Backstreet Boys (Jive)

With its sticky sweet sentiments and assembly line songwriting, much of this album sounds like an updated, techno-kissed copy of a New Kids on the Block CD from 10 years ago. But there is one thing separating the Boys from the Kids: These lads can sing (whereas the more vocally challenged New Kids rarely spotlighted single voices and relied on group sing-alongs to hide the limitations of individuals). Like other success-by-the-numbers groups, neither Kevin Richardson, 27, Howard Dorough, 25, Alexander James McLean, 21, Brian Littrell, 24, nor Nick Carter, 19, play instruments on their album. But the Boys do possess distinctive voices, and here, as in their concerts, they are adept at vocal interplay, creating harmonic magic as those voices soar and intertwine. They could make a Sears catalog sound sweet.

Problem is, that's pretty much what they do in this schmaltzy collection of yearning ballads and formulaic dance numbers. No matter the tempo, the Boys eagerly vent their feelings of undying love, whether it's for a distant girlfriend, their many fans ("Yeah, every time we're down/ You can make it right," they croon in "Larger Than Life") or even Mom ("The Perfect Fan").

Bottom Line: Pure goo

Diana Ross (Motown)

Ever since her sequin-gowned days with the Supremes in the 1960s, Diana Ross has reigned as the glammest of pop stars. All of today's divas, from Whitney Houston to Mariah Carey, owe their brilliantly coutured careers in part to soul music's original class act.

What a relief, then, to find the queen of sheen emerging again with an album that melds her enduring style with fresh substance. Employing a bevy of top songwriting talent, including Diane Warren of "How Do I Live" fame, Ross succeeds in celebrating pop's recent developments without abandoning her strong R&B roots. On the ballad "Love Is All That Matters" (from her recent acting comeback, the TV movie Double Platinum that aired last month) she warbles at her silky, inspirational best. But that famously supple voice also serves her well when tackling hip-hoppier fare such as "Gotta Be Free," a dance track as funky as the latest Janet Jackson cut. For more than 30 years, Ross has lured fans with her impeccable taste. Looks like she'll be keeping them.

Bottom Line: Motown original dawns again

Harry Connick Jr. (Columbia)

Album of the week

True, this album raises the same question that has shadowed Connick ever since Harry met stardom in the 1980s: Why buy an album that sounds so much like Frank Sinatra's work with Count Basie and Nelson Riddle when you can still get the originals on CD? First, the obvious answer: Connick, the out-of-time crooner and big-band leader, is alive and swinging while his heroes, sadly, are not. Then there is this: The man can write. His compositions here, including "Nowhere with Love" and "Easy for You to Say," would have shone in Sinatra's songbook at the Paramount more than half a century ago. Connick boldly alternates his own tunes with gems by Cole Porter ("Love for Sale") and Irving Berlin ("Change Partners"), a risky trick that he pulls off nicely. And when he strikes up his 16-piece group, he provides what many other would-be Basies have not: a true big-band sound.

Bottom Line: Junior does Sinatra proud

Joe Diffie (Epic)

Diffie doesn't have the mellowest voice in Nashville. Or the biggest hat, the scootiest boots or the hunkiest grin. But at 40, he does have a gritty voice, a sturdy, macho (without being obnoxious) style and a slew of No. 1 country hits on his résumé.

The high point of this album is "Don't Our Love Look Natural," a classically clever country tune (comparing a dead relationship to a dead body) by Nashville veterans Don Cook and Harlan Howard. Diffie, a onetime Oklahoma iron-foundry worker, also contributes to the writing (Tim McGraw, Conway Twitty and Charley Pride, among others, have recorded his songs over the years) and gets cowriting credit for four of the CD's pungent, love-gone-wrong cuts. As a performer, he sings with energy and is ably backed by the guitars of Brent Mason, Mark Casstevens and pedal-steelman Paul Franklin. Diffie has mastered the art of knowing what he does well, so what he doesn't do hardly matters

Bottom Line: Angst-ridden songs in the good ol' boy tradition

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Alec Foege,
  • Ralph Novak.