Faith Hill's megahit "This Kiss" was easily the most irrepressible country single of 1998. Even if the insistent backbeat and chugging guitars of the first few bars didn't grab you, there was no resisting the cascade of emotion in the polysyllabic romp that followed. "Unstoppable" was how the song's chorus put it, and no reviewer could have said it better. Of all the records made in Nashville last year, "This Kiss" seemed destined to cross over and go pop.

Hill's smash was a fluke, a case of the cream rising to the top and spilling over, but that didn't stop a spate of imitators from scurrying to replicate its crossover success.

Foremost among them is Hill herself. Several songs on her new, only nominally country album, "Breathe" (Warner Bros.), lift themes or ideas directly from "This Kiss." All are passable pop ditties, and Hill's gospel-tinged vocals have never sounded better. But like most sequels, these songs, even the fetching title track, lack the shock of the new.

Elsewhere, notably on the four Dann Huff-produced numbers, Hill sounds as if she's working Shania Twain's side of the street. But unlike the galvanizing pop hooks and arena-thump of "Mutt" Lange, Twain's husband and producer, Huff's numbing hard-rock guitar, bloated drums and busy arrangements merely grate.

The songs' lyrics--sappy at best, inane at worst--don't help matters. "Love Is a Sweet Thing" introduces a homeless man who's been pushing the same shopping cart around for years. Yet here we find him, implausibly, smiling, drinking beer and singing about the glory of love as if living in a cardboard box had become the American dream.

Just as ludicrous is "Bringing Out the Elvis," in which Hill likens sex to liberating her inner Elvis. "When I'm with you/ I never have to feel like a sardine/ In a little metal can/ I'm more like a wild shark/ Who travels in a pink limousine." Hill delivers these lines without a hint of irony.

That said, there are a few decent songs here, chief among them the churchy soul of "There Will Come a Day" and the ambient cover of Bruce Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind." Mostly, though, Hill's adult-contemporary move just seems forced, as do the sex-kitten photos of her that suffuse the CD booklet.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)

Martina McBride

"I Love You," the No. 1 single from Martina McBride's "Emotion" (RCA), is an out-and-out ringer for "This Kiss," right down to its pulsating rhythms and tongue-twisting, blissed-out-in-love lyrics. It's also a good one, more than just a pale imitation: McBride and co-producer Paul Worley (Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks) imbue the song's pop hooks with jangly guitar and roots-rock crunch.

Much of "Emotion" packs a similar punch. The music is more pop than country, but only purists will complain.

The do-your-own-thing bromide "Do What You Do" is a shuffling, Wallflowers-style AOR pastiche, the harmonica on the anthemic "Love's the Only House" straight out of the Springsteen songbook. "Anything's Better Than Feelin' the Blues," a knowing ode to coping with loneliness, boasts ragged electric guitar of the sort one would expect to hear from an alt-country band like the Bottle Rockets. Other songs--their arrangements more evocative than derivative--recall Bonnie Raitt, the Beatles and Shawn Colvin.

McBride's adult-oriented pop is well suited to the themes of intimacy and commitment that pervade the album's 12 tracks. The lyrics rarely evince much depth--"The sky's the limit and my heart is in it"--but the feeling with which McBride leans into her lines often makes up for whatever acuity the words lack. Her soulful belt even rescues a pair of diva ballads from tedium.

The record's high point is its one foray into social commentary, "Love's the Only House," a personal but far from naive meditation on social and economic injustice. A rare convergence of tough singing, tough playing and even tougher thinking, the song takes an important first step toward realizing that charity alone can't change the conditions that oppress people and keep them down.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)

Mindy McCready

Don't let the Stetson that Mindy McCready is wearing on the cover of her new album, "I'm Not So Tough" (BNA), fool you; as with the latest records by Hill and McBride, there's no mistaking this disc for country. Sure there's fiddle on a few tracks, notably the material-girl hoedown "All I Want Is Everything." But the backbeat and guitars are all rock.

This wouldn't have been such a bad thing if the performances here weren't so forgettable. Utterly lacking in personality, "I'm Not So Tough" sounds likes a bunch of Shania Twain demos. "Lucky Me" strives for but fails to convey Shania-style sarcasm, while the album-closing "Take Me Apart" apes Twain's bedroom growl and between-song banter.

McCready's brash debut moved a million units. But judging by this derivative effort, it would seem that her 15 minutes are about up. Luckily for her, she's a shoo-in to get a call when one of the networks starts casting the lead for the inevitable Shania bio-pic.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)

Matraca Berg

Matraca Berg was a woman ahead of her time. By the mid-'90s, when Trisha Yearwood ("XXX's and OOO's") and Deana Carter ("Strawberry Wine") were taking her songs to the top of the country charts, Berg had already been through Nashville's major label wringer.

"Lying to the Moon and Other Stories" (RCA) reissues Berg's 1990 country-rock debut, "Lying to the Moon," plus one unreleased track, and three from "Sunday Morning to Saturday Night," her ill-fated 1997 album for the now-defunct Rising Tide label. Included are Berg's two Top 40 hits, "The Things You Left Undone" and "Baby, Walk On"--gritty, headstrong meditations on heartache and love gone wrong.

Berg's rich, fluid delivery--reminiscent by turns of Bonnie Raitt, Bobbie Gentry and Patty Loveless--is the ideal vehicle for her writerly odes to life's little and not-so-little ups and downs. "She holds her babies like she holds her dreams/ Each night she kisses and rocks them to sleep," Berg sings on the mandolin-flecked "Calico Plains."

On the wrenching chamber-ballad "Back When We Were Beautiful," Berg confronts the ravages of time. "I hate it when they say I'm aging gracefully/ I fight it every day," she winces. Maybe so, but the years have been kind to Berg's decade-old recordings, ardently rendered songs of depth and imagination that will outlast the moon-in-June jingles that jam today's country airwaves.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8184.)