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R&B: Alicia Keys,
(**** out of four) Keys has won Grammys, sold millions of albums and staged major tours, but her musicianship and personal warmth are best appreciated in an intimate setting. This concert was recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in July for MTV's Unplugged series. It is a perfect venue for the singer/pianist, who is unafraid to play with the arrangements of her hits (Fallin', You Don't Know My Name) or to reimagine cover songs (Every Little Bit Hurts, If I Were Your Woman). She introduces new music, including her playful hit Unbreakable, co-written with Kanye West, and the soulful Stolen Moments. Guest stars are limited to Maroon 5 guitarist Adam Levine, who joins her on a stirring rendition of Wild Horses (by the Rolling Stones) and rappers Common, Mos Def and Damian Marley on the finale, Love It or Leave It Alone/Welcome to Jamrock. The passion she pours into Unplugged shows why she should be a lasting star. -- Steve Jones
Pop/rock: Ricky Martin,
(***) On his first English-language album since 2000's Sound Loaded, the late-'90s Latin crossover sensation offers sounds loaded with exotic accents. Working with pop, urban and world-music collaborators from Daddy Yankee to The Matrix to Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am, Martin folds reggaeton, hip-hop and Eastern textures into an accessible melting pot. And driving, dance-friendly numbers such as the title track and Drop It on Me should accommodate Martin's trademark exuberant live performances. -- Elysa Gardner
The Magic Numbers
(***) Thankfully, there's nothing gimmicky about brother-sister pairs Romeo and Michele Stodart and Angela and Sean Gannon, the family fusion act based in London by way of New York and Trinidad. While devoted to joyful pop and memorable melodies, the foursome is less an expanded update of The Carpenters than a throwback to the Beach Boys and Lovin' Spoonful. The quartet traffics in sunny, poppish folk, country and three-part harmonies, plying hope and heartbreak into delicate, jangly tunes. Though a couple of ballads sound feeble and precious, much of Magic conjures the charms of classic '60s pop. -- Edna Gundersen
The Day After
(***) The Chicago native spent more than a decade trying to break through and managed it with last year's Kamikaze album and Overnite Celebrity single. Now, the man with the fastest flow in hip-hop has reloaded with another set of swaggering rapid-fire anthems and sex-you-up ballads. On the Pharrell-produced Lavish, he talks about living out your dreams, then the pair combine with Jamie Foxx for A.I.O.U., a fun-loving come-on. Girl Tonite, with Trey Songz, floats over a sexy R&B groove. But Twista gets serious with his explicit boasts on Do Wrong, trading lines with Lil' Kim over a classic Al Green sample. The Day After guarantees that he won't end up an overnite celebrity himself. -- Jones
Country: Gary Allan,
Tough All Over
(****) "I just got back from hell," Allan sings on his first album since his wife's suicide last October, his voice still clearly shaken by the trip. Sometimes chilling, always heartbreaking, songs such as Puttin' My Misery on Display and an achingly beautiful remake of Vertical Horizon's Best I Ever Had show scars of grief just as plain as the tattoos on Allan's arms. Few country singers travel so far down that lost highway Hank Williams once sang about; fewer still make it far enough back to sing, "Life ain't always beautiful, but it's a beautiful ride." -- Brian Mansfield
Gospel: Kirk Franklin,
(*** 1/2) Franklin has always been a gospel star as likely to appeal to the unconverted as to the average churchgoer. His empathy for the struggling and downtrodden and optimism that trouble can be overcome by faith give his music depth. His willingness to get funky in the process adds to the joy. He samples familiar R&B classics as he talks about getting through dark times brought on by poverty, homelessness, low self-esteem and other social ills. The album begins with what seems like a typical children's choir singing America the Beautiful. Then he announces they are actually African children suffering from AIDS. While there is plenty of foot-stomping and hand-clapping inspired by the music, he makes his serious intent clear. -- Jones
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