Pop and jazz CDs: Jay-Z | Sufjan Stevens | Holden | Emma Bunton | Acoustic Ladyland | Peter King

Jay-Z | Sufjan Stevens | Holden | Emma Bunton | Acoustic Ladyland | Peter King

Kingdom Come (Def Jam), £12.99

Released after a hiatus of three years, during which the rapper-turned-mogul ran the Def Jam label and maintained his A-list profile, Kingdom Come sounds like the great man revving up, rather than firing on all cylinders. Just over half of it is sound, laced with his customary elegant beat-riding and bone-dry wit. 'Oh My God', 'Trouble' and the title track provide tantalising glimpses of what a hot Jay comeback might sound like. The remainder feels transitional. Although Chris Martin's stab at being DJ Shadow ('Beach Chair') proves better than forecast, you can't help but wish that Jay-Z sounded a little hungrier after such a long time away.

Sufjan Stevens
Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty), £11.99

Before you start fearing for his sanity, this is not another concept project from the prolific Stevens, but a clear-out of the Christmas songs he has recorded over the past five years. Some have the offcuts-and-oddities feel of archive material, but there's a twinkle-eyed charm to many that make this five-CD boxset a worthy stocking-filler. Stevens's trademark sound of banjo and hushed vocals brings a lovely wintry chill to the carols here. And he's just as good at sending up the gaudy sparkle of Christmas pop, as on the catchy, chintzy 'Get Behind Me, Santa!'.

The Idiots are Winning (Border Community), £13.99

From Oxford maths lectures to Madonna and Britney remixes via techno DJ stardom: guessing which way 26-year-old James Holden's career would go next was always going to be tricky. The answer is this concise yet satisfying album - nine tracks of intricate electronica and one of complete silence. 'Intentionally Left Blank' is either a tribute to John Cage or a needless gimmick - or both. But it can be forgiven because the glitchy house rhythms and ever-shifting melodies of 'Lump' and 'Idiot Clapsolo' are so appealing. Apparent simplicity belies a real catchiness and repeated listens reveal new layers.

Emma Bunton
Life in Mono (19 Recordings), £12.99

How did the blandest Spice Girl end up with the most enduring music career? Probably because she had the nous to sit back and let the image-makers take control. Emma's slickly produced third solo album comes cushioned with hefty primetime exposure thanks to Strictly Come Dancing and her Children in Need single. With lucid harmonies and full orchestral backing, much of it is made up of big showgirl numbers melding forgettably into one another. There is the odd nice moment, such as the Carpenters-style 'I'm Not Crying Over Yesterdays', but this album's title says a lot about its maker's lack of ambition.

Acoustic Ladyland
Skinny Grin (V2), £11.99

Twisting together jazz and rock has always been a highwire act, prone to tumble into noodling fusion or the noisy posturing of 'punk-jazz'. London quartet Acoustic Ladyland aren't above confrontational discord - their bruising mixture of free jazz and thrash is one reason for a fierce live following. On disc, the screech'n'honk sax and ugly metal riffs soon pall - the single, 'Salt Water', is a case in point. Song-based numbers such as 'The Rise' and 'Glass Agenda' offer more considered dynamics, tricky time shifts and droll lyricism that are in direct line to art rockers such as Soft Machine and Gang of Four. All in all, a welcome blast of provocation.

Peter King
Janus (Miles Music), £13.99

Whether or not Peter King is a genius is a question that only posterity can settle, but I cannot think of anyone else in jazz nowadays who could bring off anything approaching this. To put it crudely, King has long believed Bartok's music, especially the six quartets, to be 'full to the brim with jazz-like qualities'. This five-movement work for double quartet (jazz quartet and string quartet) represents his effort to bring the two together. The passionate ingenuity of the his own saxophone improvisation and the ever-changing sonorities of the strings make a combination that will repay endless listening.


Kitty Empire, Ally Carnwath, Killian Fox, Natalie Idehen, Neil Spencer and Dave Gelly

The GuardianTramp

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