Confessions on a Dance Floor
She may have had her share of movie flops—Swept Away, anyone?—but Madonna's last CD, 2003's American Life, was, by her standards, her first bona fide music flop, the worst-selling album in her 23-year career. Forget that nasty riding spill on her birthday in August—this tumble really hurt. But buoyed by the success of last year's Re-Invention Tour, a hits-heavy retrospective, Madonna gets back to giving the people what they want on her body-rocking latest. She doesn't make like a folkie. She doesn't rap about doing Pilates. She doesn't strike a militant pose. She simply gets into the groove, returning to her club roots with her first all-dance disc since her 1983 self-titled debut (which is still the best Madonna album in this reviewer's mind). In fact, Confessions—most of which was coproduced and cowritten by British deejay Stuart Price—is continuously mixed to capture the experience of losing yourself under the disco ball without missing a beat. Many of the cuts balance the '80s synth pop of Madonna's early years with the futuristic, electronica-infused sound she has embraced since 1998's Ray of Light.
"Hung Up," the insanely hypnotic single, samples Abba's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" and sounds like "Call Me"-era Blondie with a techno throb. A new-wavish energy also drives pulsating tracks like "Jump," while the rock-tinged "I Love New York" cops a punky attitude as it evokes the time when Madonna got her start in the city. Now, of course, she's an English lady of the manor who writes children's books and goes to Kabbalah classes. But Esther trips up when she gets all mystical on "Isaac," which features a reading by one of her Kabbalah buddies. However, her spiritual enlightenment does lend perspective when she looks back on her career on "Let It Will Be," one of Confessions' most revealing and richest songs: "Now I can tell you/ About the place I belong/ You know it won't last long/And all those lights, they will turn down." For now, though, the strobe lights still shine bright.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Hung Up"
The Road and the Radio
Whatever really went down in the blink-and-you-missed-it marriage of Kenny Chesney and Renée Zellweger—she filed for an annulment in September, just four months after their wedding—it sounds like the stuff of which great country songs are made. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of those on Chesney's new CD (his second this year, following Be As You Are: Songs from an Old Blue Chair). The middling Road finds Chesney continuing along a radio-friendly path lined with carefree romps, tear-jerkers and drinking songs. Two of the best tunes might provide a few clues about what went wrong with Zellweger, hinting that his career wasn't conducive to settling down. He sings about being a "hillbilly rock star out of control" on the spirited "Living in Fast Forward," while on the wistful "Like Me," he offers this motto: "Have guitar, will travel light."
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Living in Fast Forward"
Genius & Friends
His Grammy-winning duets CD, Genius Loves Company, gave Ray Charles a second life after his death last year. But this less satisfying sequel, which pairs him with everyone from Diana Ross and Willie Nelson to George Michael and Alicia Keys, feels like a last-gasp attempt to cash in on his revival. Charles's gritty, gospel-charged style is ill suited to the glossy R&B and pop arrangements on many of these tracks. Still, some friends really come through, including newcomer Leela James on a rousing rendition of "Compared to What" that truly measures up to the Genius's legacy.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Compared to What"
Before Fiona Apple, before Tori Amos, Kate Bush was the goddess of avant-garde pop. But it seemed as if the otherwordly soprano really had moved to another planet following her last release, 1993's The Red Shoes. After a 12-year break, during which she took time out for motherhood, the British enchantress has landed back with a double album that's ambitious even for her. At 80 minutes total, the lushly atmospheric Aerial isn't much longer than many single CDs, but it has two distinct realms: Disc 1, subtitled A Sea of Honey, showcases Bush's sweetly fluid vocals and evocative soundscapes on songs like "[pi],"on which she sings a sequence of the infinite series of numbers and makes it sound beautiful. Disc 2, subtitled A Sky of Honey, is an even artier conceptual work that follows a day from afternoon to sunrise, complete with bird sounds. While Aerial may sometimes be a bit too high-minded for its own good, it's easy to get lost in Bush's sonic reverie.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "King of the Mountain"
R & B
Back II Da Basics
Since his 1996 debut, Ginuwine has showed real staying power in the flavor-of-the-month world of contemporary R&B, notching four hit albums. His fifth disc finds the smooth loveman returning to his female-friendly foundations with lots of sensual mid-tempo grooves and bedroom-eyed ballads. His slow jams go from romantic (the wedding-ready "Better Half") to racy (the Isley Brothers-ish "When We Make Love"), and he nicely takes it back to an old-school soul vibe on tracks like "Want You to Be." But the CD lacks a genuine club banger and its approach sometimes feels a little too basic.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Better Half"