Rod Stewart (Atlantic)

Rod may have taken the title of his last CD, 1998's When We Were the New Boys, a tad too literally, even covering the Oasis ode to youthful excess "Cigarettes & Alcohol." Now 56 and marking the 30th anniversary of his first No. 1 hit, "Maggie Mae," the onetime cock of the rock walk isn't quite ready for assisted living. But he has wisely curtailed the rusting rooster act in favor of the wistful but gritty balladry that made "Maggie" ageless. Here Rod hearkens back to the rasping, emotion-packed crooning style of the Motown, R&B and soul stars of the '60s that he has long emulated. Separating himself from the soundalike R&B virtuosos who rule the pop charts with lyrically challenged tunes, Rod delivers a satchel full of imagery-rich, slow-dance gems like "Charlie Parker Loves Me," Curtis Mayfield's gorgeous "It Was Love That We Needed" and Macy Gray's "Smitten," a yearning love song on which he offers a nice mimic of Gray's own sandpapery lilt.

Bottom Line: He wears the years well

Pru (Capitol)

Album of the week

The emergence of the female R&B singer-songwriter in recent years has been one of the most encouraging developments in music. From Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill to Angie Stone and Jill Scott, these alternative sisters have updated classic soul stylings with elements of hip-hop, folk, jazz and world beat. Keeping this girl thing going is stunning Houston native Pru (full name: Pru Renfro) with her self-titled debut, a collection of artful, almost poetic ruminations on love.

Though not as idiosyncratically unique as Badu nor as philosophical as Hill, she makes fetching use of her sexy, husky alto here. Pru craftily nods to the past on "Candles" and "What They Gone Do?" which evoke Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears" and Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair," respectively. And she even pulls off a funkified remake of Sade's "Smooth Operator." But such breezy mid-tempo confections as "183 Miles," "Can't Compare Your Love" and "Reason Why" suggest that Pru may be ready to leave her own distinctive mark.

Bottom Line: Pru positive

Fredro Starr (In the Paint/Koch)

Rapper-turned-teen-screen-heartthrob Starr broke in with the bombastic Queens hip-hop act Onyx. Since the group's 1995 hiatus Starr has parlayed his undeniable charisma into an acting career with a recurring role on the hit series Moesha as the love interest of another music-tube crossover star, Brandy. And now, after small supporting roles in films like Clockers and Strapped, Starr has struck box office gold as a costar in the current teen smash Save the Last Dance. (His take here on Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" also appears on the hit soundtrack.) Unfortunately Starr's debut solo CD has no such crossover charm. Instead, this profanity-laced and often mean-spirited disc is filled with B-grade gangsta rap extolling the gun-toting thug life.

Bottom Line: More heat than light

Everclear (Capitol)

Tough times breed good rock music, which may make Everclear's new album pretty darn timely. The darker, noisier companion to last year's Songs from an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile, this is the perfect soundtrack to a stagnant economy. When lead singer and songwriter Art Alexakis chimes in on the Beach Boys-like chorus of "Slide," you can almost hear the stock market plunging along with the nattering guitars. But Alexakis is not the punk pessimist he sometimes claims to be. Sure, a title like "When It All Goes Wrong Again" isn't exactly sunny, but much of the music is exhilarating; Everclear's message is one of recovery and redemption. What's bad about that?

Bottom Line: Hard rockers in a reflective mood

Read Chuck Arnold's Music Buzz column at www.people.com or AOL (Keyword: People)

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Alec Foege.