Album: Evolver (G.O.O.D.)
In stores: Now
Why we care: R&B star John Legend is certainly a talented dude: He writes, he sings, he plays a pretty piano. He's unfairly handsome. He's surrounded in life, and on disc, by Kanye West, Andre 3000 and Brandy. So why is it that the cognac-voiced Grammy winner always leaves me a little bored?
Why we like it: Legend is getting smart to his strengths and weaknesses. He's a swell duets partner, so on four cuts he pairs with pals, including lithe newcomer Estelle. Too many of his ballads still cruise by in a slick, lush lump, but he juices a couple of newbies just right: This Time has a Journey-esque hook, and I Love, You Love features Mark Knopfler guitar licks.
Reminds us of: Music for dinner . . . and dessert
Download these: Green Light and This Time
Lee Ann Womack
Album: Call Me Crazy (MCA Nashville)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Give Lee Ann Womack credit: After the whopper success of ubiquitous hit I Hope You Dance, the country gal could have followed the same Hallmarkian formula album after album. But the 42-year-old is a wild child, an old soul, and she smartly realizes that she's best as the brokenhearted barfly singing for the saddoes. When she avoids sap, she shines.
Why we like it: Womack's voice is fine and full, but it's her phrasing, her acting, that sells most of her new stuff. This album starts with three tear-in-your-beer specials (including, appropriately enough, Last Call). The chilly Have You Seen That Girl could be her benchmark.
Reminds us of: Miranda Lambert's future
Download this: Solitary Thinkin'
Album: Remind Me in 3 Days . . . (Interscope)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Think of New Orleans duo the Knux as the Oasis of hip-hop: sparring brothers who bite from their heroes (De La Soul, OutKast, Jay-Z, even Tone-Loc) and turn out derivative music that nevertheless sounds fresh and funky. Krispy and Rah Almillio hark back to the party-starting rap of 20 years ago. So don't just stand there, bust a move.
Why we like it: The bass bumps, the hooks range from hair-metal guitar to Princely squirm and the guys flow about girls, old-school rap and the posers of West Hollywood. Despite their influences, the Knux sibs don't go for special guests, operating in their own bizarre bubble.
Reminds us of: One of the top fresh finds of '08
Download these: Bang! Bang! and Roxxanne
SONG OF THE WEEK
Guns N' Roses
Song: Chinese Democracy Album: Chinese Democracy (Geffen)
In stores: Nov. 25 (maybe . . .)
Why we care: Critics and dirtballs care a lot, actually, as mercurial howl merchant Axl Rose has been working on the album Chinese Democracy since the dawn of man (actually 17 years, but critics and dirtballs are a dramatic lot). Axl's Gun pals Slash and Duff split years ago. But curiosity remains for the wild Rose.
Why we like it: The title track from Democracy is similar to '91's Use Your Illusion output. Guitar fireballs, overwrought production gloss and Axl raging against the machine — albeit with a shriek that no longer flies as gloriously high.
Reminds us of: You Could (Still) Be Mine