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Alicia Keys, Timbaland albums good as gifts

Major music talents like Alicia Keys and Timbaland have new releases landing in stores just in time for last-minute holiday buying.

Major music talents like Alicia Keys and Timbaland have new releases landing in stores just in time for last-minute holiday buying.

KEYS TO THE HIGHWAY: Alicia Keys hits the ground running today with "The Element of Freedom" (J Records, B), a good gift bet for the young romantic on your list.

Lightly arranged, classically refined ballads about love's ups and downs predominate, but Keys' plaintive vocals and piano tinklings are juiced with a jolt of synthetic, hip-hop-style percussion.

As a composer, Keys knows how to reference others' work for comfort value without making the lifts too obvious. "Wait Til You See My Smile" evokes Todd Rundgren classics, while the reggae-flavored "Love is My Disease" hints of "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

The playful, up-tempo "Put It in a Love Song," pairing Keys with Beyoncé, and the Drake-featured "Unthinkable (I'm Ready)" jump out of the pack. And fans of the hit Jay-Z/Keys collaboration on "Empire State of Mind" will enjoy a new slant with her slowed, solo, rap-free rendering.

WEARING DIFFERENT SHOES: Yeah, Timbaland (Timothy Mosley) made his rep as a production wizard for rap and hip-hop stars like Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z. Today he seems way more comfortable hanging with pop and rock talents, judging from his second album of collaborations, "Shock Value II" (Mosley Music Group/Interscope, B).

Jeez, even earnest crooner Chad Kroeger (of Nickelback) and teen faves like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus stop by, the latter vowing to party "like there ain't no curfew" on the pure pop confection "We Belong to the Music."

There's a bit more to chew on in the divorced-with-children scenario "Meet in the Middle," which reunites Timba with Brandy (here identified as Bran' Nu), as well as in the Bollywood-ish "Morning After" with Nelly Furtado, the food/sex imagery shared with Justin Timberlake on "Carry Out" and the hip-hop/rock stomper "Marching On" with One Republic.

BEACHED FOR THE HOLIDAY: On his new tune "Big Top," Jimmy Buffett sings "just like Santa, I come around once a year." Usually that's in the summertime, so Buffett and his "Parrothead" concert fans can cavort in shorts and flip-flops. But just 'cause his new album "Buffet Hotel" (Mailboat Records, B) is in sync with Santa doesn't mean Buffett is veering far from his lite Caribbean-country-folk-rock comfort zone and floatin' free imagery.

MOVIE MAGIC: Even if you caught a TCM channel showing of the terrific documentary "Johnny Mercer: The Dream's On Me," there's reason to nab the two-disc DVD version newly out from Warner Bros. (A).

Disc one repeats the Clint Eastwood-produced overview of the 20th-century's most down-home and playful pop lyricist. It leans heavily on classic movie and TV clips of performers like Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Pearl Bailey, Frank Sinatra and Audrey Hepburn, plus the personable Mercer himself, performing his classics like "Skylark," "Old Black Magic, "Jeepers Creepers," and "Moon River."

The second videodisc offers new, full performances of Mercer gems at the piano (some seen in brief glimpses in the documentary) by Jamie Cullum, Michael Feinstein, Dr. John, Audra McDonald and Eastwood's charmingly fluttery daughter Morgan.

On screen and in the soundtrack to "Nine" (Geffen, B) Kate Hudson wiggles like (and wails much better than) her mom, Goldie Hawn, on "Cinema Italiano"; Fergie makes a wicked whore ("Be Italian"); and French sensation Marion Cotillard is as sympathetic singing "My Husband Makes Movies" as she was (as Edith Piaf) waxing "La Vie en Rose."

But as a major fan of Federico Fellini's autobiographical film "8 1/2," the inspiration for this musical, it strikes me as sad that Maury Yeston's tunes rarely evoke the drunken oompah band craziness of Nino Rota's original scoring for that and other Fellini flicks.

Some of the best Randy Newman music you'll never hear him croak is found on the soundtrack to "The Princess and the Frog," (Walt Disney, B+). The cartoon flick takes place in New Orleans, giving Newman an opening to work in his favorite Louisiana blues and jazz (plus zydeco and gospel) motifs.

While a fan of the TV musicade, some of the production number zest is lost for me on the CD soundtrack to "Glee, The Music, Vol. 2" (Columbia, B-). Tweeners I played it for were delighted, though.