Earl Sweatshirt, "Some Rap Songs" (Columbia)

Most hook-averse rappers use studio obscurantism to hide their lack of pithiness, but Sweatshirt's got a hell of a defense: "Stuck in Trumpland watching subtlety decaying," he mumbles on "Veins." So this is an argument for subtlety. He still abjures choruses entirely, and depression is still his lone subject, maybe even more so now that he's lost a world-renowned father and uncle.

Yet his inauspiciously titled third record is easily the most musical thing he's ever done, with outsourced loops on "Nowhere2go," "The Mint" and "The Bends" that are downright gorgeous, like classic Kanye West soul samples pitched down and knocked off their 4/4 time signature. He even delivers the rewinding Curtis Mayfield sample on "Veins" himself. And his late uncle Hugh Masekela provides the entirety of "Riot!," a closer that bridges the death and depression that fog his work on the regular, with the melodic brightness that is their salvation here.

Dan Weiss, Philadelphia Inquirer


Van Morrison, "The Prophet Speaks" (Caroline)

"The Prophet Speaks" is the latest in an exceedingly prolific stretch for Morrison — the album is his fourth since the start of 2017. It also follows the pattern of the previous three, with the famed Irish soul man and mystic focusing on the vintage R&B and jazz that originally inspired him while mixing in a handful of originals. He and his band are also joined again by Joey DeFrancesco, although the organ and trumpet virtuoso is not co-credited on the cover, as he was on April's "You're Driving Me Crazy."

Morrison remains thoroughly committed to this source music, as he puts his stamp on numbers by immortals including John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Willie Dixon, and Solomon Burke. (He must be having fun, too: The cover shows the famously difficult Morrison shushing a ventriloquist's dummy.)

The new originals hold up well in this company. "Got to Go Where the Love Is" is a buoyant slice of pop-soul, "5 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time" and "Love Is Hard Work" swing with all the aplomb of the performances of the older material, and the moody "Ain't Gonna Moan No More" fittingly references Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and Hooker, among others. If the title song finds Morrison hectoring a bit, "Spirit Will Provide" reveals him at his gentlest, offering some comfort and reassurance in turbulent times.

Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

Elvis Presley, " '68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition" (RCA/Legacy )

On Dec. 3, 1968, in one electrifying hour of TV, Elvis rescued himself from irrelevancy. With what came to be known as "The '68 Comeback Special," it would be too facile to say the King of Rock 'n' Roll had regained his throne — the world of 1968 was radically different from that of his 1950s ascendancy — but he did show indisputably that he could still be an artist to be reckoned with.

This five-CD, two-Blu-ray set collects all the audio and video from this historic project in one package (plus an 86-page book). It includes the original soundtrack album (with bonus cuts); the original NBC special; uncut audio and video of the stand-up and sit-down performances that were excerpted for TV; a disc of ultra-loose acoustic rehearsals with his old sidemen, and a disc of studio outtakes.

What emerges is a thrilling portrait of a singer and performer far removed from the neutered figure he had become in his increasingly ridiculous movies. He's sexy, smart, funny and soulful. In other words, you get an artist in his element and in command, reaching deep and summoning the best he has to offer — which is as good as pop music gets.

Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer