OUTKAST, Stankonia (LaFace/Arista) You know OutKast are doing something right when they can make you like the deliberate misspellings of their song titles: "We Luv Deez Hoez," "Toilet Tisha," "Xplosion." In name and in the air, all signify the combination of star-encrusted spaciness and dirt-brown earthiness that they've achieved on their fourth and most ambitious album. Throughout, fuzz-funk guitars out of Norman Whitfield and Funkadelic decorate grooves that modify and update those same sources with sonic flourishes, equal parts Southern bounce, East-Coast ricocheted snare work, and neo-electro futurism. "B.O.B." (stands for "Bombs Over Baghdad") is the most startling, headlong, fucked-up sounding hip-hop single since Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome"; "Ms. Jackson" builds off a rhythm track echoed uneasily by the kind of whooshing backward drums you'd expect to find on an Aphex Twin album. On the latter song, Big Boi and Andre 3000 (formerly just Dre) give the typical hip-hop breakup song an inspired lyrical twist by addressing the mothers of their exes ("I didn't mean to make your daughter cry/I apologize a trillion times," goes the sing-song chorus). Where 1998's Aquemeni distilled urban tension and rural languor into a controlled masterpiece, Stankonia plays its elements for contrast. It flies all over the place and flies higher and more beautifully than most hip-hop dreams of.—Michaelangelo Matos
Check out outkast.com.
COLDPLAY, Parachutes (Nettwerk/Parlophone) In the aftermath of Radiohead's pop song-less Kid A, music critics are fumbling around like old biddies who've lost their spectacles, dying to pin their hopes of resurrecting the dream that Radiohead dreamt on anyone who appears semiworthy of the job. By touting Coldplay, Travis, Doves, and Badly Drawn Boy as de facto poster boys of progressive guitar-based pop, critics do a disservice to each of these individual bands. Torch-carrying is for the Olympics. And in the case of Coldplay as well as the other members of the new Brit Pack, the whole is greater than the sum of its pop parts. Parachute proves to all who listen without an agenda that these fresh-from-college lads know a thing or two about an evocative verse and a powerful chorus. A smash hit in England since its release earlier this summer, the debut album's big single, "Yellow" is a nearly perfect song. The strummy, gulping hook kept in line by the brushes of a careful drummer, the requisite tension-building layer of guitars, and a quiet keyboard line are so comfortable they could be called formulaic. But don't pop formulas, like proverbs and axioms, exist because the truth can be repeated only so many times before it becomes a rule? Chris Martin's climbing falsetto only makes me miss Jeff Buckley as he sings, "I came along/I wrote a song for you/And all the things you do/And it was called yellow." Earth shattering, no. But, boy, is it easy on the ears! If we've come so far that we can't appreciate the simple and naive beauty of a well-crafted, honest pop album, then stop the ride because I'm getting off. —Laura Learmonth
For more on Coldplay, visit the band's site.
ORISHAS, A Lo Cubano (Universal) Buena Vista Social Club, both the album and the movie, play heavily on nostalgia for a supposed golden age. Shots of vintage American cars on the street and decaying, beautiful buildings offer an image of genteel poverty. Orishas, a Cuban hip-hop band now based in Europe, know the reality is anything but genteel. In fact, it's grinding and desperate, and that's what they convey on their debut, an album that's already gone gold in France and Spain. They're as street as any American rappers, describing the sex tourism that plagues Havana on "Atrevido" and how kids survive in "Atencion." But this is no fake hip-hop band, lifting old funk samples. The music, with its percolating percussion and use of traditional son as vital musical factors, could come from nowhere but Cuba. Indeed, on "537-C.U.B.A." they take one of the nation's best-loved songs, Compay Segundo's "Chan Chan," and remake it as an expatriate hip-hop anthem, a celebration of Havana ghetto life. Their roots show, and Orishas are proud of them. Recorded in Paris, the record uses a lot of languid, spare French beats, offering plenty of space to let rappers Livan, Ruzzo, and Yotuel flow, while singer Roldan is often the glue uniting the tracks. Unlike so much American hip-hop, there's plenty of melody to buoy the pieces and keep them memorable, even to those with no knowledge of Spanish. In bringing together past and present the way they do, Orishas offer, if not a buena vista, then at least a very real and accessible one.—Chris Nickson
JOHNNY CASH, American Recordings III: Solitary Man (American/Columbia) On first listen, the Johnny Cash of American Recordings III: Solitary Man might shock some longtime fans. Cash, now 68 and suffering from Parkinson's, possesses a quivering, threadbare voice; Rick Rubin's sparse production does little to hide its flaws. However, a golden throat was never Cash's greatest asset. Nobody has ever been better at being blunt than Cash, and he is no less direct today. On their two previous collaborations, American Recordings and Unchained, Rubin perhaps pushed the "Man in Black" thing a bit too far in his attempt to give Cash more cred with the kids. Solitary Man follows the same basic formula but avoids some of the unnecessary posturing and achieves a balance of toughness and tenderness more suitable to the elder statesman. The album is a mostly curious collection of cover songs: Notables include old standards such as "That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)," indie-folk poster boy Will Oldham's "I See a Darkness," and Nick Cave's Cash-inspired "Mercy Seat." There's even a reworking of U2's "One" that just might be appreciated by those allergic to Bono. A motley array of guests including Oldham, Merle Haggard, Tom Petty, and Sheryl Crow appear as backing musicians but aren't given the chance to steal any thunder from the star of the show (as if they could).—Paul Fontana
Everything Johnny at JohnnyCash.com.