Luther Vandross (J)

Album of the week
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Luther Vandross could sing the phone book and make it sound like pure poetry, but even he hasn't been able to rescue the lackluster material he has been saddled with in recent years. With his new disc, though, Vandross has finally come up with a collection of songs worthy of his silky, elastic tenor.

Sounding as robust as ever despite having dropped 120 lbs. since his last album, 1998's I Know, Vandross works his seductive spells on sensitive slow jams such as "Like I'm Invisible," "Love Forgot" and the shattering "Hearts Get Broken All the Time (But the Problem Is, This Time It's Mine)." And he puts his inimitable mark on sophisticated covers of such 1960s tunes as Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now" and Dionne Warwick's "Are You There."

Bottom Line: Vintage Vandross

Melissa Etheridge (Island)

Wild hoarseness couldn't drag Melissa Etheridge away from her customary stentorian roar, but it can be exhausting to listen to. Her declarations of unwanted independence—the singer-strummer parted company last year with her partner of 12 years, Julie Cypher—come in a voice so husky, it could put Brillo out of business.

On this album of frequently wrenching breakup tunes, in which nearly every track is infused with why-did-she-have-to-go bewilderment, Etheridge struggles to match Bob Dylan's thesaurus of pain Blood on the Tracks. But the thundering vocals undercut the poignancy of such lyrics as "Answer my prayer/And answer the phone" from "Lover Please." Better are "The Prison," on which she murmurs that a breakup is like lockup, and the upbeat, synthesizer-sweetened single "I Want to Be in Love," which yearns with surprising tenderness, "In front of total strangers won't you kiss me/Flowers for no reason but you miss me." It has evidently been rough going for Etheridge, but she musters hope for the finale, "Heal Me," in which she turns to Christian imagery to hint that she has a newfound faith: "Ain't it crazy/For a moment there/This felt just like dying/But now I see that something inside is coming alive...I am a witness to my resurrection."

Bottom Line: Raw and revealing

St. Lunatics (Universal)

"I've never seen girls run so fast in high heels," one observer noted of the squealing mob that greeted this rakish hip-hop act at a recent appearance in St. Louis, their hometown. Front man Nelly (né Cornell Haynes Jr.) is hotter than July with the current single "Ride Wit Me" and his 6 million-selling debut solo album, Country Grammar, but he hasn't forgotten his brothers (literally in one case: The disc is named for younger half sibling and Lunatic-on-leave City Spud, born Lavell Webb, who is in prison in St. Louis).

Like Country Grammar, Free City brims with a bass-driven, syncopated shake that celebrates girls, cars, getting paid and living la vida Midwest—as in the single "Midwest Swing," in which Nelly declares, "What you think we live on a farm N——r be for real/We got Benz, Rovers and Jags, Hummers and Devilles." And the disc has so many references to the Gateway City that the band is a virtual hip-hop chamber of commerce. Deep thinkers these guys ain't, but could Einstein party like this? Like Mark McGwire, St. Lunatics get people out of their chairs.

Bottom Line: Mo hits from Missouri

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Amy Linden.