Ina Dancehall Groove—Finally

For years I've been blocking on Jamaican dancehall, which I knew couldn't be as indistinguishable as it always sounded. Three compilations below showcase the genre as an accessible singles music, which is what dance styles are, at least for part-time dancers. But is the new Luciano an Honorable Mention or just a Choice Cut? I'll figure it out, I swear.

The Captain (Asylum)
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If the voice doesn't get you, what can I say—you're not me, and you're also not a whole bunch of other people. Its burred drawl is deep country like Iris DeMent; its little-girl timbre evokes Dolly Parton and whispers Lolita. It's utterly arresting, and as soon as it warbles, "I never lived through the Great Depression/Sometimes I feel as though I did," you want to kiss her. Of course, when it gets to "I'm not much like my generation/Their music only hurts my ears," you may wish you'd pulled her nose instead. And when you learn that her "southern kind of life" took place in southern Australia—the cold part, noted for its drawl—you begin to suspect she's Gillian Welch without the death trip. You notice that her arrangements are slick country-rock, that her worldview is old hat, that you don't even know what the catchy title number means. So better not give your heart to this AC-ready 24-year-old—not yet. But by all means enjoy her voice and hum her tunes, which are delicious as music and dazzling as aesthetic constructions. And invest your hopes in the two kiss-offs—one to a boyfriend, the other to the world. B PLUS

Chanchullo (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
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"More powerful, energised, vital and confident," insist the notes, but with the crucial exception of confidence, which allows him to cut down on the classical flourishes, your ears will disagree. After a miraculous debut, Buena Vista's resident genius, who is now 81, elects with the wisdom and limits of age to lay back on a deep-rooted band record whose poky backwater feel is about time rather than place. None of that newfangled Los Van Van hubba hubba for these gents. They're old men playing the music they love. A MINUS

Warning: (Reprise)
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What's going on with Billie Joe is less maturity than the really boring stuff—professionalism, craft, artistic growth. He's abandoning the first person. He's assuming fictional personas. And he's creating for himself the voice of a thinking left-liberal who "want[s] to be the minority" and cautions against caution itself—a voice that scolds rather than whines, a nice age-appropriate shift. Crucially, his knack for simple punk tunes remains unchanged; also crucially, these do fine at moderate tempos, and one even gives off a whiff of Brecht-Weill. There are worse ways to come down off a multiplatinum high—lots of them. A MINUS

If I Could Only Fly (Anti-)

For decades aesthetes have crowed about the hard-traveling Haggard's all-American musicality without mentioning that he's a cranky bastard who never decides till the moment at hand whether this gig or session is worthy of his high standards. After a long, dispiriting string of releases that gradually devolved from hit-or-miss to cynical, he comes out of nowhere on a punk label to cut one of the very best albums of his very uneven recording career. Although I doubt there's a "Mama Tried" or "Today I Started Loving You Again" here, I'm positive there's no "Valentine" or "Kids Get Lonesome Too," both of which turned my stomach at a 1996 show, and I like or love most of the new songs—including the metanostalgic "Wishing All These Old Things Are New," the Western swing condom commercial "Bareback," and several about how much he loves his fifth wife. Plus sui generis singing that pauses for consecutive Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash tributes, and the sense of time that permeates his equally sui generis Bakersfield swing. What is his deepest belief? That time is to be savored, not possessed. A MINUS

The Best of Los Van Van (Hemisphere)
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Like James Brown in the '70s, they record too much. But if the Duke Ellington Orchestra was this vital after 30 years on the boards, it didn't showcase the new songs to prove it. Find the right section of any large metropolitan record store and the array of Los Van Van titles will make you dizzy; for those of us without Spanish on our tongues and Latino in our marrow, they blur together. But I've never heard a compilation that didn't reconfigure my cerebellum, and on this '94-'97 selection I note that, remarkably, the remakes are on average slightly less memorable than the newer compositions—which is not to suggest that the one that crowned the last show I caught, the Yoruba-based "Soy Todo," was truly new whenever it was written. A MINUS

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Convenient and also poetic that Wu-Tang and its cohort—Mobb Deep, Xzibit, Tha Alkaholiks, Big Pun—should label their label with a hard-rock buzzword. Their white collaborators are often dullards like Sevendust and System of a Down—only Sugar Ray, Everlast, and Tom Morello add much content. Yet because everybody wants to accommodate everybody else—to get along, as someone once said—the aggression remains focused and cleansing throughout. Greater than the sum of its parts. Louder, too. A MINUS

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