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Merle Haggard

I Am What I Am

Vanguard

Buy if you like: Bob Wills, Willie Nelson

Yes, Merle Haggard is what he is: a living legend, the Sinatra of country music. But he's far from an old shadow of former greatness resting on his reputation. With a voice still mellifluous, an ability to write new classics-in-waiting and a sterling set of backing musicians, he continues to be the guy anyone who doesn't "get" country needs to hear. His duet with his wife, Theresa, on "Live and Love Always" jumps with energy, and "We're Falling in Love Again" is just sweet. "The Road to My Heart" is a western swing/jazz delight (and his shout-out to Louis Armstrong is great). In "Bad Actor," he plumbs the opposite end of love's spectrum. Haggard's clearly never been afraid to face the depths of his life, as well as the triumphs; both cynic and optimist, he lays it all out here. Even if he does think "a pig is just ham," he's still able to charm. — Lynne Margolis

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Big Audio Dynamite

This Is Big Audio Dynamite: Legacy Edition

Columbia/Legacy

Buy if you like: The Clash, Massive Attack

When Mick Jones emerged with his new band, Big Audio Dynamite, a year after his departure from the Clash, it was clear he was on a far different musical path. As much as it stung to see its punk predecessor's demise, this new venture made the split with Joe Strummer understandable. "This Is Big Audio Dynamite" picks up where more groove-driven Clash tracks like "The Magnificent Seven" and "This Is Radio Clash" left off, then goes deeper into a dance/rock realm. Songs like "E=MC2," "Medicine Show" and "Sudden Impact" are all about big beats, processed instrumentation and huge hooks. With a second disc of remixes and rarities — the laid-back take on "Medicine Show" and more rap-inflected version of "The Bottom Line" are worth hearing — this deluxe reissue still shines more than 25 years after its initial release. — Alan Sculley

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Various Artists

Stax Number Ones

Stax Records

Buy if you like: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave

From 1962 to 1974, Stax Records was virtually unstoppable. This collection of No. 1 R&B hits showcases the sounds that came out of a drafty old Memphis movie theater and helped integrate a nation. The 15-song set opens with Booker T. & the M.G.'s "Green Onions," one of the greatest instrumentals of our time, delivered with the ease of a sleepwalker. Along came "Hold On I'm Coming," "Knock on Wood" and "Soul Man," putting an irresistible groove into the hearts of all who heard. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Otis Redding's poignant "The Dock of the Bay" conveyed the country's darkened mood. Still, the hits kept flowing, thanks to artists like Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers. They may not have had the same cross-cultural impact as their predecessors, but there's no denying their power to move us. — Bill Bentley

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