As I Am |

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

R&B

When you've set the bar as high as Alicia Keys has with her Grammy-winning first two studio albums, 2001's Songs in A Minor and 2003's even better The Diary of Alicia Keys, you've got a tough act to follow. But the singer-pianist continues to scale artistic heights on As I Am. While not veering too much from the Keys playbook—classic R&B with an ear to contemporary hip-hop, heavy on the ballads—it hardly strikes a bad note. Highlights include the hit first single "No One," a soulful declaration of love and devotion; "Like You'll Never See Me Again," a lush, lighters-in-the-air slow jam; and "Lesson Learned," a blues-streaked collaboration with John Mayer.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Superwoman," a powerful, gospel-ish ladies' anthem

Taking Chances |

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POP

To help shake up her sound for her first full-fledged studio album since 2003, Celine Dion called in some big guns: top songwriters and producers like Linda Perry (Pink), John Shanks (Ashlee Simpson), Kara DioGuardi (Christina Aguilera) and ex-Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody (Kelly Clarkson). And she recruits R&B hit-makers Ne-Yo and Christopher "Tricky" Stewart (Rihanna's "Umbrella") for the ballads "I Got Nothin' Left" and "Skies of L.A.," respectively. But despite mild flirtations with rock, gospel and country, it's pretty much the same old Celine. After a five-year stint in Vegas, she still likes a safe bet.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "That's Just the Woman in Me," a bluesy belter

System |

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DANCE-POP

Seal got his big break when he burst onto Britain's house-music scene as the voice of "Killer," the 1990 U.K. hit by Adamski. On System, his first studio effort since 2003, he returns to his dance roots without missing a techno beat. Hooking up with producer Stuart Price, who worked on Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor, he turns out club-friendly cuts—like the mood-elevating single "Amazing"—that merge atmospheric electronica with his usual soulful delivery and melodic flair. Best is "The Right Life," a swirling, sparkling gem on which Seal seems to be celebrating his marital bliss with Heidi Klum. It's enough to make you forgive "Wedding Day," a cringe-worthy duet with his bride.

Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love |

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REVIEWED BY RANDY VEST

COUNTRY

Trisha Yearwood offers up some memorable story songs on this follow-up to 2005's Jasper County, infusing each tale with her pitch-perfect delivery. "Nothin' 'Bout Memphis" finds a guilt-ridden woman hiding a past romance from her current lover, while "Dreaming Fields" is an achingly beautiful reminiscence of a 1940s couple who lose the family farm. But the mood here is not all downbeat. "Nothin' About You Is Good for Me" is a boisterous rebuke of a low-down lothario, and "Cowboys Are My Weakness" is a loping two-stepper that playfully nods to hubby Garth Brooks.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Sing You Back to Me," a ballad for her late dad

Red Carpet Massacre |

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DANCE-POP

With all the neo-new-wavers who have copped their synth-pop style, it's only fair that these '80s icons steal a few tricks from today's hit-makers. To that end, Duran Duran teams up with Justin Timberlake, his FutureSex/LoveSounds producer Timbaland and Timbaland's studio protégé Nate "Danja" Hills (Britney Spears). The result, no matter how calculated, manages to make Simon LeBon and the boys sound cool again. First single "Falling Down," an atmospheric ballad, actually lands closer to classic Duran, but the band turns up the funk on tracks like "Nite-Runner," with its percolating hip-hop groove, and "Tempted," an irresistible slice of sleazy, synthy dance-pop.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Skin Divers," a perfect meld of Duran and Timbaland

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• The two-disc companion to the Dylan-inspired film (due Nov. 21) features an eclectic array of artists—from Eddie Vedder and Sonic Youth to Cat Power and Jack Johnson—reimagining his songs.

THE THRILLS Teenager
On this Dublin band's third album, their airy, acoustic-laced sounds produce lasting pleasures like "I Came All This Way," "No More Empty Words" and the two-part closer, "There's Joy to Be Found ... The Boy Who Caught All the Breaks."

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BO BICE See the Light
While his American Idol conqueror, Carrie Underwood, went on to superstardom, Bice no longer has a major-label deal. But this indie effort, letting him indulge his passion for Southern rock, feels like a labor of love.

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JIMMY EAT WORLD Chase This Light
This solid but unspectacular CD fails to really separate this punk-pop quartet from the Good Charlottes of the world. Still, they keep it punchy on tunes like "Here It Goes" and "Electable (Give It Up)."

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BOYZ II MEN Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA
The boys who brought us "Motownphilly" salute the label that launched them, making for a truly harmonious fit. Best is their a cappella version of Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky."

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• The 22-year-old singer-songwriter has notched a Top 5 pop hit with "Bubbly," the first single off her debut album, Coco.

JOHN MAYER, "I DON'T TRUST MYSELF (WITH LOVING YOU)" My band and I listen to this right before every show. It [puts] us in a good mood and gets us excited to go onstage.

BOB MARLEY, "DON'T ROCK MY BOAT" It has this slow groove that just makes you relax and not have any worries. I would listen to this in Hawaii with my friends while we were at the beach.

FLEETWOOD MAC, "SECOND HAND NEWS" I know every word to this song! It reminds me of my childhood when we used to have pool parties in the backyard with my parents and my sister.

THE ROLLING STONES, "BEAST OF BURDEN" Lifehouse covered this when I toured with them, and now every time I hear it, it brings back good memories.

AMY WINEHOUSE, "TEARS DRY ON THEIR OWN" I heard this song for the first time when I saw one of her concerts in London. It motivates me to get out of the house and do something!

MARY J. BLIGE should have plenty of happy feet on the dance floor with "Just Fine," the feel-good first single from her next album, Growing Pains, due Dec. 11. At music.aol.com.

BLAKE LEWIS splices hip-hop and pop-rock on "Break Anotha," from the American Idol runner-up's Dec. 4 debut. At musicstore.connect.com.

NATASHA BEDINGFIELD pairs with Sean Kingston on the reggae-pop delight "Love Like This," from her upcoming CD N.B. At musicstore.real.com.

• After five decades of recording, the 70-year-old country legend has released his first bluegrass disc, The Bluegrass Sessions.

ON MAKING HIS FIRST BLUEGRASS RECORD I always liked it: Bluegrass was played on country music stations when I was young, but it didn't have a name that I knew of.

ON TODAY'S COUNTRY MUSIC I don't listen to country music on the radio. Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb are still big in my house, and Johnny Cash is still king. That said, I do like Toby Keith. He is probably the last of real country music.

ON MODERN TECHNOLOGY I don't have [an iPod]. I don't have anything of that nature. I don't see the point of the Internet. I know that it has a great deal of [information], but it also has a lot that we don't need that people are getting stuck on.

ON HIS FAVORITE HAGGARD ALBUM I don't have one. I'm really not into my own bathwater. I am not that kind of man.