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Kelly Clarkson 

Breakaway (RCA)

To those who feel that American Idol represents the worst aspects of the pop-music assembly line, Kelly Clarkson is just another Mariah Carey clone. However, the Texan's rags-to-riches back-story touches the part of us that finds something endearing about the high school show-choir aspect of AI; namely, the earnest soloist with professional aspirations, tugging at heartstrings.

Nevertheless, it's still disappointing at first to hear that Breakaway, her second album, conforms to the rock-oriented pop sound favored by countless starlets. But the disappointment diminishes as the album's intricacies reveal Clarkson's versatility: "Addicted" features piano splotches reminiscent of Tori Amos's electronica phase, and "Since You've Been Gone" is an irresistible stomper that even Avril might cower behind. Perhaps the most impressive song on Breakaway, however, is one that Clarkson co-wrote, "Because of You." A sentimental, big-finish string finale, its lyrics ("Because of you, I never strayed too far from the sidewalk/Because of you, I learned to play on the safe side, so I don't get hurt") reveal an emotional vulnerability rarely heard in pop songs.

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