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Paul Simon

So Beautiful or So What

Hear Music/Concord

Buy if you like: Simon & Garfunkel, Jackson Browne

It's hard to beat Elvis Costello's liner notes for Paul Simon's So Beautiful or So What. They're such an astute encapsulation of this master's magic, and this time, Simon's conjured a collection as intoxicating as Graceland — no small feat when you've been making music for so long. Clearly somewhat consumed by thoughts of mortality, immortality and where the soul lies in-between, he couches his musings in elegant, yet direct lyrics and, as always, the most impeccably captured sound. (How he makes it so lush, yet so organic, instead of slick and over-produced, is just one of his sorcerer tricks.) Seamlessly moving from the zesty "The Afterlife," to the pensive "Love and Hard Times," the crystalline "Dazzling Blue" and charming "Rewrite," Simon works God, love, a nephew in Iraq, "Questions for the Angels" and the most inventive percussion into what truly is the rhythm of the saints. — Lynne Margolis

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Britney Spears

Femme Fatale

Jive

Buy if you like: Black Eyed Peas, Ke$ha

Anyone thinking albums can't be over-produced has never listened to Britney Spears (or the Black Eyed Peas). With top songwriter/producers (Max Martin, Dr. Luke, will.i.am and Benny Blanco) in the driver's seat, all current whiz-bang effects are present and accounted for, from auto-tuned vocals to just about every programmed rhythm known to man. Plus, we get more synthesizers than a dusty Emerson, Lake & Palmer album. Several songs have serviceable hooks ("Hold It Against Me," "Don't Keep Me Waiting" on the deluxe edition, and "Gasoline"), but the music is overwhelmed by the sonic wizardry. Femme Fatale is essentially the musical/audio version of the Star Trek Enterprise, all high-tech, futuristic, glossy and synthetic. As a vocalist, Britney has never been special, and that hasn't changed. Femme Fatale will sell tons of copies, but it's a prime example of everything that's wrong with what passes as pop music today. — Alan Sculley

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Hot Tuna

Steady As She Goes

Red House Records

Buy if you like: Kane Welch Kaplin; Taj Mahal

It's not clear why Hot Tuna took 20 years to make it, but this long-brewing Tuna casserole was worth the wait. It's always a pleasure to hear Jorma Kaukonen's warm, rich voice, which brings to mind Kevin Welch's, and his extraordinarily tasty guitar playing. Of course, credit also goes to fellow Jefferson Airplane alum Jack Casady on bass. Augmented by Barry Mitterhoff on mandolins, Skoota Warner on drums, producer Larry Campbell on pedal steel, fiddle, violin and other instruments, and Teresa Williams on harmonies, they percolate through a dozen fine compositions, including two Rev. Gary Davis nuggets. "Mama Let Me Lay It on You" joyfully evokes the jug-band, pre-Dead mindset of '60s San Francisco; Kaukonen's "Mourning Interrupted" examines mortality with wry, bluesy humor; and "Goodbye to the Blues" and even the breakup song "If This Is Love" are just downright happy tunes that'll make you glad they're back. — Lynne Margolis

  • Paul Simon, Britney Spears, Hot Tuna

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