The Essential Bruce Springsteen (Columbia): The Boss's lyrics evoke images of life in steel towns hemmed in by railroads, where rust and weed cling to the tracks like barnacles. Here, the American dream remains tantalizingly just out of reach for the working man. Here, young love affairs are dashed on the moonlit boardwalks where they began. And it's here that unsung heroes hold out hope for better days. The best known of those vivid stories are included on the first two discs, ranging from "Thunder Road," "Born to Run," and "Hungry Heart" right through to highlights from "The Rising" album. But it's the third disc of rarities that elevates this collection. It includes rattling live versions of "Trapped" and "Code of Silence," as well as "Missing," a haunting track from the mid-'90s that heralded Springsteen's rejuvenation as a songwriter. By Stephen Humphries

Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach (Dreamworks): The common opinion is that Dionne Warwick has been, and always will be, the definitive voice of the Bacharach/David songbook. Well move over, Dionne, Ronald Isley has something to say about that. Now in his sixth decade of music-making, the soulful singer of the Isley Bros. wraps his emotive falsetto around 10 familiar chestnuts and two excellent new Bacharach compositions, recorded live in front of full orchestra - just as in the old days. There's always been a late-night vibe about the Isleys, and here brother Ron teases every romantic drop out of classics like "Alfie" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart." With updated arrangements perfectly complementing Isley's remarkable voice and phrasing, the whole CD feels like a warm caress. By John Kehe

The Very Best of Sheryl Crow (A&M Records): To build this fine collection, multiple Grammy winner Sheryl Crow pulls 13 tracks from her first four highly successful CDs of the past 10 years. Of course, no "best of" is complete without new material. In this case, there are two versions - rock and country - of the old Cat Stevens tune, "The First Cut Is The Deepest." You'll also get this year's hit duet with Kid Rock, "Picture," and one new song, the upbeat "Light In Your Eyes." The biggest disappointment: Unless you buy the DVD version, you miss out on "Anything But Down." It's anybody's guess how that catchy tune could be left out while two dirges - "The Difficult Kind" and "I Shall Believe" - made the cut. By Vic Roberts


Wax Poetic - Nublu Sessions (Ultra Records): Norah Jones may come across as a demure girl, but one can almost imagine her lustily grabbing the microphone during her assertive vocal on "Angel," one of two single-worthy tracks on which she guests for Wax Poetic's album. It's the Grammy winner's way of saying thank you to the New York jazz combo she sang in prior to her solo career. The band, led by Ilhan Ersahin, certainly has an impressive Rolodex: Spoken-word artist Saul Williams and soul singer N'Dea Davenport also drop by to further the cocktail-lounge group's bold excursions into Brazilian rhythms, Middle Eastern motifs, dance-hall reggae, and DJ trip-hop. - S.H.

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