Jennifer Hudson, "Jennifer Hudson" (Arista)

With her Oscar-winning performance in "Dreamgirls" and roles in "Sex and the City" and the upcoming "The Secret Life of Bees," Hudson's singing career had become almost an afterthought -- until the release of this formidable debut CD. Hudson, who came to prominence on "American Idol," worked with some of music's hottest names. Ne-Yo and the hit-production team StarGate appear on the cool first single, "Spotlight." Tank works on the tough but ladylike "We Gon' Fight." On "What's Wrong (Go Away)," Hudson goes head-to-head with T-Pain and his vocoder. But her booming voice truly shines on "If It Isn't Love" and the Robin Thicke-assisted, Anita Baker-influenced "Giving Myself." There are a few disappointments. Hudson's duet with Fantasia, "I'm His Only Woman," written and produced by Missy Elliott, is simply a yelling contest between the "Idol" alums. The Timbaland-produced "Pocketbook" is just as bad. Overall, the CD's highlight is Hudson's vocals.



The Nightwatchman, "The Fabled City" (Epic)

Tom Morello's folk persona, the Nightwatchman, is more superhero than cowboy or bluesman, but that's appropriate for a guy best known for working miracles with an effects pedal. Morello debuted the Nightwatchman as an acoustic project, but on this second release he has decided to beef up the sound. The title track employs some Danny Federici-style keyboards, signaling some Bruce Springsteen love. Steve Earle, John Mellencamp and the Irish-American group Black 47 also are touchstones. By going for a band feel instead of the lone troubadour's stance, Morello can have more fun with his polemics. The Celtic-flavored "St. Isabelle" and "The Iron Wheel" should inspire some beer-sloshing along with any marching, while "Lazarus on Down" is a bit of spooky introspection aided by Serj Tankian's dramatic wail. The well-rounded production serves lyrics that often are more poetic than topical, even when addressing crises such as Hurricane Katrina. Morello's singing could inspire chuckles rather than revolution. But on "The Fabled City," he and O'Brien have dressed it up enough to make it seem almost super at times.