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Robbie Williams 

Sing When You're Winning (Capitol)

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Another smug Brit who thinks he's the second coming of Elton John, English singer Robbie Williams can afford to gloat, but only if you consult the U.K. charts. Since its release there a month ago, Sing When You're Winning has been the top-selling album, and Williams is so popular in his homeland that he plays to arenas and stadiums. Not so in the States, where, despite much critical acclaim and a short, sold-out club tour, last year's The Ego Has Landed failed to catch on. There are plenty of reasons to think that Williams deserves better. He's got a terrific live show, a powerful voice, and the ability to write anthemic pop ballads that are so infectious, you can almost forgive their warm and fuzzy sentiments. Williams, who formerly sang with the boy band Take That before getting kicked out of the group in 1995 (reportedly for drug abuse), recalls the era of British pop that preceded the current Britpop band phenomenon -- his music is like a combination of George Michael's playful R&B, Frankie Goes to Hollywood's sleazy disco, and the Pet Shop Boys' techno pop.

Williams might be a throwback, but he doesn't do things by the numbers. He puts a lush string arrangement up against hard-hitting drum machines in "Supreme Amour," fluctuates between crooning and rapping in "Kids," and slows things down for the acoustic "If It's Hurting You." Bigger is better for Williams, who's got harmonicas wailing in "Forever Texas," guitars cranking in "Let Your Love Be Your Energy," and old-school synthesizers soaring in "Rock DJ." There's plenty of other radio-friendly material here, too -- all of which is so expertly written and performed, it proves that, even if he doesn't make it here, Williams still has the right to brag.

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