Andrea Bocelli

Don't let the glossy veneer and marketing budgets befitting a multinational conglomerate fool you. Tuscany's towering tenor is a rare, satisfying talent. That is, when smarmy producers stay out of his way.

Andrea Bocelli launched his career into the stratosphere with 1997's international multiplatinum crossover album Romanza. Painstakingly packaged for broad appeal, the disc nonetheless showcased a phenomenal voice at full bore. From a classical point of view, it's intriguing. From a pop viewpoint (think Julio Iglesias and latter-day Placido Domingo), it's an astonishing achievement. With a title instantly recognizable in at least a dozen languages, including English, Romanza had the classical world buzzing as it hadn't since the late-Seventies Hooked on Classics (weird) phenomenon.

So just how far would industry producers push this idea of a gentle, populist, ruggedly handsome, romantic tenor (i.e., a pop star for the price of a classical standout)? Entirely too far, of course. Last year's Amor (yes, to hell with subtlety) is an almost-insipid collection of Spanish "love" pabulum. Here Bocelli is trotted out, depressingly zapped of all power and brio, and the entire mess ought to be avoided.

Bocelli bounced back this year with a smartly timed best-of compendium. Here we're pleasingly reminded of the trajectory of his crossover-with-dignity oeuvre. We're reminded of Pavarotti's recommendation of Bocelli to Italian singer/songwriter Zucchero when he called on the late tenor for a recording date. "There is none better," reassured Pavarotti. As for Christmas fodder, one could do much worse than his "Adeste Fidelis," from 1999's Sacred Arias. This "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin is bold, and except for intermittent choral accompaniment, unfolds refreshingly unadorned.

There's no doubt Andrea Bocelli is classical music's equivalent of Merlot — easily enjoyed by the general public and a safe choice. But he's by far the best Merlot out there.