“Cole World: The Sideline Story”

Although North Carolina MC J. Cole signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label more than two years ago, he is only now releasing his official debut, “Cole World: The Sideline Story.”

In the interim, Cole (who is 26 in human years, meaning he’s 80 in hip-hop time) dropped several mix tapes’ worth of material from which several tracks have been recycled, including the sleepy “In the Morning,” which features an even sleepier Drake.

Cole is a deft rapper, clever but not obsessed with his own cleverness, interested in au courant beats but not fixated on them. There’s nothing particularly dramatic about his debut — it’s simply a better version of albums that get made all the time. Cole makes good songs almost great, and makes filler (of which there isn’t much, although the oppressively well-meaning baby-daddy dirge “Lost Ones” comes to mind) tolerable.

No Highly Anticipated Debut would be complete without at least one I’m-famous-now-and-you’re-still-not track, and “Cole World” has two, both of them pretty great. Jay-Z guests on, but does not own, the slinky dub-n’-bass-fest “Mr. Nice Watch,” on which Cole, who raps “like it’s Christmas Eve,” scoffs at those who would tweet negatively about him (talk about a first-world problem).

On “Nobody’s Perfect,” Cole, assisted by a crooning Missy Elliott, discusses partying with Hova and explains his decision to pursue only girls who look like Rihanna (“I’m talking tens and better”), all made possible by his career, which is “heating up like that leftover lasagna.” It almost doesn’t sound like a boast. But it is.

— Allison Stewart

Recommended Tracks: “Nobody’s Perfect,” “Mr. Nice Watch,” “Lights Please”


“Lady and Gentlemen”

It’s not unusual for a singer of one gender to personalize a song popularized by a performer of the opposite gender. On her 10th studio album, “Lady & Gentlemen,” country singer LeAnn Rimes takes the concept even further, reinterpreting nearly an entire album’s worth of male-identified hits from a female perspective. It’s a nervy undertaking given the classic nature of the material, but one that she consistently pulls off with imagination and aplomb.

She gets things started by transforming John Anderson’s “Swingin’ ” into a Bakersfield-style romp replete with breakneck Telecaster solos and bluesy barbs of steel guitar. On Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” she slackens the tempo and employs an atmospheric arrangement suggestive of Rosanne Cash at her ruminative best. For Merle Travis’s coal-mining classic “Sixteen Tons,” a No. 1 country and pop hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, she adopts a jazzy, finger-popping approach reminiscent of vintage Peggy Lee.

As might be expected from someone who had her breakthrough hit with the Patsy Cline-style weeper “Blue” (reprised here as a gutbucket shuffle), Rimes sounds completely at home on the ballads, including the daunting likes of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Her lean, bluesy remake of co-producer Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name” is another bold move. But even better is her steel guitar-steeped take of Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” a gorgeous vehicle for the husky mix of sensuality and vulnerability in Rimes’s voice when she reaches down into the lower registers.

— Bill Friskics-Warren

Recommended Tracks: “Swingin’,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”


“The Hunter”

Mastodon is nominally a metal band, but with each successive outing the Georgia quartet stomps farther away from that specific label. After a trilogy of progressively more progressive concept albums, “The Hunter” does away with clunky big ideas and shape-shifting epics, resulting in the band’s most efficient and instantly appealing album.

As if to confirm the band’s metal bona fides, the first words on “The Hunter” are vocalist Troy Sanders growling, “I burned out my eyes / I cut off my tongue,” over the kind of robust riff on which the band has built its reputation on. When Brann Dailor’s double kick drum blasts the song into hyperspeed, it’s clear that Mastodon is still plenty capable of full-force mayhem. “Curl of the Burl” and “Spectrelight” are other examples of the band cranking into overdrive — the former gliding on a fierce groove while the latter is one surge after another, packing a handful of peaks into a tight three minutes.

But the title track is more representative of Mastodon’s approach on its fifth album. Instead of a churning riff, we hear twinkling notes specked with echo and reverb, creating a slow-burner that’s more ballad than bludgeon. The band has always had a wide sonic palette and now adds some emotional heft. “The Hunter” is not dissimilar to “Unforgiven” or “Black Hole Sun,” songs that helped launch Metallica and Soundgarden, respectively, to mega-stardom.

Mastodon isn’t quite at that level yet — the band is still too willfully weird. The highlight of “The Hunter” is “Creature Lives,” which features lyrics about . . . a swamp creature. The song also features majestic backing vocals and a triumphant, ascending guitar riff that’s sure to get some non-metalheads indulging in just a bit of headbanging.

— David Malitz

Recommended Tracks: “Creature Lives,” “The Hunter,” “Curl of the Burl”