ARTIST: DOLLY PARTON
ALBUM: BACKWOODS BARBIE
NEW YORK (Billboard) - There's more than meets the eye to Dolly Parton, the autobiographical title cut tells us, and her first mainstream country album in years is an important reminder of the breadth of her singing and songwriting talents. Classic country "Do You Think I'm Made of Stone" is a passionate plea for a man to stop his cheating ways, while first single "Better Get to Livin"' is laden with pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps advice to women who play the victim. Parton's take on the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears" took chutzpah, but she wears the song well, and her version of Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy" works as a funked-up bluegrass number. "Only Dreamin'," a plaintive call for the return of love lost, wrapped in a swirling Celtic production, is easily the set's most powerful tune.
ARTIST: ERYKAH BADU
ALBUM: NEW AMERYKAH: 4TH WORLD WAR (Universal Motown)
After a healthy hiatus, R&B mistress Erykah Badu has returned with "4th World War," the first of a planned three installments under the moniker "New Amerykah." First single "Honey" stands out with a funky, 1970s hippie vibe. From the album's introduction, where a woman speaks to a doctor about getting a second head, it's clear Badu's on another plane. Songs like "The Healer," produced by Madlib, feature thick bass, triangles, finger cymbals, what sounds like gears shifting and an echoing choir. "The Cell" sports a digital sound that rides an offbeat and clapping rhythm section. "Soldier" has Badu describing a "mama hopped up on cocaine" over rumbling drums. Curtis Mayfield would be proud of the lyrics and her throwback sound.
ARTIST: THE CLARK SISTERS
ALBUM: ENCORE: THE BEST OF (Rhino Records/Dexterity Sounds)
For three decades the Clark Sisters have stood as pivotal figures in traditional and modern gospel. Their bold, innovative vocal sound has won them Grammy Awards (three this year alone), hit after hit on the gospel charts and the praises of luminaries in R&B, jazz and pop. This 21-song collection, taken from three Clark projects dating from 1986 and 1990, is a digitally remixed and remastered feast of every classic for which the group is known, including "My Redeemer Liveth," "There Is a Balm in Gilead," "Pray for the USA" and "Take Me Higher," all long out of print. Also featured are the group's two crossovers into the mainstream -- 1986's "Time Out" and its 1983, career-making debut, "You Brought the Sunshine" -- done here in medley form (and redone by 2007 "American Idol" runner-up Melinda Doolittle).
ARTIST: TOUMANI DIABATE
ALBUM: THE MANDE VARIATIONS (World Circuit/Nonesuch Records)
Malian artist Toumani Diabate isn't a man who rushes into solo recording projects. "The Mande Variations" is just his second solo album in the past 20 years. Diabate is a world-renowned kora player -- arguably the best on the planet -- so when he takes the time to knock out a solo project, it's a major affair. The album is simply Diabate and his kora (a 21-stringed harp from West Africa) with no overdubs: This is heavenly, beautiful music. Diabate's performance is profound, his command of the kora is absolute, and his material is at once ancient and thoroughly contemporary. Whether you cue up the delicate interplay of "Kaounding Cissoko," the robust, asymmetric form of "El Nabiyouna" or Diabate's tribute to another fabulous Malian musician, "Ali Farka Toure," you will be mesmerized by the timeless soul of this West African music.
ALBUM: SEVENTH TREE (Mute)
The gently plucked acoustic guitars on opener "Clowns" may seem like an uncomfortable step in a mainstream direction for Goldfrapp, but fans should fear not: "Seventh Tree" is as deliciously subversive as the duo's past work -- and in some cases more so. Alison Goldfrapp's voice remains a wondrous instrument, capable of translating indeterminate lyrics into melodies that refuse to dislodge from the brain ("A&E," "Cologne Cerrone Houdini"). The song forms are more universal here, and the production is a lot smoother than the in-your-face, oversexed electro found on 2005's "Supernature." But great, weird little touches abound, from the pitch-modified vocal outro of "Happiness," the moody, Far East instrumentalism of the Eurythmics-y "Road to Somewhere" and the buzzing rhythmic undercurrent of the out-and-out pop tune "Caravan Girl." The act's willingness to experiment is refreshing, and the result is an album that's as unique as it is easy to love.
ARTIST: NATALIE GRANT
ALBUM: RELENTLESS (Curb Records)
In the past couple of years, Grant has really hit her stride as an artist. She's always had the pipes, but that powerful, wonderfully expressive voice was nearly muffled by music industry bad luck (two record companies that collapsed during her tenure). These days, Grant is soaring, and this disc builds on that momentum. She's tender and vulnerable on such ballads as "Back at My Heart" and a brazen, soulful siren on the horn-laden "Make It Better." "Let Go" is a slice of buoyant pop perfection right down to the deliciously catchy background vocals. The single "In Better Hands" is a powerful anthem that's already a major hit at Christian radio. Grant has garnered mainstream AC airplay on previous outings and this album is filled with strong songs and beautiful performances that should continue to expand her audience.
ARTIST: MISSY HIGGINS
ALBUM: ON A CLEAR NIGHT (Warner Bros. Records)
Higgins' debut, "The Sound of White," went nine times platinum in her native Australia, but it failed to make more than a small dent in the U.S. market. Here Higgins seeks to broaden her appeal, stepping away from primarily piano-led ballads and opting for more uptempo, guitar-driven numbers. Fans of KT Tunstall will be drawn to the jangly "100 Round the Bends," while the "Grey's Anatomy"-soundtrack crowd will gravitate toward such heart-scorchers as "Forgive Me" and the learning-to-let-go ballad "Where I Stood," which was featured on the show in November. The feisty "Peachy" and the foreboding "Secret," which was built around three notes, offer unique twists. On the straightforward "Steer," one of the album's best moments, Higgins sounds assured over a soaring chorus.
ARTIST: CHERI DENNIS
ALBUM: IN AND OUT OF LOVE (Bad Boy)
In a time when R&B has made an obvious pop crossover (think Rihanna), 28-year-old Cheri Dennis' oft-delayed debut takes a more hip-hop direction. "In and out of Love" harks back to the early '90s, when a green Mary. J. Blige -- with the help of Sean "Diddy" Combs, who also fronted Dennis' set -- created hip-hop soul with songs like "Real Love" and "What's the 411?" On the Yung Joc and Gorilla Zoe-assisted "Portrait of Love," the Cleveland native croons about picture-perfect romance over a thumping bassline and reprimands an insecure partner on "Act Like You Know." On "All I Wanna Do" and "Dropping Out of Love," Dennis extends the hip-hop theme by sampling Tupac and Biggie on "Got My Mind Made Up" and "Sky's the Limit," respectively.
ARTIST: DIANE SCHUUR
ALBUM: SOME OTHER TIME (Concord Records)
Diane Schuur lets sentiment drive this tribute to her mother, on which the blind singer spins through 13 pop and jazz standards that were household staples when she was growing up in Auburn, Wash. The material is a fine fit with Schuur's clear, confident voice; her delivery is more restrained than she tends to be on the more pop-oriented end of her repertoire, but the subtle work by the accompanying quartet still gives her plenty of room to sing with the kind of heart that accents the personal nature of the project. Fans will marvel at "September in the Rain," which was taped in 1964 at a Tacoma, Wash., Holiday Inn -- when Schuur was just 10 and already belting like the ambitious, seasoned pro she would become.