Britney Spears (Jive)

Hearing Britney Spears purr "Get it, get it" over the slinky groove of "I'm a Slave 4 U"—a song that would have been perfect for the soundtrack to an erotic film—must make Mickey Mouse cover his ears in horror. But having graduated from The Mickey Mouse Club in 1994, Spears has been steadily shedding that goody-goody image since making her debut with 1999's multiplatinum...Baby One More Time.

On her new self-titled album, the singer, who turns 20 on Dec. 2, throws a few curves at those expecting nothing but the bubblegum teen pop that has since invaded radio. Be sides "Slave," edgier cuts include "Lonely," which juxtaposes metal guitar and a percolating hip-hop beat, and the bass-heavy dance jam "Boys," on which Spears raps breathlessly with her still-girlish voice. And her collaboration with boyfriend Justin Timberlake (of 'N Sync fame)—who co-wrote and coproduced "What It's Like to Be Me," in addition to providing background vocals—is a soulful surprise. Elsewhere she returns to more familiar TRL territory on such up-tempo confections as "Anticipating" and "Bombastic Love" and the disc's only ballad, "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." Spears definitely still has a ways to grow: Her feeble cover of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' 1982 hit "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" is more of a head-scratcher than a head-banger.

Bottom Line: Britney at her most brazen

Michael Jackson (Epic)

On this long-awaited album—Michael Jackson's first all-new studio disc since 1991's Dangerous—the King of Pop throws down his glittery gauntlet, ready for a fight. The song titles alone read like sound bites from a weigh-in. On the opening track he boasts that he's "Unbreakable." Then on the title tune he brags that he's "Invincible." Later he warns his competition that they should feel "Threatened." Relax, Michael, it's only music, not tae kwon do.

But after the image beating Jackson has taken over the past decade, he knows he needs to bring out the heavy hitting on Invincible. Along for the rhythmic rumble are rappers Fats and the Notorious B.I.G. (in a posthumous cameo) contributing to the disc's first three tracks, on which Jackson sings in an egregiously angry voice. He finally chills for the album's best section, including the old-school slow jam "Break of Dawn," the smooth-grooving single "You Rock My World" and the magical "Butterflies," which reminds you of how thrilling Michael can be.

He also can make you cringe, though, as he does on the schlocky ballads "Speechless" and "The Lost Children." And throughout, there is the sense that Jackson, unlike, say, Madonna, hasn't really altered much since the '80s. The exception? "2000 Watts," on which an unrecognizable Jackson sounds as if his voice has finally changed.

Bottom Line: Won't exactly rock your world

Ryan Adams (Lost Highway)

Album of the week

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For those who think that country-rock is all about the Dixie Chicks, Ryan Adams—former frontman of the alt-country band Whiskeytown—will have you whistling another tune. His impact on the pop scene has been swift. None other than Elton John, in the liner notes of his own new album, thanks Adams, "who inspired me to do better." In fact this Jacksonville, N.C., native has struck Gold with his sophomore solo disc, which is easily one of the year's best.

Throughout this 16-song set—which opens on one coast with the bustling "New York, New York" (no, not the Sinatra standard) and closes on another with the hushed ballad "Goodnight Hollywood Blvd."—Adams, 27, shifts styles and moods with detailed sketches from his own life. The singer-songwriter is at his brooding best, though, on downbeat, down-tempo numbers like "La Cienega Just Smiled," on which love "feels so good but damn it makes me hurt." The pain is well worth it.

Bottom Line: Go for the Gold

Bennett Sings the Blues
Tony Bennett and Various Artists (Columbia)

Tony Bennett still swings. So does a rusty screen door, of course, but some things have too much character to be replaced. Like a latter-day Sinatra, Bennett, 75, gets by with a lot of help from his friends, accessorizing his often creaky vocals with duetting partners on most tracks. Pals include Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel, k.d. lang, Diana Krall and really old chums B.B. King and Ray Charles.

As on Bennett's recent albums, he has minimal backing—at times just a quartet—which brings the aroma of a jazz grotto to these standards. Wonder's chirpy harmonica feels misplaced on "Everyday (I Have the Blues)," but the track with Charles, "Evenin'," is a beaut. Ditto for the duet with Bennett and Joel on the Piano Man's 1976 classic "New York State of Mind," sung with fond whimsy instead of swelling drama, but well-timed just the same. Bennett isn't breaking any new ground this time around, but this is aural comfort food.

Bottom Line: National monument stands tall

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Kyle Smith.