Van Halen's III Lands At #4

First album with ex-Extreme singer Gary Cherone moves 191,000 copies in its first week.

Former Extreme singer Gary Cherone may not have full critical approval, but nearly 200,000 Van Halen fans have given him their personal stamp.

While fans in Internet chat rooms continue to debate whether original Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, his successor Sammy Hagar or Cherone is the best man to sing for the hard-rock legends, SoundScan has reported that 191,000 record-buyers picked up III, the first release from Van Halen with Cherone on the mic.

The record has thus far received mixed reviews from rock critics and die-hard Van Halen fans, and the newsgroup alt.music.van-halen -- a forum for

fans to discuss news and views about the band -- has been alive with discourse since the album was released last Tuesday. Jeff Quigley, 19, wrote in an e-mail that he disagrees with much of the criticism thrown in Van Halen's direction. "It took a while for fans to warm up to Hagar," he said. "And I think Cherone will do just as well."

Still other fans said Van Halen should head right back into the studio so they can get to work on something new. "If Eddie [Van Halen] & Co. have any shred of sense left (severely doubt it)," a fan identified as "Tombstench" wrote, "they'll get their asses right back into the studio and try to produce something that will make people forget about this HORRIBLE record they just put out."

While Van Halen fans were debating about their favorite singers, gangsta-rapper C-Murder crept into the #3 slot during the week ending March 22, moving 197,000 copies of his solo debut, Life or Death. The album features guest appearances by such No Limit labelmates as label founder Master P and Silkk The Shocker on "Soldiers" (RealAudio excerpt).

The other debut in the top 10 this week was the soundtrack to the

film "The Player's Club." The rap-heavy soundtrack -- which sold 85,000

copies, according to SoundScan, and landed at #10 -- features new songs by such hip-hop hit-makers as Jay-Z and Mack 10, along with the film's writer and director, Ice Cube.

Elsewhere in the upper echelons of the charts, Madonna's electronica-fueled

Ray of Light dropped from #2 to #5 on SoundScan-reported

sales of 168,000 copies, bringing her current grand-total to 764,000. Guitar hero Eric Clapton's Pilgrim, which debuted last week at #4, slid to #7 on SoundScan-reported sales of 122,000.

Just south of the top 10, Australian pop singer and former soap star

Natalie Imbruglia dropped out of her #10 debut slot with Left Of The Middle, landing at #13. Gangsta-rapper Scarface also fell out of the top 10, with his double-CD My Homies selling 56,000 copies and dropping 10 slots to #19. Meanwhile, Seattle supergroup Pearl Jam continued their slow movement down the charts, with Yield dipping from #19 last week to the #25 slot.

Heading in the opposite direction this week are the alt-rockers in Foo Fighters, who rode the success of their latest single, "My Hero," from #101 last week to #60. It was also a good week for swing-revival bands, with the Cherry Poppin' Daddies' Zoot Suit Riot inching up from #103 to #91, while "Swingers" film-score veterans Big Bad Voodoo Daddy kept a respectable post with their self-titled album slipping four spots to #92.

The Artist's four-CD Crystal Ball set, which has been the subject of some Internet-based controversy among fans of the ex-Prince, dropped from #114 to #147 in its fourth week on the charts. The long-awaited set made the headlines this past week due to fans expressing their distaste with The Artist's shutting-down of fan websites and the seemingly haphazard operation of his mail-order company, 1-800-New-Funk.

Looking ahead to next week, it is probably a safe bet that the almighty Titanic soundtrack will remain in the #1 slot due to its exposure at

the 70th Annual Academy Awards.

The rest of the best: Titanic Soundtrack (#1); Celine

Dion, Let's Talk About Love (#2); Savage Garden, Savage

Garden (#6); Backstreet Boys, Backstreet Boys (#8); and K-Ci &

Jojo, Love Always (#9).