Yo-Yo Ma - Obrigado Brazil (Sony Classical): Yo-Yo Ma certainly gets around. Last time we heard from him, he and his wandering cello were tripping the light classical fantastique with Paris: "La Belle Epoch." Before that, he was plying the exotic Silk Roads of the Orient, after mining the deeply soulful tangos of Argentina. Now he brings us the intoxicating rhythms and rich cross-cultural strains of Brazil with affection and a feather-light touch. This elegant and eclectic collection features sambas from Antonio Carlos Jobim and Baden Powell, classical pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos and bouncy choros from legendary Brazilian composers Pixinguinha and Camargo Mozart Guarnieri. Hauntingly beautiful duets alternate with full ensemble performances. It is a charming mix, executed with a palpable joie de vivre by an all-star ensemble of international musicians. - John Kehe
Brooks & Dunn - Red Dirt Road (Arista): The duo of Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks have cranked out seven platinum albums over the past decade, and "Red Dirt Road" is well on the way to becoming No. 8. Already No. 1 on Billboard's country album chart, it is more introspective than past efforts, which often focused on life in the many honky tonks the two have traversed. The hit title track is a coming-of-age reflection about making peace with one's place in the world. A few other songs, including "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl," sound as if they were taken straight off any classic Rolling Stones album. Those blues rockers are interlaced with an ear-pleasing mix of soul and gospel tunes. - Vic Roberts
Macy Gray - The Trouble With Being Myself (Sony): Macy Gray has the voice of an angel who has seen too much: pure and clean but lined with just enough rasp to reveal a haunted soul. Through songs about the temptations of money, the hollowness of addiction, and the pain of saying good-bye, this album confronts the trouble with the way things are. Gray's voice even climbs above her typical two-octave range, sugar-coated and whimsical in "She ain't right for you" and "Speechless." If only her touch felt more personal and her ideas more original. After two groundbreaking albums that contributed a unique voice to the crossover of hip-hop and funk, this one only adds to a chorus of howling mediocrity. - Elizabeth Armstrong
Nina Simone - Anthology (RCA/BMG Heritage): If you're looking for easy listening, you'll want to pass this CD up. Because Ms. Simone demands your attention. With her deep, foghorn voice and attitude for days, these recordings simply cannot be ignored. This pair of CDs chronicles her entire career, from the appealing late-night jazz vibe of her 1957 recordings for the tiny Bethlehem label to her breakout period in the mid-'60s, when she called on the nation to take a hard look in the mirror with civil rights anthems like "Strange Fruit" and memorable songs about the dignity of women. The late singer was never one to pull a punch for the sake of record sales, and some of these recordings can make for challenging listening. But in her finest moments, Simone was a true original, a barrier-breaker whose talent and moral conviction brought about measurable social change. And not many artists can claim that. - J.K.
Gillian Welch - Soul Journey (Acony Records): In Welch's fourth album, she and songwriting sidekick David Rawlings strum together a collection of earthy melodies that conjure images of breezy chatter around a campfire or quiet musings in a hammock while sipping lemonade. Welch's bare, moody voice with its coffee-shop rasp fits the album's down-home style. "Soul Journey" is filled with minimalist melodies likely to engage even non-roots fans with boot-stomping rhythms, hillbilly ditties, and misty folk acoustics. Welch's intimate lyrics invite listeners to experience both her dreamy pinings and her penchant for defiance. - Stephanie Cook Broadhurst