1 LAURYN HILL THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL (Ruffhouse) Hill has given hip-hop the gift of her own heart: bruised, but still beating strong. She has shown that the genre can reach down deeper than bravado, deeper than rage, and dare to reveal an artist's emotional insecurities and romantic failings and then transform those feelings into music that's eloquent and universal. She's inspired by the old masters--Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley--but she reshapes her nostalgia into fresh sounds, blending neo-soul vocalese and rap rhymes, all powered by hip-hop beats. She soars beyond easy sampling and mere pastiche: her songs are of the moment, but built to last. Listen to her voice and hear a new world.
2 SEAL Human Being (Warner Bros.) The man sometimes called the British Marvin Gaye lends intelligence and panache to the often juvenile world of pop R. and B. Seal's majestic, soulful voice has never been more expressive, and his songwriting, always pensive, now reaches deeper into the mysteries of love. Who will save soul? Seal will.
3 CHUCHO VALDES Bele Bele en La Habana (Blue Note) A native of Cuba, this fleet-fingered performer is one of the world's finest pianists. Mixing jazz with traditional Afro-Cuban musical forms such as son, danzon and mambo, he creates ferociously cerebral songs that break boundaries, cross oceans and are too spirited for any embargo to contain.
4 ARETHA FRANKLIN A Rose Is Still a Rose (Arista) On her latest album, Franklin teams up with some of the hottest producers in pop, including Sean ("Puffy") Combs, Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri. The rejuvenating cross-generational collaborations are more than a marketing move: this is Franklin's most rewarding album in more than two decades. The queen's long reign continues.
5 STEPHEN HOUGH New York Variations (Hyperion) England's most imaginative pianist pays tribute to America's finest solo piano music, including Aaron Copland's Piano Variations, composed 68 years ago but still as up to date as a news flash, and the debut recording of George Tsontakis' Ghost Variations, a forceful, boldly conceived virtuoso showpiece headed for a concert hall near you.
6 DEANA CARTER Everything's Gonna Be Alright (Capitol) A queen of the four-minute soap opera sings about lovers and losers--her people are typically both--in a strong set that blends country, rock and power pop. In songs of dreams without fulfillment, hurt without despair, Carter makes a hard life sound beautiful.
7 HEPCAT Right on Time (Hellcat) This nine-member band, based in Los Angeles, plays old-school ska with sweet vocals and warm, gentle horns. The songs, many of them genial ballads and jazzy instrumentals, breeze by, carefree but never insubstantial. This is an album that makes you dream of the Caribbean, or of dancing under starlight, or perhaps both.
8 JEWEL Spirit (Atlantic) Jewel has come up with a beautifully calibrated set of songs that honors her folk roots but also builds on them, using a framework of light rock that gives her music a robust new feel and builds a bridge to what looks like a bright future for this talented troubadour.