Bruno Mars (Atlantic)
Bruno Mars was no innocent when he dropped his 2010 debut, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans." As a writer, Mars had cowritten hooks for hits by Flo Rida and such. As a Hooligan, though, he proposed marriage and willingly took grenades for l'amour; he had whiskey oozing from his pores.
But on "Unorthodox Jukebox," when Mars sings "Got a bottle full of liquor with a cocaine kicker/I'm feeling like I'm 30 feet tall" on the sly "Gorilla," it's apparent he's toughened up.
Good. Mars' newfound grime gives the club-a-dub "Money Make Her Smile" its couch-dancing subtext, while a dark dance-hall vibe clings to "Show Me" like skin on bologna.
Beyond Mars' revelation of nastiness -- lyrically, sonically -- "Unorthodox Jukebox" is, like its predecessor, a slab of pop perfection to be cherished as one would a Bacharach tune. There's a Burt-like cosmopolitan sensibility on the torchy "When I Was Your Man," the smoldering soulful "If I Knew," and the doleful disco-fied "Treasure."
Still, this is slick 21st-century pop. Throughout "Unorthodox's" genre-shifting proceedings, Mars, the singer, finds the sweet spot every time.
--A.D. AMOROSI, Philadelphia Inquirer
BROTHERS IN BAMAKO
Eric Bibb & Habib Koite (Stony Plain)
Fans of America-meets-Africa musical collaborations (see Paul Simon's "Graceland" and, more recently, Bela Fleck's "Throw Down Your Heart") won't be disappointed by this warm, cheerful pairing of Southern bluesman Eric Bibb and West Africa's Habib Koite.
Both are singer-songwriters and guitarists with earthy tones who exude the best of their respective roots. The two struck up a friendship 10 years ago and demonstrate the chemistry between them with a gumbo of blues, folk, gospel, and world music.
There's a lot of heart and passion on this disc, but especially so when Bibb's providing his deep vocals and Koite's gingerly picking the banjo on a wonderful rendition of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Bibb and Koite are to tour together in the U.S. and Canada in early 2013.
-- TOM HENRY
SONS OF ANARCHY: VOLUME 2 (Soundtrack)
Various Artists (Columbia)
This disc leads off with a song that should be a highlight, a new rendition of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" by Jane's Addiction.
Sorry, Jane's fans, but it falls far short of its promise. It's a bloated, self-aggrandizing mess and almost laughable because of how out of sync it is rhythmically. Get past that stinker, though, and this is a pretty strong album.
Greg Holden has a firm, anthem-like ballad, "The Lost Boy" anchoring the No. 2 spot and there's a good mix of other rockers with lyrics strong enough to leave a lasting impression.
The soundtrack has some pretty fine renditions of classic tunes, such as Katey Sagal's surprisingly good version of "To Sir With Love," and three others -- "Higher Ground," "Travelin' Band," and "The Unclouded Day" -- in which the show's house band, the Forest Rangers, performs with guest vocalists.