Through the first half of the summer, Usher's "Confessions" has reigned supreme as the pop/R&B disc of choice. Now comes the distaff response and, for my money, its musical superior.

Like Usher, Brandy is a child star who has grown up in public, and she comes into her own in a big way on her fourth album, breaking from her former producer Rodney Jerkins and chronicling her painful divorce, much as "Confessions" documented Usher's split with Chili Thomas. But Brandy is much less coy and sensationalistic and much more sincere in her emotional revelations in tunes such "Talk About Our Love," "I Tried" and "Should I Go." And she also has better taste in producers.

As he does with Missy Elliott, Timbaland works his technological wizardry with Brandy's vocals, setting them in a futuristic soundscape lifted from a Martian video game. But as impressive as his work is, Chicago's Kanye West once again steals the show, producing and rapping on the killer first single, "Talk About Our Love," which may finally displace "Burn" as the song of the summer. (Also notable: Brandy's Coldplay fixation. She name-checks the English group in her lyrics, and Timbaland samples the hook from "Clocks" in "Should I Go.")

"With this album, I wanted to explore my versatility," Brandy has said. At 25, what she's accomplished is proving that she is going to have a long and serious career far beyond being a teen-pop phenomenon.

Jim DeRogatis



On its second album, the Philadelphia buzz band Burning Brides can't quite decide whether it wants to hang with the new gang of hyped-up modern-day garage bands (the Hives, the Mooney Suzuki), the irreverent new-millennial blues-rockers (the White Stripes and their ilk) or the anthemic stoner rockers/'70s apologists (Queens of the Stone Age, Local H, etc.).

It doesn't really matter. Working with the "big classic-rock sounds my specialty" producer George Drakoulias (Jayhawks, Black Crowes, Tom Petty), they deliver an irresistibly catchy, unrelentingly hard-rocking disc that mixes in a little bit of all of those sounds on songs such as "Heart Full of Black," "King of the Demimonde," "Century Song" and "Vampire Waltz," surpassing their impressive 2001 debut "Fall of the Plastic Empire," and marking the group as one of the most promising modern rock outfits working a fuzzbox and a wah-wah today.

Jim DeRogatis



Not since XTC transmogrified into the Dukes of Stratosphear to pay homage to its roots in '60s psychedelia has a great rock band given us a tossed-off side project/labor of love that's been this much fun or this revealing.

In order to celebrate the group's 30th anniversary (and, presumably, let off a little steam after the long tour in support of 2002's "Vapor Trails"), the three virtuoso musicians in Rush retired to a room in suburban Toronto "dimly lit with bead lights, lava lamps and candles," according to drummer Neil Peart, and recorded joyful versions of eight of the songs that originally inspired them to pick up their instruments, including "Summertime Blues" (as filtered through Blue Cheer), "Mr. Soul" (by fellow Canadian Neil Young), "Heart Full of Soul" (the Yardbirds) and "Seven and Seven Is" (Love).

These songs -- and the players' typically byzantine/lovably bombastic Rushian approach to them -- illustrate not only the roots of the band's unique vision of heavy metal and progressive rock, but exactly what makes these guys special, still, three decades down the long and twisted road.

Jim DeRogatis