Gwen Stefani was everywhere this year. Or at least it seemed that way. Moby's wan "South Side" became a much better song after the No Doubt singer's spunky appearance sparked the remix, and her cred-defining cameo on Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" made for one super girl-power single. Suddenly, Stefani was getting props from both electroheads and hip-hoppers alike. And why not? She's likable, inoffensive, and capable of elevating a song above mediocrity.
So why exactly does she need the rest of the band these days? On No Doubt's fourth album, Rock Steady, Stefani may be asking herself the same question. The disc's first single, "Hey Baby" -- a blast of street cool that complements "Blow Ya Mind" on its way to making Stefani an honorary sista -- is all Gwen, dancehall toaster Bounty Killer, and Sly- and Robbie-fueled beats and beeps. Many songs follow a similar pattern. Guitarist Tom Dumont adds some Chic-like guitar fills to "Hella Good," and "In My Head" is a band song the way Tragic Kingdom was a band album (i.e., yawn), but Rock Steady is mostly about Stefani and her producers. The Neptunes, Nellee Hooper, William Orbit, Ric Ocasek, Sly and Robbie, and even Prince (an overpowering guest on the bland "Waiting Room") inject the album with a balanced mix of perky pop and bouncy R&B.
If there's any sort of theme here (just as No Saturn was all about Stefani's plan to be a Mrs. someday), it's that island grooves are good for the soul. It's a bit rickety and pallid, but Stefani keeps it real. Or at least as real as a white girl from California can. For a band that should have gone the way of Spacehog and Better Than Ezra from the class of '96, No Doubt finds revitalizing solace in the sun. Rock Steady may be the group's best album, but it's Stefani's greatest achievement.