Pop

Josh Groban

Noël

(Reprise **)

Like Barack Obama, this holiday record from pop-opera's wunderkind gathered speed once Oprah gave it a shout. And what a shout - last week, according to Billboard, sales hit 2.77 million, making it the top album of '07. This record holds little but the obvious, but Groban makes it sound good. His rich, cool voice is at its best when most alone, with sparse instrumentation, as in his reverent, piano-only take on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and the sparest parts of "Silent Night." Groban's hearty takes on "Panis Angelicus" and "Ave Maria" range from glorious to decent on the oh-holy-holiday meter. But there's so much – way too much – stuff going on on the rest of

Noël

, and it becomes a distraction. A shrieky gospel choir directed by Kirk Franklin here, a hoarse Faith Hill duet there. Though it's sweetly admirable to have kids and soldiers talking as part of "I'll be Home for Christmas," that cornys-up the track beyond mere treacle. Then again, David Foster's overblown Manheim Steamroller-meets-

Doctor Zhivago

production makes every swirl epically saccharine. Really, this is no way to spend a holiday.

- A.D. Amorosi

Lupe Fiasco

The Cool

(Atlantic ***1/2)

Lupe Fiasco's

The Cool

figured to be a last-minute entry in the hip-hop album of the year sweepstakes, and sure enough, it comes in at the wire strong enough to contend with the the 2007 efforts of Kanye West, Common and Jay-Z for that title. The rapper born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco ups the ante from last year's

Food & Liquor

, with more rapid-fire rhymes and broader themes. Indeed,

The Cool

, conceived as an exploration of temptation and all the dangerous places it can take you, sometimes plays like a litany of all that's wrong in the world, on titles like "Gold Watch," "The Coolest," and "Dumb It Down." But

The Cool

is also full-up with hooks, like the one sung by Chris Martin imitator Matthew Santos on "Superstar," or the nifty guitar figure that propels the analytical "Gotta Eat." Or better still, the chopped-up break-beat groove provided by Unkle, a British production outfit, that Fiasco ever so nimbly rhymes over on "Hello/Goodbye (Uncool)."

- Dan DeLuca

Wyclef Jean

Carnival Vol. II:
Memoirs Of An Immigrant

(Columbia ***)

Former Fugee Wyclef Jean is either a visionary internationalist who sees a world without musical borders or a shamelessly starstruck show-off whose albums exist primarily to demonstrate just how big his Rolodex is. Or more likely, both. How else to explain

Carnival II

, a sequel to a 1997 album of the same name? The staggering guest list includes Shakira, Norah Jones, Paul Simon, Mary J. Blige, Paul Simon, Serj Tankian (of brainy metal band System of A Down) as well as rappers Lil' Wayne, T.I. and Will.I.Am, and, of course, noted percussionist Louis Farrakhan. (I kid you not.) Pan-cultural anthems like "Slow Down" and the Indian film music extravaganza "Hollywood Meets Bollywood (Immigration)," which makes excellent use of sonorous rhymer Chamillionaire, come so effortlessly to Jean that it's tempting to dismiss them as facile and superficial. But the multiculti lounge lizard deserves props for maintaining an ebullient party vibe throughout a jam-packed effort that attempts to make sense of the immigrant experience, even if it does get carried away trying to include what one song refers to as a "Million Voices."

- D.D.

Sebastian Bach

Angel Down

(MRV **1/2)

Sebastian Bach? You loved his rude screech issuing from the metal maw of Skid Row during the 80s (c'mon, "18 & Life"!). You dug his Broadway stints in

Jesus Christ Superstar

and

Jekyll and Hyde

. You tolerated him as the drunk guy on

SuperGroup

and the rock guy on

Gilmore Girls

. But you haven't heard a solo Sebastian since

Bring 'Em Back Alive

in 1999. Which is why it's a shame that most of the attention paid to

Angel Down

has been focused on Bach's three-song duet partner - the chattering Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses/

Chinese Democracy

fame. Here you have metal's most overrated singer, Rose, paired with its most underrated, Bach. They're shockingly good together. The solo tracks are better, though. Bach combines his old punkish excess with contagious melodies. So there's the glam, slamming "Stabbin' Daggers" and the epic, Queen-ish "Falling Into You" for good glittery measure.

- A.D.A.

Country/Roots

Tom Gillam

Never Look Back

(Treehouse Productions ***)

We're fortunate that Tom Gillam is still around, because in March 2006 the Gibbsboro, Camden County, resident suffered his third heart attack, and it was nearly fatal.

Never Look Back,

recorded mostly beforehand, shows just how gifted an artist we would have lost.

Backed by his band, Tractor Pull, Gillam packs the album with guitar-driven, country-tinged rock that echoes the '70s, in a good way. (In other words, up there near the likes of Petty and the Allmans, not down there with the Eagles.) Gillam's songs, however, exert their own pull - they're well-crafted, sturdily melodic, and full of catchy choruses. For all that, he can also shift gears, as he does on the brooding "Where Is Bobby Gentry?", which comes with a string section that echoes the one on "Ode to Billy Joe."

- Nick Cristiano

Gram Parsons

The Gram Parsons Archives Volume One: Gram Parsons With the Flying Burrito Brothers, Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969

(Amoeba ***)

This two-disc set captures the Gram Parsons-led Flying Burrito Brothers in two shows in April 1969 in San Francisco, opening for the Grateful Dead.

The concerts, presented in pretty good sound quality, offer a new reminder of just how progressive the late Parsons was, building on his work with the International Submarine Band and the Byrds. His synthesis of styles - his self-styled "cosmic American music" - doesn't sound that uncommon in the Americana world of today, but back then it was revolutionary: a group of long-haired rockers mixing country standards with soul chestnuts and their own country- and R&B-inflected rockers. These crackling performances don't sound like relics, but rather reaffirm just how well Parsons' vision has stood the test of time.

- N.C.

Jazz

3 Cohens

Braid

(Anzic ***1/2)

These three Cohens are a sister and two brothers. Raised in Israel, they passed through the jazz incubator of Boston's Berklee College of Music and progressed to New York, where middle child Anat, 32, has headlined as a saxophonist/clarinetist at the Village Vanguard and made a name with two recordings this year,

Noir

and

Poetica

, and with the Brazilian-tinged Choro Ensemble project.

Younger brother Avishai, 29, is fleet on trumpet, releasing

After the Big Rain

with the rising West African-born guitarist Lionel Loueke. With older brother Yuval, 34, on soprano saxophone, the Cohens fashion an outing full of lyrical melancholy, streaked with some slinky Latin tinge.

There's no familial dysfunction on this smooth-flowing sextet session. Legato moods predominate. And the many minor-keyed melodies slide by, fueled by a kinetic interplay that seems both intuitive and competitive.

Avishai's "Lies and Gossip" builds to a wailing climax, while Yuval's "Elegy for Eliku" is a silken ballad and Anat's "Tfila (Prayer)" combines horn immediacy with a curious supper-club bounce. Undergirding it all is the Maserati-like purr of pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Omer Avital, and drummer Eric Harland. This rhythm section generates waves of refreshing air.

- Karl Stark

Down to the Bone

Supercharged

(Narada ***)

Your pants will grow bell bottoms and tofu will turn to barbeque on this retro funk recording, created by British producer Stuart Wade. The session has the easy slink of the

Mod Squad

era.

Muscular brass referred to here as the D.C. horns make lots of entrances and exits. Guitarist Tony Remy keeps the hot groove lit, along with Adam Riley on drums. Roy Ayers pops in for some vintage vocals along with his regular ax on "Electric Vibes."

There's nothing fancy from Wade, whose soul-funk amalgam, Down to the Bone, kicked off in 1997 with

From Manhattan to Staten

. Wade, who plays no instrument, says his love of R&B and soul was stoked by the three years he spent in Houston, where his father, an oil company executive, was stationed. His vision is formulaic but hard to quibble with.

- K.S.

Classical

Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic

Portrait of a Legend
Featuring Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, Janacek's Sinfonietta, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Brahms' Symphony No. 3 and Schubert's Symphony No. 9.

(BBC Legends ****)

Mahler's Symphony No. 7 and Mozart's Symphony No. 41

(BBC Legends ***)

Bruckner Symphony No. 7

(London Philharmonic ***)

Anybody who heard Klaus Tennstedt during his 1980s guest appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra knows that even his off days were worth hearing. Even so, the quality of these posthumously released live recordings with the London Philharmonic (the ensemble he was most associated with) is growing so iffy - even to a seasoned Klausketeer like myself - as to suggest that unconditional ancestor worship is at work here. The four-disc

Portrait of a Legend

package has the most consistently compelling performances in repertoire he never recorded commercially. The Dvorak symphony, with its rough, excitable peasant quality, is a particular knockout. And though the Brahms is a weak link in the package, you still want to hear Tennstedt confronting this great piece.

The Mahler/Mozart package is notable mainly for the Mozart, specifically the slow movement, which has the kind of emotional depth that made Tennstedt who he is. But the Mahler

7th

is one of the earlier live Tennstedt recordings around - it dates from 1980 - and neither he nor the orchestra come anywhere close to their 1993 live collaboration released on EMI 10 years ago. Even the quality of the orchestra playing is unstable. The Bruckner

7th

, released on the London Philharmonic's own label, had good moments but is too even-tempered. What the world really needs is a recording of a piece that figured heavily into Tennstedt's life during his Philadelphia period - the Verdi

Requiem

. He conducted it in England; it has to be recorded somewhere.

- David Patrick Stearns

Philippe Jaroussky

Carestini - The Story of a Castrato; Arias by Porpora, Capelli, Handel, Leo, Gluck and Graun.
Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Le Concert d'Astree, Emmanuelle Haim conducting.

(Virgin Classics ****)

French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is one of the few in his voice category who can even think about singing music written for the Handel-era castrato Giovanni Carestini, for whom Handel wrote major roles in major operas such as

Ariodante

and

Alcina

. The music seems to fit him perfectly, not just because he can deal with the virtuoso coloratura runs with the ease of a young Joan Sutherland, but because he sustains such a beautifully supported vocal line in the more reflective arias, where he's even better.

In fact, his sensitivity to the text plus his rapport with the baroque idiom and imposing tonal quality make this one of the best vocal albums of 2007 - thanks partly to the incredibly vital, precise conducting of Emmanuelle Haim. Though most of Handel's contemporaries suffer in comparison to him, Jaroussky and Haim are such an engaging package, that's not the case here.

- D.P.S.

New Recordings

In Stores Tuesday

Original Cast Recording,

Young Frankenstein

;

My Chemical Romance,

Live and Rare

;

Various Artists,

High School Musical 2: Non-Stop Dance Party

;

Philip Glass,

Cassandra's Dream: Original Soundtrack