That old-time swing

CELINE DION – Taking Chances

(Columbia): "What do you say to taking chances?" Celine Dion belts in the title track of her first full-length studio release since 2003. Ironically, Dion plays it safe, stuffing the 16-track album with traditional power ballads and steadfast pop tunes. But she does successfully branch out on the sultry "Eyes on Me" with pulsating Middle Eastern rhythms. Dion also earns her rock credentials with the spitefully feisty "This Time," a track produced by ex-Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody. Dion brings it home in true diva style on "That's Just The Woman In Me," soulfully proclaiming she needs a man to "respect me, protect me, rule over, drool over." Grade: B-

– Amy Brittain

ARETHA FRANKLIN – Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets With the Queen

(Arista): The Queen of Soul offers fans the perfect stocking stuffer: a collection of duets with extraordinary musical talents. Most of the duets are old favorites recorded in the 1980s and 1990s, such as "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me," with George Michael, "Through the Storm," with Elton John, and "Chain of Fools," with Mariah Carey. Franklin's new single, "Put You Up On Game," with 2004 American Idol winner Fantasia, falls a bit flat in an attempt to appeal to the current R&B crowd. Rather, the best new surprise is "What Y'all Came to Do," a toe-tapping, impossible-to-sit-still tune featuring John Legend that reaffirms the Queen still reigns supreme. Grade: A-

– A.B.


(J Records): Alicia Keys, nine-time Grammy winner and multi-platinum recording artist, is still saddled with that same old label: smart and artistic outsider, circling the periphery of the R&B scene. In truth, of course, Keys is a pop star, and her best music has always borne a distinctly mainstream sensibility. "As I Am" arrives as belated proof of intent – a polished and chromatic hookfest, colored by a handful of chart-ready platitudes ("Sometimes I feel like I don't belong anywhere," goes the first line to "Prelude to a Kiss"). Still, Keys does this stuff better than most. From the airtight vamp of "Go Ahead" to the frenetic "Where Do We Go From Here," "As I Am" roars with pop heart. Grade: B

– Matthew Shaer

SEAL – System

(Warner Bros.): Seal songs tend to get stuck in your head, but not because they're easy to hum. Rather, his passionate baritone and soulful lyrics strike subtle emotional chords that ring for hours. On "System," his fifth album, Seal brings his signature heartfelt intensity. The listening experience, however, leaves something to be desired. In a departure from the raw ballads of his past three albums, Seal returns to his techno roots by glossing nine of the album's 11 tracks with dance beats. That's not necessarily a bad thing. His best-ever song, "Crazy," (from his debut album) is a marvelous fusion of tribal percussion, sinewy synths, and triumphant vocals. Applied to "System," the result is mixed. On the blast-it-in-your-car title track, the head-nodding rhythm works quite well. On most of the others, it creates acoustic cotton candy – sweet and light, but no nourishment. That's a shame, because "Amazing" would be amazing sans the dance overlay. For a different sample of the album, listen to "Wedding Day," his duet with supermodel wife Heidi Klum. Grade: C+ – Josh Burek

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