OCEAN COLOUR SCENE: FROM THE MODERN (Universal)
What does that title mean? The "modern" bit presumably refers to Ocean Colour Scene's filial devotion to their mod-fathers, the Who and Paul Weller, because there isn't anything modern, in the sense of new or contemporary, about the music. Brendan Lynch, the producer, pastes on some beats and synthesiser squawks here and there, but if these are supposed to bring the group up to date, they're as effective as Barbara Cartland's make-up is at getting her to look like a teenager. Of course, Ocean Colour Scene's anachronisms wouldn't matter if their writing matched that of their heroes, but the songs rarely hang together. Much of the blame must rest on Simon Fowler. His mangled vocals and nonsense lyrics suggest that he doesn't know what it is he wants to communicate - never a problem for previous generations of mods.
DEATH IN VEGAS: THE CONTINO SESSIONS (Concrete)
It's getting harder and harder these days for the organisers of the Brits to know whether to assign records to the rock category or the dance category. Death In Vegas aren't helping. On their debut album, Dead Elvis, Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes were the Chemical Brothers with less effective PR. But on The Contino Sessions, big beat is out and spiralling, two-chord, space-rock drones are in. The DJs are joined by a conventional live band line-up of drums, bass, funky organ and guitars, and some moonlighting vocalists pitch in, too. Bobby Gillespie lends his Dylan drawl to the zombie march of "Soul Auctioneer". Iggy Pop narrates a murderer's confession on "Aisha", before tailing off into Tasmanian Devil grunts. And the Jesus and Mary Chain's Jim Reid sneers his way through "Broken Little Sister". For Fearless and Holmes, coming as they do from the dance arena, these hypnotic hazes must seem a daring leap into the unknown. But if Death In Vegas had been a rock band all along, you wouldn't see what all the fuss was about. Anyone familiar with the Velvet Underground, Hawkwind, Spiritualized or, indeed, the Jesus & Mary Chain and Primal Scream will find The Contino Sessions uninspired in comparison.
NITIN SAWHNEY: BEYOND SKIN
Hot on the heels of Talvin Singh's Mercury Music Prize success comes the new album (the third) from fellow British-Asian composer Sawhney. Actually, "Beyond Skin" failed to be nominated for this year's prize, so its release was delayed in order to qualify for next year's, when, of course, it won't win because Singh already has. Whatever, it's a stunningly crafted set that, whether you categorise it as jazz, dance or pop (which is probably the most accurate description) is still capable of dumbfounding you with the almost embarrassing prodigality of its ideas and the broad range of musical means employed to convey them. You want contexts, you got 'em: nuclear bomb tests in India and Pakistan (with vocal samples of Prime Minister Vaipayee, and Ed Murrow reading a poem by J Robert Oppenheimer which quotes from the Bhagavad Gita); the experience of emigration from India to the UK (complete with the testaments of Sawhney's father and mother); plus, Hindu mythology and a bit of oceanography. The music takes in traditional Indian forms, flamenco, devotional Sufi vocals (from the nephews of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), hip- hop, rap and soul as well as filmic instrumentals and much much more. Perhaps it shouldn't work but it somehow does, and the result is almost entirely compelling. For all those who complain that this sort of music isn't about anything, Beyond Skin will make a devastating gift.
DJ VADIM: USSR - LIFE FROM THE OTHER SIDE (Ninja Tune)
"How many DJs do you know that's from Russia/ Hip-hop fanatic, label owner and sucha/ record collector, producer and jam promoter?" asks Blade, one of a dozen or so rappers who feature on USSR. Well, the only one I can think of is DJ Vadim, although he's been based in Surbiton since the age of three and I wasn't aware of his interest in jam. But he is a label owner (Jazz Fudge) and the size of his record collection is evident in the samples of exercise tapes, children's songs and those Seventies "experience the wonder of stereo sound" LPs you find in charity shops. The skill with which they are mixed is breathtaking, especially on the epic "How to Exercise the Turntable Record Player", a collaboration with the Scratch Perverts. Most of all, USSR proves Vadim's commitment to hip-hop, and he creates beats for the cream of the UK's emerging talent (and a couple of international names). The album is free of gangster rap's childish self-aggrandisement. When Starvin' Artists' Jupiter Jam and JAE are let loose on "The Pact (Super Rhymes)", and describe their rhymes as "deliberately E-flat/ dripping like English girls' piss flaps" - a line which almost makes me believe in censorship - they are followed by the brilliant Sarah Jones, the only female rapper here, wittily dissing the LL Cool Js and Shaggys of this world. Vadim holds the album together admirably and, although it occasionally veers off into the pretentious and the juvenile, it's a fresh and multi-faceted hip-hop showcase.
PLONE: FOR BEGINNER PIANO (Warp)
As its title suggests, the first album from the Birmingham-based electronic avant-gardists is not likely to win over the anyone-can-make-dance-music brigade. The simple melodic hooks, Casio keyboard rhythms and song titles like "On My Bus", "Be Rude To Your School" and "Summer Plays Out" initially seem fun but infantile. But repeated listenings are rewarded with subtlety and textures which reside beneath the fey tunes. Just as clowns can be scary, there's an air of menace in the Kraftwerk-style atmospherics of "The Greek Alphabet"; and there's melancholy in the down-tempo fairground-ride theme "Press A Key". For Beginner Piano is a chill-pill coated with large amounts of sugar.
MASSENET: WERTHER (RCA, 2 CDS)
Sometimes, when you see the cast list for a big new opera set, your instinct tells you not to bother. And sometimes your instinct is wrong - as mine was with this big new set from RCA. Werther may be a German story (Goethe) but in Massenet's hands it becomes a benchmark of French 19th-century lyricism. It needs good, light, flexible French voices, you might think. They're not obvious in the line-up here, which largely comprises Eastern or Central European artists, with a Mexican lead tenor and a Russian conductor. Warning bells break out all round. But play the discs and you'll be pleasantly astonished. Ramon Varga in the title role is full-voiced, but with sensitivity and taste - almost a second-generation Domingo. Vesselina Kasarova's Charlotte is adorable and heartfelt. Berlin's German Symphony Orchestra is led by the rising young conductor Vladimir Jurowski - known to audiences here for his impressive versatility at Wexford and the Royal Opera - who shapes the whole recording into something that feels right in style and idiom. It's no great compliment in my book to be called a Massenet authority (apart from Werther, Massenet has never caught my ear too keenly). But Jurowski has the makings of it. For someone somewhere, that must be good news.