"1000 Years of Popular Music," Richard Thompson (Beeswing Music)
A survey of popular song that's as idiosyncratic and daring as Thompson's guitar, this collection starts with the pre-Chaucerian "Sumer Is Icumen In," makes its way through the centuries to a not entirely ironic rendition of "Oops, I Did It Again," and in between touches on courtly dance, operetta, jazz, music hall, rockabilly and more (Pete Townshend's "Legal Matter," Squeeze's "Tempted," Lennon and McCartney's "It Won't Be Long"). Unpredictable and eye-opening as the song choices are, what drives the album -- an available-online-only CD of a live show Thompson has been performing of late -- is the sheer creative energy in Thompson's playing. The veteran folk-rocker is usually pigeonholed as a dark soul, but here -- whether he's making his acoustic guitar sound like a Renaissance band (in Orazio Vecchi's "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo") or a funk ensemble (Prince's "Kiss") -- his sense of fun is utterly infectious.
-- Scott Rosenberg
"Roxy Music Live," (Eagle Records)
The New York leg, at least, of Roxy Music's 2001 world tour was worth every penny of the scarily high ticket price. The band may be coming back around to a town near you this summer, but if you'd rather spend the dough on a secondhand Bryan Ferry-style suit (or two), "Roxy Music Live" is the next best thing. With material culled from concerts in Detroit, Toronto, Milan and London (among other cities), "Roxy Music Live" captures the texture of the live shows, which, in 2001 at least, mixed the band's greatest hits with an undersea treasure of pre-"Avalon" favorites. Ferry's vocals on "Mother of Pearl" are a better cure for the summertime blues than a dip in the ocean: no sunburn, no sand, no jellyfish. Although, admittedly, sitting at home with the headphones on, your chances of running into a real mermaid are greatly diminished.
-- Stephanie Zacharek
"Thickfreakness," the Black Keys (Fat Possum Records)
Another stripped-down guitar and drums outfit, poorly timed behind the White Stripes wave -- maybe. A vaguely reminiscent Cream knockoff minus Jack Bruce -- possible. But just roll down the window as you brake into that red light, slide "Thickfreakness" into the CD player, cue up "If You See Me," give the volume a healthy nudge and gaze on the beginning of your summer in the bewildered faces of "red state" America.
-- Bob Watts
"Yours, Mine & Ours," Pernice Brothers (Ashmont Records)
I find pop music a hard sell. Makes me think of rental cars and polka dots in Web-safe colors and refrains you can't get out of your head. But someone insisted that I should listen to the Pernice Brothers' "Yours, Mine & Ours" over the weekend and now I'm carrying these cute choruses around in my head. But the fact is this is pretty dark stuff with three-part harmonies that redeem it to a certain extent -- as long as there's a shelf life on the grabby hooks.
-- Bob Watts
"Mixed Live," Baby Anne (Moonshine)
"Miami is the home of the muthafuckin' bass," begins Jackal (Cyberian Knights) on their electronica manifesto "This Is the Sound of the Underground," the opening track of the latest entry from Moonshine's "Mixed Live" series. The DJ here is Florida's Baby Anne, manning the turntables during a 64-minute set at the Club Ra in Las Vegas and out to claim that muthafuckin' bass for her own. Heavy on the breakbeats and head-clearing in its energy, Baby Anne's set is, along with Beyoncé's unstoppable single "Crazy in Love," the best party music the summer of '03 has produced. Baby Anne reaches one of the many peaks on her mix of Sharaz's "Brain Damaged" where the words "down" and "dirty" echo through the fire-alarm beat. She lives up to both of them.
-- Charles Taylor
"Mary Star of the Sea," Zwan ( Reprise)
If, like me, you've spent restless nights during the past few years wondering what ever happened to that promising young musician named Billy Corgan, you'll be relieved, listening to this album, to learn that things played out fine for him. The Smashing Pumpkins, the band Corgan ran like a dictator in the 1990s, dissolved under the strain of his boredom at the turn of the millennium; Corgan, it was clear from the Pumpkins' disappointing final album, didn't know what to do with himself. But in Zwan, his new group with Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and a few other guys, Corgan seems to have once again found what he likes about music -- real guitars and drums. Zwan's debut album has a clean, even wholesome sound; Corgan has abandoned the electronic artifacts that cluttered the Pumpkins' post-1995 work, and what you get here are fast-paced, well-structured, no-nonsense rock songs. Indeed, some tracks on "Mary Star of the Sea" are so straightforward they veer dangerously close to the superficial; but after years of Corgan taking himself too seriously, it's hard to fault such transgressions. If Corgan's having fun again, you think, let him -- maybe it's a sign that soon we'll see something really great from Zwan.
-- Farhad Manjoo
"Soul Journey," Gillian Welch (Acony Records)
Gillian Welch's heartfelt, mostly acoustic Americana comes by way of a Los Angeles upbringing and a stint at Boston's Berklee College of Music, prompting some critics to dish her lumps for posing as a hayseed. But it's a petty jab -- indeed, Welch's lyrics are all peach pie, freight trains and whiskey on the back porch, replete with twangy affectation, but the music delivers. On "Soul Journey," as with her past recordings, the vocal melodies are crystalline, the harmonies honeyed and the instrumentation warm and bright. Guitarist David Rawlings, Welch's longtime partner, unravels expressive lines that make every note count. The new album builds on the duo's usual simple strum and fireside wistfulness, with the more elaborate arrangements dropping in flourishes of fiddle, banjo, dobro and Hammond organ. And if that isn't enough to scare off the folk purists, several tunes use a drum kit to stir things up; there's even a fuzzy rhythm guitar driving the hooky rocker, "Wrecking Ball." With the plumper sound, the pair seems to have taken a nod from Freakwater's stellar 1999 album "End Time" (where that acoustic duo segued brilliantly into a full electric palette). Sometimes Welch's storytelling does slide into cliché, but it's clear that she loves the down-home tradition, and more than trying to claim it for her own, she gives it its proper due.
-- Mark Follman
"Lost on Arrival," Various Artists (Naked Music/Astralwerks)
"The most funky dub-house, electro, and disco-tech sounds around collected on one mind-bending journey," says the legend on the cover of the new Naked Music collection "Lost on Arrival." Whatever it is, "Lost on Arrival" lives up to the name of its imprint. This collection of sexy, mid-tempo beats is an all-purpose seduction record, with grooves that are perfect pre- or post-coital accompaniment. Hell, they're perfect for blocking out the world during a summer afternoon's nap. And for those of us who've never gotten over disco, the salacious laser-beam pulses and swirls of strings on DJ T's perfectly named "Philly" can let you fantasize that it's still 1977. Smooth to the last drop.
-- Charles Taylor
"Trouble No More," John Mellencamp (Columbia Records)
With his 21st album, Mellencamp lands at No. 1 on the Billboard blues charts. Stripped down to assorted slide guitars, mandolins and cocktail drums, Mellencamp alternately charges and waltzes his band through an American catalog of Robert Johnson ("Stones in My Passway"), Willie Dixon ("Down in the Bottom") and Lucinda Williams ("Lafayette") gems. The prize, though, is his sweet soul remake of Dickey Doo and the Don'ts' "Teardrops Will Fall." On paper, the retro project sounds a bit precious. Rattling through your speakers, it does not.
-- Eric Boehlert
"Catalpa," Jolie Holland
San Francisco singer-songwriter phenomenon Jolie Holland's first solo CD. She does for folk, fiddle and country what Billie Holliday did for the blues, wrapping her unforgettable voice around each note and taking it somewhere you wouldn't have ever thought of; though the minute you hear her, you realize it was the only right place the note could go. Pay special attention to "The Littlest Birds" and "Catalpa Waltz." Rumor has it she's been been picked up, and will be sharing her new label with Tom Waits and Nick Cave. They're in good company.
-- Sheerly Avni