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What do Tony Bennett, Hanson have in common?

For bay area pop fans, 1998 looked and sounded very much like the years preceding it. After all, promoters know full well what sells and what doesn't here.

So, it wasn't surprising to see tropical troubadour Jimmy Buffett turn up at the Ice Palace twice in a nine-month period. Likewise, despite its formidable popularity, hip-hop and urban music continued to be scarce (although we did snare a booking for Puff Daddy and the Family before it was canceled a few days prior to the show.) If you're a jazz fan, well, you certainly weren't surprised by the usual slim offerings.

All that said, I've looked over the 40 or so shows I covered for the Times last year in the role of pop music critic, and here are my 10 favorites:

1. Tony Bennett at Ruth Eckerd Hall _ Perhaps it is middle-age that causes me to appreciate the subtle aspects of music, such as tone and dynamics, more than before. Bennett's superb vocal command, coupled with his extraordinary class as a performer, transformed the venue into a jazzy church. My recommendation to all: Go out and catch him whenever you can. (He plays the venue again on March 5). There is simply no other voice on the planet like his.

2. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince at the Ice Palace _ Aside from the strange spectacle surrounding the sale of tickets, the Artist (now promoter of his own shows) sought to reclaim his once great throne last year. His January stop was a stunning two-hour spin cycle of new and old material that included medleys of hits and funky jams. Combined with amazing stage moves, the show revealed that the singer, despite his eccentricities, still has star power.

3. Lucinda Williams at Jannus Landing _ Proof that great things can come in small packages arrived in October, when Williams and her mighty little band packed the downtown courtyard. With a twangy, grinding groove, the singer kept the audience mesmerized for nearly three hours with an edgy, deep-soul repertoire. At times it seemed as though Williams lost herself in the music, as if to relive each song she was singing. One not to miss the next time around.

4. Garth Brooks at the Ice Palace _ Even after touring for two years non-stop, Brooks seemed none the less for wear when he packed the Palace for a four-night stand in late October. Truly a people's performer, Brooks was dynamic and gracious throughout, delivering 2{ hours' worth of fan favorites. The addition of Trisha Yearwood to the bill made the $20 ticket price an exceptional bargain.

5. Steve Earle and the Dukes at Tampa Theater _ One of the most masterful singer-songwriters in modern memory, Earle and his tight trio personified the rough-and-tumble spirit of his songs. With battered amplifiers cranked full-tilt, Earle and his band unleashed a set that covered the gamut of his gritty, real-life stories. Can't wait to see him again.

6. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at the Ice Palace _ I really didn't know what to expect from these two fading rock 'n' roll soldiers from the '70s. Although the duo's May tour stop was in support of a new (and mostly forgettable) album, they spent the bulk of the time revisiting their Led Zeppelin turf. Their fans loved every minute of it.

7. George Strait at Houlihan's Stadium _ After seeing Strait six times now at venues large and small, I'm convinced that he is one of country music's most natural and elegant performers. No practiced stage routines, no rehearsed monologues. Instead, Strait's honest delivery and warm, embraceable singing style provided just what the fans wanted.

8. Hanson at Orlando Centroplex Arena _ Aside from the suffocating teeny-bop mentality that pervades their popularity, the three teenage Hanson brothers are nonetheless confident, skilled musicians. Not unlike the Beatles some 35 years earlier, they showed remarkable intuition and good-naturedness in the face of hormonal hysteria. Perhaps in a few years, their young fans will come to appreciate how good they are.

9. Mary Chapin Carpenter at Ruth Eckerd Hall _ With the need to feed the country radio market no longer a priority in her career, Carpenter finally has the comfort to sing and play whatever she pleases during a concert. Her August performance ranks as one of the best I have ever seen her do. She played plenty of favorites but left room for heartfelt folk material.

10. Shania Twain at the Ice Palace _ With her attractiveness and charm, Twain, who brought her first concert tour to the bay area in September, comes off as something of a rock 'n' roll sex kitten with a farm-girl heart. While most of her well-known songs are country radio anthems, Twain shows more more versatility as a singer in concert, offering moving ballads as well as rollicking foot-stompers.

Honorable mentions: Harry Connick Jr. at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Tori Amos at USF Sun Dome, Jethro Tull at Ruth Eckerd Hall and WMNF's Lone Star Music Festival at Vinoy Park.

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