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Mary J. Blige

Stronger With Each Tear

Geffen

Buy if you like: Rihanna, Alicia Keys

With recent albums like The Breakthrough and Love & Life, Mary J. Blige has made herself something of a poster child for overcoming heartbreak and turmoil with inner strength and a strong self-image. She isn't about to change that tune on her new album. "In each tear, there's a lesson," she sings on the title track. "Makes you wiser than before, makes you stronger than you know." On "Kitchen," she makes it clear that she won't let any other woman move in on her man, borrowing a famous blues metaphor for cheating (another woman cooking in your kitchen). That's not exactly an original thought, and musically Blige doesn't rewrite any rules of hip-hop/soul on Stronger With Each Tear. But she delivers plenty of solid tracks. While this latest effort isn't particularly profound, it still doesn't diminish Blige's stature as one of the best and most reliably engaging artists in urban music. — Alan Sculley

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Neil Young

Dreamin' Man Live '92

Reprise

Buy if you like: Buffalo Springfield, John Hiatt

It doesn't matter how well he sings or plays. There's something beguiling about everything Neil Young does, whether he's taking one of his occasionally audacious risks in sound or subject matter, rocking out in feedback-drenched crunch mode, or doing his folk troubadour thing, accompanying his reedy tenor with a strummed guitar, plunked piano or lonely harmonica. Perhaps just putting himself out there alone is actually the bigger risk. But as he proves on this gorgeous live rendering of the songs that would later be recorded for 1992's Harvest Moon, his putative sequel to 1972's Harvest, it's also got a huge payoff. "Hank to Hendrix," "One of These Days," "War of Man" ... these songs were classics the minute he released them. And in this form, they're somehow even more timeless. Each is like a small crystal, or an ant in amber — rare and very, very special. — Lynne Margolis

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Ellis Paul

The Day After Everything Changed

Black Wolf

Buy if you like: Dar Williams, Iron & Wine

Having started out alongside Dar Williams, Vance Gilbert and Patty Griffin in a burgeoning Boston folk scene, Ellis Paul has been tagged as a folkie for nearly two decades now. Yet his music always suggested a far wider range of influences. With The Day After Everything Changed, he launches his own record label and forces listeners to rethink their preconceptions. To be sure, folk is in the mix, especially on songs like "Rose Tattoo" and "Nothing Left to Take." But "Annalee" is sweet, up-tempo and country-laced, while "River Road" and "The Lights of Vegas" rock out with full-on electric instrumentation. Paul's songwriting is as sharp as ever, with bright melodies and some of the most conversational, heartfelt and at times topical lyrics of his career. If this is a beginning of a new phase for Paul and his music, it promises to be better than ever. — Alan Sculley

  • Mary J. Blige, Neil Young, Ellis Paul

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