Damien Rice 9




Every now and then an album comes along that seems to have discovered the secret passageway to your soul. Damien Rice's exquisite 2003 debut, O, was one of those albums, and so is this follow-up, 9, which, with its transcendent beauty and cathartic emotion, easily ranks as one of the best discs of the year. As with O, the power of 9 creeps up on you until, before you know it, you are completely absorbed. The first voice you hear isn't actually that of this Irish singer-songwriter, but the ethereal presence of O key player Lisa Hannigan, who once again takes the prize for Best Supporting Vocalist. Rice also continues to make evocative use of Vyvienne Long's cello in these artful arrangements, but rocks harder on charged-up cuts like "Rootless Tree." Through it all, though, his lyrics remain pensive and poignant. On "The Animals Were Gone," a breakup song that will break your heart, Rice is haunted by all that he has lost: "Waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup."

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Accidental Babies"

Small Town Girl



An endearing naïveté helped Kellie Pickler come in sixth on last season's American Idol, and the Albemarle, N.C., native still works her wide-eyed innocence on her debut, Small Town Girl. As she belts out on the spunky title track, "I'd rather ride in a Chevy truck than a Ferrari/Give me a cheeseburger, I ain't eatin' no calamari." It's notable that she wrote 5 of the 11 songs, though at times she falls into cliché (like "I just kicked you to the curb" on the otherwise enjoyable "Red High Heels"). She certainly doesn't have the bluesy vocal strength of Idol's other country girl, Carrie Underwood, but "I Wonder," a bittersweet ballad to the mother who left Pickler when she was 2, and "My Angel," a sentimental tribute to the grandmother who raised her, show that this small-town girl is someone the world should listen to.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Small Town Girl"

Jibbs feat. Jibbs


The latest emcee to come from the streets of St. Louis, 16-year-old Jibbs (born Jovan Campbell) follows in the footsteps of elders Nelly and Chingy with his radio-friendly debut, Jibbs feat. Jibbs. The disc's first hit, "Chain Hang Low," set to the kids' ditty "Turkey in the Straw," is a catchy street anthem, and Jibbs's fluid, assured rhyming style belies his young age. But, unfortunately, the album's lyrics never venture past PG-13 fare: cute girls, fast cars and cool clothes. Even the grittier, introspective "Hood" goes limp at the line "Hoppin' from place to place like a bunny kinda sunny." Still, this CD, which includes a nice sample of Janet Jackson's "Let's Wait Awhile" on the tender rap "Go Too Far," is a fun, if flawed, freshman effort.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Chain Hang Low"

Endless Wire



The harpsichord-like synthesizer flourish that opens this opus sounds like a lost treasure from Who's Next, one of the masterworks of the British rock gods. But the template for the grand design here is the 1969 rock opera Tommy. Ten of Endless's 21 tracks are devoted to what The Who's conductor Pete Townshend calls a "mini-opera," titled "Wire & Glass." Like Tommy, it is a cycle of songs about the rise and fall of a superstar. A vehicle for Townshend's fascinating if sometimes hard-to-follow metaphysical musings, Wire lacks the buzzers-and-bells imagery of Tommy's "Pinball Wizard." With The Who reduced to two now, many of the songs are gentler than fans might expect from the windmilling guitar hero Townshend and Valkyrie vocalist Roger Daltrey. Still, tracks like "Fragments of Fragments," with its swirling "Baba O'Riley"-like synths, "Mirror Door" and "We Got a Hit" are almost as meaty, beaty and bouncy as true Who classics.

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Boys and Girls in America



Whether he's singing about a random make-out session on "Chillout Tent" or a drug-addicted girlfriend who always wins at the racetrack on "Chips Ahoy!," The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn has established himself as one of the indie scene's standout narrators. His band of Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis thirtysomethings chronicles the lives of the Twin Cities' young adults with the musical style of Born to Run-era Springsteen (thanks largely to keyboardist Franz Nicolay). Boys and Girls is a stellar rock record that will let grown-ups channel their teenage years—and help the kids get through theirs.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Chips Ahoy!"



Two years after his platinum-selling debut, Trouble, spawned the hit jailhouse lament "Locked Up," Senegalese-born Akon returns with the equally arresting Konvicted, a mix of nimble, hard-knock tales and racy ballads. Strongest are club cuts such as the chart-topper "Smack That," featuring Eminem, and "I Wanna Love You." But his smooth, mournful tone, stirring in the heartfelt ode "Mama Africa," falters on whiny slow jams like "Never Took the Time."

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Pretty Little Stranger


After embracing classic soul and R&B on her 2002 covers project How Sweet It Is, Osborne headed down to Nashville to make what she calls her "version of a country record." While the half-original, half-remakes album often treads the line between simplicity and lethargy, several cuts, like the upbeat "Who Divided" and her stirring version of the Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace," are worth a listen.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Who Divided"

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Rice isn't the only male singer-songwriter providing a refreshing alternative to the John Mayers and James Blunts of the world in 2006. On his latest album, Post-War (left), indie hero Ward makes alt-folk that puts the cool back in the coffeehouse.

EMINEM rocks the mike with 50 Cent and Lloyd Banks on the head-banger "You Don't Know," from Eminem Presents: The Re-Up, out Dec. 5. At music.aol.com.

GWEN STEFANI (right) shows off some first-rate yodeling skills on the funky "Wind It Up," from her second solo album, The Sweet Escape, due Dec. 5. At itunes.com.

INCUBUS delivers a hard-driving yet romantic gem with "Anna Molly," from the alt-rock quintet's new album Light Grenades, out Nov. 28. At musicstore.connect.com.

JOHN MELLENCAMP gets political with the infectious, country-tinged "Our Country," from his 21st studio album, Freedom Road, due Jan. 30. At buymusic.com.

Going acoustic on his new Spanish-language live CD and DVD Ricky Martin Unplugged, the singer, 34, has mellowed since livin' la vida loca. But here he weighs in on the Latin albums that still get him fired up.

MIGUEL BOSE, BAJO EL SIGNO DE CAIN One of the most amazing productions ever, not just for Spanish. The [environmentally conscious] message that comes with it is fantastic.

CHAMBAO, ENDORFINAS EN LA MENTE It's about hope. It's chill-out flamenco. There's a lot of passion in Gypsy sounds. I've always been attracted to that.

RUBEN BLADES, BUSCANDO AMERICA One of those salsa albums that affected us all. It was pure honesty, street poetry—and millions of people related. It was a fantastic way to educate the world on what Latinos are made of.

SUBA, SAO PAULO CONFESSIONS It's Portuguese and a really cool way to enter the universe of Brazilian music.

ROBI DRACO ROSA, VAGABUNDO A work of art. He connects the album song by song as if it were a theatrical play. It's amazing.