Anastacia (Epic)

To U.S. audiences it might have seemed a bit freakish for blue-eyed soul sister Anastacia to end up in a lineup alongside Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige and Cher at last month's VH1 Divas concert in Las Vegas. In Europe, though, Chicago-born Anastacia (full name: Anastacia Newkirk) went multi-platinum with her 2000 debut, Not That Kind, and this follow-up, which has already hit No. 1 overseas. Her formulaic mix of funky dance numbers and melodramatic ballads, delivered with powerhouse belting and sassy attitude, recalls late-'80s/early-'90s R&B pop star Taylor Dayne, but that approach can be as dated as acid-washed jeans. The 26-year-old singer, who cowrote all 12 of the album's songs, tries to freshen things up with a hip-hop-edged duet with Faith Evans, but even that falls flat. Anastacia is most successful when she shifts gears on more reflective, folk-tinged pop-rock tunes such as "Overdue Goodbye" and "How Come the World Won't Stop," on which her more nuanced vocals flow naturally.

Bottom Line: Not-so-super Freak

Wyclef Jean (Columbia)

Lauryn Hill may be the most famous former Fugee, but Wyclef Jean has been the busiest. Already on his third solo album, Jean has also produced hits for everyone from Whitney Houston (1998's "My Love Is Your Love") to Santana (1999's "Maria Maria"). His signature, Fugee-based sound—a fusion of gritty hip-hop and lilting reggae, with a melodic pop-R&B sensibility—continues to drive his eclectic latest. But Jean brings even more to this Masquerade party, adding evocative eastern influences on some tracks. The Asian flute looped airily over the prayerful "Peace God" gives the song a "Crouching Tiger style," as Jean describes it in the intro. On the title tune Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari offers a Middle Eastern twist on a familiar hip-hop line. Lyrically, though, Jean remembers his roots as a Haitian immigrant growing up on the streets of Brooklyn and New Jersey, but he makes sure not to glamorize the gangsta life. As he sings poignantly on his Marley-esque cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," too many "street children" have gone out that way.

Bottom Line: A colorful Masquerade

Amy Grant (A&M)

Album of the week

This album, celebrating Grant's 25th year as a Christian recording artist, is a warm collection of 14 songs of resounding faith. Always more effective with the sacred than the profane, Grant is in splendid voice on these traditional hymns and four contemporary tunes, sounding intimate, passionate and inspired by a force higher than the front office of A&M Records. (Her father, Burton Grant, a retired physician, adds further inspiration, leading a prayer between two tracks.) As a gospel singer, Grant still doesn't rival Mahalia Jackson in soulfulness. But she generally seems in her element, backed by the guitar and resplendent voice of her husband, Vince Gill, who coproduced this disc. Her quiet, modulated versions of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "How Great Thou Art" are indeed praiseworthy.

Bottom Line: A spiritual triumph

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak.