Growing Pains |

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

R&B

Three things you can count on: death, taxes and good Mary J. Blige albums. And her eighth studio disc, easily on par with 2005's Grammy-winning hit The Breakthrough, is often better than good (if not perfect). Take the great first single, "Just Fine." Riding a killer dance groove reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," a blissed-out Blige exorcises all the demons fans have listened to her battle over the years. It's an instant MJB classic. She keeps the party going on "Till the Morning," a bass-heavy, Neptunes-produced jam that echoes the Taana Gardner disco gem "Heartbeat." And it wouldn't be a Mary J. CD without some soul-baring ballads. Best include the thorns-and-all "Roses" and the hauntingly melancholy "Fade Away," on which Blige shares her pain as only she can.

The Big Doe Rehab |

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RAP

Fishscale—the first of two CDs from Ghostface Killah last year—was one of the best rap discs of 2006. Having reached such artistic heights, his latest comes as a bit of a letdown: Its lyrics are less gripping, its beats less grabby. Even not at his dopest, Ghostface still comes through with more gritty tales and soulful sounds. Highlights include the strutting "Supa GFK," which samples Johnny "Guitar" Watson's R&B oldie "Superman Lover."

DOWNLOAD THIS: "We Celebrate," an old-school party jam

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What's the 411? (1992) The debut that instantly crowned her the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

My Life (1994) Her masterpiece, hands down.

Mary (1999) Blige furthers her move away from hip-hop toward classic soul. Even pairs with Aretha.

The Breakthrough (2005) Grammy gold.

JAMES TAYLOR One Man Band
Taylor doesn't quite fly solo—he has a keyboardist—as he revisits his hits (like the ever-soothing "You've Got a Friend") at a stripped-down show in his Massachusetts hometown. Packs a companion DVD.

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THE-DREAM Love Hate
There's nothing remotely as addictive as "Umbrella"—the No. 1 smash he cowrote for Rihanna—on The-Dream's R&B debut. But tracks like the hit "Shawty Is a 10" and the Prince-inspired "Fast Car" still win him some affection.

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R.E.M. R.E.M. Live
R.E.M.'s first live album (which comes with a DVD) may be a bit heavy on Around the Sun, but it still delivers. Highlights from this 2005 Dublin show include "Everybody Hurts," which becomes a cathartic audience sing-along.

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GARY ALLAN Living Hard
He may not have the wattage of country contemporaries like Keith Urban and Tim McGraw, but Allan shouldn't be overlooked. His latest CD is consistently rewarding, from the rueful "Watching Airplanes" to the rocking title tune.

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• The ex-Fugee, 38, mingles with Shakira, Norah Jones and Paul Simon on Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant.

ON CUTTING HIS DREADS I look the way I looked in 1994, on the first Fugees [album] cover. I felt like it was a rebirth, a new start.

ON WILL.I.AM COMPARISONS When I wear my hat, I'm always mistaken for will.i.am. He does look like one of my brothers. I told him, "We need to do a record where I'm telling people I'm will.i.am and you're telling people you're Clef."

ON THE ABORTED FUGEES REUNION I slowed down a great portion of what I was doing because I was waiting on the Fugees album. The last time I spoke to Lauryn Hill was like a year and a half ago. She just needs to get better. I'm real tight with Pras. I would never play the band out [and do an album without Hill].

ON STAYING HIP I've been in [the music biz] since 17. You go through asking yourself if you're still cool. You can't try to be on the "Hey Baby" remix when you're 38.

LENNY KRAVITZ delivers the impassioned rock ballad "I'll Be Waiting," from his eighth studio release, It Is Time for a Love Revolution, due Feb. 5. At iTunes.com.

CAT POWER pays moving tribute to Bob Dylan with the solemn folk of "Song to Bobby," the sole new song on her covers album Jukebox, out Jan. 22. At napster.com.

ERYKAH BADU returns with the sweetly soulful "Honey," a preview of her first full-length disc since 2000, arriving Feb. 26. At musicstore.real.com.