Mariah Carey (MonarC/Island)
After suffering a much-publicized breakdown and being paid $28 million to sever her contract with Virgin Records following the lackluster performance of last year's Glitter soundtrack, Mariah Carey reemerges with her own new label (MonarC Music) and the same old glass-shattering pipes. Those looking for signs of any post-meltdown catharsis will find a few clues in the album's first single, the unusually understated ballad "Through the Rain": "I can make it through the rain/I can stand up once again/On my own and I know/That I'm strong enough to mend."
Sounding confident and in fine voice throughout Charmbracelet, the pop diva picks up where she left off pre-Glitter, mixing her trademark ballads with hip-hoppish R&B cuts. In fact Carey brings in rappers for 5 of the disc's 15 tracks. Although a couple of these songs work (including "You Got Me" with Jay-Z), Carey is no Mary J. Blige when it comes to hip-hop soul. She's better off sticking to classy slow jams like the ethereal "Yours" and the gospel-infused "My Saving Grace," which recall early albums like her 1990 self-titled debut. On these tracks Carey is at her most charming.
BOTTOM LINE: Mended Mariah
The Last Temptation
Ja Rule (Def Jam)
Ja Rule is keeping Stevie Wonder raking in the royalties. After borrowing from Wonder's "Do I Do" on "Livin' It Up," the first single off last year's triple-platinum Pain Is Love, the gruff-voiced rapper leads off the follow-up with "Thug Lovin'," which reworks Stevie's "Knocks Me off My Feet." Like much of this disc, "Thug Lovin' " (which features a guest vocal by Bobby Brown) continues to blur the lines between rap and R&B by incorporating retro-soul hooks. While the results aren't as fresh as they were on his No. 1 hit "Always on Time" (featuring Ashanti, who also appears on two tracks here), it still makes for some hummable hip-hop. Ja bites off everything from Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross's "Stop, Look, Listen" to Gwen McCrae's disco hit "Funky Sensation." He even nods to '80s pop by using the undulating rhythms of Toto's "Africa" as the musical bed for "Murder Reigns."
BOTTOM LINE: An appealing Temptation
Barbra Streisand (Columbia)
Noted political analyst Streisand, whose Web site bubbles with instructions on how to run the country, needs to get back to her day job while she still has her voice; she hasn't recorded a new album in three years. Fans will have to make do with this career-spanning assortment, which includes only two new tracks. Both (one with Barry Manilow, the other with Josh Groban) are serviceable weepies, but neither tops the tear-duct-battering omnipotence of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Neil Diamond and "All I Ask of You" (from Phantom of the Opera) with Michael Crawford. Old favorites with Barry Gibb, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis work as well as ever, though it's awfully familiar stuff. (And who told her to sing with Bryan Adams?) More welcome are a couple of unexpected treats like a sprightly "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" from 1966, sung with its composer Harold Arlen in the hepcat style of a Caesars Palace floor show.
BOTTOM LINE: Mellow gold
With last year's dreadful debut, O-Town gave boy bands—and the quintet's namesake city, Orlando—a bad name. On the follow-up, the group created on the TV series Making the Band again sounds like a bunch of American Idol rejects. O-Town plays to the Disney crowd on treacly ballads and tired up-tempo numbers like "I Only Dance with You," which, lifting from "Careless Whisper," may give you new appreciation for Wham! Worse is when they attempt to go hip-hop on corny cuts such as the rap-injected "Make Her Say" (sample lyric: "She's as cool as an Eskimo") that would make even Mickey Mouse cringe.
BOTTOM LINE: Sophomoric sophomore effort
Album of the week
One Nite Alone...Live!
"If you drove up here in a 'Little Red Corvette,' you might be surprised at what you gon' get," says Prince on his first-ever live release, warning concertgoers that this is no greatest-hits parade. "Raspberry Beret," "Alphabet St." and "Diamonds and Pearls" are the only Top 10 singles included on three discs recorded during this year's One Nite Alone tour and the aftershow held in select cities. Turning to material from 2001's little-heard The Rainbow Children and cult faves like "When You Were Mine," His Purpleness shows why he still rules as a live performer. Displaying nonpareil versatility, Prince, backed by a classically funky band, works in a jazz motif for the Rainbow Children songs, while jamming old-school style with guests George Clinton and Musiq elsewhere. Best, though, is when he sits at the piano for a showstopping suite that brilliantly segues from "Adore" to "I Wanna Be Your Lover." He remains on the keys for a bonus studio disc of mellow new material, including a gorgeous cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You."
BOTTOM LINE: Gets a standing O