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Janelle Monae, Elvis Costello and The Roots, and Sara Jarosz 

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click to enlarge The Electric Lady

Janelle Monae

The Electric Lady

Bad Boy/Atlantic

File next to: Aretha Franklin, Gloria Gaynor

Critics salivated over Janelle Monae's 2010 full-length debut, ArchAndroid, due in part to the novelty of a female R&B musician who's also a sci-fi geek. Detractors, meanwhile, suggested that Monae, while intriguing, was hardly superstar material. On The Electric Lady, Suites IV and V, she responds with a fascinating android story line, fabulous stylings, and even some comical radio-DJ interludes. With Prince, Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding along for the ride, it's clear Monae knows just how to craft her sound and whom to seek out to make it work. Her guest stars are put to far better use than the typical collaborators on a hip-hop album. It's possible that, by making such a perfectly polished soul gem, she avoids the risk-taking that could land her on the celebrity A-list. But by breaking this many barriers this soon, Monae is already light years ahead of the competition. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Elvis Costello and The Roots

Elvis Costello and The Roots

Wise Up Ghost

Blue Note

File next to: Marvin Gaye, TV on the Radio

Both Elvis Costello and The Roots have stated explicitly that Wise Up Ghost is about the betrayal of hope, both politically and culturally. It's a subject that would tempt anyone else to drown in anguish. But this is not a bitter album. It uses equal parts snark and street smarts to paint shimmery pictures of America as disappointment. Instead of rough blues or hip-hop, the album leans toward the smooth that Questlove employs on Jimmy Fallon's show, creating a sound that sometimes resembles David Byrne's Rei Momo days. Costello may drown in Diana Krall machinations at some points, but the songs work more often ("Grenade") than not ("Tripwire"). The album's slow-motion Armageddon comes not so much with a snarl, as it does with a mixed drink, a wink, and a call to rise up. Just don't expect much response from the ghosts. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Build Me Up From Bones

Sarah Jarosz

Build Me Up From Bones

Sugar Hill Records

File next to: Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin

Build Me Up From Bones, the third release from 22-year-old Texas singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, is a hauntingly beautiful work. Her gorgeous vocals highlight the bluegrass track "Fuel the Fire," and she sounds like a siren on the hypnotic folk rock song "Mile on the Moon." Jarosz, who also plays mandolin, banjo and guitar, combines bluegrass and folk elements throughout, but she also mixes in straight-ahead jazz on "Book of Right-On," dusty rock 'n roll on "Over the Edge" and moody Americana on "Dark Road." Her knack for weaving picturesque tales continues on "1,000 Things," while the romantic, mournful ballad "Gone Too Soon" is so powerful and intimate that you could convince yourself that Jarosz is singing about you. Build Me Up From Bones provides ample proof that Jarosz is a prodigious talent with a long, successful career ahead of her. — Brian Palmer

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