Chaka Khan

Hello Happiness

(Diary/Island ***)

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


(Island ***½)

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

Various Artists

Music Inspired by the Film Roma

(Columbia ** ½)

Give this collection of music featuring songs by Beck, Patti Smith, Jesse Reyez, T-Bone Burnett, and fast-rising star Billie Eilish major points for truth in titling. It truly is “inspired by” Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-nominated paean to 1970s Mexico City: Not a single song is actually heard in the movie. (To confuse things, there’s also a traditional Roma soundtrack album of music that is actually heard in Cuaron’s film, from ‘70s Mexican singers Juan Gabriel and Leo Dan to Yvonne Elliman’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. That’s available on Apple Music, or as an import-only purchase.) But this album takes another tack, with the director inviting favorite artists to use his movie as a muse. The results are mixed: Beck’s orchestral cover of 1980s Brit band band Colourbox’s “Tarantula” is pretty enough; Smith’s remake of her 1996 song “Wing” feels stately and profound. And Eilish’s spooky “When I Was Older” and Unkle featuring Michael Kiwanuka’s prayer-like “On My Knees” are highlights. The problem is the best songs have a poetic quality without making salient connections to the film, while others, like “Psycho” by Bu Cuaron (the director’s daughter) and Ibeyi’s “Cleo Who Takes Care of You,” strive too hard to be specific. There is a bonus, though: The dulcet bark of the movie’s scene-stealing leaping and pooping dog, Borras, is heard both in Cuidad de Mexico’s opening “Tepeji 21” and Sonido Gallo Nero’s delightful “Cumbia del Borras.” — Dan DeLuca