Various artists, "Cities 97 Sampler: Vol. 25"

The 25th edition of this charity fundraiser is distinguished from previous "Samplers" for two key reasons: The most tracks ever (33 on two CDs) and the most female voices by far (15). The compilation — 40,000 copies of which will go on sale Thursday at Twin Cities Target stores for $32.97 — will generate a record $1.24 million for Minnesota charities. The "Sampler" series has sent more than $11.5 million to area organizations.

The female voices add texture and diversity to a collection that is overstuffed with some rather ordinary acoustic love songs, most of which were recorded at Cities 97's Studio C in front of a few dozen people. Raspy, strong-voiced Lissie finds a different way of expressing desire in "They All Want You." Sassy ZZ Ward is arresting with "Put the Gun Down." Twin sisters Tegan & Sara serve up a different flavor with the quirky pop of "Closer." But it's a trio of local ladies who are pleasant surprises here: Bomba De Luz's Alicia Keys-evoking "Starting to Choke," the refreshingly unvarnished soul of Chastity Brown's "Slow Time," and Cities 97 morning personality Keri Noble whose brand-new "Make Me Crazy" is a piano piece with hit potential.

Full-band live renditions of hits by fun. and Fitz & the Tantrum add energy and name-value, and Phillip Phillips' catchy "Home" deserves mention for standing out among the male acoustic tunes.

Also, kudos to "Sampler" executive producer Lauren MacLeash for continuing to work on this project even after she was terminated by Clear Channel Radio this summer after 19 years at Cities 97.

Jon Bream, Star Tribune


Kellie Pickler, "The Woman I Am" (Black River )

Pickler has always had the sassy country part down. From her early days as a ditsy, but fun "American Idol" contestant to her recent "100 Proof" album, she had a strong sense of where she fit in the world of country — following in the footsteps of Reba and Dolly.

But then she won "Dancing With the Stars," as well as America's hearts, with her graceful dance moves and pretty, more grown-up performances. That newfound comfort with beauty finds its way into "The Woman I Am."

On the title track, which she co-wrote with her Bloomington-bred husband, Kyle Jacobs, Pickler approaches the autobiographical song with a new focus on sweet notes and elegant phrasing that shine in the spare arrangement, even as she declares, "I get loud with a beer in my hand … Sometimes I cuss too much because I don't give a damn." She channels Patty Griffin on the poignant single "Someone Somewhere Tonight" and the lovely, empathetic "Tough All Over."

Pickler's growth is impressive, but she is still at her most charming when she lets that sassiness out. She rocks on "Bonnie and Clyde." On "Ring for Sale," one of the year's best country kiss-offs, she details her revenge against a cheating fiancé.

With this album, Pickler shows how the next phase of her career may be bigger than she ever dreamed.

Glenn Gamboa, Newsday