Success hasn't changed the surf-champ-turned-troubadour, but what would you expect from the mellowest guy on the planet? The Zen beachcomber vibe of the surprise hit debut "Brushfire Fairytales" is even more refined here -- the opening "Times Like These" is a sandy "Que Sera, Sera" update, and a "don't worry, be happy" philosophy permeates the mostly short, fragmentary ditties. Johnson's fluid, friendly voice and easygoing mix of acoustic strumming and light reggae are appealing but too laid-back to be compelling.
-- Steve Hochman
"What Sound" (Koch)
Initially thought of as one of the mid-'90s disciples of Portishead, the English duo of Louise Rhodes and Andrew Barlow has emerged as one of the most intriguing acts in dance music in its own right. The pair's yin-and-yang approach to Rhodes' romantic lyrics and vocals and Barlow's edgy, beat-rich production creates a constantly satisfying pull on this set, which includes a bonus DVD/CD with remixes from the likes of Kruder & Dorfmeister and Fila Brazilia.
-- Steve Baltin
DJ Kay Slay
"The Streetsweeper Vol. 1" (Columbia)
Often boasting exclusive, unauthorized recordings from some of rap's biggest stars, mix CDs have become a testing ground for artists both known and unknown. Kay Slay, current king of New York's mix tape scene, turns legit with this stellar major-label debut. Heavyweights such as 50 Cent, Eminem and Nas kick mostly charged braggadocio rhymes over beats from EZ Elpee, Dame Grease and others.
-- Soren Baker
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.