Wyclef JeanCarnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant (Columbia) 9.2Goes well with: Mr. Lif, Chamillionaire, The Fugees, trendy hippie gatherings
Wyclef's sixth studio album (and first in three years) brings the Haitian rapper/guitarist back home in more ways than one. Immigration might be the overall political theme he's tackling, but the album is more about the return of the melodic and seductive hip-hop beats that made Clef great in the first place. The main difference is that—a decade after Carnival established him as a solo star—he has a whole lot more friends (including Paul Simon, Shakira, Mary J. Blige, Akon, T.I. and Norah Jones) making the journey with him. In fact, there's only one song (“Heaven's in New York”) that doesn't feature a guest appearance. Carnival II starts off with “Riot” (featuring Serj Tankian from System of a Down), an energetic track that captures the anxious mood of a country enslaved by a color-coded threat-level system. From there, he releases the hooks with “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill),” gives us advice in “Slow Down” and offers up a beautiful ballad (the aforementioned “Heaven's in New York”) about what he would do if today was Judgment Day. In the end, Clef gives us what we need most: a little hope for the future—and a Carnival III.
Ghostface KillahThe Big Doe Rehab(Def Jam)H8.2HGoes well with: Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man, Raekwon, a stack of Benjamins
There is a basic formula for a successful Ghostface Killah album: enthusiastic rhymes, old-school soul samples, slowing it down for the ladies and bringing in a host of guests. In those regards, the Killah in Ghostface is back. No matter how many times he dips into that familiar creative pool, Ghost is still able to sound fresh, tell an engaging story and get your ass on the dance floor. Taken alone, Big Doe is simply a great hip-hop album. But that's also assuming you never heard his critically acclaimed, 2006 album Fishscales. This time around, only “Walking Around” approaches the same alluring darkness that permeated Fishscales. Conversely, Big Doe tips lighter on the scales with tracks like the exuberant “We Celebrate” and the sketch/song “White Lines Affair (Toney Awards).” Bottom line: It's good, just not Fishscales good.
Dead Rock WestHoney and Salt(Populuxe Records)6.3
Goes Well With: Jayhawks, John Doe, Neko Case
Dead Rock West specializes in the straight-forward, country-rock vibe that clicks with fans of early Wilco, The Jayhawks and Tom Petty. All the key ingredients are here: infectious harmonies, the occasional pedal steel guitar solo and, of course, a song about a highway (“Highway One” in this case). The members of Dead Rock West are seasoned vets, having individually worked with musicians like John Doe, Tracy Chapman and Gregory Page. But does it all morph into a songwriting juggernaut? Yes and no. Lead singer Cindy Wasserman has some impressive pipes that gel well with her male counterpart, Frank Lee Drennen. Everyone shines in his or her role, but there is nothing really new about the music. Sure, a few of the songs—such as “Pretty Disaster” and “Telephone”—bring some edgy rock to the table, but overall this just sounds like any other alt-country CD. The blessing and the curse of the genre is that, while you know what you're going to get is decent, any genuine attempts to break new ground will run afoul of hardcore fans (see Wilco's experience with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Then again, if your tastes veer more toward No Depression than Spin, this just might be up your alley.
-Dryw KeltzDead Rock West performs Thursday, Dec. 13, with The Knitters at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.