It's amusing to look back, in the light of the top albums of 2006, at the legislative charge against "porn rock" that Tipper Gore led 20 years ago. Music is so much dirtier now. Basically, Gore objected to hair metal, Prince and a bit of Madonna. Now she'd have to take on virtually every stripper-worshipping, humps-flaunting R&B; chart-topper (Beyonce, perhaps recognizing her future as the next Oprah, is an exception), deal with the ingrained misogyny of mainstream rock (emblematic line from Nickelback: "I like your pants around your feet"), and admit even country's wearing its clothes a little tighter these days. Even clean pre-teens, though served by Hannah Montana, have to deal with the sexy Bratz.
But don't worry, moral arbiters -- Simons Fuller and Cowell -- have created a machine just for you. "American Idol" scrubs behind pop's ears and delivers respectful, totally PG versions of whatever the charts are offering. The program begins another season next month, but in the meantime, there's a new round of releases from some of its charm-school alums -- just in time for those family holiday gatherings.
"Taylor Hicks" (RCA)
The tale of Taylor is a prime-time holiday special in the making -- a young good ol' boy struggles for a decade in obscurity, risks compromise in his quest for big-city fame, but proves to his Hollywood Svengalis that his time-tested "soul thing" is what the people want. (Didn't Elvis make this movie a few times?) Frustratingly, Hicks' speedily produced post-"Idol" debut doesn't hew to his own budding myth. Instead, it's a three-way split between pop templates by songwriting pros (Rob Thomas is grittiest among them), covers reinforcing the "Idol" team's Black History Month conception of R&B;, and a mere two originals. It's no shock that Hicks sounds best on his own compositions; they're actually hookier than the store-bought stuff, and exhibit a naughty charm that feels like Hicks' own, not what he learned from the Ray Charles songbook. He also gives a fine, world-weary reading to Paul Pena's neo-blues classic "Gotta Move," though it's nearly undermined by corny horns. Maroon 5 is doing blue-eyed soul better right now, but Hicks, who's not as artistically mature as his back story suggests, could get there. He just needs some more real blues.
"Fantasia" (J Records)
Though determined to align herself with the au courant of hip-hop soul, Fantasia Barrino has a voice that harks back to R&B;'s supper club beginning -- earthy and theatrical, her baby-doll yelp deserves comparison to late greats Esther Phillips and Ruth Brown. On her second album, the first since she split with "Idol" management to join the more "urban" roster of Violator, Barrino explores a hipper sound and racier subject matter -- bedroom role-playing in "I Nominate U," thug love in the bouncy "Hood Boy," which features a jaunty guest spot by Big Boi from OutKast. Updated beats and production tickle the ear, but Barrino's main asset is still old-fashioned authenticity. She doesn't come across as a product; her inflections have the energy of speech, not Pro Tools, and the curl in her voice when she reaches for a high note keeps reasserting her sassy charm. This cultivated regular-girl style allows Fantasia to retain her wholesomeness even when she's in the hands of hit makers such as Missy Elliott, Swizz Beats and the powerhouse team of Diane Warren and Babyface. With the stern quality that afflicts much of today's seductive R&B; tempered by her good-natured, spontaneous vibe, Fantasia shows that she can play adult without losing her girlish appeal.
The "Idol" pack's surprise commercial triumph (it's No. 3 on the national sales chart), rocker Chris Daughtry's debut satisfies the need to "rock" without making any unsettling dips into debauchery. What makes "Daughtry" even slightly notable -- it sure isn't the band (which is so generic that one wonders if actual, breathing humans were involved) or the track selection of one brawny yet billowing power ballad after another -- is Daughtry's persona as a vehemently hitched rock star. His notorious late-season elimination from "Idol" was made more poignant by the absence of his wife, Deanna -- she was undergoing emergency surgery -- and his image remains centered on his status as a family man. Most of the songs on "Daughtry" forge the new subgenre of "marriage encounter rock": dramatic depictions of the conflicts that pepper a long-term relationship, and the commitment that keeps a macho man from wandering. There's a kitchen-sink nobility to Daughtry's singing that makes him believable in the good-husband role, and at least one song, "Breakdown," sidesteps cliches to describe the kind of niggling fight most married people know all too well. As long as he keeps up this image, Daughtry doesn't need to be musically inventive -- he's filling a niche for all those former partyers whose rocking is now limited to the glider in the baby room.
"The Return" (J Records)
Three albums into his post-Idol career, the cuddly, vocally agile Studdard has honed his "Velvet Teddy Bear" image in a familiar mold: that of the all-too-human lover boy, charming the ladies but equally wrapped up in the daily irritations that love guarantees. He still emulates his hero, Luther Vandross, but the identity that comes through in the ballads and mild bumpers of "The Return" comes closer to Bernie Mac: You can almost see Studdard's eyes roll when he snaps about his partner's snoring on "Change Me," and even his more explicit seductions, such as "Get U Loose," are more amiable than predatory. Studdard has struggled commercially since winning "Idol" in Season Two, and the uninspired production and sluggish beats of "The Return" probably won't help. But he's reliable, and will likely continue to find some success in that R&B; midlevel where soul men often settle.
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released, except as indicated.