Melinda Doolittle, "Coming Back to You" (Hi Fi)

This soulful, frisky debut by Doolittle, a finalist on the sixth season of "American Idol," is a quantum cut above the "Idol" norm. Al Green, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and Sarah Vaughan are not physically on this disc, but Doolittle absorbed their auditory DNA as a young girl in Tennessee, and their influences bleed through on this raw and rockin' disc.

What can't Doolittle do? The 31-year-old handles songwriter Sammy Cahn's rich, late-night, pop-jazz balladry with flair and revives the flavor of Hi Records/Motown-era uptempo soul on such gritty tracks as "It's Your Love" and "Fundamental Things." Doolittle takes "Declaration of Love," a feisty pop song that Celine Dion recorded in the mid-'90s, to church with gospel fervor, fat drums and robust horn section. Even better, she takes on the blues of Robert Johnson -- "Dust My Broom" and "Walkin' Blues" -- and brings to mind some old Ike and Tina Turner sides.

She can make even nonbelievers forgive "Idol" for its many sins against pop music.



Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, "Willie and the Wheel" (Bismeaux)

These are tunes for tough times: Nelson singing western swing is bound to bring a smile. The genre became popular during the Depression and still has plenty of life, as this CD shows. The late and legendary producer Jerry Wexler came up with the idea 30 years ago to pair Nelson with swing tunes, but it was 2007 before work on the album began with help from Ray Benson, leader of the Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel. Wexler suggested material and the use of horns; he heard session tapes of "Willie and the Wheel" before his death. Many of the songs were originally done by Bob Wills or Milton Brown, and arrangements geared to the dance hall allow plenty of room for pickin' and plunkin' and tootin'. Nelson fits right in with his swoops, scoops, jazzy phrasing and singspeak.