ARTIST: BOB DYLAN
ALBUM: TELL TALE SIGNS: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 8
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Before 1997's "Time Out of Mind," Bob Dylan had by his own admission been musically adrift for more than a decade. Maybe it was less about losing his muse than choosing the wrong material, based on the outtakes from that period on this robust collection. The "Oh Mercy" castoff "Born in Time" is a heartfelt love song with sympathetic Daniel Lanois production, while "32-20 Blues" is Dylan at his old-timey, front-porch best. The material offers many surprises, particularly a dreamy alternate take on "Someday Baby" from "Modern Times" and the strident "Dreaming of You," which wouldn't have fit at all on "Time Out of Mind." Less essential are the live cuts, which only reinforce how Dylan's unpredictable phrasing and enunciation can render a song transcendent one moment ("Lonesome Day Blues," which sounds sourced from a bootleg), ordinary the next ("Cocaine Blues") and then unrecognizable ("Things Have Changed").
ARTIST: JENNIFER HUDSON
ALBUM: JENNIFER HUDSON (Arista Records)
No one has electrified the world with a single song quite like Jennifer Hudson did in "Dreamgirls." Her vocally impeccable, gut-wrenching version of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" brought movie audiences to their feet and won her the best supporting actress Academy Award in 2007. Nearly two years later, her self-titled debut showcases a voice so big, with an interpretive talent so natural, that it seems to burst beyond the confines of the recording. Clive Davis and company put her through the pop paces: guest spots by T-Pain ("What's Wrong") and Ludacris ("Pocketbook"), the requisite Diane Warren ballad ("You Pulled Me Through"), Norwegian pop courtesy of production team Stargate ("Spotlight"). But Hudson is so comfortable singing -- whatever the song might be -- that she elevates the material, making it sound like nothing you've ever heard before. All hail the new diva.
ALBUM: DIG OUT YOUR SOUL (Big Brother/Reprise Records)
Since Oasis' mid-'90s heyday, their albums -- while selling well everywhere outside the United States -- have been comfortable, even pedestrian affairs, usually rescued by a couple of uncomplicated sing-along stadium anthems. "Dig Out Your Soul," however, is the sound of a band rediscovering its snarl. Lead single "The Shock of the Lightning" sets the template: It may not have a chorus as such, but boy, does it make a fantastic racket in search of one. Much of the album sounds similarly wired, with songs like "Bag It Up," "Waiting for the Rapture" and "The Turning" relocating the air of menace Noel Gallagher's songwriting seemed to mislay after "Definitely Maybe." On the downside, only Liam Gallagher's Lennon-esque "I'm Outta Time" is really instant enough for drunk people to warble in fields. Still, who needs tunes when you've finally got your mojo working again?
ARTIST: THE CLASH
ALBUM: LIVE AT SHEA (Epic/Legacy)
Having fired then-junkie drummer Topper Headon months earlier, the Clash that charged into Shea Stadium in October 1982 to open for the Who wasn't necessarily firing on all cylinders -- not by purist standards. But with Headon's predecessor, Terry Chimes, back on the stool, it was still firing. Fittingly, the band rains 1977's stomping "Career Opportunities" down on the sold-out crowd like so many lead baseballs. "Live at Shea" rather remarkably captures the band conquering the stadium, turning the cold, sprawling space into a sweaty Brixton club. The Clash plays to the back row and reaches it with larger-than-life versions of favorites like "Police on My Back" (where one can hear how the group could have transitioned to a stadium act) and a thrilling "The Magnificent Seven"/"Armagideon Time" funk-reggae sandwich.
ALBUM: BREAK UP THE CONCRETE (Shangri-La Music)
In the Pretenders' 30-year history, frontwoman Chrissie Hynde has been the only constant member. The four other musicians on the band's ninth studio album haven't appeared on any of the previous eight. But while a tumultuous personnel record can threaten a band's momentum and consistency, it seems in this case to serve Hynde's creativity well. The blues- and country-influenced songs on "Break Up the Concrete" are an engaging departure from the group's earlier hits, while Hynde's dynamic alto voice gives the set the unmistakable Pretenders identity. Minor chords and vocal reverb make "Almost Perfect" both haunting and pleasingly poppy, while the energetic title track is a honky-tonk work song with a punchy Bo Diddley beat. And with ballads like "One Thing Never Changed," Hynde proves she can turn from rocker to crooner on a dime.
ARTIST: RACHAEL YAMAGATA
ALBUM: ELEPHANTS/TEETH SINKING INTO HEART (Warner Bros. Records)
Four years after the release of her impressive debut, "Happenstance," singer/pianist Rachael Yamagata returns with an ambitious two-part album. On the first part ("Elephants"), she sticks to brooding breakup ballads with long, languid piano chords and lush string arrangements, the perfect soundtrack for the lovesick. Her breathy vocals are soft and soothing on slow tracks, while a sparse, acoustic duet with soulmate Ray LaMontagne sounds raw and intimate. The mood changes radically on the second part, when Yamagata emerges with gritty, garage-rock tunes a la PJ Harvey, delivering defiant hooks with the energy of someone taking revenge.
ALBUM: BARRACUDA (Kin-Kon/Nettwerk)
Much as it has done with witty electro-rock on albums past, Kinky hits the sweet spot here on this polished electronic pop set. The group combines its unfailingly catchy hooks with nods to '80s British new wave and geeky electronica riffs. While the accordion that adds a manic energy to Kinky's live shows seems absent here, this is still a good time accessible to all. Album closer "Tus Huellas, Mis Pasos," with its lush layers of percussion and something reminiscent of bird sounds, makes Kinky's unique choice of mashup ingredients seem effortless.
ALBUM: SUCH FUN (Canvasback)
This North Carolina-based sextet's major-label debut is as rich and diverse as 2006's "Be He Me," unfolding with layers of piano and string flourishes, crunching guitar jams and vibrant pop melodies. Gone are the Flaming Lips-style psychedelic bursts of its predecessor -- in their place are a handful of countrified tunes that lend the album a more scenic quality throughout. The season-appropriate melody of "Springtime" is disrupted by pounding drums before coalescing into a chorus that's as forceful as it is beautiful; "Hot Night Hounds" plays out like Sufjan Stevens embracing his love for electric guitar solos; and the driving pop of "Confessor" boasts a string-laced, harmony-rich chorus. With each additional listen, "Such Fun" reveals something new.