** 1/2 Juan Gabriel, "Todo Esta Bien," BMG Latin. This has been a difficult year for Gabriel's voice. At a concert appearance in Anaheim a few months ago, his singing turned into a painful rasp that wouldn't go away. And his first pop collection in five years finds him sounding occasionally strained.
But Gabriel has always been a better composer than singer anyway, and romantic balladry is the territory where his tuneful sentimentality can generate some pretty genial music. The lilting "No Apaguen La Luz," with its clean washes of strings and female backing vocals, has one of the most addictive choruses Gabriel has offered in a decade.
"Errado" is a similarly enjoyable ballad, all fluff and delicate instrumentation, with a captivating, narcissistic lyric in which Gabriel wishes he could stop growing old, decrying his eventual demise as one of nature's cruel jokes.
Elsewhere, the level of inspiration isn't so high, although producer Vavy Lozano uses every trick in the book to bring distinctive touches to the mix, from a furious organ solo on "Enamorado y Feliz" to the exotic Mediterranean touches of "Influenciado Por La Luna," a brooding tale of lycanthropy.
In the end, Gabriel's worst enemy is his own past. Every new album delivers the challenge of matching such enduring gems as "Costumbres" or "Amor Eterno." That's no easy task, even for this most prodigious of Mexican composers.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.