Ashanti (Murder Inc.)

A ubiquitous guest vocalist on hip-hop hits by Ja Rule ("Always On Time"), Fat Joe ("What's Luv?") and Big Pun ("How We Roll"), Ashanti, 21, has shown that a pretty voice can temper the roughest rapper's rhymes. But it's one thing to sing a hook on someone else's record, quite another to carry your own album, as Ashanti fails to do on this desultory debut. Blending hip-hop and soul, evocative of Mary J. Blige or Faith Evans, Ashanti, with her sweet but slight soprano, doesn't have the grit and power of those divas. It doesn't help that, despite sporadic sampling (one from DeBarge's "Stay with Me" on the Top 5 single "Foolish"), many of the songs, all cowritten by Ashanti, lack memorable melodies. This is especially apparent on tedious ballads like "Rescue," which are just plain slow.

Bottom Line: Solo struggle

Michael Bolton (Jive)

Michael Bolton still tackles a tune like a linebacker, bellowing even the most banal lyrics. Having not had a Top 10 hit in more than eight years, though, he has taken a step toward repositioning himself as a sort of Backstreet Bolton.

For his first album of original material since 1997's All That Matters, Bolton has turned to Jive Records, the label that brought you 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. The disc's first single, the title track, was cowritten and coproduced by Max Martin, the Swedish mastermind behind BSB's "I Want It That Way" and 'N Sync's "It's Gonna Be Me." But although one can almost imagine Justin Timberlake singing the treacly ballad "Only a Woman Like You," Bolton, 49, isn't going after the teenyboppers here. He sticks to the fare that made him a fixture on adult-contemporary radio in the late '80s and early '90s, only occasionally adding a dash of Latin, Middle Eastern or country to the mix. Whether he makes you swoon or gag, you've got to give it to the guy for being able to sing an insipid song like "Love with My Eyes Closed" with such conviction.

Bottom Line: Michael Beltin'

Mindy McCready (Capitol)

Blonde, bouncy and adorned with navel jewelry, country's Mindy McCready is the missing link between Nashville and the Santa Monica Pier. Although McCready, 26, has described this album as more "adult" than her previous work, it includes such youthful, pop-influenced tracks as "Maybe, Maybe Not." Despite some of the fluffier material on this comeback attempt—McCready's first since the disappointing sales of her last two discs, 1997's If I Don't Stay the Night and 1999s I'm Not So Tough—the former fiancee of Superman Dean Cain proves that she is still a relevant performer.

She effortlessly manages the disc's more complex tunes, from torchy ballads to witty, flirtatious uptempo numbers. On the thoughtful love song "Don't Speak," McCready demonstrates an emotional depth when she sings with a throaty timbre, "Don't talk/ I'll know when I've reached your soul." For better or worse, McCready doesn't write any of her own compositions here. But she does offer a lively style that reflects her younger audience without condescending to them.

Bottom Line: Country music for the TRL crowd

Elvis Costello (Island)
Album of the week

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Elvis Costello sounds like a man half his age. Determined to unlearn everything he knows about pop and classical, Costello has recycled the sonic angst of his 1978 classic This Year's Model and applied it to new songs such as the standout "45," about how records and years tend to pile up on you. It's fair to say that crash-bang, bass-thumping tracks like "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" could not have been written by Burt Bacharach, Costello's recent song-writing buddy.

Costello plays his guitar like a teenager who wants to set off every neighborhood car alarm; the lyrics offer such pearls as "I love you just as much as I hate your guts." Who can resist a 47-year-old blowing spitballs at the world?

Bottom Line: Pump it up

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Kyle Smith.