Various Artists -- Melinda and Melinda soundtrack (Milan): The soundtrack to the upcoming Woody Allen movie leans heavily on Duke Ellington, Errol Garner and Dick Hyman. Not a necessary purchase, but you can't fault a soundtrack that keeps those artists in the culture.
Beans -- Shock City Maverick (Warp): This rapper from New York City's Anti-Pop Consortium is lyrically dexterous, but the coolest thing about the disc is the merging of hip-hop and techno aesthetics. As much as I like to hear "conscious" rap, I like this as an alternative to gangsta better -- it has no obvious agenda.
Tommy Castro -- Soul Shaker (Blind Pig): So Springsteen, so Southside Johnny, so Gary U.S. Bonds. This is good roadhouse R&B and it's easy to imagine Castro being a lot of fun live. Actually, the record's a fair amount of fun, too, though the lyrics are little more than things to sing.
Martha Wainwright -- Bloody Mother F--king Asshole (Drowned in Sound): The offspring of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle are pretty damned dramatic. Rufus' albums all have a theatrical quality, and on this EP, Martha feels emotions with such passion that lines, words and melodies are all shaped by them. This is often over the top, but in the five or six times a year when I want over-the-top singer-songwriters, I'll reach for this.
Michael Powers -- Onyx Root (Baryon): An album that opens with "Successful Son" can't be a blues album. A blues song about things turning out well? Such a thing violates the natural order, and finding a hint of blues in Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" is just plain perverse. When Michael Powers credibly covers garage rock hits by the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Count Five, you have to give credit -- how many albums pleasantly surprised you three times last year?
Jason Miles -- Miles to Miles (Narada Jazz): It's taken a while to get a handle on this, and after all that time, I think I got it right away. This homage to Miles Davis is what acid jazz should have been -- an exercise in mood and groove that doesn't sacrifice the jazz. It doesn't focus on it either, and perhaps it would be easier to talk about Miles' playing if it did, but tracks like "Street Vibe" and "Suba" -- the latter named for the Brazilian who produced Bebel Gilberto's Tanto Tempo before dying in a fire in 1999 -- are smooth, urbane, and evoke early '70s blaxploitation soundtracks. With guests like Nicholas Payton, Karl Denson, Me'Shell Ndgeocello and Karsh Kale, Miles has created an attractively atmospheric CD that repays attention paid to it, though not as handsomely as we might like.
Steve Barton -- Charm Offensive (Sleepless): The one-time leader of San Francisco's Translator returns with an album of winning power pop, marrying classic, British '60s pop hooks with punk urgency. The opening track, "When You're Gone," is a classic of the style, complete with chiming guitar, and you have to give credit for an attempt to adapt the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" to the style. Barton has to garble in some of the words to make it all fit, but the slow parts work great, playing down the song's melodramatic lyric. What happens to aging child actors that don't end up in trouble with the law? They become musicians; here Robbie Rist -- cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch -- plays drums.