ALT-ROCK
R.E.M. Around the Sun

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When drummer Bill Berry left the band for health reasons following 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, it was the end of R.E.M. as we knew it. Now down to a trio, singer Michael Stipe, 44, guitarist Peter Buck, 47, and bassist Mike Mills, 45, haven't been the same alt-rock heroes who defined many a college student's generation in the '80s and early '90s with classics like 1983's Murmur, 1987's Document and 1992's Automatic for the People (although, to be fair, the slide really started with 1994's Monster). The trend continues with R.E.M.'s latest, Around the Sun, which goes down the same moody, melancholy and sometimes murky road the group traveled on 1998's Up and 2001's Reveal. At times, the CD is so doggedly downbeat it will make you long for "Shiny Happy People." But Stipe and company have achieved splendor in somberness before (see Automatic for the People), and this disc boasts an elegiac beauty that is at once familiar and comforting in these uncertain times. The leadoff single, "Leaving New York," is an achingly lovely love song that deepens with the poignant lyric "It's easier to leave than to be left behind." Elsewhere, R.E.M., which is on the Vote for Change tour with Bruce Springsteen from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8, turns political on the folky antiwar song "Final Straw" and the haunting "I Wanted to Be Wrong." Guest rapper Q-Tip makes like a hip-hop Tom Waits on the cool-shuffling "The Outsiders," while Stipe saves his most animated performance for the sprightly jangle-rocker "Wanderlust," easily Sun's brightest tune. However, those looking for R.E.M. to make its All That You Can't Leave Behind—the 2000 album that marked U2's return to peak form—will have to wait at least another couple of years. Maybe by then Berry will be back on the skins.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Leaving New York"

Brand New Strings
BLUEGRASS
CRITICS'S CHOICE

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Skaggs, 50, has been performing since he clambered onstage with his mentor, Bluegrass Hall of Fame founder Bill Monroe, at age 5. It's safe to say that he has plucked a clunker or two in that time, but they have been surrounded by some of the most artful pop music of the past 50 years. This superlative collection of down-home music reeks of authenticity-the unfettered sound of elemental bluegrass. Skaggs is his usual dazzling self, picking and singing his way through all 13 tracks-from "Why Did I Wait So Long," a gospel-tinged tune by Shawn Lane, to "Sally Jo," a favorite romp of Monroe's--with zestful precision. And he's backed by his own band, Kentucky Thunder, which is the proving ground to bluegrass that the Duke Ellington Orchestra was to jazz. In addition, all-star fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarist Brian Sutton (a Kentucky Thunder alum) and singer Sharon White (Mrs. Skaggs) sit in for this well-rounded album, which demonstrates that Skaggs's bluegrass continues to be greener.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Sally Jo"

The Chronicles of Life and Death
POP-PUNK

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Having become the pop-punk poster boys of MTV with their last album, 2002's triple-platinum The Young and the Hopeless—which spawned the hits "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," "Hold On," "Girls and Boys" and "The Anthem"—Good Charlotte crashes back onto the scene with another album that should have skater kids doing ollies. The Waldorf, Md.-based quintet—led by the Madden twins, Joel (lead vocals) and Benji (guitar and vocals)—once again cranks out crunchy rockers that are heavy on hooks, guitars and teen-friendly angst. As the CD's title suggests, many of the songs deal with life and death (both real and, as on the breakup anthem "Ghost of You," symbolic). The deceptively jaunty title song sets vaguely existential lyrics ("You come in this world, and you go out just the same/Today could be the worst day of your life") against a chugging beat, while "I Just Wanna Live" reveals the band's frustrations with the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Meanwhile, the U2-esque "We Believe" tackles a mother's loss of her son and "In this World (Murder)" attacks those who "choose death over innocent life." With this disc, though, there should be plenty of life left for Good Charlotte.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "The Chronicles of Life and Death"

Goodies
R&B

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Eighteen-year-old newcomer Ciara has already topped the pop and R&B charts with her first single, "Goodies." With state-of-the-street production by Lil Jon (who used the same bass-heavy "crunk" sound on Usher's smash "Yeah!"), a guest rap by Petey Pablo and junk-food sexual metaphors that are so bad they're good ("You won't get no nookie or the cookies/ I'm no rookie"), it's the guiltiest pleasure on the radio right now. Unfortunately, there are hardly any other goodies in this jar. Indeed, Ciara's debut disc sounds as if it was hastily put together to capitalize on the title song's success. Hackneyed hip-hop soul tracks like "Ooh Baby" give one new appreciation for J.Lo, while standard slow jams like "Other Chicks" expose vocals that are as thin as a thong strap. Even the ballad "Next to You," written by the usually reliable R. Kelly, disappoints. At least Missy Elliott briefly enlivens things with her fun homage to Teena Marie's "Square Biz" on the '80s-style electro-jam "1, 2 Step." Still, if s not enough to really help Ciara come up with the goods.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Goodies"

On the Moon
JAZZ-POP

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Last year 21-year-old singer-pianist Peter Cincotti, who is ready for his close-up next month in Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darrin biopic Beyond the Sea, wowed the jazz-pop cognoscenti with Harry Connick Jr.-esque talent, chart-topping success and a photogenic wisp of hair dancing on his brow. This pleasant sophomore disc includes four affable Cincotti-written originals. But on the covers, ranging from South Pacific's "Bali Ha'i" to Carole King's "Up on the Roof," he at times sounds like Barry Manilow. More soulful are Cincotti's arranging and piano skills, which funkify the standard "St. Louis Blues" and burn impressively through "Cherokee."

DOWNLOAD THIS: "St. Louis Blues"

Noise from the Basement
POP-ROCK

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She's only 16 and her new album comes with a heart drawn on the actual disc, but Skye Sweetnam isn't all sugar and spice. In fact, the Canadian singer, who opened for Britney Spears on this year's Onyx Hotel Tour, brings to mind another young rocker chick from up north: Avril Lavigne. On her passable freshman effort, Sweetnam delivers plenty of noisy guitars and punk attitude on 13 tracks that she coproduced (except for the punchy first single, "Tangled Up in Me") and cowrote (except for an amped-up cover of Blondie's "Heart of Glass"). Sweetnam brings an age-appropriate brattiness to baby headbangers like "I Don't Really Like You," while addressing high school rebelliousness on the standout "Billy S.," which takes aim at the Bard: "I don't need to read Billy Shakespeare/ Meet Juliet or Malvolio/ Feel for once what it's like to rebel now/ I wanna break out, let's go!" A few routine rockers, such as the aptly titled "It Sucks," keep this Skye from flying too high, but with a little work, she could be the next Pat Benatar.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Billy S."

Dan Dyer
FOLK-ROCK
...of what lies beneath

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"Thank you, Lenny, for believing in me," writes Dan Dyer in the liner notes of his solo debut (he previously released an independent CD with the band Breedlove). The Texas-born singer-songwriter is giving props to Lenny Kravitz, who signed Dyer to his Roxie Records, produced this disc, cowrote four tunes and plays guitar and other instruments throughout. The result is an album that smoothly blends the retro-rock of Kravitz and the folk-funk of Ben Harper. But with his evocative lyrics and soothing, soul-kissed vocals, Dyer adds his own dreamy hues to tracks like the atmospheric "Space Alien" and the heavenly acoustic-guitar ballad "Not of This World."

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Not of This World"

GARDEN STATE

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Zach Braff, star, writer and director of this romantic comedy, handpicked these coolly atmospheric tracks by acts like Coldplay, the Shins and Zero 7. Former Men at Work frontman Colin Hay (holy '80s flashback!) contributes the bittersweet ballad "I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You."

SHARK TALE

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Although this kiddie-friendly CD lacks real bite, it is swimming with big fish: Justin Timberlake and Ludacris kick in new songs, while Mary J. Blige and Christina Aguilera remake disco classics. Sean Paul gets busy with Ziggy Marley, who voices a Rastafarian jellyfish in the new animated film.

WILL & GRACE: LET THE MUSIC OUT

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This campy collection features hits by past guest stars Elton John, Jennifer Lopez and Cher, as well as the gay anthem "I Will Survive." But did we really need to hear Eric McCormack and Megan Mullally singing with Barry Manilow and Carly Simon, respectively?

RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE

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The soundtrack to the hit zombie flick brings out an appropriately dark roster of metal acts, including Slipknot, A Perfect Circle, Deftones, Rob Zombie and Killswitch Engage. Massive Attack provides respite from all the thrashing, but the highlight is the Cure's goth-rocker "Us or Them."

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: SONGS

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These 12 original songs were inspired by Mel Gibson's epic. The results—from an eclectic lineup including Lauryn Hill, Brad Paisley and Creed's Scott Stapp—aren't always divine, but there are moments of true passion (the BeBe Winans/Angie Stone duet "Miracle of Love").

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • V.R. Peterson.