Clay Walker (Giant)

Talk about rolling with a punch. Since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996, Walker has hardly broken stride. The Beaumont, Texas, native—who has recorded 10 No. 1 singles—has been philosophical about his affliction. "There are so many people who have so many worse things wrong with them," he has said, "my little thing is like a scratch on the arm."

Certainly this, his fifth studio album, displays no ill effects. His warm voice is still true and steady, and he is more energetic and musically upbeat than ever before. Walker and his new producer, Doug Johnson, have collected a set of 11 songs that display Walker's wide-roaming range. "Woman Thing," cowritten by Tracy Lawrence, is an infectious tune with a theme universal enough to make it a country standard, and "The Chain of Love" is a story song with a nice, do-unto-others moral. When Walker is not philosophizing, he swings into a party mood on the jaunty, Latin-flavored title tune.

Bottom Line: Looking at life from both sides now

Christina Aguilera (RCA)

On the heels of Britney Spears's precocious success comes a new pop Lolita. Like her predecessor, Aguilera was a member of TV's Mickey Mouse Club who has scored a No. 1 hit with her debut single, "Genie in a Bottle." But unlike Spears, Aguilera—an 18-year-old thrush from Pittsburgh who appeared on the soundtrack of Disney's Mulan singing "Reflection" (which is included here)—has been embraced by critics, who liken her powerful vocal style to Mariah Carey's. The comparison, while accurate, is nothing to crow about. Both are fond of great cascading melismas that have the cumulative effect of caterwauling. While Aguilera's vocal acrobatics are impressive, she uses her potent pipes to serve up clichéd lyric clangers like "I turn to you for the strength to be strong/ For the will to carry on." That double-talk, from "I Turn to You," was written by the ubiquitous Diane Warren, who should be punished for putting such dreck in the poor child's mouth. Similarly, a tag team of more than a dozen producers have plunged Aguilera's voice into watery R&B arrangements featuring synthesized drumbeats that patter as monotonously as dripping faucets. Perhaps aware that more is not necessarily better, Aguilera is performing on this summer's Lilith Fair tour accompanied only by piano.

Bottom Line: Talented young singer adrift in sap

Dixie Chicks (Monument)

Album of the week

Three cute, cookie-cutter blondes, the Dixie Chicks look like poster girls for the new, pop-flavored Nashville sound. Now the release of this second album while their 1997 debut, Wide Open Spaces, still hovers near the top of the country charts, prompts speculation that the glam trio is aiming at a Shania-like crossover success. Happily, it ain't so. Just as full of down-home Texas twang as their first, Fly is a sophomore album that soars along on Martie Seidel's fiddling and sister Emily Robison's (née Erwin) banjo picking. But it is honky-tonk angel Natalie Maines whose lead vocals give the Dixie Chicks sound its saloon-door swing. Among the highlights here is "Cowboy Take Me Away," a tune Seidel cowrote and the Chicks sang at Emily's May wedding to singer Charlie Robison.

Bottom Line: Neither pop nor corn, just deep-fried country with lots of snap

Mary J. Blige (MCA)

With her husky, often raw, always richly expressive voice, Blige brings soulful passion to a genre—modern R&B—that, popular as it is, is more often imbued with fabricated emotion and formulaic musical arrangements. A singer-songwriter who made her debut in 1992 with What's the 411?, an album that wed R&B's more traditional vocal style to rap's hip-hop beats, Blige makes up for any technical failings—her voice sometimes goes a bit flat—with heart-on-her-sleeve intensity. On this wonderful collection (her fifth album), Blige proves herself the equal of the Queen of Soul in a duet with Aretha Franklin on the you-go-girl ballad "Don't Waste Your Time." On "Not Looking," a searing ballad about fickle lovers, she duets with her ex-boyfriend K-Ci Hailey (of K-Ci & Jojo). "Deep Inside" finds Blige ruing the price of fame. The tune, based on the piano riff from Elton John's "Benny and the Jets," features John himself on keyboards. Throughout, Mary unfolds like a road map of the singer's own emotional journeys.

Bottom Line: Another jewel in a soul royal's crown

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Amy Linden.