Previewing new albums from Britney Spears, George Strait, Tony Bennett, Faith Evans, Angie Stone, and more.

Love 'Slave'

Alicia KeysBritney Spears credits production duo the Neptunes with helping to push her music into more mature and experimental territory on "Britney," her third Jive album. First single "I'm a Slave 4 U" prominently bears the Neptunes' off-center creative stamp, and although it is drawing critical acclaim, it has met with resistance at radio and has yet to crack the top-50 of The Billboard Hot 100.

Such things don't bother Spears, who says, "I think when you grow as a person you're going to grow as an artist as well. For my third album, I had to grow creatively and I couldn't do '... Baby One More Time' number three. For me as a person, I just had to change it up a little bit and just pray people will think that's cool!"

Of "What It's Like To Be Me," co-written by Spears' boyfriend Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync, the artist says, "the song isn't specifically about what it's like to be me. It's talking about a girl in a relationship and the boy doesn't understand what she's going through. Before she's going to open up for him, he has to realize what she's about."

Spears nevertheless identifies with the girl in question, admitting, "this album was very therapeutic for me." She is taking the new album on tour in North America this fall, promising highly theatrical shows that will run into December.





The Long 'Road'

George StraitFamiliarity suits country superstar George Strait just fine. Admitting that he went through the "same steps" on his new MCA Nashville set "The Road Less Traveled" as he had with past efforts, he says, "I'm always looking for great songs, and not being much of a songwriter, I depend on great songwriters to send them to me. I go through tons of stuff, and sometimes you just find material that kind of fits and becomes something special. This time was one of those special times, and it's one of my better efforts in a while."

"Road" is led by the single "Run," which is No. 9 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. The album also sports covers of Rodney Crowell's "Stars on the Water" and Merle Haggard's "My Life's Been Grand," which closes the set.

"The first time I heard it, I fell in love with it," Strait says. "I can really relate to a lot of what Hag says because my life's been grand, with 'good times and bad times and hard times'." Along those lines, Strait scoffs at the concept of an intentional pop crossover, which country acts such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain have pulled off in recent years.

"Why'd I want to try that?" he asks. "I'm a country singer. I love all kinds of music, but country is where my loyalty lies. That's just me and what I do, and I'm not going to change it."





A Little Help From His 'Friends'

Tony BennettWhen a legendary crooner such as Tony Bennett decides to round up some of his pals to record a duets album, the range of talent to respond to the offer is bound to be impressive. On "Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues" (Columbia), the artist is joined by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel, Kay Starr, and recent touring partner k.d. lang on a slate of familiar songs.

Bennett gets seriously bluesy with one of the genre's greatest, B.B. King, on "Let the Good Times Roll," is playful with Diana Krall on album opener "Alright, Okay, You Win," and smoky with a sultry Sheryl Crow on "Good Morning, Heartache." Throughout, Bennett is backed, as usual, by master pianist Ralph Sharon, and his formidable quartet (drummer Clayton Cameron, bassist Paul Langosh, and guitarist Gray Sargent).

While the project bears some resemblance to Frank Sinatra's "Duets" albums, also produced by Phil Ramone and featuring contemporary artists, there are significant differences. All guest artists recorded in the studio with Bennett and the band; there was no remote collaboration.

"From the very beginning, we decided not to do that," says engineer Joel Moss. "A few guest artists did request to be in a booth so that they could fix the vocals, but once everybody saw the setup, they got right into wanting to be up there with Tony. There's nobody on this project who isn't incredible -- every one of these singers is absolutely for real. They're in a situation that they never get to be in. The freedom of just getting up there and singing has worked great with everybody."





'Soul' Sisters

Faith EvansLike any great singer, Faith Evans possesses the kind of voice that's instantly recognizable. It's at once fluid and emotive with an effervescent quality steeped in trademark gospel harmonies and phrasing. Since Evans' 1995 debut with the now-classic "I Remember the Way You Used to Love Me," she has carved an indelible niche in the contemporary R&B landscape.

For "Faithfully" (Bad Boy/Arista), Evans collaborated with everyone from producers Mario Winans and Battlecat to Jennifer Lopez, who earned a co-writing credit on "I Love You." "How I write is generally influenced by what's going on around me," she says. "If I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald all day before going in the studio, I may sing something in a jazzier vibe. When I recorded the single ["You Gets No Love"], the idea came from a girlfriend of mine who was telling me about this guy she'd just started seeing."

Vocalist Angie Stone has battled ups-and-downs of her own since her lauded 1999 Arista debut, "Black Diamond," from a switch to new label J Records, to the postpartum depression that often comes following maternity. She says her J debut, "Mahogany Soul," is the "grits and gravy" of those experiences.

Stone throws down the emotional gauntlet, shifting from serious and frank to lovingly playful lyrical themes on such tracks as "What U Dyin' For," which takes young adults to task for becoming suicidal over silly matters, and "Mad Issues," about those who thrive on drama in their lives. Sweetening the pot is an a cappella version of Curtis Mayfield's 1970 classic "The Makings of You" and a love duet with Musiq Soulchild on "The Ingredients of Love."





Additional titles hitting stores this week include:

-- The "United We Stand" compilation (Capitol), featuring previously released tracks by the Beach Boys, Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, Al Green, and more. All proceeds will benefit the Red Cross.

-- a new album from country legend Merle Haggard, "Roots Vol. 1" (Anti).

-- the soundtrack to the film "The Wash," featuring Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (Aftermath/Interscope).

-- a 36-track Pink Floyd best-of, "Echoes" (Capitol), including such classics as "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)," "Money," "Wish You Were Here," and "Comfortably Numb."

-- a holiday album from blues legend B.B. King, "A Christmas Celebration of Hope" (MCA), featuring "Please Come Home For Christmas," "Auld Lang Syne," and "Back Door Santa." All proceeds will benefit City of Hope, which provides care for cancer patients and conducts research into cancer, diabetes, AIDS, and other diseases.

-- a self-titled album from country act Danni Leigh (Audium).

-- Epic's reissue of the a previously released album from "VH1 Bands on the Run" winner Flickerstick, "Welcoming Home the Astronauts."

-- several archival releases from Rhino: the three-CD Dead Can Dance collection "Boxed Set"; and greatest hits sets from U.K. rock icon Morrissey ("Best Of") and seminal dance act Deee-Lite "Very Best Of."

-- the first North American release of the acclaimed debut album from Australian dance act the Avalanches, "Since I Left You" (London/Sire).

-- hip-hop sets from the Coup, "Party Music" (75 Ark/Tommy Boy); Grand Puba, "Understand This" (Kela/In The Paint); and Outlawz, "Novokane" (In The Paint/Koch).

-- a seasonal EP from rock duo They Might Be Giants, "Holidayland" (Restless).

-- a live album fron French dance group Daft Punk, "Alive 1997" (Virgin).

-- a new, self-titled album from heralded composer/producer David Axelrod (Mo Wax).

-- the various artists sets "Give the People What They Want: Songs of the Kinks" (Sub Pop); the "Shallow Hall" soundtrack (Island); and the folk-leaning "There Is No Eye: Music for Photographs" (Folkways).

-- the second album of the year from roots rock veteran Robbie Fulks, "13 Hillbilly Giants" (Bloodshot).