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'Girls' closes 'Umbrella''s radio reign

Finally, a changing of the guard on the national radio airplay audience chart. Sean Kingston's Beautiful Girls backs into No. 1 (meaning its total audience went down this week), as Rihanna's Umbrella finally toppled from the top spot after four weeks with a sizable audience drop, according to Nielsen BDS, Arbitron and Radio & Records.

Kingston's reign at No. 1 is unlikely to be lengthy, as Fergie's Big Girls Don't Cry climbs to No. 3 this week and is on pace to attract more audience than Kingston next week.

Rounding out the top 10 are hits by Fabolous, two by T-Pain (Buy U a Drank followed by Bartender), Plain White T's, Shop Boyz, the debut of Timbaland's The Way I Are, and Hurricane Chris.

More fun with numbers follows.

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This week's playlist: Singer/songwriters, alt-country ... and Who homages

My turn for the weekly playlist. This one wanders into some strange territories.

> Pick of the week:

Online, Brad Paisley: Seems as if Paisley’s got a lock on this spot, but his songs are too outstanding to ignore, and he has a knack for zoning in on the zeitgeist. This hit’s about a rotund, tuba-playing “sci-fi fanatic/mild asthmatic” who boasts that he’s “so much cooler online,” to the point that “even on a slow day/I can have a three-way …/chat with two women at a time.” A dazzling guitar break helps it transcend novelty, and there’s a great musical joke at the end.

> The playlist:

What’s Left Behind, The Sadies: From the Canadian family band’s excellent upcoming album, a dark country/folk-rock fusion featuring a profusion of cascading guitars.

The Bottom Line, Jon Christopher Davis: A cranky but catchy rant about video killing radio stars and the resultant superficialities that recur.

Never Comes Easy, Adam Hood: A tuneful meditation about how change never comes –- but these guitar/organ changes definitely resonate.

London Bridges, Josh Rouse: Kind of an urban pastoral, a light acoustic delight with a trace of sadness, from an impressive singer/songwriter. Kind of like Paul Simon the way I wish he'd sound more often.

Dream Song, Scott Matthews: A prominent, deftly executed Indian flavor distinguishes this song. Almost like John Mayer visiting Kashmir.

The Word, Patty Scialfa: Also has a drone flavor that suggests Dusty Springfield singing the Ganges Delta blues.

I Don’t Know What I Want, Raspberries: From a 2005 reunion show, an explosive self-described “love letter to The Who.” Specifically Won’t Get Fooled Again, with other tributes subtly laid in.

I Am the Eye, High Dials: Canadian band also salutes The Who, specifically I’m a Boy, in this late ‘90s raver. Most easily found on The Coolest Songs in the World! Vol. 2 compilation on the Wicked Cool label.

Everything That’s Mine, The Motions: Who homages are no new thing – this '60s Dutch band nails the jagged fuzz guitar break and over-the-top drums. (Also greatly recommended in this vein -- Dutch compatriots The Maskers with 3's a Crowd, another Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere-type chaotic guitar break.)

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, The Who: Speaking of which, the template setter from the masters. The break still sounds like the soundtrack to Armageddon.

Caribbean artists rule charts

The top two songs in the country are by artists with roots in the Caribbean, and Kat DeLuna's Whine Up makes a third hit in this vein. Trend or coincidence? Steve Jones explores the island whirl.

This week's reviews: Common, Kingston, Keith, Korn, Kellogg and the non-alliterative Mandisa

This week's capsule reviews should go down easily with any of the usual beverages:

> Common may have set the bar "even higher" with new album Finding Forever, Steve Jones raves.

> Sean Kingston proves that "profanity-free music can still have a little edge to it," Steve says. (That's assuming you, unlike MTV, don't consider the word "suicidal" ban-worthy.)

> Korn displays "feeble fury, plodding tempos and aimless aggression," reports a distinctly underimpressed Edna Gundersen.

> Keith Murray aims to "crush weak MCs with his Webster's size vocabulary and fierce deliveries," Steve elucidates.

> Ex-American Idol finalist Mandisa proves to be a template for success for other Idols and provides "buoyant gospel-pop and affirming, inspirational songs," Brian Mansfield is pleased to convey.

> Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers' Glassjaw Boxer "ranks as a true contender," says Brian, perpetuating the pugilistic metaphor.

Full reviews follow.

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Van crash kills Bottom of the Hudson bassist; drummer injured

Very sad to report that Philadelphia band Bottom of the Hudson, whose new album I recently raved about in First Impressions, had a van accident Sunday that killed bassist Trevor Butler. Drummer Greg Lytle is in intensive care in Chapel Hill, N.C. More details at their label's website.

And now for a completely different approach to reviews

More good comments on the nature of reviews and critics. Nick2--I wasn't taking your "Helen Keller could have done a better review" comments personally; I was just interested in seeing some examples of what you thought were tone-deaf reviews. Matt D. -- The idea you and Jatale are batting around about noting who would like an album and who wouldn't vaguely resembles the "RIYL" (recommended if you like ... such and such an artist) concept CMJ always used (and many other publications borrowed). I considered adding something like that when we revamped our Listen Up format last year, but there wasn't space. Still, worth keeping in mind ...

Meanwhile, for a radically different type of review format, check out the weekly survey of new releases from one of my favorite critics, Dave DiMartino. Warning: Sense of humor (and a willingness to accept not learning anything remotely useful about a given album) required.

Dave's reviving a longstanding tradition that I'm quite attached to. Decades ago there was a monthly column called Pipeline in one of the major music mags of the time, in which Mark Shipper, one of our  wittiest pop-culture observers, used to "review" a dozen albums or so, demolishing them with a one-liner or a more elaborate satirical apaproach. Around 10 years ago, I revived that concept (getting Mark's permission first and acknowledging that I was ripping off his idea) at the music website I worked for, using the pseudonym Kent Wright to similarly polish off tons of capsule reviews. (You can review vast numbers of albums using this method because it does not require you to actually listen to anything. As you can tell from some of Dave's reviews.)

I had vaguely thought about doing something like that here, but there are problems with pseudonymous writing to consider. So in any case, I'm glad Dave (whose approach, I should stipulate, is in no way a ripoff, steeped as it is in his own highly individual, quirky literary persona) is reviving the spirit of the humorous review.

You review the reviewers; I react

Headline almost sounds like a Fox News slogan, but I really enjoyed reading your comments about the proper role and techniques of music reviewers. (If you're joining us in progress, this spun off a comment from a reader who feels that music reviewers should be academically qualifed in music, otherwise it's like taking a Spanish class from a teacher who can't speak the language. I begged to differ.)

So let me respond to the comments as they came in.

South West Florida: Thanks for the compliments, and I'll have to disappoint you by revealing I was not a sports star (half-decent amateur softball player later in life), but someone who was intent on some kind of music-oriented vocation or avocation from the start. (Garage band the Savage Cabbage fizzled, so I had to turn to writing.)

As for your question about the process of reviewing albums and any difference between the approach applied to albums by new acts vs. veteran artists, well ... I read whatever materials I can (often but not always supplied by helpful publicists) and, obviously, listen to the record in question. (Number of times is usually dependent on time available before deadline.) I scribble notes while listening, then when I'm actually trying to write the review, I usually discard them because I can't read my own handwriting and head off in a different direction. (Only half-kidding here, sadly.) The only difference in that process, if you can call it that, as applied to new or veteran artists is that I can usually skip a lot of the reading with an artist I'm familiar with but will also, if time permits and I feel I don't have a clear enough idea of preceding works, try to listen to some of the artist's previous material for purposes of comparison.

Hope that is semi-coherent. More responses follow.

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Bells rocked at Randall's Island show

Rock the Bells featured reunions of both Rage Against the Machine and the Wu-Tang Clan, plus Talib Kweli, Rakim, Public Enemy and more. Check out the goings-on.

Should critics be credentialed?

There was an interesting comment, possibly intended as a flame, in the thread following this week's album reviews that I wanted to single out for further discussion.

Cmac wrote, "Does anyone else think that you should have to have a degree in music to be a music critic? Music is a written language. If you can't read or write the language, how can you be given any real credit in a critique? It's like having a Spanish teacher who can't speak Spanish."

On the surface, this is kind of a cranky sort of rant that doesn't hold up all that well. You don't need television production experience to be a good TV critic -- you just need to watch a lot of TV and know something about the legacy of the medium. Same, more or less, goes with movies, and with popular music. Does it really enrich your understanding of Neil Diamond's music to know that the bulk of his most popular songs are built on the same tonic/subdominant/dominant/subdominant chord structure?

Still, there are credentials you should demand of music critics you read. Obviously, they should listen to a lot of music. Less obviously, they should read about a lot of music, so they have a decent grasp of pop music history and the context underlying the releases they review, even if they didn't grow up with it. Some knowledge of the music business can prevent inadvertent displays of naivete. You should feel the critic knows what he or she is talking about, both about the artist being discussed and the general style(s) in question, so that you can trust the comparisons made. Any formal music knowledge is a bonus, as long as it's deployed in a digestible form for the musically illiterate (that is, most people who listen to and enjoy music).

One good rant deserves another. Thanks, cmac, for the pretext.

First Impressions: A capsule-review 10-spot

Last week I was a little overconfident about the surplus of candidates I had left over for this post. Turns out I need 'em all -- I didn't have a ton of listening time last week and about half of what I heard was too mediocre to consider writing about. When you listen semi-randomly to a variety of stuff, that can happen, but it sure is depressing when you're in the midst of a bad streak.

Fortunately, there were 10 albums that were at least noteworthy (they don't all have to be good). In alphabetical order, here they are:

A Fine Frenzy, One Cell in the Sea (out last week): (Probably should be alphabetized under "F" but it's a judgment call.) I probably like this intense singer-songwriter (Alison Sudol masquerading under a group ID) better than Elysa Gardner did in her recent, fairly uncomplimentary review. There are some interestingly moody songs to be found on this debut, but she does have a long way to go to justify those Tori Amos comparisons.

Katie Armiger (out Aug. 14): She's 16, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the mature subject matter (much of which she co-wrote) of this debut country album. It starts off strong, especially the first couple of tracks, but then, as the number of original songs diminishes toward the end, so does the album's quality. Promising but needs work.

Boys Like Girls (rereleased in April): Overall, pretty good pop-rock in an emo-friendly style, although some of the vocal tics inherent in the style (derived from old Blink-182 records or something) are starting to sound a little predictable. Still, I feel a certain gratitude toward the emo trend in general for helping to preserve some of the endangered vitality of modern-day rock.

Brunettes, Structure & Cosmetics (out Aug. 7): Male-female duo that likes to toy with pop structures (and cosmetics, for all I know) and sometimes seems so smugly smart you want to give the CD player a good shaking. But the intelligence works both ways -- sometimes they're laugh-out-loud clever and once in a while even genuinely moving. Interesting record.

Cocktail Slippers, Mastermind (out last month): Norwegian all-female garage rockers had this 2004 album domestically released in June, and it has enough girl-group melodicism to leaven the thrash and keep things interesting.

Derailers, Under the Influence of Buck (out next week): Dwight Yoakam has an album of Buck Owens songs coming up, but this veteran pure-country band gets there first with a set that's faithfully sung (down to the tiniest vocal nuance) and played. That sort of approach does tend to send you back to the originals instead, but it's always great to hear someone revive Owens' oddball fuzztone blaster Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass.

Great Northern, Trading Twilight for Daylight (released in May): L.A. band trading in the orchestral pop realm, with prominent harmonies, a formula that can sometimes get tedious in the wrong hands. These hands know what to do with it, though, and have come up with a strong album.

Sarah Johns, Big Love in a Small Town (out Aug. 28): My second new female country singer of the batch purveys an interesting brand of hard country with zest and authority, but falls victim to the same syndrome as Katie Armiger -- a severely subpar second half of the CD, where the song quality heads south in a hurry.

Maggots, Monkey Time! (out Sept. 4): Four albums in (although I shamefully have not heard all of them), this Swedish band is approaching the top ranks of the modern garage-rock movement, displaying versatility as well as ferocity.

Michael Zapruder's Rain of Frogs, New Ways of Letting Go (out last August): I would tend to gravitate toward an act like this on the basis of its name alone, but the intriguing baroque pop they put forward is worth investigating on its own.

The likable Boys Like Girls

As part of the continuing On the Verge series profiling new and emerging artists, Brian Mansfield talks to fast-rising rockers Boys Like Girls. Check it out.

This is your 'Now' -- hits anthology tops chart

A little late today, partially caused by some web-related problems, but here we go.

The 25th installment of the Now That's What I Call Music! series becomes the hits anthology's 12th No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, but some of the luster seems to be fading. Now 25 sold 223,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a little worse than Now 24's 230,000, and well below previous numbers. In fact, it's the fourth-worst debut week to date, beating only the first three volumes, when the concept was still new, and Now 13 from July 2003. Since the hits contained on the Now albums have been previously made available for individual download, the natural market for the series has diminished somewhat.

The Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus package climbs back up to No. 2, as T.I. drops to 3 after two weeks at No. 1. The Hairspray soundtrack hits new, beehive-like heights with a 20-4 chart jump now that the movie's out; it nearly doubled its sales to 72,000 last week and a two-week total of 108,000. Colbie Caillat's Cocoa debuts at No. 5 with 51,000 sold.

Rounding out the top 10 are albums by Fergie, Linkin Park, Amy Winehouse, Nickelback and Bon Jovi. Further details, and a look at the Songs That Will Not Die on the digital chart, follow.

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'Umbrella' shades 'Girls' for No. 1 spot

In an extremely close race, Rihanna's Umbrella attracted slightly more radio listeners than Sean Kingston's Beautiful Girls and earned a fourth week at No. 1 on the national airplay audience chart. As determined by the combined informational resources of Nielsen BDS, Arbitron and Radio & Records, Rihanna picked up about 119 million audience impressions (number of plays on radio stations across the country multiplied by number of estimated listeners at the time of each play). Kingston had slightly more than 117 million and looks like the favorite to take No. 1 next week.

The rest of the top 10 features hits by T-Pain (Buy U a Drank), Fergie, Fabolous, Shop Boyz, T-Pain again (Bartender), Plain White T's, Justin Timberlake and the debut of Hurricane Chris' A Bay Bay. Much greater and arguably more fascinating detail follows.

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Following up your first questions

Thanks for the questions about how various tours and festivals are selling. So far I'm batting 1-for-3, for reasons I'll explain. Jonr1 wanted to know how Coachella and Bonnaroo did officially, and I'm sorry to report those figures are not in the database.

There are two reasons that would happen: 1) the promoters haven't got around to reporting attendance and gross revenues yet (that may seem ridiculous, considering Coachella took place in April, but there are dates from February that are still trickling in to the Billboard BoxScore database); or 2) the promoters decline to report those figures (which is their prerogative; unlike SoundScan or BDS, which automatically tabulate record sales and airplay electronically, concert grosses are based on voluntary data contributions).

Anyway, if either of them comes in, I'll let you know. Coachella accounts said the show averaged around 60,000 attendees a day; Bonnaroo I've seen estimated in the 70,000-80,000-per-day range.

Meanwhile, I can answer DHRjericho's question about the Sasquatch Festival: It earned $2.3 million, selling 39,000 tickets out of 44,000 capacity, an 89.5% rate.

Keep the questions coming -- individual acts as well as festivals -- most of that info (though obviously and sadly, not all) is in the database.

Motown songwriter Ron Miller dies

Sad to report the death of Ron Miller, one of Motown's top songwriters in the '60s and '70s. He was 74, and died of cardiac arrest following battles with cancer and emphysema.

Miller first gained notice writing songs for Stevie Wonder as Wonder matured out of the "Little" stage and began to do more adult material (including such Miller tunes as A Place in the Sun and Heaven Help Us All). The pinnacle of their artistic collaboration was For Once in My Life, the 1968 hit that became an evergreen pop standard and is often mistaken for a Great American Songbook classic from the golden pre-rock era.

Miller also wrote hits for Motown such as Diana Ross' Touch Me in the Morning and Charlene's I've Never Been to Me, which he also produced.

This week's playlist: Hot things from Steve

> Pick of the week:

Hot Thing, Talib Kweli: Kweli has been recognized as one of hip-hop's finest lyricists and most socially conscious rappers for more than a decade now, and it looks as if the mainstream is finally ready to embrace him. This breezy Will.i.am production about the "sunshine of my life" is catchy enough to get plenty of radio airplay and sophisticated enough to showcase his intricate wordplay. It also serves as an appetizer for next month's release of the long-anticipated Ear Drum.

> The playlist:

The Game, Common: The Chicago rapper delivers a slab of old-school hip-hop over a propulsive Kanye West beat and DJ Premier providing turntable scratches.

Watch What You Say to Me, T.I. featuring Jay-Z: The King of the South and President Carter take dead aim at their mouthy adversaries.

Hip Hop Police, Chamillionaire featuring Slick Rick: With hip-hop getting blamed for just about everything these days, Cham says you better watch what you say or listen to.

Makeyouhappy, Musiq Soulchild: Musiq gives his lover a chance to pick her pleasure over a midtempo groove.

Let the Kids Grow, Master P: Master P -- taking the idea of cleaning up rap lyrics to heart -- makes a plea for a more positive vibe.

Bed, J. Holiday: The silky crooner promises smooth moves between the sheets.

When I Hustle, Huey featuring Lloyd: After the catchy Pop, Lock & Drop It, Huey shifts gears with an easygoing thugs-need-love-too anthem.

Sweet Music, Alicia Keys: Her next album is still a few months away, but this uplifting ditty from the Glory Road soundtrack is worth revisiting.

Nobody Do It Better, Keith Murray featuring Tyrese & Junior: Murray returns after a four-year absence, and the self-proclaimed "lyrical genius" shows the title is no idle boast.

Compared to What, Les McCann & Eddie Harris: The soundtrack to Don Cheadle's movie Talk to Me, about a D.C. radio personality, has a different version of this incendiary song. But this 1970 hit rendition by jazz pianist McCann and tenor saxophonist Harris is the definitive one.

This week's reviews: Prince, Sum, Tegan & Sara, Frenzy, Rooney, Fionn & Billy Ray

Prince leads off this week's album reviews, presented here in easy-to-swallow capsule form:

> Prince's unstoppable grooves, "whether he's being slyly seductive or downright randy," impress Steve Jones.

> Sum 41's uneven Underclass Hero inspires some Lennonesque wit from Brian Mansfield.

> Tegan & Sara's The Con inspires a gush of prose from me.

> A Fine Frenzy works Elysa Gardner into a general indifference.

> Rooney does "earnestness and ebullience better than most of its peers," Elysa says.

> Fionn Regan's "intelligent, nuanced indie-folk" draws raves from Edna Gundersen.

> Billy Ray Cyrus goes family-friendly and a bit bland, according to Brian.

Full reviews and clips follow.

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AC does it: A shocking look at what the older crowd listens to

In our lyrical tour of the radio formats, analyzing the words of the top 10 hits in a format to get some kind of a grip on the topics that draw a response from loyal fans, we've found the following, roughly speaking:

Overall (mostly from top 40 and R&B input), the pursuit of shawties, mostly through buying dranks for them, is a paramount concern.

In country, traditional values are big (as long as you include the pursuit of the country equivalent of shawties, and drankin', as traditional values).

In rock, contemplating the utterly depressing nature of life as we know it, including the futility of pursuing the rock equivalent of shawties, dominates the musical landscape.

(You can catch up with past installments here.)

So today, with some degree of trepidation, I'm turning my attention toward the adult contemporary (or AC) format. This popular approach targets the upper end of the desirable 25-54 age group, more 35+, as opposed to the younger targets of rock and top 40.

So who knows what these wacky oldsters like to listen to? Satanic rituals? Spouse-swapping? Shawty snappin'? Let's gather our courage and find out in what follows. (Chart data courtesy Nielsen BDS and Radio & Records.)

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A look at this year's road warriors ... and worriers

One of the missions of this blog is to try to demystify various aspects of the music world, whether it's album sales, radio airplay or the justifiability of gold and platinum awards. So when statistician extraordinaire Tony DeBarros sent me a spreadsheet of tour numbers for this year so far, I thought it would be interesting to share some data on who's hot and otherwise.

The info roughly corresponds to the first half of this year (some tours may fall short, some may spill over into July, depending on the promptness of the promoters who report attendance and gross figures to Billboard Boxscore), so it's missing some of the newer tours (American Idols, for one). It's not a huge touring year in general (no Stones, Madonna, etc.), with the Police reunion pretty much the star attraction.

It's also the top revenue producer so far. Here are the top 10:

1. Police, $55.1 million (20 shows; 100% of capacity)

2. Kenny Chesney, $43.4 million (27 shows; 100%)

3. Celine Dion, $42.6 million (all from her Vegas residency) (33 shows; 98.2%)

4. Justin Timberlake, $40.0 million (36 shows; 100%)

5. Rod Stewart, $30.4 million (31 shows; 100%)

6. Bob Seger, $21.1 million (26 shows; 100%)

7. Billy Joel, $20.0 million (17 shows; 100%)

8. Josh Groban, $19.5 million (22 shows; 95.6%)

9. Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, $18.3 million (16 shows; 88.7%)

10. George Strait, $17.5 million (21 shows; 96.6%).

This will come as no surprise to anyone, but there's not exactly a ton of youth appeal here, outside of JT. More info, including some tours that are somewhat south of 100% capacity, follows. (I have a lot more info based on this data, so if you have any specific questions about a tour, let me know.)

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Further impressions

Thanks for the comments on the First Impressions mini-reviews -- I always appreciate those, and value the feedback on the albums you're interested in.

Side3 -- really great point about Raspberries drummer Jim Bonfanti. He definitely channels his inner Keith Moon on this live album (they do a super-faithful cover of Can't Explain, in fact, that I forgot to mention in the review), and it's great to hear.

DHRjericho -- Believe it about the Buzzcocks/Gin Blossoms similarities. The Buzzcocks song lifts the chords of Hey Jealousy wholesale -- you can sing one to the other. That of course leaves unanswered the question of how much influence the earlier Buzzcocks had on the Gin Blossoms in the first place.

And on a side note, it was nice to read all the comments about the Summer of Love musical retrospective Edna Gundersen and I put together, but some of the complaints about albums we left out left me a little confused. Summer of Love was defined as the summer of 1967. Several folks were wondering about albums by, for example, the Moody Blues and Big Brother & the Holding Company that were not included. Simple answer: They were released in 1968.

I understand memories and recollections blur after 40 years, but it's pretty easy to Google around to establish release dates (if you don't have the admittedly expensive Billboard chart books for a reference) before you write in to tell us how lame we are. (We might well be lame, but not, I hope, on grounds of historical accuracy.)

First Impressions: A quick look at future/present/past albums

I was fortunate enough this past week to get a ton of listening done, much more than usual. I'll limit this First Impressions post to the usual 10 albums, though, because I have a hunch the next few weekends are not going to be as productive for me, so I need to store up some backup. The alphabetical 10:

Bad Religion, New Maps of Hell (just out): After all these years, this pioneering L.A. punk band is still passionate, political, succinct (lots of 90-second-range songs) and articulate (they're masters of cramming in the sesquipedalian verbiage without getting in the way of their natural tunefulness). Fine stuff.

Bottom of the Hudson, Fantastic Hawk (out this week): One of those random albums that just happened to emerge from the pile this week, about which I knew nothing (I've since found out they're from Philadelphia, which seems to be spawning a lot of good music lately, also including The Espers' extended family) but instantly liked. Kinda hard to describe -- '80s pop elements, with harmonies; one song (the closer, Calculating Wire) struck me as a cross between Nick Drake and Syd Barrett, which is a whole different thing -- but consistently first-rate.

Green Pajamas, Box of Secrets (out Sept. 18): Seattle's best-kept secrets for decades now add spooky blues and ominous rock flavors to their always-accomplished mastery of harmony pop forms. If you haven't heard them (and odds are that's the case), there's a deep catalog of consistently fine music waiting for you.

Barbara Manning, Super Scissors (import released around June or so): As a longtime Manning fan, I already had the two albums that make up part of this 3-CD box (Scissors and One Perfect Green Blanket), but I had to buy it anyway, because that's what longtime Manning fans do when they encounter fresh material (a CD of unreleased demos, live tracks and the like, plus several other bonus tracks elsewhere in the box). This cult indie-rocker from the unlikely locale of Chico, Calif., is a supremely gifted, sometimes eccentric artist -- you may have heard her singing with Stephin Merritt's Sixths project; you should at virtually all costs track down her baseball acid-rock classic Dock Ellis (with her band the SF Seals, another baseball reference). Like Green Pajamas, she has a vast catalog and it's virtually all worth delving into.

Raspberries, Live on Sunset Strip (out July 31): This fell into my hands like manna from rock 'n' roll heaven -- a double CD from the legendary Cleveland power-popsters' recent reunion tour (plus short DVD), with the original band present and accounted for and in storming good form, give or take a couple notes at the top of Eric Carmen's vocal range. Most anything you could ask for is included, performed faithfully (even the complex Overnight Sensation) yet with a raw live edge. My fave? The power-packed Small Faces homage of Tonight.

Josh Rouse, Country Mouse, City Mouse (out July 31): What is it with these singer/songwriters named Josh? First Josh Ritter comes up with a fascinating album in The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (see last week's First Impressions), now Rouse matches him with the stylistically varied excellence of this album.

Patti Scialfa, Play It as It Lays (out Sept. 4): Her first album, Rumble Doll, was something of a cult classic and a big fave of mine, so I'm always quick to play anything she puts out (which now amounts to two albums since Rumble Doll). This one struck me as somewhat spottier than its predecessors, but the best songs (and look for one on an upcoming playlist if Elysa Gardner doesn't beat me to it) are captivating.

Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (just out): I liked this album by the indie-pop darlings fine, but noticed it kept reminding me of other, better artists (Kinks, for example). So I ended up respecting their versatility and inventiveness while realizing they're unlikely to become one of my essential artists.

Until June (out in April, finally got to it): Christian rock, although not of the in-your-face sort, with an interesting and uncommon (these days) frequent reliance on a full-fledged falsetto. Doesn't all work but enough does to keep you listening.

Various, Little Steven's Underground Garage Presents the Coolest Songs in the World! Vol. 2 (out Aug. 7): Up until a few years ago, I had no idea Steve Van Zandt would turn out to be the highest-profile advocate for garage rock and other '60s-related rock material, but I'm glad that he spreads the gospel, through his Underground Garage syndicated radio series, Billboard column and Wicked Cool label, which is about to release this second volume of garage-rock revival tunes from the last 25 years or so. What I like about this one is it mixes the pure '60s strain of garage rock and psych-pop (great tracks from Outrageous Cherry, The Stems, The Crybabies and The Contrast, and don't miss the High Dials' Who pastiche I Am the Eye) with more "modern" rock tracks by the likes of Joey Ramone (his great salute to financial broadcaster Maria Bartiromo), The Donnas (whose Take It Off is as close to contemporary hard rock as it is to the garage, but so what, how can you not love The Donnas?) and The Buzzcocks, who can be heard ripping off borrowing heavily from the Gin Blossoms on the recent Sick City Sometimes.

T.I. takes top spot on album chart again; indie rockers score

The first Smashing Pumpkins album in seven years wasn't inducement enough for the band's fans to generate a No. 1 placement on the Billboard charts. The Pumpkins' Zeitgeist sold 145,000, sufficient for No. 2, but T.I.'s T.I. vs. T.I.P. sold 175,000 in its second week to hold on to No. 1 despite a 63% drop in sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The Pumpkins did displace Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus to No. 3 with 128,000 sold, which was comfortably ahead of the No. 4 debut for Interpol's Our Love to Admire, the band's best-ever showing. The rest of the top 10 features holdover albums by Kelly Clarkson, Bon Jovi, Linkin Park, Fergie and Amy Winehouse, while making its debut at No. 10 is another indie-pop darling, Spoon, whose Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga sold 46,000 and providing the Texas band with its best week.

More chart happenings follow.

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This ain't the summer of love -- but 1967 was

What was the soundtrack of the Summer of Love in 1967, and how does it hold up today? This is a topic that, with my historical bent, intrigues me, and indeed I wrote a big chunk of our lavish package on the subject, along with the inimitable Edna Gundersen, whose idea it was. Check it out. And there's also a contest to choose your favorite song from that fabled summer.

Another week at the top for 'Umbrella'

As expected, Rihanna's Umbrella coasts to a third week at No. 1 on the national radio airplay audience chart compiled by Nielsen BDS, Arbitron and Radio & Records. But it loses total audience for the first time, a 5.5% drop, while Sean Kingston's Beautiful Girls hops to No. 2 on the strength of a 5.1% audience gain. Right now they're 13 million audience impressions apart. Rihanna lost about 7.5 million impressions this week; Kingston gained nearly 6 million. So if those paces are maintained, there would be a new No. 1 next week.

Rounding out the top 10 are hits by T-Pain, Fergie, Ship Boyz, Fabolous, Justin Timberlake, the debuts of T-Pain's Bartender and Hey There Delilah by Plain White T's, and Daughtry.

All the detail you've come to expect follows.

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June's RIAA awards: The shipments vs. the sales

Every month the Recording Industry Association of America sends out its latest certifications for gold and platinum awards, and every month we look at the albums to see how closely the RIAA's awards, requested by record labels and based on shipments to retail, compare with actual sales as determined by Nielsen SoundScan.

The last couple of months were relatively sparse for certifications, but in June, business (or at least requests for certifications) was booming. Nickelback leads off three multi-platinum awards with a certification for 6 million copies shipped of current album All the Right Reasons. That has sold 5.55 million to date, but it's still generating radio airplay and is high on the album chart, so there's no reason to worry about whether it will eventually hit 6 million in sales.

Daughtry's self-titled debut album gets a triple-platinum award, and is pretty close to 3 million in sales (2.88 million). It's also selling healthily and should make up that last 120,000 quickly. And the Hannah Montana soundtrack also rates a triple-platinum plaque, although its sales to date are 2.67 million. But the sustained power of this Disney franchise is sufficient to cast away any nagging doubts that it will eventually hit the mark.

Comparisons on the new platinum and gold albums follow.

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This week's playlist: Brian goes back to Rockville

Brian Mansfield, our country critic, has always listened to a lot of non-country music, and now it's taken over his entire playlist for this week. But don't worry, country will return to his (and maybe my) future lists.

> Pick of the Week:

The Great Escape, Boys Like Girls: Nearly a year after Boston four-piece Boys Like Girls released its debut album, this infectiously escapist single is shooting up the charts. “We’ll scream at the top of our lungs, and they’ll think it’s just ’cause we’re young,” Martin Johnson sings, and though he’s right, it just doesn’t matter. This is a perfect breakout single for a young pop-punk group full of exuberance and enthusiasm, with dreams that stretch the length of the horizon and beyond.

> The Playlist:

Let Me Take You There, Plain White T’s: Sometimes all you need in a pop song is vague promises and specific melodies. This song from the Hey There Delilah group has both.

Say This Sooner, The Almost: If Underoath’s angst-ridden screams overwhelm your senses, try this track from drummer Aaron Gillespie’s side project, full of jittery anxiety and more accessible melodies.

You’ll Never Catch Him, Buffalo Tom: This melancholy song –- its title inspired by an elusive chipmunk -– shows that the Boston trio of Sodajerk fame hasn’t lost its touch with its first new music in nine years.

Keep It in the Family, The Mission U.K.: This ravishing song from the band’s new God Is a Bullet album depicts family secrets with disturbing seductiveness, tender and threatening all at once.

As the Cold Rain Falls, Tiger Army: California psychobilly trio goes ’80s darkpop, the sort of thing one could mistake for a Smiths demo or a lost Cure track.

Thrash Unreal, Against Me!: “Sometimes the party takes you places that you didn’t really plan on going.” And sometimes you stay there too long to ever find your way back.

The Ballad of Love and Hate, the Avett Brothers: This gentle allegory is a departure from the North Carolina trio’s usual wild-eyed, post-bluegrass, but it’s a lovely, thought-provoking tune.

Here’s to the Life, MxPx: Veteran Bremerton, Wash., punk-pop trio bobs and weaves its way through a song about learning to roll with life’s punches.

Brand New Kind of Actress, Jason Isbell: Drive-By Trucker guitarist goes solo with vintage-Stones country-blues that rocks so hard it’s no surprise somebody whips out a pistol in the last verse.

Far Behind, Social Distortion: If it weren’t for the searing guitars, this kiss-off from the SoCal punk stalwarts would sound like a classic country song.

A little 'Bay Bay' talk

Been hearing that Hurricane Chris hit A Bay Bay and wondering what's up with it? Steve Jones talks to the man behind the song and details Louisiana's ratchet scene. Check it out.

This week's reviews: Yellowcard, Editors, Spoon, Colbie, Minnie, Suzanne & Kim

Rock and pop dominate the review menu this week. Here are the short-order review capsules:

> If Yellowcard "didn't write such insistently poppy melodies, they'd sound like a thrash band," says Brian Mansfield, who finds in the band an "appealing sweetness."

> Is Colbie Caillat the "Norah Jones successor of the moment?" Elysa Gardner floats that notion after listening to what she calls "the kind of digestible acoustic pop that the Starbucks crowd laps up like frappuccinos."

> The Editors' "mood of pure gloom" offers only "scattered dark delights" on album No. 2, Edna Gundersen testifies.

> Spoon, however, crams its new album with "spiffy melodies" and "crisp narratives," says an enthralled Edna.

> Minnie Driver's musical career is no "whim of another moonlighting actress," says Brian, who compares her voice to Chrissie Hynde's.

> Suzanne Vega's "predictably smart, vaguely haunted love letter to her lifelong home, New York City," impresses Elysa considerably.

> Kim Richey's "magic spells and misdirection" likewise impresses Brian.

Full reviews and clips follow.

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Rock: A bleak, oblique lyrical landscape

About time to look at another music format to get a glimpse of the prevailing mood, as expressed through the lyrics of the top 10 songs. This time it's rock's turn under the macroscope (a better instrument for examining the larger implications buried in the seemingly inconsequential medium of song lyrics). It's a dark, instropective realm -- don't go looking for hedonistic celebrations or a whole lot of family values (in the non-Korn sense).

Seasoned chart watchers will know there are two main subformats within the rock umbrella -- alternative or modern rock, and what's known as active rock (as opposed to, not sedentary or passive rock, as you might expect, but "heritage rock," which appeals to older listeners and plays more of the current releases of more venerable artists. Sometimes this format is called merely "rock," but that's too confusing to deal with). Sometimes alternative and active rock are quite distinct in the music they play, but at this time they share a lot of hit records. Active rock stations would skip most of the emo hits (Red Jumpsuit Apparatus) and European/Britpop (Amy Winehouse, Peter, Bjorn & John) that alternative is open to, but otherwise they're pretty similar.

Anyway, before the explanations proliferate to a length greater than the actual topic, this week I'm going to look at the lyrics of active rock's top 10.

1. Paralyzer, Finger Eleven: Takes place in the same nightclub milieu in which T-Pain offers to buy shawties a drank, but nothing's that simple in rock. Finger Eleven's protagonized is holding on to his own drank "nervously," focused on a woman (generally not referred to as "shawties" in rock circles) he's attracted to but despairing that she'll "probably move right through me" while obsessing on how "awkward" he feels and how he probably should have stayed home. A sensitive dude, of the sort there's no room for in the macho world of hip-hop, where everybody's a confident player.

The rest of the top 10 follows, if you dare.

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A couple of sales questions

Thanks to dpwolfe2005 for clarifying the issue on whether Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus, as a double album, counts as one or two sales. As was pointed out, for SoundScan purposes, a sale is a sale -- if somebody buys Pearl Jam's six-CD live set, it's tallied as one sale, not six. But when it comes to RIAA certifications for gold, platinum, diamond, whatever, that's where the options come in. Record labels can designate an album as a double, in which case each sale counts as two and 250,000 shipped will get you a gold award, or as a single, in which case numbers are tallied conventionally.

DHRjericho was asking about sales for rapper Pharoahe Monch's album Desire. It did crack the top 100 its first week (last week), coming in at No. 58 with 12,000 units sold. Then this week it fell to No. 153, selling 5,000, for a total of 17,000. Things are tough all over for rap, and smart, thoughtful rap clearly has an even tougher road.

First Impressions: 10 albums to contemplate

Looking at that headline, I see where it could be misinterpreted to imply that I'm recommending 10 albums on a meditation theme. Not exactly. The 10 First Impressions albums in this week's installment are sometimes calm and serene but just as often are intrusive and disturbing. Here they are:

Bratz, Fashion Pixiez (out a while ago, catching up): Included to prove I'm not completely consumed by teen pop -- some of the Disney acts, such as the sui generis Aly & AJ (and good to see some hallelujahs from the congregation on that stunner of an album) and to a lesser extent Miley Cyrus and early Hilary Duff, have that exuberant pop-rock style down. Others, such as this more eclectic (they delve into R&B in a tentative, pixiesque kind of fashion) act, get on your nerves after about three songs. Still, a few moments of fleeting enjoyment.

Richard Hawley, Lady's Bridge (out Oct. 9): I've admired Hawley in previous incarnations (with Longpigs and Pulp), can tell he has admirable taste, and have liked a couple of his early solo albums. I like what he's attempting on this one (and its immediate predecessor, Coles Corner), kind of a classic, unadorned pop ballad style that at its best conjures the sound of Roy Orbison. That would be great, but Orbison's songs had a drama that's largely absent in Hawley's stuff, and the tunes and arrangements, while tasteful, are too straightforward for me, lacking the skillful twists that Jimmy Webb, say, usually managed to inject into an MOR formula. Good intentions, not quite executed optimally.

Adam Hood, Different Groove (out shortly): The artists on former Dwight Yoakam producer and ace guitarist Pete Anderson's Little Dog label are generally worth a listen, but this guy's one of the most interesting Americana/country acts I've heard in a while -- songs that stand out in a genre that's increasingly less memorable.

Ben Lee, Ripe (out Sept. 14): Former teen prodigy (now nearly 29; time flies when you're working) has matured into a gifted singer/songwriter, with a raft of appealing songs and a notable sense of humor (check What Would Jay-Z Do).

Rogue Wave, Asleep at Heaven's Gate (out Sept. 18): Having really liked this band's previous two albums, almost on a Shins level, I found myself initially admiring the complexity of the tracks on this new one more than responding viscerally. That changed, happily, with a spate of superb pop songs in the second half. Challenging but a truly valuable band.

Sunny Sweeney, Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame (out earlier this year, I think; catching up): Interestingly rootsy country act for a major label (or at least an indie with major-type aspirations). Sweeney is an excellent songwriter and has a pure-country voice that adds to the music's considerable appeal.

Various, Now Hear This and Get Ready to Fly (out on import earlier this year): I was listening to a few compilations this week, and these two plust the following entry really stood out. These are twin collections of '60s garage-rock and psychedelic-flavored pop produced in Clovis, N.M.,  by the seemingly unlikely figure of Norman Petty, better known for his Buddy Holly productions and orchestral pop tunes under his own name. Most of the artists will be unfamiliar, but the quality is way above average for comps of this sort.

Various, Scream Loud: The Fenton Story (out on import): Another absolutely exemplary garage-rock reissue, this one cataloguing the cream of a Michigan label that's legendary among this genre's collectors. This double CD provides ample evidence why -- virtually nothing included is less than first-rate garage snarl or jangle.

Various, Song of America (out Sept. 18): Assembled by Janet Reno, whose chief previous musical connection was as the subject of a possibly not entirely complimentary rap song by Anquette in the '80s, this is a three-CD set of songs that chronicle various phases of American history, sung by contemporary artists. It's a mix of (mostly) traditional, often well-worn folk/gospel/pop standards (some, such as Yankee Doodle, vividly reimagined) and a few new or recent songs. As with any project of this sort, you'll want to pick and choose, but there's plenty to check out.

Scott Matthews, Passing Stranger (out Sept. 25): Highly touted British singer/songwriter whose best tracks (try the first one) are well worth hearing, with a bit of Eastern mystery added to the standard s/s presentation.

T.I. -- TIP for the top

T.I. rolls to the top of the Billboard album chart with T.I. vs. TIP, which sold 468,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's slightly under his last debut week (522,000 for King last year) but becomes this year's second-best first-week sales total, behind Linkin Park's 623,000.

T.I. dwarfs the rest of the top 10, which comprises Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, Bon Jovi, the debut of Velvet Revolver's Libertad (93,000 copies sold) and Kelly Rowland's Ms. Kelly (82,000), Brad Paisley, Amy Winehouse, Linkin Park and the White Stripes.

Delve more deeply into the album sales in the entrancing material that follows.

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Rihanna holds sway over stagnant top 10

Commercial radio is hitting the summer doldrums, as no new song enters the top 10 for the second straight week on the national radio airplay audience chart. Rihanna's Umbrella easily notches a second week at No. 1, according to Nielsen BDS, Arbitron and Radio & Records, as former No. 1 Buy U a Drank, by T-Pain, continues to lose audience (while remaining at No. 2) and fast riser Beautiful Girls, by Sean Kingston, slows down a little even as it climbs from No. 4 to No. 3. Rihanna now seems assured of a least another week at No. 1, possibly more.

The rest of the top 10 is populated by familiar hits from Shop Boyz, Fergie, Fabolous, Justin Timberlake, Daughtry, Maroon 5 and Carrie Underwood. All the details and signs of life beneath the top 10 follow.

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This week's playlist: Elysa matches Prince, Keely, Paul, Babs and Suzanne

For this week's playlist, Elysa Gardner has a Prince preview, some classic pop and country-flavored singer/songwriter material, and a double dose of Paul Simon.

> Pick of the week:

Frank & Ava, Suzanne Vega: Summer is traditionally the time for blithe, escapist pop, but Vega isn’t the most traditional gal. With this taut, tasty single from her new album, Beauty & Crime, out next Tuesday, she draws inspiration from one of show biz’s great stormy, ill-fated romances, and concludes that it’s “not enough to be in love.” Not the sunniest sentiment, perhaps, but Vega’s breezy vocal and catchy arrangement are seasonally correct.

> The playlist:

The High Above and the Down Below, Cliff Eberhardt: The underappreciated singer/songwriter works up a soulful steam on this bluesy title track from his latest album.

Real Love, Regina Spektor: Spektor’s threadbare reading of John Lennon (on the compilation Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur) combines raw urgency and childlike innocence.

Save the Bones for Henry Jones, Chris Stapleton: From Ratatouille: What’s Cooking?, a collection inspired by the Disney Pixar film, a rootsy romp in homage to a picky eater.

People, Barbra Streisand: Revisiting one of her signature ballads on Live in Concert 2006, La Streisand spreads her still-buttery voice with diva-licious drama.

You Go to My Head, Keely Smith: This lithe, sultry track from The Essential Capitol Collection, due next Tuesday, captures one of the Rat Pack’s favorite femmes at her peak.

The One U Wanna C, Prince: Prince sounds ready to party like it’s 1986 on this burst of exhilarating carnality from Planet Earth, slated for July 24.

Falter, Lori McKenna: McKenna’s grainy-sweet voice and warm, intuitive writing are perfectly suited to this pining number from her upcoming Unglamorous (Aug. 14).

Spring Is Here, Dave Brubeck: The ageless jazz icon gracefully milks Rodgers and Hart’s melancholic beauty on this selection from his solo piano collection Indian Summer (Aug. 28).

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Paul Simon: If Frank & Ava is too starry-eyed for your taste, dig up this sly oldie, now on the anthology The Essential Paul Simon.

Something So Right, Annie Lennox: Lennox’s radiant cover, from 1995’s Medusa, turns Simon’s gently winning ballad into a revelation.

12-year-old's Bratz to riches saga

Twelve-year-old budding singer/songwriter Daechelle Hernandez went from constructing her own shrine to the Bratz dolls to placing a song, Fearless, on the soundtrack of their new live-action film, Bratz. Check it out and also, if you're so inclined, the song itself.

This week's reviews: Pumpkins, House reunions; Aly & AJ + Hannah & Miley; Interpol & Silverstein

Reunions, teen pop and complaint rock comprise this week's menu of album reviews, herewith capsulized for your convenient consumption:

> Smashing Pumpkins' reunion may be a bit conceptually dubious, but it "ultimately triumphs as provocative hard rock," according to Edna Gundersen.

> Crowded House's "melodic gifts are "still intact," Elysa Gardner is pleased to report.

> Aly & AJ "transcend the (teen pop) genre," say I.

> Interpol "offers much to love and admire," Edna finds.

> Silverstein's screamo rock sounds "tuneful" enough, but Brian Mansfield is a little undecided about the whole "throat-shredding" thing.

> Miley Cyrus has a new Hannah Montana soundtrack and her own debut, packaged together, and I find them both "irresistibly exuberant."

Full reviews and clips follow.

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Lavigne a plagiarist? Can't cheer that notion

A while back I posted a few examples of songs that sounded suspiciously similar, and we had a little discussion about those and other theoretically plagiaristic tunes. Now there's a real-life controversy brewing over a lawsuit filed on behalf of '70s popsters The Rubinoos, in which it's claimed that their song I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend was infringed upon by Avril Lavigne's Girlfriend.

As a longstanding Rubinoos fan, I went back and listened to their tune. Here's what I thought was similar in the two songs: the "hey, hey, you, you, I wanna be your boyfriend/girlfriend" construction in the choruses and the general cheerleaderish vibe. (And even that probably owes just as much to Toni Basil's Mickey.)

Here's what I thought differed: everything else. Even the melodies of the two choruses vary considerably, and as for the verses, no resemblance whatsoever.

But judge for yourself on the choruses of Boyfriend and Girlfriend, and let me know your opinions. I know once these things get entangled in the legal system, strange things happen, but I don't think there's much of a case here. But if it's any consolation, The Rubinoos sound a lot better. And maybe they get a little publicity out of it.

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More music more often: Essence Fest, Idol tour

You've seen all the live Live Earth posts, but there's more. You can check out how the Live Earth coverage all boiled down, and also read about the return of the epic Essence Music Festival to New Orleans and how the American Idols Live tour is shaking down so far.

The Police: That's the ticket

The reunited Police started off right on point. Sting’s voice was a plangent siren call through Driven To Tears, which featured a blistering solo by guitarist Andy Summers. Roxanne was a pure crowd-pleaser, as was another early classic, Can’t Stand Losing You, which Sting turned into an audience singalong. The Police chief then invited “our great friend John Mayer,” an avid fan of the group, to join them for Message In A Bottle; Mayer, an ace axe man in his own right, joined Summers on guitar. Kanye West added to the stew, embellishing Sting’s vocal with a freewheeling rap. As Sting sang, “Sending out an SOS,” West shouted, “We can save the world!”

But wait, there was more – sort of: “I’m going to introduce another bass guitarist," Sting announced, “…Mr. Al Gore!” Gore didn’t play, alas, but thanked the crowd and wished them goodnight. -- E.G.

Waters delivers a message

Classic-rock casual in jeans and a black T-shirt, politically conscious rock veteran Roger Waters made a musical statement by opening his set with the Pink Floyd fave Money that features the line, “Money is the root of all evil today.” The dapper Waters' soulful rendition of Us And Them was only slightly more subtle in its message, and was followed by two more staples of his old band’s catalog, Dark Side of the Moon and Another Brick in the Wall (a curious and perhaps ironic choice, given its refrain, “We don’t need no education…”). A team of New Jersey youngsters joined Waters on stage for Wall, during which an inflated pig that said "Save our sausages" was released above the crowd. Fans who considered the reunited Floyd’s set a highlight of Live Earth’s awareness-raising predecessor, 2005’s Live 8, had no complaints. - E.G., D.F.

Patriotic Pumpkins

The Smashing Pumpkins' lead singer Billy Corgan, with his signature shaved head, rocked the enthusiastic crowd with Today and Bullet With Butterfly Wings. In an unexpected patriotic tribute, he played a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner on his electric guitar in the middle of a song of the band's new album,  Zeitgeist, which drops Tuesday. "We all know you're going to buy it and not illegally download it, like you did all our other albums," quipped Corgan. -- R.G.

Waters impressed with Gore's message

Roger Waters, addressing the media on the subject of awareness-raising concerts, recalled the concert for Bangladesh spearheaded by George Harrison decades ago: "Everything else followed after that.” Waters said that he had been “quite impressed with Al Gore’s message,” and by An Inconvenient Truth, and described Live Earth as “an opportunity to feel the sense that we’re all brothers and sisters on this small, dim planet, and we all need to pull together if there’s going to be any future for our children and grandchildren.”

Waters said that while the issues posed by Live Earth constituted a “deeply political question,” he had “no intention of getting partisan.” But he did tell viewers, “What you can do is vote…The problem won’t be solved until we the electorate makes it clear that we will not vote” for politicians who don’t address it. “And we will not vote for them if they have a track record like this administration,” the British rocker added. -E.G.

Bon Jovi goes home

Local boys Bon Jovi made good. Real good. The band that Al Gore said was the first to sign on opened with Lost Highway, then went into It's My Life. "This is my house. This is my home. Let them know what Jersey is all about," Jon Bon Jovi told the delirious fist-pumping fans. After Wanted Dead or Alive, he stood arm-in-arm with Richie Sambora and surveyed the packed stadium, before launching into Who Says You Can't Go Home. The place dissolved into total pandemonium as the band closed with Livin' on a Prayer. -- D.F.

A Kennedy call to action

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came out to slam D.C. politicians and the news media that "is giving us Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton instead of the issues we need to understand." He urged the crowd to "get involved in the political process and get rid of these rotten politicians."

Along with Al Gore and Jane Goodall, he drew more applause than many of the event's entertainment celebs. -- D.F.

Kanye's hit parade

Kanye West, backed by an all-female string orchestra in silver dresses, gave an energetic performance, running up and down the length of the stage. West streamed through hit after hit -- from Gold Digger and Heard 'Em Say to Jesus Walks and Touch the Sky, while the audience sang along and swayed their hands in the air. -- R.G.

Kelly Clarkson, still our 'Idol'

Looking very rock chick in layered black-and-red tanks, black pants, heavy makeup and lank hair, Kelly Clarkson opened her set with a driving, raspy-throated version Walk Away. American Idol's prodigal daughter admired the stage's recycled-tire backdrop ("It's really cool, I'm going to steal their idea for my show") before playing her current single, Never Again.

"Man, there are some killer bands today that I've never seen, I'm really stoked," she said, then launched into an intense Sober. "Sing it!" she commanded the crowd as she wrapped up with Since U Been Gone. -- D.F., E.G.

Rosario Dawson: 'I'm proof positive'

“I hate leaving running water,” actress Rosario Dawson told reporters. “I can’t stand it. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. I grew up in a squat on the Lower East Side, and I know what it is to conserve…There are really small things that can make a big difference. We’re not (only) talking about major things here…There are really reachable goals.”

Dawson said she was encouraged by the abundance of very young people in Live Earth’s audience. “These kids are going to be like, 'My first concert was the Live Earth concert'…Here we all are together, blurring the line between artist and fan…reaching out to each other.” She added, “I’m proof positive that if you (teach)…a young person it becomes normal…I walk out of a room, and I immediately shut out the light.” - E.G.

Dave Matthews: Short and sweet

Dave Matthews walked on stage and was met with deafening applause. He played only two songs - One Sweet World and Too Much. The audience sang along while many danced on their chairs. Then he wished the crowd a great night and walked off stage. -R.G.

Chimp chic

Another unlikely superstar? Jane Goodall, introduced by Rachel Weisz. The primatologist got a standing ovation and major cheers when she welcomed the crowd by delivering a chimpanzee greeting. "An event like this can help melt the ice in the human heart," she told the audience.

Backstage, she said she regrets that her traveling adds to her carbon footprint. But she generally leads “a simple life,” Goodall says. “I try to walk the talk.” She's hopeful for the future: “We pray that we’ve got this critical mass of youth that understands this world is about a lot more than just making money.” -- D.F., E.G.

Keys on stage

“Today it’s not about the problem. It’s about the solution,” said Alicia Keys, coolly elegant in a hot pink dress. After finishing a topical classic, Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me, she urged fans, “I want you to make that pledge,” referring to Al Gore’s seven-point list. “You can join the names of all the people that refuse for it to go on any longer.” She then introduced a brand new song – “No one has ever heard it before but you” – a pining number called That’s the Thing About Love. “So I want you to feel this, because it’s just about you tonight.” - E.G.

Mayer on The Police, Jessica Simpson

Asked by a cheeky reporter what his eco-sin was, John Mayer responded, “I don’t know … but tell the editors back at Glass Half Empty that I said hey.” He added, “The conversation about the validity of the subject is a nice way to buy some time before you buy some bulbs.” Told that some of the fans were there more for the music than the message, he said, “It’s a very young movement…I also think it’s difficult to gauge the success of awareness. At Live 8, they had hard copy information…You can’t find out by 9 o’clock tonight how much awareness there is…And of course rock is going to win out…But you hope that two percent of that message will make its way in.”

Mayer noted, “We’re getting together saying we want to be healthier…I don’t understand what the competing argument is to, let’s try to slow down…(our use of) resources.”

Asked which artist in the Giants Stadium lineup had him most excited, he responded, without missing a beat, “The Police. To me, The Police – they’re our Beatles.” When another press person raised the subject of Jessica Simpson, and whether they were still talking, he quipped, “I’m going to practice some conversation conservation there, and minimize my (bs) footprint.” - E.G.

Etheridge and her hero

After a set that included as much spoken social commentary as song lyrics, and ended with her Oscar-winning song from An Inconvenient Truth, Melissa Etheridge introduced “my hero and friend” Al Gore. Gore thanked Etheridge for her “wake-up call,” and read all seven points of the Live Earth pledge to a cheering crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, times like these demand action,” Gore said, before referring fans to the Foo Fighters, who were beamed in from London. - E.G.

Fall Out Boy sends a message

When the members of Fall Out Boy were asked backstage if they could give a message to the current administration or future ones about the climate crisis, Pete Wentz said, “The message should be a non-political one. We need to take it and personalize it and bring it into our own lives…As soon as everybody in the red (states) becomes aware of issues on a larger scale,” it would make a difference, he predicted. Wentz added: “Stop being so based on fossil fuels. The oil lobby is becoming very powerful, and that’s something we need to (not) ignore.” - E.G.

Etheridge: 'What happened to us?'

In the middle of a new song called Imagine That, Melissa Etheridge launched into a lengthy bit of political commentary, repeatedly asking her country, “What happened to us?” Wearing a green guitar strap bearing recycling symbols and peace signs, as green confetti floated through the air, she recalled being a schoolgirl and thinking that her elders would have solved the environmental crisis by the time she grew up.  “I remember when we had a president who was a criminal,” she added pointedly, and citizens were driven to action “because America was sacred. What happened to us?” Trying to answer her seemingly rhetorical question, she said that perhaps the problem was “our undying need to consume and consume…I don’t know…(But) I know we can do better than that.” -- E.G., R.G.

USA TODAY exclusive: Alicia Keys pre-show

Speaking to USA TODAY in her trailer before going on stage, Alicia Keys said that Live Earth “represents a global issue in a really global way. This is not just about one person or one city or one country. It’s our world problem.” If government leaders don’t all grasp the gravity of the situation, she said, individuals have to do what they can. “If 20,000 people change their light bulbs” to be energy-efficient, that could make a statement and a difference.

Keys said that she had designed her set with the issues driving Live Earth in mind. She would perform For The Love of Money because “for me, that’s why we are where we are.” She also selected two enduringly relevant classics: Stevie Wonder’s Living For the City and Marvin Gaye’s Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology). Gaye’s song “is so accurate now,” she said, shaking her head. “How could that song still be so accurate 30 years later? That’s sad, man.”

Keys said she would introduce a pertinent new song from her upcoming album, As I Am, due Oct. 23. “I’m very excited about the record; it’s incredibly moving,” she said, noting that her new material had been influenced by larger events like those being acknowledged in these awareness-raising concerts. “For me, music comes from what surrounds me, what I’m feeling. There’s always an element of questioning.”

The singer/songwriter mentioned that her upcoming projects also include the film The Nanny Diaries, in September, in which she appears with Scarlett Johansson; and a tour set to start in January. “I’m constantly evolving,” she said. - E.G.

A new use for old tires

In New Jersey, artists performed against a backdrop of tires, painted red to form a global map. Organizers say they're recycled and help with amplification. -- D.F.

Kindred souls

Concertgoer Jason Bellini, 29, came to see John Mayer perform live. Bellini's claim to fame was that he was born on the same day -- October 16, 1977 -- and at the same hospital - Stony Brook University Hospital -- as Mayer. - R.G.

A shout out to ... New Jersey

During the concert, most of the artists were giving shout outs to being in New York City. When Scrubs'  Zach Braff stepped on stage, the New Jersey native said, "People keep saying this is New York, and I'm sick of it and tired of it. We're in the beautiful state of New Jersey!" The crowd screamed and cheered.  - R.G.

It's a family issue, dawg

“It’s kind of a family issue around my house,” American Idol judge Randy Jackson said backstage, of environmental consciousness. “We’re consuming water better now. I check if people leave the water running, which drives me crazy,” and added that he and his family are also making an effort to recycle. His wife “probably is a little more (green) than me,” he admitted, “but we’re neck and neck.”

Of Idol, Jackson said, “This year we’re going to become more of a green show…We had a great time doing Idol Gives Back, so stay tuned. There could be green in our future.”

He had not seen Paula Abdul’s reality show, he told a reporter who inquired, then asked the reporter how she found it. “Entertaining,” she responded, deadpan. “That’s a good answer,” he said, smiling. -- E.G.

Looking for a few 'beautiful ladies'

What global warming? Akon, in a white T-shirt, focused more on finding "beautiful ladies" in the audience.

He took his shirt off and threw it, after telling the crowd he dated a stripper and his mother disapproved. "If she's going to strip, I'm going to strip, too," Akon declared.

Shirtless with baggy jeans, he jumps into the crowd, causing security to freak as he's mobbed. Riding a fan's shoulders, he high-fives and shakes hands. -- D.F.

Swimming across Fifth Avenue

“It doesn’t seem like an absurd idea that (the world) might run out of gas,” Dave Matthews said backstage, “to use a poor pun. The idea of the well drying up seems less and less far-fetched.” He added that everyone needs to be concerned about “what kind of world we leave our children and our grandchildren,” and that whether we’re moved by “the idea of icebergs melting or polar bears drowning or me being able to swim across Fifth Avenue – all of them seem daunting.”

Matthews admitted that he doesn’t have all the answers to the climate crisis. “I’m not sure. I’m not a scientist; I’m not saying we can save the planet. But we might as well grab for straws before we go down."

Asked if he would like to see Al Gore run for president, the singer mused, “I’m not gonna bite that apple, for sure. He seems like a nice guy, doesn’t he? I want to see my mom run for president.” -- E.G.

A good time for a food run?

After Fall Out Boy left the stage, a PSA screened, showing a series of close-ups of cows pooping. The crowd moaned in disgust. The message was meant to turn people off from eating meat and have one vegetarian meal a week instead. But after a stomach-turning visual like that, food must have been the furthest thing from anyone's minds. -- R.G.

Thanking the Academy?

“We’d like to thank the Academy,” Adam Lazzarra joked after taking the microphone. “And Bruce Springsteen, who also played here,” he added. He observed that the weather was “hot – but that’s why we’re here…It gives us an opportunity to share the stage and the planet with a lot of artists that we’ve looked up to” and be part of a cause “that affects everyone on the planet Earth.”

Asked if they would date someone who wasn’t green, Matt Rubano quipped, “Someone who’s adamantly anti-environment? Like a Republican? I’ve never dated a Republican.” -- E.G.

Much fawning over Fall Out Boy

Fall Out Boy babe Pete Wentz, in a gray vest over a white tee, told the crowd that "environmentalism is a lot working out. You're only going to do it if it's convenient for you." The spirited set included Dance, Dance and This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race. He promised there's a lot of awesome bands coming up," before launching into the hit Thnks fr th Mmrs. -- D.F.

President Akon?

“Wow – I feel like the president,” Akon said, taking the mike backstage. He admitted, “I just realized today what the meaning of green was,” noting, “I wanted to become more educated …That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of (Live Earth).”

Asked about Africa, Akon posited, “The environmental thing is a different situation there,” because the continent doesn’t generally have “the technology” available in the USA and Europe. “(Africa is) trying to clear the poverty side of things first, but in 40 or 50 years they’ll probably have the same problem” with the environment. - E.G.

'We're pimpin' all over the world'

After low-key performances from Keith Urban and KT Tunstall, Ludacris got fans out of their seats, having people shout "cris" to his "Luda" and pump their fists. Wearing an "Eagles Fly Alone" T-shirt, accented with a diamond Africa pendant, he rapped to Fergie's Glamorous and looked for "independent beautiful ladies" in the audience. "We're pimpin' all over the world," he told the crowd, referring to the global shows. -- D.F.

KT goes green

After modeling her “Save the Future” tank top for photographers in the press tent, KT Tunstall told reporters, “As a touring musician, you have to fly…I could put myself in a box and ship myself, but…” She has “defected to Virgin Airways,” though, inspired by Richard Branson’s pledge to put the airline’s profits into eco-friendly research. She also tries to use biodiesel fuel on her tour bus, “but you have to find a bus driver who knows what it is.” Asked what she does at home, she said, “I’m very rarely home…but as we're speaking I’m getting my flat in London renovated and I’m greening it,” with sheep’s wool insulation and other elements.

Tunstall admitted that her profession can make it difficult to reduce her carbon footprint: She has sold “3 and a half million records, which is a considerable amount of carbon emission for one person.” But having been raised green, she is taking steps, including planting 6,000 trees in her native Scotland, to compensate for all those discs.

Live Earth’s message is an important one, she added, referring to Bob Geldof’s comment that everyone knows about climate change.

“But not that many people know what to do about it,”  Tunstall stressed. “This is really promoting respect for other people, the other side of the planet…building a community.” - E.G.

Dispatches from around the world

We're live from the New Jersey show, but USA TODAY dispatched correspondents to cover every show worldwide. Catch up on all of the details here.

Urban, outfitting 'Gimme Shelter'

Keith Urban, outfitted in a fitted blue T-shirt and jeans, rocked out with Alicia Keys on the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. At the end of the set, Urban fell to his knees in front of Keys, who was wearing a sleeveless black minidress, and then stood up to high-five her. -- Rachel Grumman

A hit of Hollywood glamour

A somber Leonardo DiCaprio goes on stage in a brown button-down and jeans and the place erupts in crazy applause. "What seemed like science fiction is an inconvenient, but undeniable, truth," he tells the crowd before introducing "global messenger of hope" Al Gore, who gets a standing ovation. "You are Live Earth," Gore tells the cheering masses. He also thanked the performers for “not only taking the stage but taking a stand.” -- E.G., D.F.

Taking Back Sunday... on Saturday

“We are taking back Sunday, ladies and gentlemen – from what I do not know,” said the band’s frontman, Adam Lazzara, before charging through a muscular Liar (It Takes One to Know One). Lazzarra’s urgent singing could be a little pitch-shy, but the young female fans who stood swaying and grinning didn’t seem to mind. The local band from Long Island got some major applause. "This is not a debatable issue we are up against. It's a good thing I'm not a preacher," Lazzara said. - E.G., D.F.

Green, at a price

Saving the world doesn't come cheap: Bottled water is selling for $4 a pop and Live Earth baseball hats are $30. But the green vibe is underscored by the "smart" cars on display and promos for energy-efficient light bulbs. -- D.F.

Carson Daly's truth

Backstage Carson Daly said that when he was asked to co-host a primetime special on NBC tonight with Ann Curry, “I jumped at the opportunity.” Daly admitted, “I really didn’t know a whole lot about (the climate crisis)…Like a lot of people, I saw An Inconvenient Truth and was moved.” Now, he said, when charging his Blackberry and cell phone, “I’ve learned to when I leave unplug them.” And he’s “starting to take a mug to work rather than drink from a Styrofoam cup.” - E.G.

Tunstall's frisky set

KT Tunstall, wearing a white tank top that read, “Save the Future,” kicked off a frisky set in the sweltering heat with her breakthrough hit Black Horse and the Cherry Tree. A couple of songs in, she led the audience in a “Mexican wave,” cheering them on. “Pull your phone charger out of the wall and….eat more soil, or something,” she advised the crowd before wrapping up her set. - Elysa Gardner

Not as green as they seem

Pre-show in the parking lot at Giants Stadium, things weren't so green: Many in the crowd drove (non-hybrid) SUVs to the show. Though Pepsi set up a recycling station for cans and bottles near the restrooms, people were trashing their recyclables inside the portable potties. -- D.F.

Tailgaters turn out

By 12:30 p.m. ET, fans were tailgating leisurely in the surprisingly open parking lot at New Jersey's Giants Stadium. With Live Earth's best seats going for about $300, tons of tickets are still available for the U.S. show.

"I'm in love with every band here," says Tina Kromer, hanging out and eating with pals, all from New York. "It's rare to get this many bands in one place for a good cause." Adds Eric Warburton: "I'm so excited to see The Police reunited. It might be the last time we can see them."

Nici Beason says she's been inspired to be a part of the solution since seeing Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. "I buy energy-efficient light bulbs, I get paper towels that have shorter sheets and we're going to buy a hybrid," she says. "I want to contribute to the tipping point."

-- Donna Freydkin

Listen Up gets a Live Earth makeover

Saturday will be all Live Earth all the time here, as a team of correspondents blogs live from the New Jersey Live Earth show, one of the jewels of the global concert spectacular. Look for all the highlights onstage, backstage and among the crowd.

Also check out Elysa Gardner's preview story on the concert and its aims (plus a handy where to watch section), and Edna Gundersen's broader perspective on benefit shows.

Aly & AJ: Self-contained teen-pop sensations

Brian Mansfield talks to Aly & AJ, the most promising of the Disney-related teen-pop acts who are exploding in a multimedia kind of way these days, as well as their support team. Check it out -- and their music is pretty impressive, if you ask me.

First Impressions: Checking out (mostly) new albums

Pretty interesting batch of records to choose from what I happened to listen to last week. The format, as usual: quick first-hearing reviews of mostly upcoming albums, organized alphabetically for your convenience:

Editors, An End Has a Start (out July 17): I liked this Brit band's first album and several singles from it, so I think I was hoping for a giant second-album leap, a la Arcade Fire or (to a lesser extent) Bloc Party. That didn't happen -- this is probably fuller-sounding and more rock-textured than the first, but the semi-gloomy '80s-inspired UK pop-rock sound still dominates. Not that that's a bad thing -- there are several impressive tracks.

Griefs, Throwing a Tempo Tantrum (out now): Garage rock of a much more adventurous sort than usual, trespassing beyond the usual fairly rigid boundaries with greater ambition, not succeeding every time out but making the successes memorable.

Haven, All for a Reason (out now, I think): Domestic reissue (with a few song changes) of a 2004 British album produced by Johnny Marr of Smiths fame. Lots of guitar textures and songs that vary from forgettable to riveting (luckily, more of the latter).

Junior Senior, Hey Hey My My Yo Yo (out Aug. 14): Maybe even more than their first album, this Danish duo's latest is the goofiest good fun around, girl-group-type pop exuberance welded onto very frothy dance grooves.

Bettye Lavette, The Scene of the Crime (out Sept. 25): Lavette is one of those resuscitated soul singers it's hip to espouse, but she's definitely worth it. Not only is her old stuff (not just the recently reissued '70s Atlantic stuff, but even more so the earlier Karen, Calla, and Silver Fox singles) excellent (terrific gritty voice), but this album, produced by Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood, just rips, with some truly sublime peaks.

Chris Letcher, Frieze (out a few weeks ago): South African singer-songwriter whose best songs pay much greater attention to the fine details of arrangement than most. Some songs approach tedium, but the best (mostly earlier in the album, if you're doing quick hits) have some fascinatingly delicate textures that enhance the somber narratives.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, This is Somewhere (out Aug. 7): I was worried this Vermont band would slide into jam-band mediocrity, but this second major-label album has much stronger songcraft than its predecessor, and a good variety of soul-tinged rock and ballads, highlighted by Potter's fine voice.

Prince, Planet Earth (out July 24): An odd one, very anachronistic-sounding, split between slow-jam soul (one over-the-top spoken tune among them), spirited funk and the best upbeat pop songs he's done since he was entranced by The Bangles.

Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of ... (out Aug. 21): Not at all your typical singer-songwriter, Ritter tries on a lot of different stylistic hats and wears most of them well, adding up to a highly enjoyable collection.

Waterboys, Book of Lightning (out Aug. 21): Mike Scott slaps a group name on this release, and it's the strongest collection of songs he's put out in years. He does go on a bit at times, as always, but the results this time are well worth it.

Melly, Pinkney, Randolph, Sills passings

Sadly, it's been a full week of music-related deaths, including the most recent, British jazz singer and cultural critic George Melly, who died at 80 today. His '60s book Revolt Into Style is one of the wittiest and most perceptive pop culture books I've read.

Drifters singer Bill Pinkney, who also made some good records under his own name, died Wednesday at 81. He sang with the legendary group in its early days in the '50s, when the late great Clyde McPhatter was the lead singer.

Earlier (Tuesday), Boots Randolph, the famous Nashville session saxophonist who placed 14 instrumental albums on the Billboard chart, died at 80.

And of course, opera star Beverly Sills died Monday at 78. Elysa Gardner did a nice appreciation.

Finally, Hy Zaret, who wrote the lyrics to Unchained Melody, died at 99 Monday. Just a classic ballad, whether in the original vocal hit by Al Hibbler or the overexposed but still stunning Bobby Hatfield solo version released as the Righteous Brothers in 1965.

2007's first half in sales, airplay

Some of what follows has already been posted in greater (or different detail), other aspects may come later, but here are my overviews on album sales for the first half of 2007 and radio airplay, with some download info added in.

The 100 top radio songs of 2007 (so far)

The final national radio airplay audience chart for the first half of 2007 is in, so it's time to list the biggest hits of the year to date, according to data from Nielsen BDS, Arbitron and Radio & Records and skillfully massaged by Anthony DeBarros. And here they are:

1. Beyonce, Irreplaceable: Seven weeks at No. 1 in 2007 proper. Its lead would probably have been insurmountable had it not spent much of its early chart life in the last 10 weeks of 2006.

2. Nelly Furtado, Say It Right: A bit of a surprise, since it never hit No. 1, but it was a top 10 fixture for months. I'm not going to argue; it's my second-favorite radio hit of the year. (My fave is also in the top 10.)

3. Akon, Don't Matter: One of three songs he's on in the top 20. Six weeks at No. 1.

4. T-Pain w/Yung Joc, Buy U a Drank: Eight weeks at No. 1, the champ in that department so far this calendar year.

5. Lloyd w/Lil' Wayne, You: One week at No. 1.

6. Robin Thicke, Lost Without U: A breakthrough hit.

7. Gwen Stefani w/Akon, The Sweet Escape: No. 1 download of the year so far.

8. Justin Timberlake, What Goes Around ... : My favorite pop hit of the year.

9. Mims, This Is Why I'm Hot: Two weeks at No. 1. Don't ask me why.

10. Daughtry, It's Not Over: Top Idol on the airplay chart.

Nos. 11-100 (if my energy holds out) follow.

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Miley bests Kelly in battle of the TV idols

Kelly Clarkson had a new album out, but another TV-spawned star, Miley Cyrus, edged her for the top spot in Billboard. Cyrus' Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus sold 326,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Clarkson, despite some negative press of late, sold 291,000 for the No. 2 slot. That's better than the 250,000 her previous album, Breakaway, sold on the way to an eventual 5.8 million (so far), but a shade lower than the total for her first album, Thankful, which made a No. 1 debut in 2003 with 297,000 copies (2.8 million total).

Last week's 1-2-3 debuts, by Bon Jovi, White Stripes and Brad Paisley, fell to 3-4-5, followed by Amy Winehouse, the debut of  Ryan Adams' Easy Tiger, Linkin Park, Paul McCartney and Maroon 5.

More details follow, including a close look at the overall stats for the first half. And look for a separate post on the top albums of the year so far.

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'Umbrella' reigns over airplay chart

As seemed inevitable, Rihanna's Umbrella opens up a sizable lead on the national radio airplay audience chart, and should occupy that spot for at least the next couple of weeks. T-Pain's Buy U a Drank drops to No. 2 after eight weeks at the top, according to Nielsen BDS, Arbitron and Radio & Records. Shop Boyz' Party Like a Rockstar slows down and remains at No. 3, followed by Sean Kingston's Beautiful Girls, close behind at No. 4 and now the biggest threat to Rihanna's supremacy over the long run.

The rest of the top 10 is made up of Justin Timberlake's Summer Love, Fergie's Big Girls Don't Cry, Daughtry's Home, Fabolous' Make Me Better, Maroon 5's Makes Me Wonder and Carrie Underwood's Before He Cheats. More detail and chart facts follow, and in a separate post, look for the top songs of 2007's first half.

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A reflective kind of playlist

I am wholly responsible, even culpable, for this week's playlist, which ranges from folk to rock to bluegrass to old-school soul. Here's the rundown:

> Pick of the week:

Working Class Hero, Green Day: The most riveting song on the John Lennon tribute Instant Karma can’t match the original’s weary sarcasm, but it compensates with fierce rock intensity on Lennon’s withering assault on the class system. It’s his best post-Beatles song and one of the most powerful political polemics ever recorded.

> The playlist:

Do What You Gotta Do, Meg Baird: Philadelphia singer strips down Jimmy Webb’s pop standard and makes it an elegant, traditional folk song. From a frequently stunning album, Dear Companion.

Ain’t Gonna Worry No More, Peter Case: Folk-styled epic, a highlight of upcoming album Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, conjures a vivid mood, haunting yet hopeful.

Scare Me to Death, Joe Henry: Stark ballad from the upcoming Civilians album attains the majesty of late-period Dylan. One of several similarly moody, striking tracks on the album.

Song Noir, Jon Auer: The Posies main man’s original could be a 1966 Donovan song, one of the good, melancholically mesmerizing ones from Sunshine Superman or Mellow Yellow.

I Am the Unknown, The Aliens: Swirling sonics and lush harmonies create an eccentric modern-day take on late-’60s British “toytown” psych-pop. (Toytown is sort of the pop/baroque/flowery side of psychedelia. The most precise antecedent for this particular track is Marmalade's Man in a Shop.)

Transmission, Gringo Star: Irresistible atmospheric minor-key guitar jangle, with faint R.E.M. echoes, from a neatly named Atlanta band. EP from which it emanates is out in September.

Flattery, Aly & AJ: These sisters mix a fascinating moody maturity with teen zest. Could they be the ABBA of Disney pop?

Reflections of a Sound, Silverchair: Aussie grunge prodigies progress to a complex sound featuring lush Beach Boys-style harmonies on the chorus.

Invisible Man, Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators: Backed by a Finnish soul band, Willis evokes the classic Motown spirit of a blithe Miracles dance-floor number.

I Can See for Miles, Marty Stuart: Joined by Old Crow Medicine Show, Stuart transforms The Who’s classic to bluegrass with no power shortage. (He does kind of mess up the phrasing in one of the early verses, though.)

Essence returns to New Orleans

After decamping to Houston last year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, R&B's longstanding cross-generational R&B gathering the Essence Festival is returning to the Crescent City's Superdome Thursday through Saturday. Steve Jones previews the attractions and talks to the organizers. Check it out.

Unrelated note: Despite the July 4 holiday coming Wednesday, I work that day but take off Tuesday. That means the regular radio airplay feature will be delayed until sometime Wednesday.

This week's reviews: T.I., VR and a couple of Kellys

In this week's review stack, we look at T.I.'s adventurous new venture, take a shot at Velvet Revolver, roll with Kelly Rowland and catch up to Kelly Clarkson, as well as experiencing Lifehouse, checking out the Bad Brains reunion and giving long overdue praise to Angelique Kidjo. Here are the capsules distilled for your short-attention-span reading pleasure:

> T.I. deserves "credit for trying something different," as he "goes toe-to-toe with a streetwise alter ego, T.I.P.," Steve Jones reports.

> Velvet Revolver's second album is not only somewhat surprising in that it got made at all, but is a "thoroughly vital enterprise," according to Edna Gundersen.

> Kelly Rowland's "flashes of feistiness" are what distinguishes her second album for Steve.

> Kelly Clarkson's third album is "joyless, nearly hopeless and, worst of all, virtually tuneless," says Ken Barnes (aka me), not mincing many words.

> Lifehouse can be "ponderous" and "obvious" in its imagery, but "it could have been a lot less pleasant," Brian Mansfield says in glass-half-full mode.

> The Bad Brains' original lineup "reconnects to revive its tough and spirited mix of reggae and hardcore punk," Edna says, as I practically give away the whole review.

> Angelique Kidjo "spans musical cultures with her mesmerizing vocals," a riveted Steve says.

Full reviews and a few clips follow.

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Lyrics of the top 10: State of the country

Welcome to week two in a recurring series in which I attempt to divine the cultural mood of the nation through the lyrics of the top 10 songs. Since the top 10 is a slow-moving affair, I need to wait for it to change sufficiently before I re-examine it. Fortunately, the pop top 10 is so full of hip-hop and pop songs that I can look at the country and rock top 10 list with no duplication concerns.

This week the format in the spotlight is country. It's known for celebrating true values (sort of like a hardware chain), so I'm not expecting a lot of songs about shawties in the club, of the sort found saturating the pop top 10. But you never know ...

1. Lucky Man, Montgomery Gentry: OK, this is right in the pocket of the true values syndrome. Outside of fleeting annoyance "when the Bengals lost" (another game, presumably, rather than another player to the police lineup), the duo feels pretty darned fortunate to have a house, some land, a healthy truck and heart (in that order) and a family.

2. Wrapped, George Strait: In this wrap song, George is in the throes of a hopeless obsession and it's shaking his confidence to still be wrapped around the finger of his unattainable love object.

3. Lost in This Moment, Big & Rich: On their first monster radio hit, the maverick duo are not, for once, concerned about dynamiting the borders of country music but instead celebrating the transcendent moments of a wedding.

4. Find Out Who Your Friends Are, Tracy Lawrence: Tracy says when times are tough (as for instance when you've run your car into a ditch or lost your shirt), that's when you learn who your real friends are. Possibly a veiled metaphor for the tough times he recently endured career-wise before this comeback vaulted him back into the top echelon.

5. Ticks, Brad Paisley: This song stacks up well with the various seduction strategies offered by hip-hop experts such as T-Pain in Buy U a Drank and Lloyd in Get It Shawty. But the always-witty Brad puts a different spin on it: He's in a bar chatting up whatever the country equivalent to a shawty might be, but instead of inviting her home like every other hustler in the club, he's "got way more class than them" and proposes an excursion to the backwoods where he can "check you for ticks."

6. Moments, Emerson Drive: Now here's a country song for you -- virtually a novel in three verses from this Canadian band. In the first movement, a guy on a bridge gives some change that he "won't need" to a homeless man, who tells him he had his moments back in the day when he was feeling a lot better about life. In the second movement, the first guy is contemplating making a bridge jump (without bungee cord) but the homeless man is still hanging around watching him, so the potential jumper tells him he had his moments too, giving up booze and getting married. In the third movement, the first guy imagines the homeless man telling the story about his recent good moment, when he saved a young man from committing suicide. You're still not sure what caused the guy to contemplate ending it, but otherwise, quite a story, the kind you don't get in the collected works of, say, the Pussycat Dolls.

7. I Told You So, Keith Urban: For most of the song, Keith's pleading with his significant other to come home, and promises he won't say "I told you so." This resolve holds up until the final verse, in which he mutters, "And I won’t say I told you so/But I told you so/Shoulda known better than to leave me, baby." No word on whether she turns around and stalks off again.

8. Startin' With Me, Jake Owen: A long laundry list of failings (one night stand with best friend's little sister, losing good job owing to carousing, pawning grandfather's cherished guitar for beer, etc.) followed by expression of regret and wish to have been able to change the past, "startin' with me." That kind of repentance theme is big in country music.

9. Never Wanted Nothin' More, Kenny Chesney: Kenny starts off in carousing mode, excited about his first truck and his first luck in the romantic arena, and asserting the title. He then applies those same titular words to getting married and getting born again, wrapping up any number of country-song verities in one neat package.

10. Good Directions, Billy Currington: Only in country ... Protagonist is idly "sellin' turnips on a flatbed truck" while "crunchin' on a pork rind" when a hottie from Hollywood pulls up, clearly lost, and asks how to get to the interstate. He tells her to head up to the nearby country store, grab some of Miss Bell's sweet tea, and then she can go left to reach the freeway or turn right, which will "bring you right back here to me." Despite the suavity of his pick-up line, he is distraught as she roars off, thinking he's seen the last of her. But then he sees her heading back; it turns out Miss Bell at the country store is his mother and, after serving her some of that fabled sweet tea, directed her back to him. Bless her heart.

The Diana scoop

The marathon Concert for Diana went off pretty much hitch-free in London Sunday, and USA TODAY alumnus/freelancer Cesar Soriano was on hand at Wembley. Check out his report.

Thanks to the VH1 live telecast, interspersed with semi-smarmy Brit hosts as it was, I saw a lot of this while working yesterday. The absolute highlight was Tom Jones' transformation of the Arctic Monkeys' I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor into a Stax-styled soul-rocker (resembling the great Big Bird by Eddie Floyd, actually). You should be able to catch it on the VH1 site.