James Taylor (Columbia 47056)
At first glance, James Taylor's "(Live)" looks like little more than a stroll down memory lane, a walk through of all the old chestnuts, from "Sweet Baby James" to "You've Got a Friend." And indeed, the set list on this double-album is heavily larded with hits, though Taylor does include a smattering of lesser-known numbers to keep things current. Yet for all its best-of overtones, "(Live)" never finds Taylor resting on his laurels and letting the familiarity of his material carry the performances. Instead, he uses the old songs to show how much he's grown vocally over the years, grounding the likes of "Your Smiling Face" and "How Sweet It Is" in gospel and soul. As a result, "(Live)" is less a reminiscence than a rebirth, and easily one of Taylor's strongest albums.
EMERGENCY ON PLANET EARTH
Jamiroquai (Columbia 53825)
Given how much singer Jason Kay evokes the jazzy exuberance of Stevie Wonder, you might be tempted to think of Jamiroquai as just another English retro-soul act. Think again. Although "Emergency on Planet Earth" is full of '70s soul overtones -- fatback drums, wah- wah guitar, jazzy horn interjections -- the band's sound is by no means a period piece. Some of that has to do with Jamiroquai's adventurous multi-culturalism; "When You Gonna Learn," for example, spices its groove with digeridoo, an instrument few '70s soul acts employed. But the real secret to Jamiroquai's sound is its anything-goes attitude, an approach that leaves the band open to anything from the dense, funk-with-strings arrangement on the title tune to the eloquent simplicity of the jazzy "Blow Your Mind."
LITTLE LOVE LETTERS
Carlene Carter (Giant 24499)
If Carlene Carter's "Little Love Letters" doesn't seem like standard-issue country fare, maybe that's because Carter isn't a standard-issue country singer. Sure, she's got all the mannerisms, from the bone-deep twang in her voice the way she leans into a blue note, but she uses them as she sees fit instead of simply playing by the rules. So she mixes Nashville-style numbers like the Cajun-flavored "Nowhere Train" or the rollicking, rockabilly "Wastin' Time With You" with musical left-turns along the lines of "Little Love Letter #2," with its tinker-toy rock approach, or "Sweet Meant to Be," which grounds its country sentiments in a surging, Springsteenian sound. Yet as wide-ranging as her tastes may be, Carter's singing is so well-focused that everything here seems of a piece, from the low-key balladry of "Unbreakable Heart" to the R&B; abandon of "I Love You 'Cause I Want To."
Brian Eno (Gyroscope/Caroline 6600)
Although the term "ambient music" has been applied to everything from instrumental acid house to new age earwash, the term really belongs to Brian Eno, the English producer and musicians whose 1978 album "Music for Airports" introduced the concept of intelligent background music. Eno's original ambient series resulted in several other albums, but he has ignored the style for most of the last decade. Too bad. As "Neroli" makes plain, what Eno understands and others miss about ambient music is how best to maintain a low listening threshold. This is background music in the truest sense, providing just enough melody to engage the listener's ear while keeping the sounds soft enough to prevent the music from ever moving into the foreground. That makes "Neroli" both relaxing and mind-clearing precisely the sort of music to encourage concentration and creativity.