DANCE-POP

Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

It's official: Gwen Stefani is the new Madonna. (Sorry, Britney.) On the No Doubt frontwoman's solo debut, Stefani, who already possessed the platinum hair and trendsetting style, gets into the '80s dance-pop groove as if she were the Material Girl in her heyday. Echoes of 1983's Madonna, 1984's Like a Virgin and 1986's True Blue are all over the deliriously fun Love.Angel.Music.Baby. (which is what L.A.M.B., Stefani's fashion line, stands for), making this retro trip the party album of 2004. Stefani's '80s fixation—clearly, No Doubt's remake of Talk Talk's "It's My Life" was a harbinger of things to come—doesn't just end with Madonna. She recruits New Order's Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook as well as Wendy & Lisa (!) of Prince and the Revolution fame to play on the synth-pop gem "The Real Thing" (one of three songs that Stefani cowrote with Pink's and Christina Aguilera's collaborator Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes). And she bases the plush "Luxurious"—one of several odes to being a material girl—on the Isley Brothers' 1983 slow-jam classic "Between the Sheets." But Stefani also sounds fresh and even futuristic on tracks like the hip-hop/reggae mélange "Rich Girl," which reunites her with "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" partner Eve, and the outrageously giddy "Bubble Pop Electric" (one of two cuts produced and cowritten by OutKast's Andre 3000), which brings '60s girl groups crashing into the 21st century. • DOWNLOAD THIS: "Bubble Pop Electric" ALT-ROCK

The Killers Hot Fuss

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With buzz bands like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol, neo new-wave is this year's equivalent of the garage-rock revival that ushered in the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Vines, et al. And with their dead-on debut, the Killers are definitely another group that is worth the fuss. The Las Vegas quartet (which derived its name from New Order's "Crystal" video) makes potent post-punk that is equal parts brooding glam and melodic synth-pop. First single "Somebody Told Me" is an alt-rock anthem that will take you back to MTVs 120 Minutes with one of the year's catchiest choruses: "Somebody told me you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had in February of last year." Meanwhile the richly melancholic "Smile Like You Mean It" is a sardonic moper worthy of the Smiths. "Save some face, you know you've only got one," sings lead singer Brandon Flowers, who at times recalls Morrissey with his mournful delivery and upper-register wail. Despite their doldrums, the Killers are most often danceable, with rhythmic tracks like "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," "On Top" and "Change Your Mind" that will have you breaking out your old Casio keyboard.—C.A.

•DOWNLOAD THIS: "Somebody Told Me"

COUNTRY

Passing Through

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The older he gets, the more Travis, 45, sounds like George Jones, down to the little catches in their throats that they both use so expressively. This is the absolute best thing if you're a male country singer. Travis's splendid latest drifts back toward country-pop and away from the gospel excursions he has taken in recent years. So much the better, since pop's wider range allows Travis to flex his versatility, which he does mightily on Passing Through, from the rueful "I Can See It in Your Eyes" to the nostalgic "Four Walls." And on the witty highlight "Pick Up the Oars and Row," Travis laconically sings, "Sometimes love is a river of tears, so pick up the oars and row."

•DOWNLOAD THIS: "Pick Up the Oars and Row"

R&B

Motown Two

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Michael McDonald clearly earned some props for last year's Motown, on which he successfully tackled the label's classics. After all, Stevie Wonder shows up here to play harmonica on Wonder's own "I Was Made to Love Her." Even so, like most sequels, this doesn't quite live up to the original; sometimes the disc feels like Motown Night on American Idol. But when husky voices meet on "Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart)," his duet with Toni Braxton, you'll definitely stop and listen.—C.A.

•DOWNLOAD THIS: "Stop, Look, Listen"

Chaka Khan, Classikhan

If you are going to buy one standards album this season, buy ClassiKhan, which matches classic material to this R&B diva's classic voice. Her "Stormy Weather" is a veritable force of nature.

U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Bono and company—still the World's Greatest Rock Band—keep their unforgettable fire burning brightly on another vintage U2 album that plays like All That You Can't Leave Behind II.

Darryl Worley, Darryl Worley

On his fourth disc, this country singer with the Haggardian pipes exhibits an insightful awareness of life's vagaries. Let's tip our Stetsons to a man who isn't afraid to seem smart.

Talib Kweli, The Beautiful Struggle

With rhymes that are unusually heady and refreshingly honest on tracks like the heartfelt "Black Girl Pain," Struggle is—no contest—the rap CD of the year.

For information on where to find our Download This picks, go to www.people.com/downloadthis or AOL (Keyword: People)

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak.