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Guilty Pleasures 

Robin Thicke, Chicago, Johnny Mathis, Fergie, Pirates of the Mississippi

Y'all know you love 'em:

Robin Thicke looks poised to bounce back from the one-hit wonder bin with his fine new The Evolution of Robin Thicke (Star Trak/Interscope). Andre Harrell's protégé still purveys good blue-eyed soul, yet his palette seems to have progressed to the point that the Pharrell single, "Wanna Love U Girl," is the weakest of the bunch. Thicke's stylistic range spans from the great twangy soul-folk on "Would That Make U Love Me" to the sultry thrill of Hollywood mambo orchestras like Xavier Cugat's on "Everything I Can't Have." The disc's most key influence is mid-period Marvin Gaye, Gaye's hallmarks of jazzy swing and complex harmonies coloring both the opening duet with Faith Evans ("Got 2 Be Down") and closer "Angels" where Thicke goes to church, complete with false fade. Who knew this would be a year when some of the best sonic experiments and performances would happen in the pop marketplace?

Chicago offers an early '80s cheez-rock twofer with recent reissues of Chicago 16 (1982) and Chicago 17 (1984) on Rhino. It's very difficult to know how to take the long-lived band named for its city of origin. In the wake of its late 1960s debut, the brass-augmented big band tended to be derided by critics and "real" rockers like Keith Richards. And yet in the early '70s, prior to Robert Lamm's initial exit, the band released a stream of classic pop confections that still effortlessly spark nostalgia in anyone around in that era: "Saturdays In the Park," "Make Me Smile" and so on. Because of my love of horns, I confess a weakness for Chicago's early back catalog; my personal fave is the faux Latin-acid hybrid of "Beginnings." At the point of the aforementioned reissues, after rock's late '70s bloat and a lineup shuffle, Peter Cetera had emerged as the face/voice of Chicago and these discs' David Foster production sustained the band's fruitful intersection with the public. Yes, I was a victim of it: our music teacher made us sing Chicago 16's swoony hit "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" for the annual spring concert -- but there's no Langley Schools reprieve to be gleaned from it. If you miss high '80s big, boomy production and/or danced at your prom to one of these usual suspects, be my guest. I'm also suspicious that many of today's most alt chamber rock types spent just as much time woodshedding in their youth with Chicago as with Love.

Johnny Mathis' repertoire of romantic ballads might seem even more saccharine than Chicago's to today's audiences so far removed from the 1950s and relative lyrical innocence in pop music. Yet there's a reason Mathis was dubbed "The Velvet Voice." His latest release is Johnny Mathis: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Columbia), commemorating 50 years since Mathis' first recording. Over that span, Mathis has recorded over 130 LPs, acquired a Hollywood mansion formerly owned by Howard Hughes, headed up his own golf tournament and sung with a range of greats from Streisand to Ray Charles to Niecy. Mathis even made some black history, as the first black entertainer to become a millionaire before the age of 21 (take that, hip-hop ballas). The icon hails from an era prior to Paris Hilton's brand of celebrity, so we'll just cast aspersions about his lavender orientation aside, shall we? Focus instead on Mathis' classic back catalogue -- this disc includes favorites like "Chances Are" and the exquisite "Misty" -- since y'all know you can scarce get through Christmas with the fam without listening to his music over and again.

Fergie has brought Black Eyed Peas low to these ears. The original trio fronted by was far more inventive backed by indie rock bands and exploiting their multiethnic quirks. The Dutchess (A&M), Fergie's gambit to duplicate Gwen Stefani's solo success, is of course another means for to exercise his production visions. And so Fergie is mostly de trop on this release -- except on inescapable single "London Bridge."

Pirates of the Mississippi is not the most spectacular southern rock band ever, but its Heaven and a Dixie Night (Evergreen Records) aims straight at my sonic weakness, complete with Charlie Daniels-invoking cover art. While workmanlike and uneven, this disc is most interesting for its lyrical attempts to codify a particular New South generation's identity and 21st century struggles to keep it real. See canny "rebirth of redneck" cuts like "Is That Country Or What."

Bonus track: The Pogues are not exactly a guilty pleasure. Rather, one feels guilty having supported them back in the day, and thus provided an ongoing arena for its notorious frontman Shane MacGowan's active self-destruction. Still, none of this detracts from the joys derived from the recent slate of Pogues reissues. Of the five received, If I Should Fall From Grace With God (Rhino) and its title track remain undeniably classic. Of course this disc includes the Celtic punkers' cherished Christmas standard -- in anticipation of the upcoming season, do burn "Fairytale of New York" if your old vinyl and cassette versions are worn out. ("Thousands Are Sailing" still triggers my drop of Highland heritage, and makes me want to dance a jig as much as it did when I bought the 33 1/3 version in 1987).

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