Sam's Town
REVIEWED BY CHUCK ARNOLD
CRITIC'S CHOICE
ALT-ROCK

I'm sick of all my judges, so scared of letting me shine," sings frontman Brandon Flowers on the title-track opener of The Killers' ambitious second album. It would seem that even after the multiplatinum success of their 2004 debut, Hot Fuss—it produced hits like "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside," and made them the national poster boys for neo-new wave—these dudes have something to prove. And, in the high-rolling spirit of their hometown of Las Vegas, they raise the stakes considerably here, going for a bigger, more expansive sound that ventures into the arena-rock realm of acts like U2, Queen and Bruce Springsteen. The Boss, in particular, is a major influence on Sam's Town. "When You Were Young," the awesome, anthemic first single, is a direct homage to "Born to Run," the guitars cranked up as they go "burning down the highway skyline." While the Killers flex their newfound muscle and pump up the grandeur, they haven't completely deserted neo-new wave: Melancholy-streaked cuts like "For Reasons Unknown" still show their eyeliner running.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "When You Were Young"

The Dutchess
R&B-POP

It's no surprise that some tracks on Fergie's inevitable solo debut sound like they could be Black Eyed Peas songs. In fact, the No. 1 single "London Bridge," with its bumping groove and sexually teasing lyric, could have come from the same pod as last year's Peas hit "My Humps." The Dutchess is also the first release on Peas leader will.i.am's new label, and in addition to producing about half of the album, he pops up on a couple of cuts (including the electro opener "Fergalicious"). While Fergie struggles to shape her solo identity—at times she wants to be Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Pink—there's no denying the hip-pop charms of tracks like the Ludacris-assisted "Glamorous" and the Little Richard-sampling "Clumsy."

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Clumsy"

Before Me
REVIEWED BY V.R. PETERSON
JAZZ

If Gladys Knight's soul-drenched appearance on the premiere of FOX's Celebrity Duets left you wanting more, here she is again—with a twist. No R&B, no Pips, just a dozen jazz standards usually associated with vocalists like Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and other Knight forebears. These beguiling interpretations both honor and update the past. Knight's phrasings, ever melodic, often reveal her gospel roots, as on Duke Ellington's beautiful hymn "Come Sunday." At the same time, that familiar, warm voice calms the blunt emotions in these timeless songs about lovers contented, conflicted and confused. From her swinging, bluesy handling of Holiday's "God Bless the Child" to the positive spin on the string-infused heartache in the Washington favorite "This Bitter Earth," Knight's artistry more than measures up to these standards.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "God Bless the Child"

Hoodstar
RAP

When Chingy made his debut with 2003's double-platinum Jackpot, featuring the hit "Right Thurr," he demonstrated beyond a doubt that there was more to St. Louis rap than Nelly. His second album, 2004's PowerBallin', also went platinum, and now his third, Hoodstar, is likely to follow suit. It has already spawned a No. 1 R&B single, "Pullin' Me Back," a soulful slow jam featuring singer Tyrese that tugs on all the right heartstrings, proving that thugs need love too.

Unfortunately, the rest of Hoodstar is less than stellar. It demonstrates Chingy's limitations as a lyricist—he's pretty much stuck on partying ("Club Gettin' Crowded"), girls ("Dem Jeans") and sneakers ("Brand New Kicks")—and lacks state-of-the-street beats. There's only so far he can get just rolling his r's.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Pullin' Me Back"

The Captain & the Kid
POP

While fans still flock to his shows for the oldies, Elton John has been quietly enjoying a creative resurgence in recent years. After 2001's Songs from the West Coast and 2004's Peachtree Road, he continues his winning streak with The Captain & the Kid, which is designed as a sequel to his 1975 classic Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. With longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin serving as his first mate, John navigates through richly melodic waters, from boogies like "Just Like Noah's Ark" to ballads like "Blues Never Fade Away."

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way (NYC)"

Face the Promise
REVIEWED BY STEVE DOUGHERTY
ROCK

It's been more than 10 years since his last studio album. But it doesn't sound like Bob Seger has been resting contentedly on his "Like a Rock" royalties. On his new CD, the 61-year-old seems as restless, mournful, angry and exuberant as he did when he released his masterful Night Moves 30 years ago. And his voice hasn't lost a whit of its husky power. Recorded in Nashville, the disc, while mining the rich vein between genres, sounds a lot more rock than country. Although he occasionally exhibits his old weakness for bombast, Seger is at his best on the elegiac "The Long Goodbye," about a family member suffering from Alzheimer's, and "No More," an unflinching antiwar song.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "No More"

Mario Vazquez
REVIEWED BY ERICKA SÓUTER
POP

Before he bowed out of the American Idol finals last year for personal reasons, Mario Vazquez was one of the favorites to win it all, with his smooth croon and dimpled charm. Still, the Bronx-born singer ended up getting signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records, the same label as last year's Idol champ Carrie Underwood. The first two cuts on his self-titled debut—the hip-hop-tinged love song "Gallery," cowritten by Ne-Yo, and the cool groove "I Bet"—display plenty of heartthrob appeal. Not so winning, however, is his attempt to dabble in every genre: The reggae-flecked "4 the One" and faux rap "Fired Up" amount to forgettable filler. But his many supple-voiced ballads are proof that Vazquez is still worthy of a little idol worship.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Gallery"

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The Killers hitch their latest to the epic rock of 1975's Born to Run (left), Springsteen's greatest triumph. From the harmonica intro of "Thunder Road" to the sweeping finale of "Jungleland," the disc (rereleased last year in a deluxe 30th-anniversary edition) still never fails to rev up tramps like us.

The 25-year-old hotel heiress and reality-show star released her dance-pop debut, Paris, in August.

JAMES BLUNT, "YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL" I love his music. I think he's an amazing writer.

JACK JOHNSON, "BETTER TOGETHER" He just has a passion, and he's such a real person. I met him in London and he was really nice.

MADONNA, "HUNG UP" I love Madonna. I really look up to her. She's incredible.

GWEN STEFANI, "HOLLABACK GIRL"/"RICH GIRL" I just think she has such a great style. Her music is fun and different. And she has this sexy, cool voice.