LeAnn Rimes - You Light Up My Life (Curb Records): With all the songwriting talent in Nashville, one wonders why LeAnn Rimes is singing decades- and centuries-old songs. Instead of cutting-edge country, "You Light Up My Life" has the feeling of musical Velveeta. The homogenization begins with the title track, "You Light Up My Life," Debbie Boone's old hit from the 1970s. It ends with the national anthem. On a high note, the CD is a showcase of the power and range of Rimes's carefully marketed voice. What is lacking is any direction or sense of who Rimes is as a singer and a contributor to the evolving country-music genre.
- Skip Thurman
The Doky Brothers - Doky Brothers 2 (Blue Note): The Doky brothers, pianist Niels Lan Doky and bassist Chris Minh Doky, anchor a superb array of talent on their second album, which should be high on many Top 10 lists at year's end. The brothers touch on several styles as they allow space for their outstanding vocal and instrumental guests. Dianne Reeves sings the lovely Bob Marley tune "Waiting in Vain." Vocalists Al Jarreau and Gino Vanelli are heard on separate tracks. "Reminiscence" gets an almost hymn-like treatment from Toots Thielemans's harmonica. This CD is loaded with everything tasteful, from the compositions and arrangements to the excellent musicianship of the Dokys.
- Dick Bogle
Duran Duran - Medazzaland (Capitol): How does a popular '80s pop-rock band fit into the grunge-filled, electronic '90s? By keeping in step with the times. With their 11th album, "Medazzaland," the flashy glam band uses inventive electronic melodies to achieve a modern, dance-rock sound. The first single, "Electric Barbarella" (borrowing from the 1968 movie), returns to the band's earlier days with a happy, dance-oriented melody. But except for "Big Bang Generation" and "Out of My Mind," the album fails to dazzle. Their new electronic sounds, while innovative, stray too far from the band's roots and sometimes sound like a bad imitation of David Bowie or Nine Inch Nails. Duran Duran should have capitalized on the success of their comeback record, "The Wedding Album," in 1993, which spawned hits "Ordinary World" and "Come Undone." But instead, they made a mediocre album two years later, "Thank You," which consisted of mostly covers including Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay."
- Lisa Leigh Parney
Janet Jackson - The Velvet Rope (Virgin): Janet fans rest assured: "The Velvet Rope" won't leave you hanging. In her familiar soft voice, diva Janet delivers plenty of dance-party tracks interspersed with romantic ballads and slow jams that give her CD a sophisticated rawness. Although the recording tackles civil issues like domestic violence, homophobia, and AIDS, it is more like an open-faced confessional. Jackson sings about her jarring personal problems including her family background. She preludes "Special," a track about loneliness, by whispering, "There's nothing more depressing than having everything and feeling sad." On the snappy "Got 'Til It's Gone," Jackson enlists the help of hip-hopper Q-Tip (of "A Tribe Called Quest") while sampling Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."
- John Christian Hoyle
Todd Rundgren - With a Twist (Guardian): The veteran singer/songwriter weighs in with his personal contribution to the current lounge-music trend, with this collection of his greatest hits reconceived with bossa nova rhythms. It's a gimmick, to be sure, but a highly listenable one, with such classics as "I Saw the Light," "Influenza," and "Love Is the Answer" given a relaxed treatment that emphasizes the beauty of their melodies. Other highlights include a strange and exotic take on "Hello, It's Me," and a simultaneously hokey and moving version of "Never Neverland," from "Peter Pan."
- Frank Scheck
Nancy Wilson - If I Had My Way (Columbia): Vocalist Nancy Wilson, a phrasing role model for so many singers, turns in a stellar performance on her 60th album. Her theme is love, love, and more love. To get the message across, Wilson taps into her seemingly bottomless well of emotional expression. In addition, because this has heavy soul and rhythm-and-blues overtones, singer James Ingram is the perfect companion for Wilson on "Wish You Were Here." The tune "More Love," on a bonus 11th track, is the brightest of all the gems Wilson burnishes to a high luster.
- Dick Bogle
Belle and Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister (The Enclave): Belle and Sebastian, named for a French television series, is a Scottish septet whose debut American release has been rightfully acclaimed as one of the finest albums of the year. Their music is quietly introspective folk rock, with gorgeous, instantly memorable melodies and literate, narrative lyrics. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch bears comparisons to Donovan in his soulful, hushed delivery, and the music recalls the best of British pop, from Nick Drake to the Smiths. The inventive musical arrangements augment traditional rock instruments with cello, violin, trumpet, and keyboards.
- Frank Scheck
Suzzy Roche - Holy Smokes (Red House Records): Twenty years ago the Roches defined a new sound in contemporary folk. Their departure from the folk scene left a void that has remained unfilled even by the amazing number of artists they influenced. With "Holy Smokes," however, sister Suzzy steps forward to fill a significant chunk of that void. The common thread through the 12 songs on her first solo effort is a sweet gentleness. Although much of the writing deals with loss, references to overcoming fear keep the music uplifting. Especially moving is the lovely "Losing" and the celebration of victory just to see her teenage daughter "Breathing."
- Jef Scoville