Asher Roth, "Asleep in the Bread Aisle"
Midway through his heavy hyped and much-anticipated debut album, 23-year-old Pennsylvania rapper Asher Roth shrewdly disarms the biggest missile critics will fire his way, directly addressing the inevitable comparisons to Eminem: "Now the masters thinks that Asher wants to be a Marshall Mathers/They say, 'Asher's not a rapper, he's actually just an actor'/'Cause we have the same complexion and similar voice inflection/It's easy to see the pieces and reach for that connection/Every minute, each hour of every day/I'm constantly on the fence defending my own name/Explaining we are not the same."
Sure enough, Roth, who built his buzz via MySpace and went on to sell 800,000 copies of his breakthrough single "I Love College" on iTunes, is much closer to a smart combination of the frat-party Beastie Boys of "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" and a suburban American version of the Streets. He cheerfully avoids Eminem's misogynist and homophobic streaks and eschews the slasher-porn fantasies, rapping instead with an endearingly self-deprecating sense of humor about what he knows: cruising the strip malls in his mom's Ford Taurus in search of sexy blondes, preferably named Ashley, willing to get high, strip naked and make his Penthouse Forum dreams come true--though the audible wink in his lazy, drawling delivery indicates he's fully aware the night will end on the couch in front of the TV with a bag of Cheetos.
The obligatory roster of big-name cameos, including Busta Rhymes, Estelle and Cee-Lo Green (on "Be By Myself," one of several standout tracks), is both a testament to Roth's commercial potential and a credit to his rhyming talents, since he isn't eclipsed by any of those names. Add to these strengths the impressive productions of newcomer Oren Yoel, who brings a fuzzy, hook-laden indie-rock sensibility to many of these tracks, and you have a winning debut that overall rises above the occasional fart joke and "ain't marijuana swell?" pothead/party hound pandering.
Bat for Lashes, "Two Suns"
Raised by a Pakistani father and an English mother, Brighton-based singer and songwriter Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat for Lashes, made her recorded debut in 2006 with "Fur and Gold," which was nominated as album of the year for the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Prize and prompted Radiohead to invite her to open on tour. Her buzz has been building in the States ever since, with critics and fans rushing to crown her minimalist, Steve Reich-inspired sounds as a combination of Kate Bush, Bjork and Tori Amos. But Khan actually has a lot more in common with the less hip Celtic enchantress Loreena McKennitt and the indie-rock cult heroine Mary Timony, both of whom bring a similarly psychedelic witchy/Renaissance Fair vibe to their enchanting brands of folk-rock.
Think Stevie Nicks for the more musically adventurous, with the magick and the air of dark, threatening but nonetheless seductive danger turned way up.
Described as a concept album charting the duality of Khan's "desert-born spiritual self" and her "destructive, self-absorbed, blonde femme fatale" alter-ego Pearl, "Two Suns" lacks a track as instantly appealing as "What's a Girl to Do," the striking single from her debut, and the grand piano and autoharp-laced tunes verge toward the comatose during the more somber and morose moments. But the singer's voice remains a wondrous, swooping and soaring instrument; she deserves serious props for the closing duet with British cult legend Scott Walker, "The Big Sleep," and there's still more than enough magic in these 11 tunes to cast an enchanting spell.