Sound advice 

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Bettye LaVette

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook


Buy if you like: Aretha Franklin, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

At age 64, Bettye LaVette has only recently received the recognition she so richly deserves. Interpretations finds one of our great soul singers making familiar British rock songs new and, in many cases, more emotionally powerful than the originals. Hits by the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Elton John and the Who are either stripped down to their essence or soaked in lush strings and choruses. It's an R&B treatment that, with the exception of the Stones' "Salt of the Earth," was only hinted at in the originals. LaVette's voice is rough and broken, gravelly and haunting, and she puts it to fine use, finding an anguish in the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" and turning the Ringo Starr ditty "It Don't Come Easy" into a meditation far deeper than pop. Her live performance of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me," which brought the house down at Kennedy Center, closes the album on a perfect note. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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Jack Johnson

To the Sea


Buy if you like: Jason Mraz, G. Love & Special Sauce

And on the fifth album, Jack Johnson decided it was time to rock — at least a little bit. Known for his laid-back acoustic performances, Johnson actually manages to embrace electricity for more than half of this album. In the process, he brings instrumental interest and even some energy to his pop material. In fact, he practically rocks on "At or With Me," while the title track squeezes a little bit of soul out of the perennially relaxed singer-songwriter. But despite the sonic shift, a number of acoustic songs still turn up, including "Turn Your Love" and "Anything But the Truth," which means Johnson's legion of fans can rest easier knowing that he's not abandoning his signature sound. While Johnson's simple melodies and chord patterns might sound under-developed in the hands of some artists, here it only serves to highlight the sturdy directness of this unfussy, effortlessly charming album. — Alan Sculley

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Dixie Chicks

Playlist: The Very Best of Dixie Chicks


Buy if you like: Court Yard Hounds, Emmylou Harris

This Dixie Chicks collection picks two songs from Wide Open Spaces, the trio's first album with Natalie Maines singing, then adds three each from the albums Fly and Home, before ending with four tracks from Taking the Long Way. So what we have here is a string of country hits, followed by the Chicks' less-commercial, post-controversy album. ("Not Ready to Make Nice," for example, reached No. 4 on the Hot 100, but only made it to No. 36 on the country chart.) The album's chronological presentation also charts the group's transition from harmony-drenched, mainstream country with pop overtones (like the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide") to an artier, more complex approach. All in all, it's a vivid reminder of the degree to which the Chicks ruled country music before falling from favor with that crowd and taking to the road on this summer's Eagles tour. — L. Kent Wolgamott


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