R&B

Ruben Studdard

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Judging from the albums released by American Idol winners and runners-up so far, the voters got it right: Kelly Clarkson's debut CD outclassed Justin Guarini's, and Ruben Studdard's first disc beats Clay Aiken's. Although Studdard didn't write a lick of these 14 songs, the album does a good job of translating to record the cuddly Velvet Teddy Bear charm that won over Idol fans, resulting in a likable if unspectacular set. The secret to Studdard's success is a focused R&B approach that makes the album live up to its title; he brings to mind a latter-day Luther Vandross on sensitive slow jams like "What If" and hip-hoppish midtempo numbers such as "Take the Shot." Studdard also includes his own version of Vandross's signature song "Superstar," one of three tunes here that, as loyal Idol viewers will recall, he performed on his way to winning the TV talent show. (The others are his exquisite cover of the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and his inspirational finale "Flying Without Wings.") While Studdard excels on ballads like the R. Kelly-esque first single, "Sorry 2004," a heartfelt apology that is well suited to the singer's humble persona and smooth baritone, faster tracks such as "Can I Get Your Attention" (featuring rapper Pretty Tony) won't exactly make you shout "Roo-ben!" Even so, Studdard's unassuming appeal helps salvage songs like "No Ruben," which recounts his rise "from wearing my big brother's clothes to buying him a new wardrobe," and "What Is Sexy," a "big boys' anthem" featuring a guest rap by Fat Joe and a shuffling beat borrowed from Mary J. Blige's 1992 hit "Real Love."

R&B

Al Green

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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The title of this disc says it all. Though Al Green has been the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis since 1976 and has won eight Grammys in his career for gospel projects, he can't stop being the R&B hitmaker behind such timeless '70s songs as "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness." So now, after a 27-year hiatus from recording pop albums, Green is back doing what fans remember best. The blaring horns, organ riffs, silky strings and—even better—that soulful falsetto are back. Would it be blasphemous, Reverend Green, to say "Amen"? It would, perhaps, if this CD weren't so good. But musically, Green (teamed again with producer Willie Mitchell) lets loose his trademark sensuality on a dozen new tracks and makes the familiar fresh. From plaintive poetry ("I keep looking at the sun, but it's raining in my heart," on "Rainin' in My Heart") to a rumbling bass beneath the gospel-tinged "My Problem Is You," this is a stylish lovefest of feel-good, groove-driven insistent emotion.

PUNK-POP

blink-182

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It's finally happened: blink-182, the San Diego trio best known for bratrockers like "What's My Age Again" and the potty-mouthed "Happy Holidays, You Bastard," is growing up. Although the band showed signs of maturity on 1999's suicide note "Adam's Song" and 2001's divorce-themed "Stay Together for the Kids," guitarist-vocalist Tom DeLonge, bassist-vocalist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker still came across as overgrown adolescents until this, their sixth studio disc. While three-minute thrashers like "Always" and "Easy Target" maintain the rollicking punk-pop intensity of blink's earlier work, the group successfully emerges into new musical territory with the multitextured chorus of the hit single "Feeling This" and the quiet mope-rocker "I Miss You," on which DeLonge declares, "Don't waste your time on me/ You're already the voice inside my head." But the standout is the love-weary "All of This," a stunner on which DeLonge's expressive tenor is matched by Cure frontman Robert Smith's plaintive baritone.

PUNK-ROCK

Iggy Pop

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Now 56, Iggy Pop has reunited with the two other surviving members of the Stooges, brothers Ron (guitar) and Scott (drums) Asheton, on four of these hardcore tracks. Sum 41 and Green Day, two contemporary punk acts, collaborate on other numbers, as does Iggy's current tour band the Trolls. The results, alas, are not the equal of the Stooges' classic Raw Power or the best of Iggy's solo work, which lighten the hardrock attack with melody. Here the instrumentation on tracks like "Little Electric Chair" is dense as the heaviest metal. And ear-numbing, endlessly repetitive lyrics play like a jackhammer to the Skull.

ROCK

Fefe Dobson

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From Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch to Pink and Evanescence's Amy Lee, young female rockers are all the rage these days. The latest to join the anti-Britney ranks is 18-year-old Canadian Fefe Dobson. While she cranks up the guitars and spits out the lyrics on her punk-spiked debut, there is nothing here as original as her first name. Dobson makes like Green Day on "Stupid Little Love Song," the Red Hot Chili Peppers on "Everything" and Nirvana on "Unforgiven," a grungy diatribe against the father who abandoned her. She really embarrasses herself, though, only on "Rock It Till You Drop It," with its cheesy'80s metal riffs and cringeworthy guest rap from Tone "Wild Thing" Loc.

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • V.R. Peterson,
  • Sona Charaipotra,
  • Steve Dougherty.