Brian McKnight, "More Than Words"(eOne)

"More Than Words" is great. Really great. So great that unless D'Angelo gets around to completing his long-awaited return to music, this disc might end up being the best R&B album of the year.

Producing himself, Mc­Knight moves freely through textures and eras, riding a sleek synth pulse in "4th of July," boosting a bluesy guitar lick for the title track and pulling off an uncanny approximation of Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" in "Get U 2 Stay." In "Letsomebodyloveu," his singing recalls the exasperated croon of onetime Steely Dan vocalist Michael McDonald.

McKnight flexes his know-how with tart juxtapositions, as in the Middle Eastern-accented "Slow" and "Don't Stop," which conjoins funk-style slap bass with gauzy keyboards out of the late-'90s British dance music known as 2-step. The songs offer unexpected chord changes and winding instrumental detours. It's the sound of a master on the job.

McKnight keeps his songs modest, almost self-effacing in their outlook. Over the bouncy, Hall & Oates-ish groove in "She Doesn't Know," he describes his totally implementable plan to woo a woman who "works in the cubicle next to me."

The small-scale specifics are deeply endearing, as they are in "Get U 2 Stay," where McKnight describes himself not as a sex god or a creative genius but as a "golfball-hitting machine."

McKnight on "More Than Words" simply feels like a lover of the game, a champion minus his title.

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times


Dido, "Girl Who Got Away" (RCA)

Dido's new album packs no surprises, yet it's surprisingly rewarding. And despite the familiarity of her electro-ballad sound, she has elevated her game — subtly, of course.

Dido's knack for gorgeous melody comes into play immediately, as the simple, acoustic-driven opening track, "No Freedom," rolls out under her deliberate restraint. Her voice is ideal for the material, whether it's downcast, bittersweet or even blissful. And just as Dido's evocative, hushed vocal was an improbably effective match to rap on Eminem's hit "Stan" (which sampled her song "Thank You"), she likewise pairs nicely with rapper Kendrick Lamar on "Let Us Move On," her voice carrying gracious heft in the gathering storm of instrumentation and his electric-rod delivery.

Although Dido's measured tone lends itself to mild monotony, she frequently finesses the arrangements to keep them fresh, from the dark underpinnings of "Loveless Hearts" to the near a cappella sparseness of the wistful "Sitting on the Roof of the World." The careful production also sharpens the focus on Dido's words.

CHUCK CAMPBELL, Scripps Howard News Service