ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons arrives for the spring 2009 Tommy Hilfiger collection during Fashion Week in New York, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)
Little Big Town
Capitol Nashville, $10
By the first chorus of opening song “Pavement Ends,” Little Big Town makes it obvious they are taking a more modern, more adventurous approach on their fifth album, “Tornado.”
One of country music’s most rousing live acts, the vocal group hasn’t achieved the success at country radio that its reputation suggests. “Little White Church,” from their 2010 album “The Reason Why,” was only their third Top Ten hit, and the next two releases didn’t crack the Top 40.
So the four vocalists — Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Philip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook — switched producers to Jay Joyce, who has guided the albums of Capitol label mate Eric Church.
The change works wonders: The band’s recent single “Pontoon” has become the first No. 1 hit in the group’s 10-year history. The musical sound is decidedly more modern. “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” employs a rhythm-machine beat and swirling keyboards, which brings more focus to the warmth and emotion of Little Big Town’s vocal arrangement.
Whatever the motivation — desperation for a hit or simply wanting to try something new — the changes on “Tornado” blow fresh energy into Little Big Town.
Universal Republic, $11.88
With its distortion-heavy slabs of gritty blues-rock and title en espanol, ZZ Top’s first full-length album in nearly a decade could easily fit in the band’s catalog somewhere pre-1983, before “Eliminator” boldly embraced synthesizers and made the “little ol’ band from Texas” unlikely MTV personalities.
To help evoke their less-polished `70s heyday for “La Futura,” the band enlisted superproducer Rick Rubin, who has an unparalleled reputation for reorienting artists (Johnny Cash, Metallica) who have lost their way a bit. ZZ Top’s last several albums were unfocused, with the band striking aimlessly between the rough-hewn riffs that broke them beyond the Lone Star State and the high-gloss production that shot them to stardom.
“La Futura” is a back-to-basics set of swaggering rock jams (“Chartreuse,” “Big Shiny Nine”) and barroom blues shuffles (“Heartache in Blue”) delivered as always with plenty of the Texans’ trademark humor and double entendre.
Like all worthy ZZ Top records, it’s Billy Gibbons’ signature guitar sound that bolsters “La Futura” (rumor has it he uses a peso as a pick) and makes it a welcome return to form.
United Music Media Group, $9.99
It’s been awhile since DMX made headlines in terms of music. Instead, over the last few years, the once-great lyricist has been reduced to a tabloid target due to his many arrests, his drug issues and his disturbing appearances on reality TV.
“Undisputed,” his first album of new material since 2006, likely won’t change that. The rapper lacks the magic found on his previous efforts. His seventh release offers more misses than hits, and it seems as if the 41-year-old is past his prime.
DMX’s trademark growls, barks and ad-libs are found throughout the album. And for the most part, he still raps about his struggles overcoming his own self-inflicted mistakes as he prays for guidance.
But “I Don’t Dance,” the first single that features hip-hop newcomer Machine Gun Kelly, is one of the album’s most lackluster pieces of work — by DMX’s standards. And there are more songs that sound just as bad. The veteran rapper’s once powerful words are now hard to digest — on some songs he even mumbles — throughout most of his 17-track album.
The production on “Undisputed” is respectable with Swizz Beatz, J.R. Rotem, Dame Grease and Tronzilla laying down the tracks. But their efforts don’t help the overall quality.
Surprisingly, the most enjoyable songs aren’t the hardcore ones. Instead, it’s the R&B-flavored “Cold World” and “No Love” — two songs that feature singer Andreena Mill — that stand out.
Shiny Toy Guns
Five Seven Music, $10.20
From its opening track, the runaway love jam “Somewhere to Hide,” to its closing number, the piano tune “Take Me Back to Where I Was,” Shiny Toy Guns delivers a flawless collection of tunes on its third album, “III.”
The beats throughout are flavored with dance, rock and synth-pop sounds enhanced by vocals from Chad Petree and Carah Faye, who has rejoined the Los Angeles quartet after leaving the band and missing out on 2008 album “Season of Poison.”
Her voice — light and satisfying — blends magically with Petree’s on songs like “Waiting Alone” and the outstanding “Carrie.” Faye also brings on the swag on the rock-charged “Speaking Japanese” and “Fading Listening,” with its summertime hip-hop beat. Her return is much appreciated — and much needed, helping make “III” one of 2012’s best.
El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco
Universal Music Latino, $9.99
Cafe Tacvba may be one of the most important rock bands alive. But unless you follow Spanish-language music, you’ve probably never heard of them. And unless you’re connected to a source for Latin alt-rock, you may never hear them at all.
But none of that matters. The new album from Mexico’s fantastic quartet proves they don’t really care what you might think or whether or not they get air play. Cafe Tacvba have spent the five years since its last album creating a body of work that is ambitious, groundbreaking and quite simply, superb.
The album, whose title means “The Object Formerly Called an Album,” has the depth, breadth and exploration of the later works of The Beatles, with touches of progressive rock and the band’s own unique recipe of electronica combined with Mexican folkloric sounds and pre-Colombian rhythms.
“El Objeto” expands the poetic and philosophical talents of the band, with lyrics that explore mysticism, eternity and the common roads of existence.
“Show me those sketches, the blueprint of creation, everything is connected, it is rumored that we are not two/Only one, are you and I,” sings vocalist Ruben Albarran on the album’s second track “Andamios.”
Some 20 years have passed since Albarran, a former art student, and his buddies released Cafe Tacvba’s first album. For those who have followed their career, it has been a fortunate time to be a fan. For everyone else, this may be the best moment to discover one of the most remarkable artistic collectives of our time.