Lindsay Pagano (Warner Bros.)

Fifteen-year-old newcomer Lindsay Pagano's idols, says her press bio, include Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and—Axl Rose? Except for that last head-scratcher, these influences help explain the surprising soulfulness on this Philadelphian's promising debut. On a versatile collection that hops from perky pop-rock to sexy dance jams to moving ballads, Pagano proves that she isn't your typical teen-pop pretender. Although her rangy voice is still developing, she can already belt it out like Christina Aguilera, yet she has some of the restraint and subtlety that her older competition lacks, resisting Star Search histrionics on the gospel-infused "Amazing High." Pagano even holds her own with guest vocalist Paul McCartney on a lovely rendition of his 1983 single "So Bad," proving just how good she is.

Bottom Line: You go, girl!

Alan Jackson (Arista Nashville)
Album of the week

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In his 1991 hit "Don't Rock the Jukebox," Alan Jackson indelibly linked himself to George Jones, crowing, "I wanna hear some Jones/ My heart ain't ready/ For the Rolling Stones." Keeping up with Jones, though, isn't just a fantasy. Jackson, 43, is sounding more and more like his idol as he matures. On his follow-up to 2000's When Somebody Loves You, Jackson seamlessly bounces from heart-wrenching emotion to good-old-boy playfulness.

Jackson, a Newnan, Ga., native, wrote or cowrote 9 of this disc's 12 tunes, on which he alternately opens his heart and a bottle or three. On the honky-tonkish duet "Designated Drinker," he and guest singer George Strait drown their sorrows over lost loves, but there are also more sentimental, romantic tunes. Even Jones would have to be impressed by the album's first single, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," Jackson's quietly profound reflection on Sept. 11. It's a song that evokes the common pain without resorting to flag-waving or opportunism. Getting to the top of the country heap isn't easy, but Jackson has mastered something just as difficult: staying there with grace and passion.

Bottom Line: A Drive in high gear

Lil Bow Wow (So So Def/Columbia)

Helping Madonna open last year's Grammy Awards—driving a vintage Cadillac, no less—must have earned Lil Bow Wow big props at recess. And for show-and-tell he has a triple-platinum debut album, 2000's Beware of Dog. On his second release this pint-size 14-year-old boasts that he's "the hottest thing in high school" over the gangsta-lite groove of "The Wickedest." No argument there. Lil Bow Wow, who got his rap moniker from Snoop Dogg (his real name is Shad Moss), makes his bones as a legitimate hip-hop artist on this effort, transcending the bubblegum niche.

Bringing a relaxed, assured flow to his rhymes, Bow Wow has acquired a credibility belying his age that keeps his not-too-hard, not-too-soft brand of pop-rap from seeming too gimmicky. Although he still has to rely on adults like Jermaine Dupri for his lyrics and beats (Bow Wow cowrote only one song), he manages to come off as a real teenager who would, as he suggests during one interlude, take a girl out to the Cheesecake Factory—even though he could by now afford to spring for any four-star restaurant.

Bottom Line: Doggone good

Jennifer Knapp (Gotee)

Although she is from the Sunflower State, Kansas, nobody would accuse Jennifer Knapp of, as the title of an old Swing Era tune put it, a "sunny disposish." The contemporary Christian artist's folk-pop material is mired in self-analysis on her third album, The Way I Am.

At her best, on tunes such as the subtly passionate "Breathe on Me," the classically trained Lilith Fair alum philosophizes intelligently. At her worst, on cuts such as the introspective "No Regrets" (no, not the Billie Holiday standard, but Knapp's own composition), she evokes the same dirge-like quality that afflicts so many female pop singers these days. (When your backup cello player is the liveliest musician on your album, you're in trouble.)

The somewhat self-congratulatory title track lacks the soaring spirit of Jessica Andrews's similarly themed hit "Who I Am." Knapp has plenty to be upbeat about, receiving a Best Rock Gospel Album Grammy nomination for 2000's Lay It Down and touring extensively last year. But the way she is on this disc, you wouldn't know it.

Bottom Line: Uninspiring

MTV2 HANDPICKED Various Artists (Columbia) Shoulda called it A History of Alt-rock: 2001. Culled from the MTV spinoff, this 18-track compilation blends more recognizable names (Radiohead, Dave Navarro, Ryan Adams) with obscure ones (the achingly honest singer Dashboard Confessional).

AOI: BIONIX De La Soul (Tommy Boy) On the second installment of a three-album series that they've named Art Official Intelligence, the veteran rappers don't attempt to reinvent themselves according to popular trends. Instead, the trio keep crafting artful, intelligent hip-hop.

CLASSICS Sarah Brightman (Angel) Light-opera fans and Enya-philes will savor the former Broadway performer's gentle approach to modern adaptations of familiar short works by Schubert, Puccini, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as "Pie Jesu" by her ex-husband Andrew Lloyd Webber.

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak.