Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" is such a treat it's tempting to suggest you buy two copies and give one to a friend. But we don't have that luxury in this edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with what's noteworthy in pop on an album budget of $50 a month. There are too many other worthy new releases to afford Dylan two spots.
Ryan Adams' "Gold" (Lost Highway). For someone who has given us so much music, both with the band Whiskeytown and on his own, Adams still seems surprisingly derivative. In places here he reminds you of the delicate cry of Jeff Buckley and the rock swagger of Mick Jagger, and "La Cienega Just Smiled" has so much of the moody-confession quality of Steve Earle that you expect to find Earle's name in the credits. But the bottom line is that the songs here are good enough to be highlights on any of those artists' records, and "La Cienega" is so sweet, sad and hopeful that you know someday you'll want to drive down the street late at night listening to it.
Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" (Columbia). Who would have imagined in 1965 that Dylan would return 32 years after "Highway 61 Revisited" with an album as essential as 1997's "Time Out of Mind," then come back so quickly with another album of equal (or even greater) strength? The resurgence isn't so much like Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs. It's more as if Babe Ruth, who changed the direction of baseball in one era, returned to outplay everyone in another. The music is a supercharged celebration of rock's pop, country, folk and blues roots, and his wordplay is at its most invigorating.
R.L. Burnside's "Burnside on Burnside" (Fat Possum/Epitaph). Burnside was still farming in Mississippi in the '50s when the teen Dylan started soaking up his own influences, so the singer-guitarist wasn't a force on the youngster. But he is a link to the passion and purity of the bluesmen who inspired Dylan. The music on this live CD was recorded last winter, but carries an authenticity so rare in the blues now that it's easy to believe it was made decades ago.
Elton John's "Songs From the West Coast" (Rocket/Universal). John and lyricist Bernie Taupin have given us some valuable pieces over the last two decades, but no album in years has captured the intimacy and heart of their endearing early work like this one. From the romantic innocence of the melodic "Original Sin" to the somber social commentary of "American Triangle," the arrangements are more stripped down, the themes more probing and John's singing more personal than on any of his recent records.
Beachwood Sparks' "Once We Were Trees" (Sub Pop). If Ryan Adams draws from his contemporaries for inspiration, this Los Angeles quartet leans on the wistful country-accented sounds of an earlier generation of L.A. bands, from the Flying Burrito Brothers to Buffalo Springfield. The bowed heads photo in the package even seems a nod to those forefathers. The vocal harmonies and instrumental coloring (including pedal steel and harmonica) is far from today's pop market, but the themes--loneliness and the search for emotional balance--never go out of style. "Hearts Mend" has endearing echoes of the Burritos' signature tune, "Sin City."
Caetano Veloso's "Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta" (Nonesuch). This is the alluring and accomplished Brazilian singer-composer's third album in two years to make the Guide, which may be a first for any artist. Veloso was greatly inspired by the films of Federico Fellini and his actress-wife, Giulietta Masina, and this album is a live recording of a concert Veloso performed as a tribute to the couple. Whether he's using material from the films or from his own compositions, Veloso captures the haunting, dreamlike qualities that made Fellini such a landmark director.
Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at email@example.com.