L.L. Cool J (Def Jam 314 523 845)
It's hard to believe, but at the not-very-ripe age of 27, James Todd Smith is already the grand old man of hip-hop. It isn't just that Smith -- known to the world as L.L. Cool J -- has been making rap records since he was 16; the real marvel is that in a market that rarely sees rap acts lasting longer than three or four years, he's been a star for more than a decade. Nor does his winner's streak show any sign of ending soon. As "Mr. Smith" makes clear, Cool J is not only able to change with the times, but his hit potential remains as strong as ever. Sure, he can play hard -- "I Shot Ya" and "Get Da Drop On 'Em" show he can still spit syllables like a Kalishnikoff -- but he never makes verbal aggression an end in itself, choosing instead to use those rapid-fire cadences to pump up the bass-driven beat. He also knows how to slow things down without losing any musical momentum. "Hey Lover" is a classic example, updating the TC ballad-style romance of "I Need Love" while deftly upending the crotch-level macho of much modern rap. Even the obligatory sex rap, "Doin' It," avoids the usual testosteronal excess, serving up instead a slice of sex play with rapper LeShaun which, though unblushingly frank, reminds the listener that it does take two to tango.
The Greatest Hits Collection
Alan Jackson (Arista 18801)
As much as Alan Jackson enjoys the post-Nashville trappings of modern country music, he remains a traditionalist at heart. More than anything, that's the secret behind the singles collected in "The Greatest Hits Collection." It's one thing to observe, as "Don't Rock the Jukebox" does, that rock and roll doesn't convey heartbreak the way country music can; it's quite another to find the twang hidden away in a rock classic like "Summertime Blues." But Jackson does both, because he understands that it is possible for a singer to acknowledge the rock and roll world without surrendering his hillbilly heritage. So the beat percolating beneath "Chattahoochee" isn't rockabilly or roadhouse boogie but a jazzed-up Cajun two-step -- a sound just as propulsive as rock and roll, but far closer to Jackson's roots. Likewise, even though "Tall Tall Trees" (one of two new tracks on this 20-tune anthology) owes most of its good-time charm to the muscular backbeat that pushes the chorus along, its dominant flavors remain fiddle and pedal steel. Who says you have to change to keep up with the times?
Music from the Motion Picture (MCA 13892)
There's more to making a movie evoke the past than finding the right kind of cars and clothes; there's also the music. As the soundtrack to "Forrest Gump" showed, it's easy to convey the feel of a particular era if you have the right music, and that album's assemblage of slightly schlocky vintage pop told us as much about Gump's world as Tom Hanks' goofy grin did. The soundtrack to "Casino" goes "Gump" one better, though, because its assorted oldies convey a sense of time, place and mood that's so vivid and specific that even listeners who haven't seen the film can imagine which song goes with what scene. Whether it's the vintage verve of Louis Prima's "Angelina/Zooma, Zooma Medley," the unadorned grit of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man," the swinging sophistication of Dean Martin's "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" or the campy cool of Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug," each selection delivers an album's worth of atmosphere. Rarely has pop music seemed so cinematic.
The Man from Ipanema
Antonio Carlos Jobim (Verve 314 525 880)
It's no accident that most listeners associate the sound of bossa nova with "The Girl from Ipanema." That song was not only a classic of the genre, but it was also one of the greatest works of its master, Antonio Carlos Jobim. Jobim (who died Dec. 8, 1994) was a tunesmith of astonishing grace and originality, and it would be hard to imagine a better testament to the enduring charm of his compositions than "The Man from Ipanema." Not only does this three-CD set include his best-known tunes -- "Desafinado," "Dindi," "One Note Samba," "The Waters of March" -- but it offers them in versions that display all sides of Jobim's talent. The first disc offers vocal versions, including performances by Astrud Gilberto, Elis Regina and Jobim himself, while disc two focuses on instrumental versions featuring Jobim's own band as well as Stan Getz's group. But the third disc is the real treat, for there we get side-by-side renditions of Jobim chestnuts by a variety of ensembles, allowing us to hear how his conception of, say, "The Girl From Ipanema" changed over the course of 30 years. A delightful and instructive package.