Ricky Martin (Sony Discos)
Before Ricky Martin began livin' la vida loca as a crossover artist in 1999, the singer had released four hit Spanish-language solo albums. The Puerto Rican heartthrob returns to his roots on Almas del Silencio (translation: Souls of Silence), his first disc in Spanish since 1998's Grammy-winning Vuelve, and it easily tops both of his English-language CDs. Singing with more passion in his native tongue, Martin brings considerable brio to upbeat, up-tempo numbers such as the fiesta-starting first single, "Jaleo," which exuberantly piles on Spanish and rock guitar, banging percussion and even hip-hop scratching. On romantic, pop-sheened ballads like the string-laden "Nadie Más Que Tu," the only song that Martin helped write, his delivery is earnest and heartfelt. Several big Latin pop stars pitch in, including Spain's Alejandro Sanz, who wrote the spare (piano and cello) title tune, and Guatemala's Ricardo Arjona, composer of "Asignatura Pendiente," a country-tinged ballad based on Martin's life that inspires his most affecting vocal.
BOTTOM LINE: Rousing Ricky
Earth, Wind & Fire (Kalimba)
On Earth, Wind & Fire's first album of new material in six years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers showcase the same elements that made them one of the most important R&B acts of the '70s: brassy horn arrangements; exotic, African-accented percussion; and the starkly contrasting lead vocals of founder Maurice White's mellifluous baritone and Philip Bailey's still impossibly high falsetto. While the CD can't match such classic EWF discs as 1977's All 'N All, the creative fire has been rekindled on a musically rich 17-track set (including five trademark instrumental interludes) that blows away most of today's R&B. The band smoothly shifts between funky, finger-popping mid-tempo numbers like "All in the Way" (on which the Emotions, who appeared on EWF's 1979 hit "Boogie Wonderland," once again supply guest vocals) and soulful slow jams like "Where Do We Go from Here" that recapture that '70s feeling.
BOTTOM LINE: Ever fertile Earth
American Idol Season 2
All-Time Classic American Love Songs
Various Artists (RCA)
The good news is that this compilation of love songs performed by the Idol finalists is much better than last year's dreadful Greatest Moments disc featuring the first season's lineup. The bad news is this is still a CD that not even Paula Abdul could gush about. While the album boasts respectable remakes like Ruben Studdard's Luther Vandross-like version of "Superstar," it also includes Bottom Three-worthy turns like Corey Clark's painful cover of Journey's "Open Arms." Worst, though, is the group sing-along "What the World Needs Now Is Love."
BOTTOM LINE: Far from classic
Rainy Day Music
The Jayhawks (Lost Highway)
After helping establish the alt-country sound in the early '90s, the Jayhawks experimented with more marketable material for a while. But on this, their seventh disc, the group has eased back into summery strumming, dreamy lyrics and understated harmonizing. Less spare than Gram Parsons but not as layered with flourishes as the Byrds, the Minneapolis quartet exerts a gentle pull that grows on you the more you listen. Banjos, steel guitars and occasional blasts of jagged Neil Young-style electric guitars fill out an all-American sound rich with the dust of prairie roads, cheap hotels and wandering, questioning youth. The Jayhawks would make a fine opening act for, say, the Eagles.
BOTTOM LINE: Rootsy, rugged, rewarding
The Old Kit Bag
Richard Thompson (spinART)
Although it has been 35 years since Thompson made his recording debut as a founding member of the British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, the singer-songwriter still has some tricks left in his Bag. On his 12th solo disc Thompson, 54, continues to write literate, sometimes esoteric songs, which he sings in a reedy, resonant tenor that suggests Van Morrison with diction lessons. Thompson also plays a variety of instruments, most notably guitar, which he wields with an ethereal delicacy that evokes a combination of Eric Clapton and the late Belgian jazz artist Django Reinhardt. The songs range widely from the glib, pop-oriented "I'll Tag Along" ("You could be my kind of crowd/Little bit edgy, little bit loud") to the light-rocking "Gethsemane," on which Thompson turns to the New Testament, one of his favorite sources of inspiration.
BOTTOM LINE: A '60s hero admirably soldiers on
Atomic Kitten (virgin)
Atomic Kitten, the latest pop act to emerge from Liverpool, won't make anybody forget the Beatles. Instead, Jenny Frost, Natasha Hamilton and Liz McClarnon, who make up this U.K. chart-topping girl group, sound more like Kylie Minogue's three little sisters on their fun but flyweight American debut (which consists of 12 songs culled from Atomic Kitten's two previous hit European releases). Minogue, in fact, cowrote "Feels So Good," a frothy disco rush, while another club-ready confection, "Love Won't Wait," was cowritten by Rob Davis, who contributed to several tunes on Minogue's Fever last year. The CD also features two harmless, hip-hop-inflected covers of '80s songs that will be familiar to American ears: Biondie's 1980 hit "The Tide Is High" and the Bangles' 1989 No. 1 "Eternal Flame."
BOTTOM LINE: A giddy good time
The Golden Age of Grotesque
Marilyn Manson (Interscope)
"I'm not ashamed, you're entertained/ But I'm not a puppet, I am a grenade," sings shock rocker Marilyn Manson on the angry, burlesque "Vodevil," one of 15 tracks on his highly profane new disc. Underneath all the eerie makeup, though, Manson reveals surprising musical prowess. His ambient goth-rock operas meld detailed orchestrations with industrial abrasiveness. Manson punctuates the vivid, swirling title cut with strings, horns and gunshots. But the standout is the closer, "Obsequy (The Death of Art)," a striking instrumental that blends subdued piano, violin and TV noise.
BOTTOM LINE: Wicked
Birds of Pray
Since taking off with 1994's 8-million-selling Throwing Copper, Live has been seen as the poor man's U2. That's not about to change with the quartet's predictable sixth CD, thanks to its anthemic rockers and lead singer Ed Kowalczyk's idealistic, spiritual lyrics. On "What Are We Fighting For?" they rail against religious warfare: "The crucifix ain't no baseball bat." On "The Sanctity of Dreams," they imagine a world "where no one waits to die before they go into the light." It's nothing that U2 hasn't said before—and better. What Live lacks in originality, though, they help compensate for with the tight musicianship that comes from having played together since middle school.
BOTTOM LINE: Lukewarm Live