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Kevin Federline "Playing With Fire"


(Reincarnate Music)

Is all the hilariously negative hype surrounding the debut album of Britney Spears' soon-to-be ex true? One should have little reason to think otherwise — unless you actually listen to a few cuts. If Federline's first single, "PopoZao" (later yanked from the album — good call, K-Fed), was any indication of how laughable Federline's rhyming was, maybe his production team deserves a few props for saving a potential train wreck. On tracks such as "Lose Control" and "Snap," Fed actually proves he can flow like a legitimate MC, and he does it over beats and melodies that will get many a college co-ed up and shaking their "popozao" on the dance floor. So is Federline completely off the hook for all of his shameless self-promotion and his crusty, unshowered look? Uh, no. With lyrics that are quite often silly and cliché (clubbing, getting "hated on," hot rides and herb), this album will not be in the running for rap album of the year. But will it be nominated for the most surprisingly listenable? Perhaps. *** — Mike Kulick

The Hold Steady "Boys and Girls in America"


(Vagrant)
They're based in Brooklyn, but The Hold Steady left its heart in Minneapolis, the town that singer Craig Finn left in 2000 following the dissolution of his earlier band, Lifter Puller. Everything about Hold Steady is unpretentious and workmanlike, from its simple, driving guitar riffs to Finn's half-spoken delivery reminiscent of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott. On its third album, which already is being hailed as a breakthrough, the band fleshes out the arrangements with rollicking piano and organ to conjure the sound of the E Street Band circa "Rosalita." It's the perfect sonic backdrop for Finn's poetic, detail-rich tales of average kids stuck in suburban purgatory, too scattered by confusion and heavy partying to form any meaningful connections. Wide-screen rock snapshots like "Party Pit" and "Hot Soft Light" sit easily next to thoughtful, affecting ballads like "First Night" and "Citrus," resulting in a balanced album even better than the sum of its considerable parts. No question, "Boys and Girls in America" is one of 2006's very best rock records. ****

— Mark Richardson

Buddy Guy "Can't Quit the Blues"


Box Set (Legacy)

At age 70, blues legend Buddy Guy still wields his guitar like a flaming machete, dripping with raw feeling. He only recently joined the Rolling Stones onstage in New York for a blistering version of "Champagne and Reefer" in honor of Bill Clinton's birthday. This three-disc set (plus one worthwhile DVD documentary) contains 47 of his most legendary tracks from the late '50s in Chicago to today. One can hear him blossom from a Chess Records sideman, forced to play a limited role for all-time greats, into a soloist given free reign to unleash ferocious, paint-peeling jams such as "I Smell a Rat" from his 1979 breakout, "Stone Crazy." A heavy influence on all the classic rockers from Clapton to Hendrix, Guy was always known more for his fearless live performances than his studio albums. But his recorded career has aged well, with diversity and grace. This collection could've used more than four live performances (two from a Scorsese documentary) and five unreleased studio tracks — but that's a small quibble when the singing and playing are so masterful throughout. A great introduction and no-brainer for Guy fans short on his albums. **** — Brent Baldwin

John Legend "Once Again"

(Sony)

Having already proven that his name suits him, Legend dazzles audiences once again. Reminiscent of the late Marvin Gaye, he melds mature lyrics of love (and love lost) and songs of lust and saucy romances with his usual breathtaking melodies.

But something sounds different on this album. If you didn't know that the Beatles are one of Legend's influences, the single "Save Some" erases any doubt. And after hearing tracks four and seven, it's impossible to deny the Jimi Hendrix influence floating about as well.

Also impressive is Legend's vocal maturity and his choice of varying background vocal styles. From soft and supportive to boisterous and leading, the background singing provides a perfect, satisfying mix. Perhaps the most amazing accomplishment of them all, Legend delivers "Once Again" without a single collaboration with a guest artist — very rare these days. Just John. Just music. What else do you need? *****— Shaina C. Farrow

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