In the wake of the success of Senegalese-born Akon on the U.S. charts, Somalia native K'NAAN and Rwandan-raised Corneille have emerged as fresh, important voices from Africa with two of the year's most compelling releases.

Corneille, a major star in France, makes his English-language debut with a glistening set of sexy, sophisticated soul-pop that'll win over fans of both Seal and George Michael. In fact, Corneille's ultra-smooth delivery brings to mind a less raspy, more satiny version of Seal on lush midtempo gems like the jazz-kissed "Back to Life" and the acoustic-guitar-sweetened "A Man of This World." Meanwhile he addresses the Rwandan genocide that claimed his family on the poignant ballad "I'll Never Call You Home Again."


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K'naan Also Recalls the Struggles in His Motherland, Acting as a "Visual Stenographer" with Vivid Lyrics That Are Both Rapped and Sung. He's Just as Versatile Stylistically, Going from Hard-Hitting Reggae ("I Come Prepared" with Damian Marley) and headbanging rock ("If Rap Gets Jealous" with Metallica shredder Kirk Hammett) to OutKast-meets-Maroon5 hip-pop ("Bang Bang" with Adam Levine).Love vs Money |

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There's nothing on The-Dream's second album that can compete with the best songs he's helped write for others, like Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and Rihanna's "Umbrella." Still, this follow-up to 2007's Love Hate shows that he's saved some good stuff for himself too, most notably the Princely hit single "Rockin' That Thang" (or "Rockin' That Sh--" on the explicit version). Less memorable for its individual tunes, though, this disc works more like a sex soundtrack inspired by R. Kelly's 12 Play, after which he even titles one slow jam.

The Distance |

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Let's face it, no one is expecting much from Taylor Hicks, the forgotten American Idol who won what was really the Chris Daughtry season. While his new CD is unlikely to spark a resurgence in the Soul Patrol, it reminds us why he took the crown. Hicks recovers from some predictably hokey moments to score with his white-boy R&B on tracks like "Maybe You Should," a ballad with shades of blues and gospel, and "What's Right Is Right," the Michael McDonald-esque highlight.

Lessons to Be Learned |

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As a student of pop music, this 17-year-old singer-songwriter from Australia has clearly been on the AP track. With her tangy, torchy delivery, Cilmi comes from the same vocal school as Amy Winehouse and Duffy, while also sharing their appreciation for '60s sounds (see: "Sanctuary"). But Cilmi has also learned a few things from Shakira and fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue. It's all paying off: Last year she won six ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Awards for this, her impressive debut, and recently was one of VH1's You Oughta Know artists. Hopefully she's just getting started.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Sweet About Me," a sultry, swaying confection

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>JESSE HARRIS Watching the Sky Another disc, another fine effort from this underappreciated singer-songwriter, who continues to deliver on subtle pleasures like the breezy horns on the title track and a guest turn from Norah Jones.

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MARIANNE FAITHFULL Easy Come, Easy Go Leave it to old Faithfull to come up with one of the coolest collections of covers we've heard lately. The guests (Keith Richards, Rufus Wainwright) are as eclectic as the material (Billie Holiday, Morrissey).

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J. HOLIDAY Round 2 This R&B singer is coming off a Grammy nomination for his gold debut, Back of My Lac'. On the follow-up there are some solid smoothies, such as "Fall," but he still mostly comes off like the poor man's Ne-Yo.

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LIVING THINGS Habeas Corpus Nothing like a little Latin to make you think a rock band is getting all highfalutin' on you. But things are pretty routine from this quartet with three brothers—though nowhere near as good as the JoBros.

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>• The former Trick Pony frontwoman, 38, is up for five ACM Awards April 5 for her solo debut, What Am I Waiting For.

ON THE ACM NODS I thought I might be lucky enough to get a nomination or two, but they kept calling my name! It felt wonderful that the Academy welcomed me into the family on my own.

ON GOING SOLO To not have that safety zone was a little scary, but I was up for the challenge. I was ready to evolve. I still keep up with the [Trick Pony] guys. But we don't talk about [reuniting] at all.

ON HER COUNTRY IDOL Loretta Lynn was one of my heroes. I loved her natural approach to songwriting and singing. There never was a fake bone in her body. And she wasn't scared to write about things that were edgy. Any woman who had a song banned from country radio is pretty cool to me!

>• They're now kicking it as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Hip yourself to the hip-hop clan with these CDs.

THINGS FALL APART (1999) An alt-rap classic featuring "You Got Me," their Grammy-winning collaboration with Erykah Badu, who also worked with them on Baduizm.

THE ROOTS COME ALIVE (1999) This groundbreaker bucked the idea that rap doesn't make for good concert albums by showing Roots could really deliver live.

PHRENOLOGY (2002) Pushes the boundaries of hip-hop to mind-blowing, genre-bending extremes, with vocal assists from Jill Scott, Nelly Furtado and Musiq Soulchild.

RISING DOWN (2008) Their latest may have a dark, sociopolitical tone, but it ends on a more upbeat note with "Rising Up," the jazzy, soulful highlight with Chrisette Michele.