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Willie Nelson

American Classic

Blue Note

Buy if you like: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra

When Willie Nelson released Stardust, he turned what everyone thought would be his downfall into a 5-million-selling career peak. But 30 years later, his then-groundbreaking foray into the Great American Songbook has been copied by everyone, and now, with American Classic, Nelson sounds like just another singer smoothly knocking out an easy afternoon's work. Unlike Two Men with the Blues, his great Blue Note debut with Wynton Marsalis, American Classic contains fairly uninspired readings, and producer Tommy LiPuma overcompensates by schmaltzing up the works with "beautiful music" fills. Nelson's duet with Diana Krall on "If I Had You" is pleasant, but only "Angel Eyes" and "Baby It's Cold Outside" (the latter a playful outing with Norah Jones) offer real sparks. Too bad he didn't try a duet with Krall's husband, Elvis Costello — that combination would make the phone book sound like an American classic. — Lynne Margolis

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Cobra Starship

Hot Mess

Fueled by Ramen

Buy if you like: Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, High School Musical

There's no denying Cobra Starship is a sugar-coated pop-punk act, heavy on the pop and no longer interested in the punk. With a synth sound that often strays into an R&B candy flavor, the band transcends its peers (Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco) with old-fashioned keen pop songwriting on its new Hot Mess. Loosely built around being bad boys in a non-threatening white suburban environment, the 11-track album contains the addictive (and Radio Disney-ready) lead single "Good Girls Go Bad." A strong performance from Gossip Girls actress Leighton Meester turns the track into a late-summer anthem that speaks directly to the cool-pool crowd. At times the album feels like a post-High School Musical affair, which oddly enough is OK. While similar acts are unsure of their motives, Cobra Starship realizes it's the cheerleaders that will lead the football players in its direction. — John Benson

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Irma Thomas

50th Anniversary Celebration

Rounder

Buy if you like: Ann Peebles, Johnny Adams

Can it really be that Irma Thomas has been belting out R&B tunes for half a century? The ageless soul queen of New Orleans, with her smooth-with-a-hint-of-grit voice, is accompanied by Louisiana greats like Sonny Landreth, Allen Toussaint and Henry Butler on these 15 tracks (three of them new, none of them recorded during the first half of her career). But too often, the arrangements lack the zest they could have had if, say, guitarist Michael Toles had gotten to take a serious run on "I'm Your Puppet," or saxman Warner Williams had been allowed to really rip during "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere" (on which Thomas does deliver a knockout vocal performance). "Another Man Done Gone" lets Landreth get down and dirty, although the ever-classy Thomas doesn't roll in the mud with him. It would be interesting to hear her do that sometime in the 50 years to come. — Lynne Margolis

  • Willie Nelson, Cobra Starship, Irma Thomas

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