments. The I-done-her-wrong “Like I Never Broke Her Heart” is solid and radio-friendly, and the sexually charged “Slow and Steady” finds Owen channeling Conway Twitty’s “I’d Love to Lay You Down.”
Is there such a thing as being too smooth? Seal’s David Foster-produced tribute to classic soul is a figure skater of a collection, all elegance and grace. But some of these songs require the more aggressive approach of a hockey player. “It’s been too hard living/ But I’m afraid to die” (from Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) doesn’t have quite the same resonance when coated with the glaze of Seal’s preternatural voice. That same quality tends to sap the energy of uptempo selections like “Knock on Wood.” But on the love songs, the combination of Seal and the material offers something so new that comparisons to the original seem unnecessary. Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You for Too Long” gets smaller and sweeter, Harold Melvin’s “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” more mournful.
Twenty years after her self-titled debut, Tracy Chapman remains true to her musical calling: soul-rich folk melodies around a voice of honesty and nuance that nails ambivalence like no other. Chorusless opener “Sing for You” is one of Chapman’s signature sad yet sunny tunes of love gone by, building straight from a hooky verse to a strong, marching bridge. “I Did It All,” a sweet, shuffling saloon ballad, reflects the slide guitar-heavy country leanings of the set, and “Thinking of You” is a sexy, noisy cry about the pain of obsessing over a lover. “A Theory” is a charming peek at Tracy with a crush, while the title track suggests that along the broad range of emotions that Chapman has deftly expressed with her music, she is today most closely aligned with cautious optimism.
Trumpeter Christian Scott leads a fine sextet on this live recording, from an August performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. From a technical standpoint, the album sounds fabulous, but what will most seduce the listener is Scott’s sound. He’s got a dusky, warm tone that invites multiple spins. Scott’s bandmates bring an abundance of style and depth to the recording, as heard on “Anthem.” Pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Matthew Stevens deliver lovingly phrased solos that enhance the pensive feel of the tune. One of the five new songs here, “The Crawler,” was written by Stevens. It’s a low-key piece built on a subtle complexity that summons a terrific, beautifully detailed ensemble effort.