What does Cinderella do for a second act? She digs in the heels of her glass slippers. "I fight constantly," Kelly Clarkson says of her career since winning the first American Idol in 2002. "It's a battle to get what you want." Her album My December flaunts that independent streak with everything from sensitive ballads to in-your-face rockers. "People get pigeonholed because they're scared to try something new," she says, a hint of seriousness in her bubbly Texas drawl. She's equally serious about her own idols—and as excited as a kid with a new toy to talk about the music she loves.
Patty Griffin, 1,000 Kisses (ATO): "She's my favorite singer-songwriter of all time. I love all her music, but especially 'Nobody's Crying'—she's saying that as much as you might want to, you can't really help or change anybody; they have to change themselves."
Jeff Buckley, Grace (Columbia): "At the risk of sounding cheesy, the song 'Lover, You Should've Come Over' changed me when I heard it. The song is about all the breakups you go through to get to that one real love, if you ever do find it. His vocals are beautiful, and he just sounds so sad."
Bonnie Raitt, Road Tested (Capitol): "She's so underappreciated. People know 'I Can't Make You Love Me' and 'Something to Talk About,' but she has this whole soulful side, and this whole rocker side, and this dirty, country, love-me side. I dig the live version of 'Love Me Like a Man.' It's sexy and to the point."
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (Lost Highway): "His version of 'Hurt,' the Nine Inch Nails song—I cry every time I listen to it. His voice is so lived-in, with that raspy quality, that you really believe in it."