Sarah McLachlan - Afterglow (Arista): The singer-songwriter who brought us Lilith Fair returns with her first album in five years. No real surprises here: The soothing piano-backed tracks are intact, and so is McLachlan's beautiful voice. But with "Afterglow," she unloads some weighty issues. In the first single, "Fallen," she sings about making up for past mistakes, and in the hummable "Train Wreck" she admits she's a disaster waiting to happen. With such a somber and contemplative mood, one longs for some fun, like her playful hit "Ice Cream." By Lisa Leigh Connors


Josh Ritter - Hello Starling (Signature Sounds): "Quietly profound" and "charming" describes this CD by an unassuming young man from Idaho, who presents these 11 story songs with acoustic guitar, spare accompaniment, and deep sincerity. In "Kathleen," he hangs out in the shadows at a party just for the opportunity to drive a girl home. In another, he finds himself under a crush's window singing "I'd rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know." A leap in songwriting maturity from his acclaimed debut, "Hello Starling" is a humble and moving gem. By John Kehe


Toby Keith - Shock'n Y'all (DreamWorks Records): What do US troops, bars, and pickup trucks have in common? They all are what Ford pitchman Toby Keith loves to sing about, and, apparently, what country music fans want to hear. This CD already has sold more than a half million copies since its release Nov. 4. "I Love This Bar" is vying to become an anthem at watering holes. And "American Soldier" is a nice addition to Keith's growing repetoire of patriotic songs. The "shock'n" portion is provided by "The Taliban Song," which rips the radical religious group, while "Weed with Willie" delves into the unpleasant effects of smoking marijuana. By Vic Roberts


Coldplay - Live 2003 (Capitol): There's only a brief glimpse of Gwyneth Paltrow in a shot of the audience on this DVD/CD live release. But her boyfriend, singer Chris Martin, does sing a new song, "Moses," that was written for her. It's a corker, too, propelled by a Jon Buckland guitar riff that's as sweet as Martin's falsetto. The concert was recorded in Australia and shows how far the vocalist has come as a frontman, whether he's leaping up and down during "Yellow" - which sounds sprightlier than ever - or hunched intently over a piano on "Amsterdam." By Stephen Humphries

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