Femi Anikulapo-Kuti (MCA)

Album of the week

If the surname sounds familiar, it's because the 37-year-old Femi is the son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the revolutionary Nigerian musician and political force who pioneered Afro-Beat in the 1970s and who died of complications from AIDS in 1997 at age 58. Like his late father, Femi marries the muscular grooves of James Brown-style funk to the substantial beats of African music. While the hypnotic and rhythmic forays that Fela embarked upon often clocked in at 20 minutes plus, Femi's path is more direct: His sturdy, multilayered songs are shorter and more poplike. Femi, like Dad, also plays saxophone and uses his songs to address such weighty topics as political oppression and the struggle for human rights. That he does so while still getting his groove on would make his pop proud.

Bottom Line: Son of a legend lives up to it

Jessica Simpson (Columbia)

Blonde, pouty-lipped and impossibly cute, Jessica Simpson is as tough to pick out of a lineup of lookalike teenage songbirds as her breathless hit "I Wanna Love You Forever" is difficult to differentiate from the rest of Top 40 radio. So far, Simpson's debut album hasn't scored the same success as those of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. But rest assured there are more cookies like "I Wanna" in Simpson's cutter. One ditty, titled "Where Are You," is a duet with 98° boy-toy Nick Lachey, Simpson's real-life squeeze. Unlike her peers the 19-year-old Simpson is not a former member of Disney's Mickey Mouse Club. She auditioned for the show at age 12 but didn't make the cut. Also setting her apart from the teen pop pack is Simpson's track record as a performer on the Christian music circuit. Here, she sounds downright worldly singing "Heart of Innocence"—a devotional tune she wrote extolling the virtues of premarital abstinence—in a low, sexy croon.

Bottom Line: Teen yearnings set to a watery R&B beat

Michael Penn (Epic)

Too bad Penn wasn't born in time to bloom during the 1970s. In that decade, a golden age for singer-songwriters, solo performers like Jackson Browne scored pop hits with songs that rode catchy melodies to convey complex moods and messages. Penn, actor Sean's brother, practices similar craftsmanship, but at 41, he is a composer who has enjoyed minimal market share and airplay. That may change with this, his fourth album, on which Penn gives his witty songs a bright, hook-bristling pop polish. With backing vocals by his wife, Aimee Mann, and brother actor Christopher, Penn fills his disc with soaring harmonies, time signature changes and studio sleights of hand worthy of the all-time pop radio champs who inspired him—the Beatles.

Bottom Line: Health food for the melody-starved

Black 47 (Shanachie)

These Manhattan Irish-pub rockers are back with another cycle of front man Larry Kirwan's angry, mournful and hilarious drinking songs. Founded by Kirwan, former New York City cop Chris Byrne and a group of their fellow Irish expatriate pals in 1989, the band has won a rabid and rowdy cult following with a hybrid sound that intertwines Celtic music (provided by Byrne's tin whistles and uilleann pipes) with a pounding punk-rock guitar attack. Kirwan, who writes plays and poetry when he's not strumming his guitar onstage, shouts his story songs over the mix. On tunes like "Bobby Kennedy," he offers listeners bits of Irish-American oral history. And on a ribald ditty about James Joyce, he sends up a nicely wrought bit of blarney.

Bottom Line: Sing along, drink along and be merry

REEL LIFE VOL 1, MUSIC FROM HOLLYWOOD: A COLLECTION OF WILD COLONIALS FILM MUSIC Wild Colonials (Chromatic) Indie film gems warbled by the L.A. alternative rocker Angela McCluskey (with Cyndi Lauper and Dr. John).

WORKING CLASSICAL Paul McCartney (EMI) Sir Paul kicks out the jams with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Loma Mar Quartet performing his love songs for his late wife, Linda, as lovely orchestral pieces.

NUMBER 447 Marshall Crenshaw (Razor & Tie) To little fanfare (and minuscule sales) rock's now middle-aged boy wonder released this eclectic CD of terrific tunes last fall. It well deserves 2000 plays.

Laurie Berkener

Singer Laurie Berkener is such a popular act at kiddie birthday parties around New York City that parents need to book her months in advance. But for one mother she made an exception. "Madonna was dancing her butt off," she says of the party that the Material Mom threw for daughter Lourdes's 3rd birthday last October in Manhattan. "I grew up watching Madonna, and here I am, playing my songs, and she's dancing!"

A frustrated rock star, Berkener, 30, who lives in Manhattan with husband Brian, 32, a computer programmer (no children yet), began writing kids' songs in 1992 to pay the rent. Now with the release of her third CD, Victor Vito, the rock stars are her fans. At a party last December for Sting's son Giacomo, 4, one parent asked, "Did you see Bruce [Springsteen]? He was really into it, man!' "

  • Contributors:
  • Amy Linden,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Sona Charaipotra.