FOLK-POP

In Between Dreams

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On his third album, In Between Dreams, former pro surfer Jack Johnson continues to ride the wave of breezy folk-pop that led to platinum sales of 2001's Brushfire Fairytales and gold for 2003's On and On. Born and raised in Hawaii, Johnson comes off as John Mayer in board shorts, making music that goes down as smoothly as a mai tai. You can practically feel the sand between your toes listening to his catchy, carefree sounds. The disc opens with the Hawaiian guitar intro of "Better Together," a light and lovely ditty that showcases Johnson's easygoing strumming and relaxed, cool-dude vocals as he sings about cozying up beneath a mango tree and "a shoebox of photographs with sepia-toned loving." He continues this sweetly romantic vibe on the buoyant "Banana Pancakes," where he imagines the perfect rainy day during which he and his lady "wake up slow" and he makes her banana pancakes.

While Johnson and his bare-bones combo—which again includes Adam Topol on drums and Merlo Podlewski on bass—mostly work in the same midtempo folk-pop mode, they do vary their musical approach a bit. "Breakdown" rides a slightly reggae-ish rhythm, while "Staple It Together" is a funk-tinged foray that provides the CD's most soulful moment. "Do You Remember" contains strong country accents, and the brief "Belle" is a Latin-flavored ballad featuring an accordion part. Similarly, Johnson diversifies his subject matter beyond island loving. "Never Know" offers vaguely philosophical lyrics ("The truth is all we got are questions/ We'll never know") and "Crying Shame" serves up an antiwar message: "By now it's beginning to show/A number of people are numbers that aren't coming home." Johnson delivers it all, though, with such laid-back surfer style that you can still hang 10 to it.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Better Together"

POP-ROCKAmos Lee
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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When you get to track 3, the beautifully tender "Arms of a Woman," on Amos Lee's self-titled debut, you know that this singer-songwriter-guitarist is something special. It's a spare, acoustic-guitar-driven ballad that, with its rootsy blend of country, gospel and blues hues, you could almost imagine Ray Charles crooning in his heyday. Lee, a 27-year-old former schoolteacher from Philadelphia, imbues that instant classic and the rest of this eclectic, stripped-down disc with an old soul akin to another twentysomething throwback, Blue Note labelmate Norah Jones. In fact, Lee has opened for Jones on tour, and she backs him up on two tracks here, adding her distinctive piano fills and singing background vocals. Also, Lee Alexander, who was instrumental on Jones's Come Away with Me and Feels Like Home, plays bass on six numbers. But Lee is the real star, from the jazzy funk-folk of "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight" to the Bill Withers-esque R&B strains of the music-industry indictment "Soul Suckers." With his reedy but rich voice and evocative lyrics ("My soul is as open as the sky/Oftentimes it's just as blue," on "Dreamin' "), this Amos deserves to be famous.—C.A.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Arms of a Woman"
SOUL-FOLKAha Shake Heartbreak

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If you're looking for the heirs to the southern-rock throne, the Kings of Leon could be it. On a royally good sophomore effort, this Tennessee quartet—which consists of brothers Caleb (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), Jared (bass) and Nathan Followill (drums) as well as their cousin Matthew Followill (lead guitar)—produces a distinctly homegrown sound that is rootsy, retro and raw. The band, which has snagged the opening slot on U2's tour kicking off March 28, brings to mind what the Black Crowes might have sounded like if they were just getting started today. Songs such as the shimmying "Taper Jean Girl" and the infectious, sexually explicit "Soft" have a lo-fi grit that harks back to the days of '70s AM radio. And Caleb's countrified drawl on cuts like the dusty lament "Day Old Blues" is as down-home as the Piggly Wiggly.—C.A.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Soft"
ROCKBrave

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Reliably tuneful and vivacious, O'Neal is the singer Shania wishes she was. This CD, her second, displays that, but it also suffers from some peculiar choices of material. "Trying to Find Atlantis," for instance, comes off as sexist: "A girl trying to find a perfect man is like trying to find Atlantis." On "Somebody's Hero" she whines about unappreciated motherhood. (O'Neal had her first child, daughter Aliyah, in 2003.) The title song, with its self-help message, plays better, as a sort of understated soft-rock anthem. And the invigorating country-rocker "I Love My Life" offers both positive thinking and contagious rhythms. "Devil on the Left," about a stripper reevaluating her career choice, also gives a jolt. Being able to finesse a dull moment or two is a mark of an experienced singer. O'Neal is more than ingratiating enough to get past this disc. It's not the one people will love her for, but nobody is too likely to hold it against her either.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Brave"
COUNTRYOne Voice

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"If you use your gifts to His glory, He will magnify them." So writes Gladys Knight in the liner notes of this glorious gospel album, on which she serves as both the featured vocalist and director of the Saints Unified Voices, a 100-plus-member choir. Knight, who previously released the inspirational CD Many Different Roads in 1999, got her vocal baptism singing in the church choir at age 4, and she's always brought a gospel fervor to such secular hits as "Midnight Train to Georgia." So it's truly uplifting to hear her raise her voice in praise on such songs as the old spiritual "Blessed Assurance," backed by a formidable choir. What really separates this from other discs of the genre, however, is its varied musicality, incorporating contemporary and traditional gospel, African, classical and even Polynesian folk styles.—C.A.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Blessed Assurance"

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

Jesse McCartney Pop heartthrob Jesse McCartney, 17, is sitting pretty thanks to the hit title song from his solo debut, Beautiful Soul. He also costars on the WB drama Summerland, back for its second season Feb. 28.

ON IF HE WILL SING ON SUMMERLAND My character, Bradin Westerly, won't be singing at all. I think that if he heard Jesse McCartney's music, he would probably rag on him. Bradin is a surfer who likes rock and is punk.

ON BEING IN THE BOY BAND DREAM STREET It was definitely hard knowing that every guy your age was ready to kill you. But on the other side, every girl my age was throwing herself at us.

ON COMPARISONS TO JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE It's pretty cool. I love Justin. I love his music. I love the way he so easily moved into his solo career from being in 'N Sync. He pulled it off well. He's an awesome performer.

ON FINDING SOMEONE WITH A "BEAUTIFUL SOUL"

I think guys are definitely looking for someone with something special. It's very easy to get someone hot, but not as easy to find someone who's cool.—MARGI BLASH

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak.