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The best songwriter you’ve never heard of?

David Olney

“The Wheel” (Loud House)

*** 1/2

The late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt put Olney on his short list of favorite writers, alongside Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Bob Dylan -- a declaration as audacious and stubborn as Van Zandt’s fiercely personal tunes.

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So it’s fitting that you find a Van Zandt-like daring in many of this Nashville craftsman’s wonderfully detailed examinations of the human condition -- songs that show a disdain for the formulas and compromises that might lead them onto the sales charts.

Olney, in fact, may be the best songwriter to have released nearly a dozen albums without making the weekly list of the Top 200 sellers. “The Wheel” is still a longshot for the charts, but his growing list of endorsements (from Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, among others) should eventually encourage a wider audience to sample his work.

There are hints of a concept in these songs about the spiritual and psychological struggles to maintain balance and hope. The best ones center on the search for comfort, love and simple clarity amid the roadblocks put up by demons and fate.

Backed by strikingly aggressive sonic textures (with violins sometimes dueling guitars) on such tracks as “Big Cadillac” and “God Shaped Hole” and then by only the most tender strains elsewhere, Olney gives us an album with the most original mix of heart and fury since Tom Waits’ “Mule Variations.”

There may be a couple of wrong notes on the album, but never a false one.

Robert Hilburn

Punk and beyond from A.F.I. quartet

A.F.I.

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“Sing the Sorrow” (DreamWorks)

***

A punk-rock “The Wall”? From the opening of the darkly evocative chorale “Miseria Cantare,” it’s clear that this veteran Bay Area band is shooting to make its major-label debut (in stores Tuesday) a major statement. Enlisting producers Butch Vig (Nirvana’s “Nevermind”) and Jerry Finn (Green Day), alluding to sources both in and out of punk and casting singer Davey Havok and his nasally, everykid delivery as the ultimate in solipsistic, despairing youth, the quartet comes close to the mark.

It can be a bit much. From Holden Caulfield to Dashboard Confessional, self doesn’t come much more absorbed. But the music nicely sidesteps punk cliches in dramatizing an emotional arc from rising anguish through pained resignation. “Bleed Black” drops from punk intensity to acoustic lamentation, then swells like an anthem. “Death of Seasons” dissolves into a weeping-strings coda. Guitarist Jade Puget’s solo in “Dancing Through Sunday” could be vintage Ritchie Blackmore, and “Girl’s Not Grey” has the drive of classic Blue Oyster Cult.

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And then there’s an extended, dreamlike “bonus” suite of spoken word and impressionistic sounds following the ostensible denouement “

-- Steve Hochman

Music to fight for freedom by

Various artists

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“Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony” soundtrack (ATO)

****

Twenty-three songs from the documentary about the role of music in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid are included in this gripping CD. Given the vital role that music plays in African culture it’s not surprising that such an array of songs and chants was so intrinsic to the struggle. And the range of music, accordingly, is extraordinary, embracing material from well-known recording artists, community ensembles, prison singers and a theatrical musical.

Ultimately, however, what is most impressive about “Amandla!” is a quality intrinsic to African music -- a feeling of affirmation, an undercurrent of belief, even in the midst of pain and tragedy. As the struggle continued, that affirmativeness and belief became, through the music, a virtually irresistible force.

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From songs such as the sardonic “Y’zinga,” sung by the Robben Island Prison Singers, to the anthem-like “Sad Times, Bad Times” from the musical “King Kong,” from the subtle intensity of Miriam Makeba’s “Bahleli Bonke” to Hugh Masekela’s compelling “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” the album provides a palpable sense of the impact that music had on South Africa’s ultimately irresistible quest for liberation.

-- Don Heckman

Ready to break a mold or two

Ben Harper

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“Diamonds on the Inside” (Virgin)

***

If this slide-guitar whiz could ever blend the styles he does here on his fifth studio album (in stores Tuesday) -- reggae, acoustic blues, classic rock, love testimonial, Memphis soul and hard-edged funk, respectively, in the first seven songs alone -- into a distinctive amalgam of his own, he could really be a top-flight force. Even though he stops short of that synthesis, he has enough command of all the things he does to have earned his loyal following, and this time around he steps it up a notch to inject his own twists all around.

The Bob Marley-esque opener “With My Own Two Hands” sets the tone not just with its crisp, adept reggae vibes, but also with Harper’s hopeful declaration of purpose: That communal spirituality threads through the album, giving a prayerful edge to even such straight love songs as “When She Believes.”

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And it turns explicitly prayerful with the African-tinged gospel number “Blessed to Be a Witness” and the a cappella collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Picture of Jesus.”

The latter evokes Paul Simon’s mold-breaking “Graceland” album and suggests that Harper might be ready to break some molds himself.

-- S.H.

Quick spins

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Lil’ Kim

“La Bella Mafia” (Atlantic)

***

Rebounding from 2000’s dismal “The Notorious K.I.M.,” the provocative Brooklyn rapper returns on her third album with a strong collection of feisty hip-hop. Sure, her racy raps revolve around materialism and her much-talked-about sexuality, but her gruff, seductive voice adds plenty of appeal. Still, the real strength here is the production from J. Waxx Garfield, Timbaland and others, as well as A-list guests such as Twista and 50 Cent.

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-- Soren Baker

Everclear

“Slow Motion Daydream” (Capitol)

***

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Art Alexakis is fine with growing up. There’s good material there, man-sized demons to battle as Gen-X drifts toward middle age. Loud guitars fuel sophisticated pop of brains and heart, rarely slipping into formulas not his own. Witness the maturing of his own generation on “Volvo Driving Soccer Mom,” as bad girls go mainstream. Alexakis sings, “I wonder where all the porn stars go ... Think they all moved out to the suburbs.” Dark and humane.

-- Steve Appleford

Buju Banton

“Friends for Life” (VP/Atlantic)

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*** 1/2

Although a catchy reggae single seems to become a smash every year or so, the genre goes largely unnoticed in the mainstream. Anyone looking to indulge in some of the music’s premier work would be advised to pick up the latest masterpiece from reggae master Buju Banton (due Tuesday). The Jamaican’s moving odes to unity (“Maybe We Are”) and perseverance (“All Will Be Fine,” “Up Ye Mighty Race”) stir the soul, while his dance tunes (“Tra La La,” “Teaser”) are Grade-A jams.

-- S.B.

King Crimson

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“The Power to Believe” (Sanctuary)

***

Words are not the point of King Crimson, a band already contemplative and intense with barely any vocal clutter. “Dangerous Curves” slowly erupts without a single word spoken over the minimalist patterns of guitarist Robert Fripp. This art rock broods with tension and tone. Later, singer-guitarist Adrian Belew satirizes pop formula across a riff as direct as AC/DC as he deadpans: “When I have some words, this is the way I’ll sing ....Gonna have to write a chorus.” Well said.

-- Steve Appleford

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.


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