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Pop For his nimble wordplay and loose bravado, T.I. was once nicknamed "Jay-Z of the South." He's made good on that comparison lately, in an odd way: Like Jay-Z, T.I.'s hit singles have been masking some otherwise mediocre albums. The best of th


No Mercy

(Grand Hustle/Atlantic **1/2)

nolead ends For his nimble wordplay and loose bravado, T.I. was once nicknamed "Jay-Z of the South." He's made good on that comparison lately, in an odd way: Like Jay-Z, T.I.'s hit singles have been masking some otherwise mediocre albums. The best of the gospellike No Mercy offers hope, because it shows that T.I. might be learning from his mistakes, personal and otherwise. (The Atlanta rapper has been to jail twice since 2004, and was arrested in September on drug charges.) "Big Picture" and "Get Back Up" have a vulnerability we haven't seen before, and "Castle Walls" might be the best song T.I. has ever written. Mentor Scarface is featured on "How Life Changed"; maturity is in the air. So, too, is the old T.I., the one who visits strip clubs and reels off eye-rolling anatomical puns. These are minor derailments, but when finding redemption is this important, there's no room for relapse.

- Michael Pollock

nolead begins Steve Wynn
and the Miracle 3
nolead ends nolead begins Northern Aggression
nolead ends nolead begins (Yep Roc ***1/2)

nolead ends Going back to the '80s and his days leading the Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn has been making guitar-driven rock that has always managed to sound fresh and edgy without losing a strong sense of melody and dynamics. (And that's not even counting his terrific little side group, the Baseball Project, which focuses on hardball subjects.)

With Northern Aggression, his second album with the Miracle 3, Wynn is as hard-hitting as ever, to use an image from his favorite sport. With a few exceptions, such as the hushed atmospherics of "The Death of Donny B." and "St. Millwood," the album takes its cue from the title: The songs come at varying tempos, but they rock with penetrating forcefulness. The set closes with "Ribbons and Chains," in which Wynn sings about "all the things that tie you down and leave you the same." Such a lack of growth is something Wynn has assiduously avoided, much to the reward of his listeners.

- Nick Cristiano

nolead begins Jazmine Sullivan
nolead ends nolead begins Love Me Back
nolead ends nolead begins (J ***1/2)

nolead ends nolead begins Chrisette Michele
nolead ends nolead begins Let Freedom Reign
nolead ends nolead begins (Def Jam ***)

nolead ends The brightest young female stars of R&B-hop leap into their second (Sullivan) and third (Michele) CDs with equal shows of force, good taste - and Ne-Yo, who takes part in both projects.

For Philadelphia's Sullivan, brash confidence rules. She's got gall enough to rap in character as both a crack-addicted girl and a wife-beating man on the gospel-tinged "Redemption." She rants manically about being the disposed-of love interest on "10 Seconds," yet can show delicately emotive and deeply nuanced tenderness on "Excuse Me," accompanied by the delicious Manhattans sample (thanks to Missy Elliot's production). Ne-Yo? Sullivan makes mincemeat of the lover man on "U Get On My Nerves." Brava.

Michele, the jazzy Long Islander, relies on the power of her elegant voice (Billie Holiday meets Patti LaBelle) to steer her through everything from the Ne-Yo-penned, mid-tempo "I'm a Star" to the marching-band mini-epic title tune, featuring MCs Talib Kweli and Black Thought. Although Let Freedom Reign is not as focused as her previous albums, little in her catalog stands out as gorgeously as the ferocious ballad "Goodbye Game." Dig that.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Soulja Boy
nolead ends nolead begins The DeAndre Way
nolead ends nolead begins (Interscope ****)

nolead ends Because Soulja Boy's music is nearly artless, his eagerness to please drives rather than compromises it. He actually pulls off being everything to everyone: "Speakers Going Hammer" is squeaky-clean braggadocio about his boomin' system before he makes the filthiest boast of the year just two tracks later (hint: he's got something that "tastes like ribs"). "Mean Mug," featuring 50 Cent, is playful-menacing in a way 50 himself hasn't managed in years, while "Blowing Me Kisses" is this year's irresistible "Whatever You Like"-style sing-along. "Kisses" sets off an unprecedentedly pretty third act, with the sweetly sticky "Fly" setting up the hilariously impassioned Kanye Jr. plaint of the closing tune, "Grammy" ("Am I not good enough?" emotes guest Ester Dean). This artist will never scale the heights of Kanye West or Big Boi. But he could be LL Cool J, who had plenty of haters at 20: "Kidnap the world/ 'Til they pay my ransom."

- Dan Weiss


A Dark Rage

(LIB Records ***)

nolead ends Back in the Philadelphia area after about 20 years in New York, Scott McClatchy is still turning out spirited, heart-on-his-sleeve roots-rock. And getting better at it with age: A Dark Rage is his best effort.

The urgent, state-of-the-union title song leads things off with Celtic touches that turn up throughout the album, from the hearty "Toasting My Friends" to the touching "Twilight Years," as well as covers of Shane MacGowan's "Sally MacLennane" and Springsteen's "America Land."

McClatchy again proves to be a vivid storyteller with the folk-inflected "Another Bad Day at Boothill Graveyard," and he shifts easily from the swaggering riff-rock of "Cigarettes, Breath Mints, and Visine" to the more tender, strummy turns of "Rocking in Your Momma's Arms" and the Everlyish "Forever With You." He also displays a sure pop touch with the ultra-catchy "A Perfect Thing."

- Nick Cristiano


Moment to Moment

(HighNote ***1/2)

nolead ends It has taken a lifetime to play the way tenor saxophonist Houston Person does. Now 76, this heir to the sound of Gene Ammons and Illinois Jacquet is an amazing guide to the standards. He's buttery and smooth on the ballad "I Cover the Waterfront" and totally assured on the medium-energy romps.

Trumpeter and Temple jazz prof Terell Stafford is the perfect foil, bringing more heat and all but conjuring Louis Armstrong on "Back in New Orleans." Philly-born pianist John di Martino, who plays a lot of world music, offers a sweet, tinkling touch here, no doubt schooled by Philly drummer Mickey Roker and other longtime collaborators. Rounding out this top-shelf sextet are guitarist Randy Johnston, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Willie Jones III, all tasty contributors.

- Karl Stark


Carolyn Sampson, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Martin Lattke, Wolfram Lattke, and Konstantin Wolff; Dresdner Kammerchor, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly conducting

(Decca, two discs, ****)

nolead ends Riccardo Chailly's emergence as a major Bach conductor happened only after his 2005 arrival in Leipzig and is one of the great classical-music surprises of recent years. Past Bach recordings have been excellent; this one is better, and is probably destined to be the reference recording of the Christmas Oratorio. Among the first-class lineup of soloists soprano Carolyn Sampson is an obvious major attraction, but Martin Lattke is also superb as the narrating Evangelist - often the weak link of Bach oratorio recordings.

Most remarkable are Chailly's tempos, which are fashionably brisk but, more important, convey a great sense of celebration appropriate to the season. And while most recordings suggest that the composer's inspiration was less consistent after Part One, Chailly's fresh attention to detail reveals a creative effervescence. The music may not be as deep as some Bach pieces, but it has a joyful sense of novelty, both in the vocal echo effects and in the musical club sandwiches that the composer created when superimposing unlikely elements onto one another.

- David Patrick Stearns