ALT-ROCK

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning/Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
CRITIC'S CHOICE
Wide Awake:

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Digital Ash:

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Bright Eyes, the creative vision of indie darling Conor Oberst, has woken up a traditionally sleepy time of the year for new music with the first great album of 2005. That would be I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, one of two markedly different discs that Bright Eyes, which opened for Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. on last fall's Vote for Change tour, has simultaneously released. While Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is an electronica-infused foray, the far superior Wide Awake is a mostly acoustic affair that allows Oberst, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist from Omaha who has been recording since age 13, a chance to really shine and demonstrate why he has such a bright future.

On Wide Awake, Oberst alternately brings to mind the alt-country of Ryan Adams, the alt-folk of Damien Rice and, yes, a rootsy young Bob Dylan. His wonderfully realized songs burn with passion: romantic, political, sometimes both in the same tune. "We made love on the living room floor/With the noise in the background of a televised war," he sings over the traditional folk strains of "Land Locked Blues," one of three cuts featuring luminous harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris. Meanwhile, the sweetly twangy "First Day of My Life," with Oberst's unaffected, unadorned delivery, is a love song that is at once strikingly simple and utterly profound: "Yours is the first face that I saw/ Think I was blind before I met you."

The less accessible, more murky Digital Ash pales by comparison, drifting into Beck-like experimentation and '80s synth pop. Although the patient listener will sift out a few quirky gems, such as "Theme from Piñata," we'd suggest that next time Oberst keeps Bright Eyes' focus on just one disc.

DOWNLOAD THIS: Wide Awake: "First Day of My Life"; Digital Ash: "Theme from Piñata"

ALT-ROCK

The Documentary

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In 2003, 50 Cent was the It Rapper who arrived behind a ton of hype. Last year it was Kanye West. This year it's The Game (real name: Jayceon Taylor), who was already being lauded as "hip hop's new blood" on the cover of Vibe magazine before his major-label debut even hit the streets. The Documentary went on to open at No. 1 on the Billboard pop albums chart. Of course it helped that The Game is a protégé of 50 Cent and Dr. Dre, who both executive-produced this Compton, L.A., emcee's respect-winning disc. Dre's patented gangsta beats drive tracks like "Westside Story," on which The Game shows California love, and 50 takes the mike on three cuts, including the hit first single "How We Do." The Game also gets a high-powered assist from Eminem, who produced and raps on "We Ain't," while West produced the haunting autobiographical "Dreams." "It's gon' take more than a bullet in the heart to hold me back," spits The Game, who was left in a coma after being shot five times while dealing drugs in 2001. Such gritty tales are the stuff of hardcore hip-hop legend. Whether they one day amount to making The Game "the brown Eminem," as he likens himself on The Documentary, remains to be seen.—C.A.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Dreams"
RAP

It's Time

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In the spirit of Sinatra, old-school crooner Michael Bublé delivers more songs for swingin' lovers on his sophomore set. He even covers the Ol' Blue Eyes fave "I've Got You Under My Skin" with such snappy, devil-may-care flair that you'll swear he was born in another Time. In addition to dusting off standards like "You Don't Know Me" and a beautifully sung "Try a Little Tenderness," Bublé jazzes up the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" and the Motown classic "How Sweet It Is." Fellow Canadian Nelly Furtado joins him on the Latin-flavored "Quando, Quando, Quando."—C.A.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Try a Little Tenderness"

JAZZ-POP

There's More Where That Came From

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Zestier, less cloying and way more traditional than usual, Womack shows some positive signs of listening to a lot of George Jones and Dolly Parton, two influences she has credited for this collection of cheating, pining and general love-gone-wrong songs. The CD shows a much more versatile Womack, able to flirt, lament and even kick up her heels a bit on "What I Miss About Heaven," a tune that features the nimble banjo of Bryan Sutton and the slick fiddling of Aubrey Haynie. The album's most affecting song, cowritten by Womack, also has the best title: "Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago."

DOWNLOAD THIS: "I May Hate Myself in the Morning"
COUNTRY

R&B
Brian McKnight Gemini

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Like a true Gemini, R&B love man Brian McKnight displays many sides on his eighth studio album. On the bedroom ballad "Everything I Do," he's a Prince-like falsetto artist. On the sensual mid-tempo "She," he conjures up I Want You-era Marvin Gaye. On the funky finger-snapper "Grown Man Business," he brings to mind vintage Luther Vandross. But his latest, though another dependable effort, shows that McKnight is clearly not in the same league as Prince, Marvin or Luther. And now the veteran singer is also being passed by such youngbloods as Van Hunt and John Legend. Even so, his sophisticated soul can still be as smooth as satin sheets.—C.A.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Everything I Do"

Nirvana, With the Lights Out While this long-awaited box set has its dim musical moments, it's a fascinating warts-and-all study of the ground-breaking grunge trio, replete with demos, B-sides and other rarities. You'll be left wondering, "What if?"

Nas, Street's Disciple On an ambitious two-CD set, the rapper shows he's still a highly inspired street poet. Just check out the blues-infused "Bridging the Gap," his collaboration with jazz-musician dad Olu Dara.

John Legend, Get Lifted This neo-soul newcomer (and Kanye West protégé) soars on an album that brings to mind such bona fide soul legends as Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and Al Green.

Blaine Larsen, Off to Join the World Larsen, 18, makes a knock-out country debut that's smartly written, and beautifully sung in a warm baritone reminiscent of Merle Haggard and George Strait.

With Valentine's Day just around the corner on Feb. 14, we asked some celebs to tell us what tune really puts them in the mood for romance.

JENNY McCARTHY Sting's "Shape of My Heart." It makes me cry and full of love.

EVA LONGORIA "Secret Lovers." I don't even know who sings that song [editor's note: Atlantic Starr], but it's so passionate and dangerous.

JOHN TRAVOLTA "A Man and a Woman," the Percy Faith [version]. That's the one that [wife Kelly Preston and I] have stuck with all these years.

VIRGINIA MADSEN "When Can I See You" by Babyface. It's a really sappy one. Just hang me now.

PATRICIA ARQUETTE "Feelings." When I was little it was really popular and it was really corny to me. Now it's almost surreal.

KEVIN RICHARDSON (Backstreet Boys) "Lady in Red" [by Chris de Burgh]. I just think of my wife.

MAGGIE GRACE (Lost) "The Luckiest" by Ben Folds. It's really beautiful.

MELINDA CLARKE (The O.C.) "Take My Breath Away" by Berlin. It was the ultimate '80s love song, and I have many fond memories set to that tune.

MARCIA CROSS "I Think I Love You" by David Cassidy. Why? Because he's David Cassidy.

JOHN STAMOS "I Will Always Love You." I'm talking about the Dolly Parton version, not Whitney [Houston].

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak.