For what seems like months, pop radio has been all Usher, all the time -- or make that Usher, Hoobastank, Alicia Keys, and various ''American Idol'' alumni. Such a lockdown means the odds are slimmer than usual this summer that more deserving songs will bust out on the radio. Here's one suggested batch of alternate warm-weather ditties that deserve space on anyone's portable music player this season.
BRANDY ''Turn It Up'' The latest example of nostalgia for the Clinton era arrives with Brandy yearning for ''some '90s music,'' a Kid 'N Play reunion, and the return to her own dominance on the charts. She also claims she doesn't ''wanna sound familiar,'' and producer Timbaland obliges with the friskiest beats of the summer. This, not ''Talk About Our Love,'' should've been the single.
PHOENIX ''Everything Is Everything'' ''Things are gonna change, and not for better'' are the first words we hear from this French band's singer, Thomas Mars. He doesn't grow any more hopeful as the song unfolds, and even questions the ways in which his possessions control him. But the disco-ball jiggle of the song's chorus is all kicky optimism, proving even pessimists can have a day in the sun.
JOSEPH ARTHUR ''You're So True'' The Goth-folkie contributed a shimmery, bubbly-for-him love song to ''Shrek 2.'' Of course, he approaches the topic on his own twisted terms: His idea of a romantic line is swooning ''I'm strange and you're strange.''
SIMPLE KID ''Staring at the Sun'' Every summer needs its irresistible oddity -- remember OMC's ''How Bizarre''? -- and this charmer fits the bill. Sounding like Beck at his most laconic mixed with Steve Miller at his most ingratiating, this Irish-born Londoner raps a little, puts boogie guitar licks atop hip-hop drum programming, and goes all gooey and mellow in the sublime chorus.
SCISSOR SISTERS ''Take Your Mama'' Has Elton John gone clubbing again?'' No, wait -- it's actually the first single by what amounts to the new Village People (see box on page 69).
AVRIL LAVIGNE ''Fall to Pieces'' The slot for car-radio-friendly rock ballad should go to this track from Lavigne's surprisingly meaty follow-up. As she desperately searches for reasons to keep a relationship together, an almost-real human being emerges: Avril puts down her dukes -- at least for one song.
PETEY PABLO ''What You Know About It'' Tired of his hit ''Freek-A-Leek''? Check out this equally hard-voiced, hard-knock track, which uses Chicago's ''25 or 6 to 4'' -- the most incongruous sample in a hip-hop track since Jay-Z discovered Mountain.