Life Is Good

Producers: various

Def Jam

Release Date: July 17

Nas has admitted that the frilly green dress draped over his right knee on the cover of "Life Is Good" is the gown ex-wife Kelis wore at their wedding in 2005. It's the same wedding he remembers mournfully in "Bye Baby," which closes the Queens MC's 10th studio disc with a searingly personal flourish: "Did counseling, couldn't force me to stay," he raps over a sample of Guy's late-'80s R&B jam "Goodbye Love," "Something happened when you say 'I do,' we go astray." In contrast to 2006's "Hip-Hop Is Dead" and its untitled 2008 follow-up, private-life matters largely crowd out politics on "Life Is Good": "Daughters," produced by No I.D., describes Nas' attempts to monitor his child's social-networking habits, while "Back When" and "A Queens Story" recount the early years of his struggle toward rap stardom. Sonically, too, the album feels gentler than much of Nas' recent work, as in "World's an Addiction," with guest vocals by Southern soul singer Anthony Hamilton, and "Cherry Wine," a surprisingly breezy collaboration with the late Amy Winehouse.


Soul Asylum

Delayed Reaction

Producers: Soul Asylum, John Fields

429 Records

Release Date: July 17

Soul Asylum reigned alongside the Replacements and Hüsker Dü in the holy trinity of '80s Minneapolis alt-rock that paved the way for grunge, and it was the only one to survive into the '90s. That tenacity kept the band from crumbling when bassist Karl Mueller died from cancer in 2005. "Delayed Reaction" is Soul Asylum's first album in six years and first without Mueller. Whether it's the addition of erstwhile Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson or the brush with mortality, Soul Asylum seems to have regained a bit of the punky edge it left somewhere back in the early '90s. "Gravity," "The Streets" and "Let's All Kill Each Other" feature feral vocals from Dave Pirner and scrappy, speedy riffing from guitarist Dan Murphy, but the group doesn't spend the entire set partying like it's 1988. Even in its underground era, the act often threw some melodic moments into the mix, and from the midtempo, piano-led soul-pop of "Cruel Intentions" to the Beatles-on-barbiturates hangover throb of "I Should've Stayed in Bed," the former college-rock kings show they've got more in mind than reliving old glories.


Hypnotic Nights

Producers: Jake Orrall, Jamin Orrall, Dan Auerbach

Warner Bros. Records

Release Date: July 17

The first major-label album by this prolific Nashville-based sibling duo concludes with a Black Sabbath cover - proof, it would appear, that JEFF the Brotherhood hasn't softened its scuzz-garage edge for the mainstream market. Only thing: The Sabbath tune in question isn't "Paranoid," "Iron Man" or "War Pigs," but rather "Changes," the drippy 1972 ballad Ozzy Osbourne later revisited in a duet with daughter Kelly. Jake and Jamin Orrall - sons of singer and country music songwriter Robert Ellis Orrall - do "Changes" as a kind of spooky goth-blues dirge smeared with what sound like the final notes of several dying synthesizers. It's not heavy metal, but it's certainly no soft-rock sellout, either. Co-produced by the Orralls with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, "Hypnotic Nights" consistently plays it both ways, sweetening breakneck punk tunes like "Hypnotic Mind" with candied guitar hooks and breaking out the hotel-bar sax for "Region of Fire," one of several psychedelic slow jams. The result is certainly the group's most songful effort so far - but also perhaps its weirdest.



Spark Seeker

Producer: Kool Kojak

Fallen Sparks Records/Thirty Tigers/RED

Release Date: July 17

At the outset of his fourth studio album, Matisyahu declares that he's "come to take the music back." It's debatable whether he ever lost it, but there are certainly changes afoot on "Spark Seeker." Filled with sonic surprises and fresh directions - but retaining the positivity, spirituality and strive for self-realization that have always been the reggae-rapper's mix - the 13-track set ushers in a new era. This time out, the multifaceted artist has shaved his beard, cut his hair and generally closed the prayer book on the "Chassidic reggae superstar" model of the past seven years. Working with producer Kool Kojak and a variety of collaborators including Jerusalem-based rapper Shyne, Matisyahu mixes the reggae and dancehall of his past with fresh electronic flavors and up-to-date hip-hop techniques. "Searchin'" is a collage of vocoder, synths, Jamaican-style chants and funky guitar, while "Buffalo Soldier," "Live Like a Warrior," "Tel Aviv'n" and "King Crown of Judah" display a hip, street-level muscularity. The buoyant anthems ("Crossroads," "Sunshine," "Fire of Freedom," "Shine on You") are still here, but he's found a "spark" from some new sources this time.