THE BEST soul album of the year so far is Luther Vandross' "The Night I Fell in Love." Vandross has taken Smokey Robinson's old-fashioned, intense romanticism and updated it with 1985 state- of-the-art production.

An inventive songwriter and expressive singer, Vandross manages to sound vulnerable and stylish at the same time -- no mean feat. Though he can cut sharply through an uptempo dance tune like " 'Til My Baby Comes Home," he's at his best on ballad confessionals like "Other Side of the World," into which he pours more voice and heart than most singers can muster in an entire career.

Jesse Johnson made his reputation as the hot rock guitarist for the Time, part of Prince's Minneapolis mafia. On his first solo album, "Jesse Johnson's Revue," Johnson mimics the Prince of "1999" with layered synthesizers, breathy erotic vocals, electric snare shots and rock guitar riffs. Unfortunately, Johnson can't match his mentor as a singer or as a melodicist. His album sounds like sizzling backing tracks in search of a strong lead vocal.

Ready For The World, a young sextet from Flint, Michigan, has never worked with Prince, but it has better luck imitating him than Johnson does. Melvin Riley has an effective come-on voice that turns ballads like "Tonight" into steamy seduction scenes. Riley and his co-writer, Gordon Strozier, match the double entendres with catchy melodies and wrap it all in thickened arrangements that stack up layers of Strozier's buzzing guitars and Gordon Potts' humming synths. The songs are too long and not terribly original, but they are some of the best bedroom tunes of the year.