NEW YORK (Billboard) - Because his records so rarely sound like anyone's but his own, it's easy to forget how much Beck thrives on collaborating with name-brand producers like Nigel Godrich and the Dust Brothers. For the follow-up to 2006's "The Information" he teamed with Danger Mouse, and though the result is unmistakably the work of our favorite midnite vulture, "Modern Guilt" also makes clear how much Beck must have loved "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. Nearly every tune here echoes that hit's spooky, reverb-soaked vibe. Built on shuffling beats and big basslines, the ghost-gospel arrangements provide a good setting for Beck's vocals, which hew closer to the depressed mumbling of "Mutations" and "Sea Change" than to the white-boy jive of "Guero" or "Odelay."
ALBUM: T.O.S. (Terminate on Sight) (G-Unit/Interscope Records)
One of the best attributes of 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo's 2003 album, "Beg for Mercy," was its balance of radio-friendly and comical tracks, but "T.O.S. (Terminate on Sight)" sounds like 16 cuts of the same murderous lyrics atop heavy bass. There are a few entertaining joints, like the infectious Rick Rock-produced "Rider Part 2" featuring a chorus that's perfectly hard-edged for East Coast radio. "Party Ain't Over" features former G-Unit member Young Buck, who switches up his cadence alongside a fun guitar lick and hand claps. "You So Tough" is a thinly veiled attack on Atlanta MC T.I., where 50 essentially calls the rapper a snitch for emerging from stiff gun charges with a light jail sentence. G-Unit has returned to its aggressive roots, but it would've been wonderful to hear it rap over a more varied assortment of beats.
ARTIST: ALBERT HAMMOND JR.
ALBUM: COMO TE LLAMA (Red Int/Red Ink)
Recorded in Albert Hammond Jr.'s native New York, "Como Te Llama" is the solo Stroke's follow-up to his lauded 2006 debut, "Yours to Keep." The album is filled with big guitar noise and mildly incongruous but not unpleasant mixtures of modern riffs ("Rocket"), new wave basslines ("Victory at Monterey") and retro hooks and melodies ("Miss Myrtle"). As with any solo record by a member of a groundbreaking and unique band, it's easy to hear Hammond's influence on the Strokes' music. The set's two opening tracks, for instance, contain familiar trilling guitars and vocal reverb, and the guitar lines mimic the melody in a very recognizable style on "The Boss Americana." But "Llama" has a much poppier flavor than anything the Strokes have ever recorded, once again setting Hammond apart from his gritty rock bandmates.
ARTIST: RON SEXSMITH
ALBUM: EXIT STRATEGY OF THE SOUL (Yep Roc Records)
"Exit Strategy" finds Ron Sexsmith exploring his songwriting talent in new ways, crafting an instantly memorable album full of soulful, classic pop tunes. The Canadian vocalist/multi-instrumentalist hits high points with the Enya-meets-Brian Wilson instrumental opener "Spiritude"; the lilting, Buddy Holly-evoking "Music to My Ears"; '70s soul epic "This Is How I Know"; Bill Withers-style uplifting sing-along "Brighter Still"; and the stately, horn-drenched ballad "Hard Time," but nearly every song is a well-sculpted melodic exercise in another mode of Sexsmith's repertoire. Big brass band romp "Brandy Alexander" was co-written with Feist, who recorded a sparser version on her breakthrough 2007 album, "The Reminder." Sexsmith's version is almost a gospel anthem, with backing singers and Cuban horn flourishes. There and throughout, the artist's signature croon and playful piano lead the way to new plateaus in an already impressive career.
ARTIST: LITTLE JACKIE
ALBUM: THE STOOP (S-Curve Records)
On this excellent debut by her new duo with programmer Adam Pallin, Imani Coppola sounds no more interested in sticking to a single style than she usually does. Fans of Coppola's splashy left-field 1997 hit "Legend of a Cowgirl" (and those who heard her underappreciated "The Black & White Album" from 2007) will recognize much in this album's bubbly blend of swinging hip-hop rhythms, bright R&B horns and sassy soul-siren vocals. Thanks perhaps to her inability to duplicate the mainstream penetration of "Cowgirl," Coppola reveals a bitter lyrical streak that contrasts tartly with Pallin's summery sounds; attacks on brain-dead celebutantes and deadbeat boyfriends rarely feel like this much fun.
ARTIST: BRAZILIAN TRIO
ALBUM: FORESTS (Zoho Music)
This trio is known for its samba jazz, and, indeed, "Forests" has an overarching vibe that's as chilled and elegant as a Jobim samba. In fact, Helio Alves (piano), Duduka Da Fonseca (drums) and Nilson Matta (bass) display a great deal more breadth in their performances than simply cruising in the samba groove. On "Montreux," they evoke a lovely, impressionistic feel in their measured approach. Their take on Milton Nascimento's "Vera Cruz" has a grandness that's nearly cinematic, particularly Alves' busy, articulate opening solo. Again bringing its skills to bear on a Nascimento tune, "Tarde," Alves plays with a gravity and a stylistic flair that's truly impressive.
ALBUM: DEL McCOURY + VARIOUS ARTISTS (McCoury Music)
Bookended by excerpts from Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era Fireside Chats as well as the 1932 original version of Bernard "Slim" Smith's "Breadline Blues" and an updated version by Del McCoury, "Moneyland" convincingly speaks to the current economy and how it affects the working class, always ripe material for a bluegrass album. While many of the cuts have appeared elsewhere -- Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart and Patty Loveless are among those tapped -- McCoury's contributions create a proper bridge between old and new. His take on the Lennon/McCartney classic "When I'm 64" has new meaning as a bluegrass tune, and "40 Acres and a Fool" is a clever look at how money transforms rural life. A reworked version of "The Way It Is" by Bruce Hornsby and the Fairfield Four further punctuates the set's relevance.
ARTIST: ALISON MOYET
ALBUM: THE TURN (W14 Music)
Americans may know Alison Moyet for her only top 40 entry, 1985's "Invisible," but global music aficionados have celebrated her charms as part of '80s duo Yazoo with Erasure's Vince Clarke and a half-dozen lovingly crafted solo efforts during the two decades following. "The Turn," which launched at No. 21 in the United Kingdom last October, proffers all sides of the smoky, blues-soaked singer-songwriter's persona: dramatic chanteuse ("Fire"), dance siren ("A Guy Like You"), pop master ("It's Not the Thing Henry") and smart sophisticate ("One More Time"). Meanwhile, Yazoo has reunited for a worldwide tour. After all this time, this "Turn" joyously brings Moyet full circle.