"It's definitely been an experimental process," Alicia Keys says of recording her new album, As I Am (J Records). "I've been able to use the Wurlitzer, the harpsichord, the Mellotron, taking all these old sounds and making them fresh." The nine-time Grammy winner's appetite for experimentation has been fueled by an eclectic soundtrack ("I listen to a lot of different kinds of music—depending on the day") and a few epiphanies. "With life comes growth," she says in her pool-of-cool-water voice, "and I've had a helluva lot of growth."
Bigelf, Closer to Doom (Third Hole): "Some of the newer things I've been checking out are a little bit off the beaten path. Bigelf is a bit of Led Zepplin, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles—just this crazy mix of sounds. I really like discovering people who are a little less discovered."
Nina Simone, How It Feels to Be Free (Hear Music/BMG): "She is one of the few people who can capture the emotion of the world and put it in a song. She is honest—brutually honest—and the piano playing is incredible I listen to 'Sinnerman' when I'm looking for energy, but a lot of Nina Simone I listen to when I'm feeling mellow; at dusk, she's perfect."
White Stripes, Elephant (V2): "I love the way they're so raw, very simple, direct: drums, guitar, and voice—that's it. That's my favorite thing about them—the way they utilize less and make it more. They are so comfortable in their own skin.
Oumou Sangare, Oumou (World Circuit): "She's from Mali. This record is very inspiring—so many sounds reflecting instruments that you're familiar with but are just a bit different. Her voice is captivating; even though I can't understand what she's saying, I understand what she's saying."