Down from two albums apiece in the ‘90s and ‘00s to just these seven songs checking in for the ‘10s, Chaka Khan pivots from 2007’s surprisingly strong, squelchy Funk This to the perfect substitute for that Chic reunion album that disappointed you last year. Co-produced by onetime M.I.A. cohort Switch, Hello Happiness trades the songs of Funk This for seamless grooves, which admittedly leaves a star vocalist sounding like a guest diva on her own tracks. But what tracks! The title song’s wordless vocal hook recapitulates Armand Van Helden’s house classic “U Don’t Even Know Me,” and “Like Sugar” thrives on an all-bassline hook. Only a former member of Major Lazer could’ve put her over the druggy dub of “Isn’t That Enough,” especially as Khan has made a point of getting clean since the death of her friend Prince. So although there’s nothing here worthy of a Melle-Mel-and-Stevie-Wonder intro, can I sell you on a one-woman Basement Jaxx revival? — Dan Weiss
The Specials may have been responsible for the ska revival thanks to their 1979 debut, a movement based on reggae rhythms and rude-boy, London gangster lyrics. Yet there was also sophistication to go with their raw power on their sophomore album, More Specials. What the British ensemble — led by deadpan singer Terry Hall and composer-founder Jerry Dammers — did as whole was bring much-needed color and an African-Anglo punch to post-punk’s politicized rants and pale grooves. So, for the first new Specials album to feature Hall in 39 years, Brexit, #BlackLivesMatter, and Tories are the order of the day.
Together with fellow remaining original Specials Lynval Golding and Horace Panter (but not Dammers), Hall & Co. still make cranky reggae (“Embarrassed by You”) but mix it up with LCD Soundsystem-ish disco funk (“BLM”) and Latin music for a melting pot that always boils over. When not touching on the health of their nation, as on the happily heavy-handed “Vote for Me,” and revolt on the circusy “Breaking Point,” Hall speak-sings his truth about his own psychological well-being on the genteel “The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression)” and the surprisingly optimistic “We Sell Hope.”
As always, the Specials are the sound of being glad to be unhappy. — A.D. Amorosi
Music Inspired by the Film Roma
(Columbia ** ½)