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A Frothy Spanish Singer-Songwriter Establishes her Bona Fides

Maybe you have to be there, but the highlight of any Bebe show usually comes when she pretends to be a Bush twin. She puts on a blond wig, flounces around—it gets pretty involved—and makes jokes to the effect that the electric chair would be a lot more efficient if it were an electric sofa. Or something like that.

Eddie “Bushleaguer” Vedder was never able to get away with this sort of thing back in the early Oughts, but these days it’s Bebe’s way of establishing her bona fides. The Spanish singer-songwriter, unnoticed stateside until her recent Latin Grammy win, hit it big back home with “Malo,” a fiery depiction of domestic violence that was Spain’s answer to “Luka,” except catchier and more detailed (“Every time you call me a whore/Your brain gets smaller”).

Bebe’s debut, Pafuera Telarañas (roughly translated as “Out With the Cobwebs”), is a frothy, fulminating mix of dance-pop, flamenco, rap, and ska that’s intended to position her as a more antic Ani DiFranco; more Urban Outfitters, in other words, less Putumayo. But Pafuera is at once pretty great and a little disappointing. Given the cultural confines of Spanish pop it’s adventurous enough, but it’s still mostly conventional love songs—ultimately more radical in spirit than in deed.

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Anonymous Young Stars Pay Tribute to Hits, Frogs, Weezer, and God

The Kidz Bop Kids are the reigning lords of pre-tween pop, having held the Billboard charts in their tyrannical grip since the first installment of Kidz Bop appeared sometime in the early ’00s. For the uninitiated, Kidz Bop features the Hits of Today remade by a chorus of anonymous tykes (the better to discourage stalkers or contract renegotiations). The contemporary compilations mostly offer Top 40 pop hits that have been scrubbed of nuance—which, being Top 40 pop hits, they didn’t have much of anyway—and expletives.

Whatever’s left is essayed with the breezy simplicity and utter lack of discernment only an eight-year-old can muster. More than most of their adult counterparts, the Kids are weirdly adept at stripping a track down to its emotional nub, which is why their version of “Since U Been Gone” is a roof-raising delight, and their rendition of “Lonely No More” (also on Kidz Bop 8, the series high point so far) sounds as miserable as if it were being sung by a choir of Dickensian orphans. Because the Kids are only as good as their material, even they can’t do much with the coma-inducing “Speed of Sound” or “Chariot,” low points of the anemic new Kidz Bop 9. Renditions of “Axel F (The Frog Song)” and Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” are treated with equal gravity, though the Kids seem to have no more use for Weezer than the rest of us.

After several scrupulously secular holiday compilations, a Christian pop collection was probably inevitable. But did it have to be so dull? While the pop compilations remain mostly faithful to their source material, most every track on Worship Jamz is reduced to an ungodly jumble of synthesizers, gratuitous telephone-style vocal effects, and disembodied chirping cut with the occasional whiff of reggae or Europop. Mostly the album sounds like a pint-sized Ace of Base cover band. The Kidz labor mightily throughout, but unlike their secular counterparts, no one sounds like they’re having a particularly good time. By the time you get to track 29 or so (“You’re Worthy of My Praise,” probably perfectly nice in its original version), you’ll know just how they feel.

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Meet the Transparents

It may not be saying much, but t.A.T.u. have to be the grumpiest fake lesbians in history. The Russian pop duo rose to mid-level infamy thanks to a few modest hit singles and a few decidedly immodest videos featuring all-girl make-out sessions and simulated masturbation. Their debut, also simulated, sold reasonably well, and t.A.T.u. probably should have left it at that.

Their sophomore effort, released after their Svengali decamped and one half of t.A.T.u. became a mother, is wan and rudderless, lacking the carefully calibrated Eurodisco hooks of its predecessor or the sanitized sauciness of that album’s core conceit (they’re lesbians! gone sort of wild!). The girls, who never seemed in on the joke even on the first go-round, when there was a joke, sound surly and miserable throughout.

As any halfway attentive Stuff reader knows, the Pussycat Dolls are a Los Angeles burlesque troupe turned pop stars; in other words, the gift that keeps on giving. Unlike the hapless t.A.T.u., the Dolls, fronted by Nicole Scherzinger, a veteran of fake pop group Eden’s Crush, know exactly what they’re doing. Their debut, PCD, is snappy and brisk, a pop-meets-disco charmer filled with chipper odes to self-sufficiency, some of which the Dolls actually co-wrote.

Judging from the it-took-a-village album credits, though, the Dolls, unsurprisingly, didn’t have all that much to do with the making of PCD. You don’t have to be Andrea Dworkin to be troubled by the thought of half-naked girls miming their way through lip service odes to feminism, but what saves the Dolls is the same thing that doomed t.A.T.u.—the utter transparency of the exercise. That they’ve assembled a crack team that includes Timbaland, Diane Warren, and “Crazy in Love” conjurer Rich Harrison doesn’t hurt, either. The most t.A.T.u. could manage was Sting. He should be ashamed of himself.

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Peace Train

It’s somehow not at all strange that the red states’ most visible anti-war album comes from Dolly Parton, an artist so guileless and girlish, so above reproach, she seems incapable of wounding. Those Were the Days is a bluegrass covers record populated (mostly) by Vietnam-era protest songs hailing from the Peter, Paul and Mary School of Non-Alarming ’60s Folk. But Days is occasionally more subversive than it seems.

Parton could enlist Serj Tankian for a cover of “American Idiot” and it would still sound as if it were being sung by a basketful of kittens, which is why she’s able to recruit Yusuf Islam for a background appearance on his “Where Do the Children Play” and not have to worry about being relieved of her Opry card, or whatever it is they do to country singers who wander off the reservation.

Wherever possible, she hires people long associated with the songs for backup, assuming they’re not balky (Bob Dylan, who wants no part of Dolly’s not-bad cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”), inexplicably busy (Julian Lennon, a no-show on the full-bore version of his father’s “Imagine”), or dead. A contingent representing the young and foxy (Keith Urban, Norah Jones) make an appearance as well, though their reasons for showing up are plainly more demographic than artistic. On a disc so obviously heartfelt, so cheerily bizarre, it’s the only thing that feels wrong.

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No Nookie

If the smash hit “Goodies” reminds you of Usher’s “Yeah,” that’s because it’s supposed to: Both were whipped up by Lil Jon, who, goes the story, decided his newly invented Crunk & B needed a queen and 18-year-old Ciara fit the suit. With lines like “You won’t get no nookie or the cookies,” words that surely have never been actually uttered in the course of human history, “Goodies” also suggests an excessively virginal “Milkshake”: Ciara won’t teach you, but she might have to charge anyway.

Goodies is filled with the sort of songs only a male hip-hop producer might think were empowering. “Don’t want to disturb the flow,” Ciara tells a randy suitor in “Next to You,” written by R. Kelly. “But this is not my m.o.” Any record that includes a discourse on teenage morality courtesy of R. Kelly (surprise! He’s for it) is not a record afraid of irony, intentional or otherwise.

The rest of the disc is far less eventful, populated mostly by mealy ballads. Ciara’s vocals are scrubbed clean of nuance, capable of sounding like Beyoncé on some tracks and Aaliyah on others. But her real counterpart is Ashanti—another empty vessel with a sweet voice, capable of sounding slutty or virginal on cue.

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Get Low or Get Out

The unrivaled highlight of A.M. to P.M., the long-buried 2001 debut by former Disney Channel star turned r&b singer Christina Milian, was a song called “Twitch,” about a man who sweats, stutters, and yes, twitches when confronted with evidence of his misbehavior. “Twitch” (“First you start forgettin’, then you start sweatin’/Then you twitch, twitch”) is simultaneously the worst and the best song ever written on the subject of embarrassing muscular conditions. As you might have guessed, nothing on Milian’s new disc can quite top it.

In the years since her debut, the now 22-year-old Milian seems to have decided that even her previously moderate wholesomeness was not the way to go. This explains “Dip It Low,” a craven club-pop hit with an accompanying video depicting her writhing in a probably rash-inducing vat of paint. (It looks like high-gloss enamel, but there’s no way to know for sure.) The rest of It’s About Time finds Milian morphed into a lesser, trashier version of J.Lo.: Several tracks mirror Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight” both sonically and in their air of tinny desperation, and Milian moves through the album with the cheerless, mechanized sexuality of a lap dancer.

Thirteen-year-old JoJo, a former TV performer herself and possessor of the summer’s other inevitable single, “Leave (Get Out),” is part of a new crop of teen stars who actually grew up listening to Britney Spears, instead of being influenced by her when they were safely past their formative years. If tracks like “Not That Kinda Girl” (“Take me home and meet your mama/. . . Cuz I’m that kinda girl”) are any indication, she seems to have survived the experience. JoJo is more Justified than . . . Baby One More Time, anyway: full of preternaturally self-possessed, insanely catchy songs about respecting yourself, talking on the phone all night, and not letting boys buy your affection unless they really, really insist.

With her amazingly broad voice and a way of singing that’s both perky and commanding, JoJo can’t help but be likable even when JoJo isn’t. And you can’t help but hope she stays that way, and doesn’t wind up half naked, dipping herself in motor oil one day, or writing songs about a cheating boyfriend’s bout with shingles. In the meantime, at least, “Leave” remains vastly superior to “Dip It Low,” mostly because JoJo seems to actually mean what she’s singing: In the world of moderately chaste, barely-teen divas, Get Away From Me trumps Have Sex With Me every time.

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Don’t Mess With Her, Boyfriend; On Second Thought, Go Right Ahead

Unlike obvious analog Avril Lavigne, whose own debut laid waste to a few punky pop songs and half-inflated slow ones and left it at that, Fefe Dobson seems game for anything. Fefe Dobson is overstuffed with piano ballads, Pink-style dance-rock tracks, and lots of songs about absent fathers and tattooed, controlling boyfriends. It’s the sort of thing teenage girls regard as holy writ, and everyone else will likely find blustery and obvious.

Dobson, an 18-year-old, biracial Canadian, is too mild to make recurring Pat Benatar comparisons stick, either: Benatar would have promptly eviscerated the rampaging virginity-stealer of “Give It Up,” while Dobson doesn’t seem too sure. Her frequent I’m-not-a-girl-to-be-trifled-with/Wait-a-minute-yes-I-am waffling is the closest she comes to nuance.

The charming, surpassingly dumb “Stupid Little Love Song” is the sole memorable track, a detailed account of class envy set to a faux-thrashy beat: Fefe loves the Harvard-bound Connecticut senator’s son, but Society keeps them apart (it’s either fictional, or the best song ever about Christopher Dodd). Before leaving in defeat, Fefe applies her powers of musical persuasion in a last-ditch serenade. Next time, she might want to send a card instead.

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22 Going on 40 or Not

Ashanti’s otherwise unmemorable breakout single, “Foolish,” helped establish the 22-year-old as a sweet-natured faux gangsta moll and entirely unthreatening sex kitten, an image boosted by numerous duets with passably dangerous rappers and a reputation as the well-tended princess of Murder Inc. Because these days you can’t be too careful,

Ashanti begins her second album with a helpfully supplied medley of hits from her first, including “Foolish,” basically a tarted-up DeBarge song (that’s a compliment) by way of Biggie Smalls. For those who still have trouble placing her, the disc’s booklet converts into a poster of Ashanti, oiled-up and half-naked.

It’s hard to imagine anyone less kittenish, less likely to be superfluously oiled, than Monica, the 22-going-on-40 former teen r&b singer last seen co-starring in the classic “The Boy Is Mine” video, in which she resembled a particularly beautiful preying mantis eyeing poor, moon-faced Brandy as if she were an appetizer. Monica hasn’t released an album since 1998, having spent the intervening years as the erstwhile girlfriend of the currently incarcerated C-Murder (try to guess what he’s in for), watching children who aren’t hers, and generally living the sort of complicated life from which expressive soul records are made. Unfortunately, After the Storm isn’t one.

It offers up exactly four minutes of unfettered Id: On “So Gone,” Monica suggests that the behavior of an unfaithful boyfriend “make me want to ride past your house and sit/Kick down your door and smack your chick/Just to show you Monica not having it.” It would have been lovely to imagine an album full of such reproving anthems, with Monica reinvented as the Vengeful Girlfriend of r&b—a market she would have had largely to herself, the r&b-abandoning Pink notwithstanding. But after the record-opening one-two knockout of “So Gone” and “Get It Off” (which waxes rhapsodic about “A man, a woman, and a latex”), After the Storm dissolves into a pillowy mixture of limpid ballads and self-help expositions from which it never recovers. Though there are occasional allusions to her troubles (“Think about it who comes to see ya/Every Saturday and Monday I was on that receiver,” she pleads on “U Should’ve Known Better,” the inevitable Ode to My Boyfriend in Prison), Monica, it turns out, summons as little resolve, as little naturalism, from her actual thug life as Ashanti does from her fake one.

Both singers seem attracted to bad boy-friends as if by gravitational pull, though Ashanti’s are more likely to be merely unfaithful than actually in jail. Both have made records that can’t help but evoke other, better records: While Monica appears to be referencing a more soulful version of mid-period Missy Elliott (not a bad idea, and, since Elliott serves as a co-producer here, probably unavoidable), Ashanti seems to be positioning herself as a latter-day Mary J. Blige, although she’s more like Minnie Riperton without the range. Chapter II sounds like one long, old-school jam, with the occasional inexpert rap thrown in. Padded with medleys and between-song skits, hampered by a demonstrable lack of both personality and hooks, it’s craven, depressing, and irresistible all at once.

Ashanti, who received writing credits for several tracks, seems perfectly content to coo her way through a series of uplifting ballads colorless enough to make one nostalgic for Ja Rule. But Monica has too much of a voice—and, presumably, too much of a point of view—to be stuck dispensing boilerplate, TLC-like platitudes, and she sounds like she knows it. Ashanti, bless her heart, doesn’t seem destined for much else. And she sounds like she knows it, too.