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Diva Alert: Mariah, Janet CDs Previewed

Diva Alert: Mariah, Janet CDs Previewed | Janet: What She's Done for Us Lately | Rob Thomas Turns 36, Gets Innovative

Diva Alert: Mariah, Janet CDs Previewed

Alicia Keys’ long run at the top of the charts is about to be threatened.

On Thursday I spent more than an hour at Island/DefJam Records previewing the new CDs from Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. Each is highly anticipated, and with good reason. They’re pretty damn good.

Carey’s CD, "E=MC2," probably is the more anticipated if only because her prior release, "Emancipation of Mimi," was such a phenomenal success. Buoyed by several hits including "We Belong Together" and "Don’t Forget About Us," "Emancipation" spent months on the charts and won a number of Grammys. It re-established Mariah as a superstar after her failed "Glitter" project and subsequent "Charmbracelet."

"E=MC2" (a play on the previous album’s title) should have a pretty big impact when it hits the world on April 15. Already the single "Touch My Body," with its refrain, "I will hunt you down," has taken off on the radio. It doesn’t hurt that it bears a resemblance to "We Belong Together." But the new single is catchy in its own right and has an independent hook designed to be addictive.

I heard eight other tracks on Thursday, but since the album isn’t sequenced I can’t tell you where they fall in order. In the order I enjoyed them came first "Bye, Bye," a powerful ballad that should be a single and probably will close the album. It’s a natural singalong in concert, too, which could make it not only wildly popular but a possible Grammy contender next year. Look out.

The next most commercial number is "Thanks for Nothing," a witty and rueful tune with another great melody, courtesy of Jermaine Dupri and Carey. As on "Bye Bye," Carey’s vocals are superb. Her infamous eight-octave range has suffered a little wear and tear over the years, but Carey still can flutter from great highs to mellow lows like no one else.

Some other highlights included "Cruise Control," featuring Damian Marley with a driving reggae subtext; "Migrate" with T-Pain, which should be a single and perhaps the album’s kick-off track; "Last Kiss," with Dupri on vocals; a breathy disco dance hit called "I’m That Chick"; and out-and-out pop song "Loving You a Long Time," which samples DeBarge’s "Stay with Me" and recalls the melodic riff of the "Hill Street Blues" theme music.

From track to track I kept thinking that Carey and her crew have put a lot of work into making "E=MC2" not just a hit, but a sustainable success. There’s enough in the package that it will last as long as "Emancipation," spinning off singles, remixes and videos.

Janet: What She's Done for Us Lately

You know Janet Jackson cannot get a break. She’s always stayed away from her family, but they keep pulling her back in. In January 2004, right after Michael was arrested on child molestation and conspiracy charges, Janet played the Super Bowl with Justin Timberlake to promote her upcoming "Damita Jo" album.

That’s when the "wardrobe malfunction" happened. Timberlake danced away and Janet was left holding the bag. "Damita Jo" and a subsequent album tanked. She gained and lost 60 pounds. It was a bad time.

Now comes "Discipline" with a couple of really hot singles, set for Feb. 26. On "Discipline," all the ambiguous stuff is gone. Janet is back to hooks, catchy rhythms and defined singing. Besides the single "Feedback," I heard four tracks on Thursday that were more like the Janet of "Control" and "Rhythm Nation."

The up-tempo numbers, "Rollercoaster" and "Rock With U," are killer. The former is produced by Rodney Jerkins, a favorite of Michael. Ne-Yo, the hottest producer right now in R&B (remember the Neptunes?), contributed the dancing "Rock W U" and a breezy, jazzy "Pillow Talk"-like love song. Another almost rock/R&B mid-tempo ballad, called "Greatest X," shows off Janet’s Michaelish vocals and a memorable piano line.

If the rest of the album follows suit, Jackson may be back in a big way. But what’s the significance of Janet recording a song called "Rock With U" when Michael once had a huge hit with the same name? Only a family therapist might know that answer. Anyway, my money is on "Rollercoaster."

So much for now. What with Madonna following these two releases at the end of April, we’re in for a big diva spring! May the best woman win!

Rob Thomas Turns 36, Gets Innovative

Matchbox Twenty’s sold-out show at Madison Square Garden was remarkable for a few reasons. Agreeable and talented lead singer and writer Rob Thomas turned 36 on stage to a full audience singalong and confetti sprayed from canisters.

The second thing was girls — of all ages — everywhere. I can’t remember a show with such a female populace with maybe the exception of Bon Jovi. Demographers take note. Thomas is a (reluctant) rock star.

And the third thing was a rubber wristband you could buy at the end of the show with a USB adapter and the whole live show we’d just seen, for $35.

That band, and another with the group’s latest album, "Exile on Mainstream," are on sale on M20’s Web site, on Amazon and on other outlets. It’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe more acts haven’t gotten into this.

M20 was preceded by Mute Math and Alanis Morisette. But Thomas and pals managed to get in 24 songs, all done with great energy and excitement. It was amazing that the audience sang along so much, but they did, especially to favorites such as "Unwell," "Push" and "If You’re Gone."

As a birthday surprise, the other members of M20 — Paul Doucette, Kyle Cook, and Brian Yale — learned to play Rob’s solo hit, "Street Corner Symphony," aka "Come on Over."

"Isn’t this the greatest band in the world?" Thomas cried.

Thomas and Matchbox Twenty are not considered very cutting edge in the music biz. They aren’t Arcade Fire or U2 or Arctic Monkeys. They’re a tight, talented pop rock band with great, catchy songs that are structured as solidly as bunkers.

Thomas continues to astound as a composer, and his new songs -- such as "How Far We’ve Come," "These Hard Times" and "Bright Lights" have the makings of mini pop classics, the kind audiences will be singing to 20 years from now in person and on the radio.

Their power, and the group’s continued ability to part and reunite, means they all will be around for a long time. It’s a good thing.

As for the USB rubber band, I’m dubbing it the Lippmann for manager Michael Lippman’s son, who pushed the idea through with a company called All Access Today. The neat thing is that the capacity of the wristband is 247 MB for the live show. You can add to or subtract from it, or upload it and erase it and use it again.

The only question now is: Who’s next?