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Phil Vassar

Traveling Circus


Buy if you like: Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley

Despite writing hits for the likes of Tim McGraw and Jo Dee Messina, and then a string of hits on his own albums, Vassar has never been able to break through to the upper tier of country stars. The problem hasn't been Vassar's songs or his singing so much that, as a hatless piano player, he doesn't fit the mold of a country superstar. Chances are Traveling Circus won't change things, because Vassar is letting his maverick tendencies shine more than ever. He defies Nashville standards by self-producing his own touring band, which makes it that much livelier and rough around the edges. And yes, there may be too much piano for radio. But who can argue with a collection of vibrant rockers, earnest ballads and the should-be hit "Bobbi With an I," about a cross-dressing linebacker who shows up at a bar as his female alter-ego? — Alan Sculley


Alicia Keys

The Element of Freedom

J Records

Buy if you like: Mary J. Blige, Rihanna

The Element of Freedom doesn't break much new ground, but it does manage to be the most consistent of Alicia Keys' four albums. The singer/pianist has found her distinctive contemporary soul sound, blending R&B vocals with hip-hop-rooted rhythms, and she brings it again on what, in bygone days, might have been considered a "concept album." The songs dwell mostly on the pain and, occasionally, the bliss of romance. Of course, these days, the focus isn't so much on whole albums as it is on individual songs, and Keys delivers on that front as well. She teams up with Beyoncé on the spark-filled "Put It in a Love Song," revisits "Empire State of Mind" (her hit with Jay-Z, minus the rap superstar), and goes for the emotional jugular with "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart." Throughout, Keys goes for the heart of the matter and mines it for all it's worth. — L. Kent Wolgamott


Neil Diamond

A Cherry Cherry Christmas


Buy if you like: Tom Jones, Tony Bennett

Neil Diamond adds three original renditions to a selection of traditional holiday offerings on this compilation that borrows nine of its 14 songs from two Christmas CDs he made back in the '90s. This is the sometimes overblown, often majestic Diamond, without the hipster posturings of his recent work with Rick Rubin. That, however, turns out to be a perfect match for this material, particularly when he puts his swing on "Jingle Bell Rock" or applies his vocal prowess to "Amazing Grace," which isn't really a Christmas tune. Neither is "The Chanukah Song," made famous by Adam Sandler, whichends the record. "You Make It Feel Like Christmas" is the best of Diamond's own compositions, none of which add all that much to the Christmas canon. Still, they aren't offensive and, as a whole, A Cherry Cherry Christmas ranks as a solid seasonal effort from an old pro. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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