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Rewind: Her lustrous, assured vocals helped make "Save the Best for Last" one of the biggest romantic hits of the '90s.
Fast-forward: Now starring in Ugly Betty and April's Hannah Montana: The Movie, Williams describes her new, as yet untitled album (due in May 2009) as a jazzy mix of sambas, salsa, and standards. "I did 'Hello Like Before,' an old song by Bill Withers, and he came by the studio as a surprise," she says. "I broke down in tears because my dad had recently passed away, and Bill Withers was one of his favorites."
Play It Again: For this daughter of music teachers, song-making is still a family affair. "I'm always singing with my kids, and if there's a new hit that includes a sample from an old song, I'll say, 'Want to hear the original?'" Here, she lets us listen in on her current playlist.
Gustavo Santaolalla, Babel soundtrack (Concord): "There's symphonic stuff, a Middle Eastern vibe, even a remix of 'September,' by Earth, Wind & Fire. This album takes you to another world."
Esthero, Wikked Lil' Grrrls (Reprise): "She's kind of rock 'n' roll and kind of R&B. The title track is a '40s flavor on top of a contemporary sound. Her attitude is like Pink's: 'I'm a bad girl and I'm gonna say what I feel.'"
Steely Dan, Aja (Geffen): "This album has stood the test of time. I remember playing 'Peg' in marching band in the late '70s and loving it."
Gilberto Santa Rosa, Contraste en Salsa (Sony International): "I gave it to my producer and said, 'This is how I want my salsa to sound.'"
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Jive): "They're one of my all-time favorites, for their eloquence and their perfect jazz samples."