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Previewing new albums from 'N Sync, the 'Violator' compilation, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond, Joe Strummer, and more.

'Celebrity' Sleuth

N Sync"The truth is that it can be tiresome to be continually blasted by critics because we don't fit their preconceived notion of what a 'credible' group is," 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake says as he and his four bandmates prepare to release "Celebrity," their third Jive studio album. "I wonder if they listen to our music before venturing an opinion."

If it sounds like 'N Sync is ready for a little respect, it should. Indeed, no amount of critical bashing could stop 2000's "No Strings Attached" from selling 14 million copies worldwide, according to Jive Records, or prevent record-breaking sales of 2.4 million units in the U.S. during its first week of release.

Enter "Celebrity," which finds Timberlake and 'N Sync colleague J.C. Chasez co-writing 10 of its 13 tracks. The two also participated in the album's production, collaborating with BT, Rodney Jerkins, Brian McKnight, and the Neptunes, among others. First single "Pop" is No. 47 on The Billboard Hot 100 this week.

The group revels in adventurous experiments in soul-spiked hip-hop ("Girlfriend," "See Right Through You") and the U.K.-bred 2-step club sound ("The Two of Us," "Up Against the Wall"). But 'N Sync (which also features Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick, and Lance Bass) is at its best on such sweet, harmony-laden ballads as "Selfish," "Something Like You" (with Stevie Wonder guesting on harmonica), and the haunting "Gone." The group is on tour in North America through late August.

Moving 'Violat'ion

LL Cool JSummer is prime season for family reunions, so it's only fitting that the Violator management family of artists has united again for "Violator the Album: V2.0," due this week from Violator/Columbia. The tracks on the 18-song set were tailored with specific artist and producer pairings in mind, resulting in collaborations such as LL Cool J with Swizz Beats, Noreaga with the Neptunes, and Jadakiss with Prodigy of Mobb Deep.

Other highlights include Missy Elliott, Ja Rule, and Tweet on "Ex"; Ludacris and Groove Theory's Hollyhood on "Hoppin' in My Car"; and Cee-Lo doing "Sexual Chocolate." Busta Rhymes' "What It Is" featuring Kelis has been a quick hit at radio, and is No. 22 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart this week.

The first "Violator" album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and sported Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing," which reached the top-10 on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks charts.

Starrs In Their Eyes

Ringo StarrTo coincide with the start of Ringo Starr's 2001 All Starr Band tour, Koch this week releases "The Anthology ... So Far: Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band," a three-CD live collection. The set contains the former Beatle's own classics from his last six annual summer treks, plus the hits of guest band members Dr. John, Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton, Dave Edmunds, Levon Helm, Clarence Clemons, Todd Rundgren, Eric Carmen, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, and many more.

"I've no fear of letting other people shine," Starr says. "I love to play with people who shine -- that's what it's always been about for me. We're all playing together, and the fact you're singing the song is a bonus."

The seventh All Starr Band tour kicks off July 26 in Toronto with a new lineup that features Sheila E., Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter, Greg Lake from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Supertramp's Roger Hodgson, and Howard Jones.

A Night At The 'Opera'

Neil DiamondEnduring singer/songwriter Neil Diamond says that after 1996's country-leaning "Tennessee Mountain," which paired him with several of Nashville's top songwriters, he decided he was done writing songs with others. "I guess I got [co-writing] out of my system," he says. "That was a wonderful experience, but I have no intention, no ambition, to write with other people again. I think it's time for me to just come out and say what I have to say."

With that, Diamond wrote all the words and music for "Three Chord Opera," due this week from Columbua. The material is vintage Diamond from the heartbreaking album opener "I Haven't Played This Song in Years," to the optimistic "I Believe in Happy Endings," and the nostalgic, playful "At the Movies," a continuation of his last album, 1998's covers collection of film songs, "As Time Goes By: The Movie Album."

With its often confessional tone, "Three Chord Opera" features Diamond at his most vulnerable. "It's all pretty intimate and personal and touches a raw nerve," he says, "but somehow I find it easier to say these things in a song than I would in a discussion or a dialogue. I'm able to say things in my music that I'm unable to say to people directly." A North American tour begins Sept. 28 in Columbus, Ohio.

'Mountain' Of A Heart

Emmylou HarrisLost Highway's release this week of "Down From the Mountain -- Live Concert Performances by the Artists and Musicians of O Brother, Where Art Thou?" further extends the phenomenal success of the music from last year's hit Coen Brothers movie. The disc showcases music from "Down From the Mountain," a documentary film by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus featuring live performances by the artists and musicians of "O Brother," from a May 2000 concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

The Cox Family, the Fairfield Four, Emmylou Harris, Chris Thomas King, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Dan Tyminski, Gillian Welch, and the Whites appear on the set, in most cases performing different songs from the ones they did on the platinum-plus "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack album. The late John Hartford, who hosted the show, contributes "Big Rock Candy Mountain," one of his last recordings.

"There was so much emotion in that concert," says Sharon White of the Whites, who are represented on the album by "Sandy Land." "John Hartford was the glue that held it together. He was familiar with all the people and the music, and someone said it was just like having a patriarch introducing his family to the rest of the world."

'Go-Go' Around The World

Hoe StrummerMost artists get a little nervous once they've finished an album and are waiting for feedback from friends, their record label, critics, and others. But, with his third solo album, "Global a Go-Go: (Hellcat), former Clash frontman Joe Strummer says he was a little bit more eager than usual.

After wrapping a short tour with the Who last year, he and the Mescaleros and the band's engineer, Richard Flack, "ended up in the [studio], without anything prepared," Strummer says. "And we thought, 'Well, we're pretty confident guys, let's give it a run.' So, nobody knew what they were doing, nobody had a direction. It just sort of fell into place. We just went from one tune to another. And after a while, we began to look at each other, going, 'Is this just fun or is this good?' There was nobody there to tell us if it was good or bad -- we were kind of on our own."

The 11 tracks, which at times venture into sing-along and spoken-word territory, are peppered with violin, bongos, flute, Wurlitzer, glass harmonica, slide guitar, horns, and accordion, among other instruments. Strummer's lyrics, meanwhile, are intriguing, even if all over the place. The punk-rock pioneer tries to get back on his wife's good side with the apologetic "Bummed Out City" and ponders a likely smoking ban in the fourth dimension -- if there is even such a place -- on the wonderfully hilarious "Mega Bottle Ride." Strummer begins a North American tour Oct. 4 in Washington, D.C.

Additional titles hitting stores this week include eclectic rock outfit Cake's "Comfort Eagle" (Columbia); R&B vocalist Jimmy Cozier's "Cozier" (J); the various artists inspirational album "Sean 'Puffy' Combs & Hezekiah Walker Present ... Thank You," featuring Combs, Faith Evans, Brandy, and more (Bad Boy); modern rock act Jimmy Eat World's "Bleed American" (DreamWorks); singer/songwriter Grant Lee Phillips' "Mobilize" (Zoe/Rounder); country trio 3 of Hearts' "3 of Hearts" (RCA); country singer/songwriter Dale Watson's "Every Song I Write Is for You" (Audium); bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's "Back to Bogalusa" (Blue Thumb); U.K. pop act Steps' "Buzz" (Jive); modern rock group the Start's "Shakedown" (Interscope); hard rock act Darwin's Waiting Room's "Orphan" (MCA); Primus bassist Les Claypool's Frog Brigade's "Live Frogs - Set 2" (Prawn Song); a mix CD from the U.K.'s Plump DJs' "Plump's Night Out" (Nettwerk); reissues of three albums and an EP from college rock pioneers the Replacements, "Stink EP," "Hootenanny," "Let It Be," and "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" (Restless); and a best-of from Seattle modern rock titans Alice in Chains, "Greatest Hits" (Columbia).

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