November 11, 2008|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Taylor Swift

Big Machine/Universal *** 1/2


Seemingly out of nowhere in 2006, Taylor Swift did what is becoming almost impossible to do in today's crumbling music industry: She sold more than 3 million copies of her first album. And the country-pop star did it all rather quietly, garnering a Grammy nomination for best new artist along the way.

Svelte and blond with a sculptured face the camera adores, the 16-year-old singer wasn't a teen dream manufactured by the Disney machine. She also wasn't packaged as a vampish pop tart, wailing suggestive songs that belied her years.

Her earnest but girlish vocals were ensconced in sympathetic arrangements that were more pop than country. But it was Swift's gift as a songwriter that pushed her ahead of the pack. She wrote about her bad luck with boys in detailed, sometimes touching lyrics that never felt too precious. In fact, Swift's songs are sturdy and universal enough to work in any musical context.

On Fearless, her hotly anticipated sophomore album, she basically sticks with what worked on the debut. She's 18 now. And although her maturation on the album is deliberately pitched to the country-pop crossover crowd, Swift's songs remain tightly crafted. The melodies may not always be immediate, but the tunes still worm their way into your head.

Lyrically, Swift is still boy-crazy. She achingly pines for the dreamy ones ("Love Story," "You Belong With Me," and the breezy title track) and dismisses the empty-headed ones ("Tell Me Why" and "White Horse"). She refreshingly eschews the role of diva wannabe and remains the down-to-earth girlfriend next door.

"The Best Day," an affecting ballad, is a lovely valentine to her family. Simple and understated, it's sure to be a hit with fans.

Download these: "Fearless," "Fifteen," "You Belong With Me," "The Best Day"

Other CD releases today: The Promise from R&B singer Deborah Cox, Thr33 Ringz from pop/hip-hop star T-Pain and the self-titled debut from former American Idol David Archuleta

Rashod D. Ollison

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