POP MUSIC SPECIAL : Fall's Big Albums, From AC / DC to Z.Z. Top

Get ready.

We're entering the busiest time of the year in the pop world, the fall release period, when traditionally more than a third of all pop recordings are sold.

The following guide is designed to assist shoppers through what is sometimes a confusing maze of choices.

The comments are by The Times pop writers indicated, but the star ratings (one is poor, five a classic) are sometimes based on a consensus of editors. Reviewers are Robert Hilburn, Dennis Hunt, Mike Boehm, Richard Cromelin, Jonathan Gold, Steve Hochman, Chris Willman, Randy Lewis, Connie Johnson and Don Waller.

*** AC/DC, "The Razor's Edge,"Atco. With hot Aerosmith/Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairburn at the board, the album still rocks like AC/DC, but a rather slick version thereof. This is probably AC/DC's best album since 1985's "Fly on the Wall." (Gold)

*** 1/2 ANTHRAX, "Persistence of Time,"Island. The least apocalyptic of new-metal bands comes closer to the dissonant post-punk of Gang of Four or Fugazi than to the death spew of Sodom or Vio-Lence. An art album within the context of Anthrax, and a small masterpiece of metal. (Gold)

*** 1/2 BLACK BOX, "Dreamland,"RCA. An exceptional dance album full of furious grooves and vocals performed with Gloria Gaynor-like fervor by French singer Katrin Quinol. (Hunt)

** JON BON JOVI, "Young Guns II,"PolyGram. These songs "from and inspired by" the movie are the singer's least contrived music to date. But the cliches still fly faster than lead at the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. (Hochman)

*** 1/2 BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS, "Edutainment,"Jive/BMG. Leader KRS-One takes on misguided teachers, the government, crooked cops and meat--hamburgers, to hear him talk, are a drug addictive as crack, and worse for you. (Gold)

** 1/2 GARTH BROOKS, "No Fences,"Capitol. A considerable improvement over his 1989 debut, but still with only modest yields. In the best moments, Brooks' woody baritone suggests several lifetimes of hard living, but there's too much emphasis on hokey melodrama. (Lewis)

* 1/2 LUTHER CAMPBELL, "Banned in the U.S.A,"Luke/Atlantic. Despite greater comic invention and more sophisticated grooves, the 2 Live Crew leader's approach continues to offer a dour, ultimately ugly view of sex. There is also an unnecessarily mean spirit. (Hilburn)

** 1/2 COCTEAU TWINS, "Heaven or Las Vegas,"4AD/Capitol. The three twins explore some new textures, and an occasional lyric is actually discernible (the meaning rarely is). But the gauzy impressionism, though still haunting and hypnotic, could use some tampering. (Hochman)

*** ROBERT CRAY BAND, "Midnight Stroll,"Mercury. Cray checks in to the Cheatin' Place with another solid album of nether soul noir blues. His sinewy, Sam Cooke-in' vocals cut through the familiar shadowy ambience like light reflecting off a freshly drawn knife. (Waller)

** 1/2 DEEE-LITE, "World Clique,"Elektra. House music by a co-ed New York trio that includes a Japanese and a Russian. It's littered with distracting touches and tries too hard to be innovative, but it's fine when it relies on the beats to carry the songs. (Hunt)

*** BOB DYLAN, "Under the Red Sky,"Columbia. May be the most fun release from Zimmy in ages: a blues-based romp, with Dylan as the Crawlin' Kingsnake. Still, there's an underlying feeling that Dylan kinda walked through the project . . . again. (Hochman)

** 1/2 "GHOST," soundtrack,Varese Sarabande. Lovers can swoon once more to the resurrected Righteous Brothers hit "Unchained Melody"; the rest of the LP consists of Maurice Jarre's mixed bag of orchestration and synthesizers, whose romantic spookiness is sure to be Oscar bait. (Willman)

*** THE GRATEFUL DEAD, "Without a Net,"Arista. The Dead's eighth live release is still not like being there. But this two-hour-plus set, recorded before the recent death of keyboardist Brent Mydland, adequately captures the sounds of a typical evening with the venerable band. (Hochman)

** 1/2 EMMYLOU HARRIS, "Brand New Dance,"Reprise. Harris' instinct for material is usually as impeccable as her singing, but this collection is spotty--ranging from the excellence of Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest" to several moments of mediocrity. (Hilburn)

* 1/2 INDIGO GIRLS, "Nomads Indians Saints,"Epic. Why does a 1990 album by two post-collegiate types with help from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck sound like something that could have been made by two 1970 Marin County earth-mother types with help from Jesse Colin Young? (Hochman)

** INXS, "X,"Atlantic. At some point, INXS decided it was a funk band. It's not--but the Aussie outfit insists on keeping up the charade on about half of this album. When not funkin', INXS falls back on standard arena-rock fare that at best is simulated Stones. (Hochman)

L.L. COOL J, "Mama Said Knock You Out,"Def Jam/Columbia. For two views, see Page 59. The rebounding rapper is profiled on Page 49.

*** 1/2 JANE'S ADDICTION, "Ritual de lo Habitual,"Warner Bros. The L.A. band toys artily with the boundaries of rock but also plays riffs Jimmy Page would have given his whammy bar to have written. "Ritual" rambles, it's murky, but it's also oddly compelling. (Gold)

* 1/2 JUDAS PRIEST, "Painkiller,"Columbia. Imagine "Robocop" without the plot and visuals, and you've got "Painkiller"--all violent rampage, no point. Why bother with this stuff when younger, better metal bands are driving ideas worth considering into the heads they bang? (Boehm)

** 1/2 THE JUDDS, "Love Can Build a Bridge,"Curb/RCA. Wynonna and Naomi's latest is chock full of tasty production touches, but the meticulously conceived parts add up to an overly polite, reserved whole. Too many songs feel engineered rather than inspired. (Lewis)

*** 1/2 LIVING COLOUR, "Time's Up,"Epic. A black-rock manifesto, like LC's first album, "Vivid." But thanks to matured songwriting and frenzied abandon, it's more than that: a rousing collection that rocks hard and rolls poetically. (Hochman)

*** 1/2 LOS LOBOS, "The Neighborhood,"Slash/Warner Bros. There are warm expressions of brotherhood, spirituality and local concern, but also a darker and emphatically bluesy side--an unusually potent combo. The album's universality speaks to the idealism and trials of every neighborhood. (Willman)

** REBA McENTIRE "Rumor Has It,"MCA. The Oklahoman continues her preference for slick, emotionally barren material from Nashville's songwriting factories. Most of the time she's swimming in glossy overproduction. Evidently, you can take the country out of the girl. (Lewis)

*** MEGADETH, "Rust in Peace,"Capitol. As produced by Guns N' Roses boardman Mike Clink, Megadeth's fourth album is tight, clean and hard . . . and also reveals the band to be the Grateful Dead of speed-metal, devoted to the art of the jam. (Gold)

*** GEORGE MICHAEL, "Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,"Columbia. Michael's feel for melodies and his production skills have finally met songs that have the ring of personal, not commercial, passion. (Willman)

** BETTE MIDLER, "Some People's Lives,"Atlantic. Instead of what she does best--'40s swing a la "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"--there's an overload of whiny, dirge-like ballads in the style of "Wind Beneath My Wings." (Hunt)

** NELSON, "After the Rain,"DGC. Gunnar and Matthew Nelson inherited papa Ricky's telegenic appeal, which has helped them draw a vast teen audience. So maybe it's irrelevant that this debut is standard, sterile arena-rock fare. (Hochman)

** 1/2 THE NEVILLE BROTHERS, "Brother's Keeper,"A&M.; The syncopation rarely lets up, and the Nevilles stick black consciousness and Jesus right in your face. But "Keeper" is stuck somewhere between the novel undercurrents of their last record and the percussive joy of previous efforts. (Willman)

** PEBBLES, "Pebbles,"MCA. Pebbles should have been filled with energy and risk-taking ideas on her second trip into the studio. Instead, the follow-up to her hit debut will have to quickly go the remix route to generate any excitement. (Johnson)

*** PIXIES, "Bossa Nova,"4AD/Elektra. The alternative-rock faves come off as a cross between art monsters Sonic Youth and moody nostalgia-meister Chris Isaak--full of noise, rage and clever/off-putting deconstruction, but deferring to classic pop instincts at surprising turns. (Willman)

** POISON, "Flesh & Blood,"Enigma/Capitol. Sexism, lack of sophistication, childish lyrics and sheer goofiness are all here on the L.A. group's third album. Though lyrically the band is at its usual low level, the material is more sophisticated musically and the musicianship is up a notch. (Hunt)

*** 1/2 IGGY POP, "Brick by Brick,"Virgin. Producer Don Was has given us the Igster we know (crude, rocking, brutal) and one we don't (sweet and introspective). The miracle is that sometimes we get both at once. (Hochman)

*1/2 MAXI PRIEST, "Bonafide,"Charisma. His "new vogue reggae" style is just lightweight pop propelled by a light reggae beat. This bland blend--one step above lounge-act music--is getting a lot of exposure because of his hit single, "Close to You." (Hunt)

*** 1/2 PRINCE, "Graffiti Bridge,"Paisley Park/Warner Bros. Prince seems to have adopted the maxim he invokes at the album's midway point: "There's joy in repetition." He hits upon a host of grooves that maim and kill, almost all of which he can point to and justifiably boast, U can't touch this . (Willman)

*** "PUMP UP THE VOLUME" soundtrack,MCA. What your average brainy troubled teen anarchist would pick to defy authority with. The usual suspects of college/alternative radio bring the noise, but the best cuts are more melancholy: Concrete Blonde tackling Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" and the Cowboy Junkies sliding through Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues." (Willman)

** 1/2 QUEENSRYCHE, "Empire,"EMI. A politically correct heavy-metal band, non-sexist, anti-oppression, anti-drug, offering relatively sophisticated analyses of social problems. Yet here the band is absolutely mainstream, with bombastic power ballads, sappy hooks and screeching Dio-esque vocals. (Gold)

** 1/2 RATT, "Detonator,"Atlantic. Assisted by big-league song doctor Desmond Childs (Bon Jovi, Cher), this poor man's Motley Crue comes across with a minimum of attitude, a maximum of hard-rock gloss. But guitarist Warren DeMartini may be the finest stylist of all hair-farmers, and "Detonator" is a cut above most radio rock. (Gold)

*** 1/2 THE REPLACEMENTS, "All Shook Down,"Sire. The combination of acoustic bedding, electric riffing and hard, loose drumming is pure Kinks, and the band taps a similar vein of wistfulness and crunch. Ultimately, it's a showcase for Paul Westerberg's song craft and his weirdly virtuosic vocal performance. (Cromelin)

**** PAUL SIMON, "The Rhythm of the Saints,"Warner Bros. Simon's usual elliptical reveries and sad-mouthed regrets are built this time from the ground up on a rock bottom of complex Brazilian rhythms. And they do kick. (Willman)

*** 1/2 SLAYER, "Seasons in the Abyss,"Def American. If Metallica was the Beatles of new American metal, Slayer was the Rolling Stones: dark, violent and nasty, fascinated with evil. This is by far the most accessible Slayer opus--maybe they'll finally sell more albums than T-shirts. (Gold)

*** 1/2 TAKE 6, "So Much 2 Say,"Reprise. This a cappella sextet is rooted in gospel but branches out all over the place--R&B;, jazz, Caribbean. Some of these performances are truly dazzling, particularly the jazzy title song, which careens along at breakneck speed. (Hunt).

** 1/2 TOO SHORT, "Short Dog's in the House,"Jive/RCA. Ultra-hardcore pimp rhymes from the streets of Oakland, droned over monotonous, bare beats: non-stop litanies of his conquests and his kingdom. The awesome misogyny makes the album all but unlistenable. (Gold)

** 1/2 RANDY TRAVIS, "Heroes and Friends,"Warner Bros. Only rarely do these duets with all-time greats like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, et al . , catch fire. And Travis usually comes off second best--when you step into the ring with heavyweights, you'd best be prepared to take a few lumps. (Lewis)

*** 1/2 "TWIN PEAKS" soundtrack,Warner Bros. Angelo Badalamenti's brilliant, eerily seductive music has captured the public imagination in a way instrumental scores rarely do. The '50s cool jazz elements mix with shimmering high romanticism and some brooding, scary stuff. (Willman)

** 1/2 VANILLA ICE, "To the Extreme,"SBK. Hardcore rap fans probably think this album is a laugh riot. Though the beats are strong, Ice often sounds like a novice rapping at a frat party. One of the few times he's convincing is on his big hit, "Ice Ice Baby." (Hunt)

*** 1/2 THE VAUGHAN BROTHERS, "Family Style,"Epic. The first collaborative record by Texas guitar-slingin' siblings Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan is a warm, kinda kicked-back, decidedly non-competitive, just-dropped-in-to-pick-'n'-grin-after-dinner session. Vaguely melancholic, too, in light of Stevie Ray's recent death. (Waller)

** 1/2 WARRANT, "Cherry Pie,"Columbia. Much of Warrant's success is due to its pandering to metalmaniacs' sexism. But on several songs here, women are actually regarded as human beings. Warrant had better watch it--some metal fans might think the band has gone soft. (Hunt)

**** WAS (NOT WAS), "Are You Okay?,"Chrysalis. In the fourth blissfully okey-dokey blast of black-and-white cross-dressing brilliance from Was (Not Was), the hip-hop once again hits the fan and comes back in shards of danceably disconnected Dada. (Willman)

*** 1/2 THE WATERBOYS, "Room to Roam,"Ensign/Chrysalis. In some ways, the earthy music and the contented tone make this seem a bit of a retreat: A seeker's art is more compelling when he still hasn't found what he's looking for. But the pure joy makes it far and away the group's least pompous outing. (Hochman)

*** ROGER WATERS, "The Wall: Live in Berlin,"Mercury. Seamlessly blends orchestra, choir, extremely effective rock band and a succession of guest singers and soloists, gaining thematic resonance from this performance's locus (the Nazi fantasy sequence played in the heart of Berlin!). (Boehm)

** 1/2 CARON WHEELER, "UK Blak,"EMI. Strong sociopolitical undercurrents abound on the debut album by the primary vocalist on the first Soul II Soul LP. Though her passion and spirituality are admirable, Wheeler has made a rather uneven album. (Hunt)

* WINGER, "In the Heart of the Young,"Atlantic. There's not enough of Winger's strength--strong, basic, hard rock 'n' roll--on this album. This pop-metal outfit goes wrong at every turn, whether venturing into romance, rebellion or rap. (Hunt)

**** NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE, "Ragged Glory,"Reprise. A collection that employs the force of the guitar to both energize the songs and serve as a symbol of the independence and power of rock's classic values. (Hilburn)

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