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POP MUSIC : What Albums to Buy . . . and to Avoid

Which rapper is it that’s safe for the kids to listen to? . . . Is the new Bryan Adams full of pretty ballads like that song from “Robin Hood”? . . . The Garth Brooks album was No. 1 for so many weeks, it must be really a classic, right? . . . Has Metallica sold out? . . . Do Michael and U2 still have it?

Those are the kinds of questions that can stymie the holiday shopper. Calendar’s annual guide to the nation’s top-selling albums is designed to ease the burden by summarizing The Times’ reviews of 40 of the nation’s most popular albums, listed alphabetically. The ratings are based on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent). The comments are from the original reviews, but the ratings sometimes reflect additional staff input.

** 1/2 Paula Abdul, “Spellbound,” Virgin. On several tunes, it’s Abdul minus the gloss and multitracking--and the singer does a creditable job most of the time. At least she took a chance on a more mature pop album that accents her vocals, but too much of the material is forgettable, mid-tempo romantic pop. (Dennis Hunt)

*** Bryan Adams, “Waking Up the Neighbours,” A&M.; Straightforward, good-natured rock acts like Adams are almost gone from the top of the charts these days, but he’s likely to buck the trend, given this album’s rollicking tunefulness and classic rock choruses, and the inclusion of the hit ballad "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.”

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(Jean Rosenbluth)

*** Boyz II Men, “Cooleyhighharmony,” Motown. Sounding like Take 6 for the pubescent set, this baby-faced quartet’s silky, coming-of-age style seems shrewdly aimed at teens who’ve wondered if there’s life after hip-hop. (Connie Johnson)

** 1/2 Garth Brooks, “Ropin’ the Wind,” Capitol. Several of the songs echo strains that worked for Brooks before, and he can’t resist story songs even if the stories are old, old, old. His failure to live up to his potential with a more consistent and revealing album is a disappointment.

(Robert Hilburn)

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*** C+C Music Factory, “Gonna Make You Sweat,” Columbia. If Freedom Williams were a more interesting rapper, this hip-hop coalition might be a blueprint for ‘90s dance-pop. Even with Williams’ limitations, this is some of the most delicious dance music of the season. (R.H.)

** Mariah Carey, “Emotions,” Columbia. Carey’s voice is still impressive. The problem on this gloomy album, even more so than on her debut, is the songs and production. Her lyrics are embarrassingly overripe, and her voice is often overwhelmed by the music. (Hunt)

*** Natalie Cole, “Unforgettable,” Elektra. On this collection of 22 Nat King Cole classics, Cole has no better luck than her father with such pop novelties as “L-O-V-E.” But on the classics she kicks into a sound and a groove that recall and occasionally expand upon Nat Cole’s memorable performances. (Don Heckman)

** Color Me Badd, “C.M.B.,” Giant. They bring the harmonious doo-wop sounds of such vocal groups as the Chi-Lites into the ‘90s, suitably hip-hopped up. But the vocals aren’t polished and the raps are downright lame. (Hunt)

* “The Commitments,” soundtrack, MCA. What is often appealing in the film about the fictional Irish soul group falls flat on record. These ‘60s soul gems require powerful R&B; voices, but all the Commitments can muster is thin, pop-style vocals. You’ll be better off tracking down the originals. (Hunt)

*** Harry Connick Jr., “Blue Light, Red Light,” Columbia. A risky path: 12 new original tunes accompanied by a 17-piece orchestra. Connick brings it off with a startlingly versatile, hard-swinging performance that is far and away his most impressive recorded outing. (Heckman)

** 1/2 Dire Straits, “On Every Street,” Warner Bros. The opening six songs form a cohesive, haunting, half-hour meditation on loss and unfulfilled yearning. But several ham-fisted attempts at Randy Newman-style ironic monologue derail the second half. (Mike Boehm)

** Genesis, “We Can’t Dance,” Atlantic. A self-conscious downer. Mixed in with the bathos are a few interesting ideas, and some awful ones. What’s most striking is the almost complete dearth of intriguing musical touches. No one ever expected them to dance, but they used to at least play . (Chris Willman)

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** 1/2 Amy Grant, “Heart in Motion,” A&M.; The best songs herald a nuanced singer and songwriter portraying the doubts and strains of marriage. Grant’s bolder instincts retreat before a slew of one-dimensional romantic ballads and dance-pop notions that are obvious, over-produced bids for mass success. (M.B.)

*** 1/2 Guns N’ Roses, “Use Your Illusion I,” **** Guns N’ Roses, “Use Your Illusion II,” Geffen. The heart of this bold pair of albums is one of the most sprawling and seductive examinations of rock ‘n’ roll darkness, dreams and doubts since the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” making them both indispensable works. (R.H.)

* 1/2 Hammer, “Too Legit to Quit,” Capitol. Suffers from the same limitation as Hammer’s last one: ineffective rapping. It’s particularly woeful on slow songs, because he often slips into a silly, nursery rhyme cadence. And when he turns social commentator, it’s preachy rap at its worst. (Hunt)

*** Ice Cube, “Death Certificate,” Priority. There are moments where Ice Cube lives up to the promise of the album’s concept, but elsewhere he succumbs to the rage. Much of the album is powerful and affecting, which makes it all the more discouraging that he doesn’t use his position and his skills more thoughtfully. (R.H.)

*** Michael Jackson, “Dangerous,” Epic. A messy grab-bag of ideas and high-tech non sequiturs. Relatively tame and wildly unfocused, “Dangerous” is also mostly good, expertly made fun. Nothing here approaches the greatness of “Billie Jean,” but he’s still got the touch. (C.W.)

** 1/2 Jodeci, “Forever My Lady,” MCA. The hit debut album by this 20-ish soul vocal quartet features both lush romantic songs and first-rate dance songs. The singing is so-so but the production is outstanding. (Hunt)

* 1/2 Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch, “Music for the People,” Interscope. “Good Vibrations” is one of the year’s funkiest singles, but on the rest of the songs this white Boston rapper (younger brother of New Kid Donnie Wahlberg, who also produced) is as vanilla as Vanilla Ice. (Hunt)

** Richard Marx, “Rush Street,” Capitol. Without a superlative voice to back them up, Marx’s songs have to be above average to hold your attention. Most of the songs here aren’t, and the the album isn’t strong enough to satisfy those who aren’t already Marx fans. (C.J.)

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** Reba McEntire, “For My Broken Heart,” MCA. Melancholy surfaces periodically in McEntire’s first album since the March plane crash that killed eight members of her entourage. Too often, though, it’s Reba’s slick pop-country business as usual.

(Randy Lewis)

*** John Mellencamp, “Whenever We Wanted,” Mercury. By 1989’s “Big Daddy,” Mellencamp’s political and social introspection had overwhelmed his fun rock ‘n’ roll half. On this album, the Indiana native is almost back in balance. (J.R.)

*** 1/2 Metallica, “Metallica,” Elektra. Metallica compresses its austere sensibility into a form palatable to the masses, and it might be hard for a dedicated Metallica buff to come to terms with the band’s new sound. There are some genuinely catchy songs, but it’s a hard album to get used to.

(Jonathan Gold)

*** Naughty by Nature, “Naughty by Nature,” Tommy Boy. Nothing on the gangsta rap trio’s debut album dazzles like the lively, lewd hit single “O.P.P.,” but a few other cuts aren’t far behind. The impact is enhanced by Treach’s fast, remarkably fluid rapping. (Hunt)

**** Nirvana, “Nevermind,” DGC. A universal alienated-youth cry set to an undeniable punk rock roar, “Nevermind” distills the essence of what it means to be young and smart and not have a whole lot to do. In sheer pop craft, it may be the “Meet the Beatles” of grunge. (J.G.)

** Ozzy Osbourne, “No More Tears,” Epic. Granted, Ozzy isn’t what he used to be, but he’s not ready for the metal graveyard just yet either. There are flashes of the old fire in the anthem “Hellraiser” and the bluesy “A.V.H.” (Hunt)

** 1/2 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Into the Great Wide Open,” MCA. Those who miss the forceful rock he used to play will find only sporadic solace. With Jeff Lynne producing, the Traveling Wilbury vibe prevails, and it’s Petty’s renewed focus as a songwriter that keeps things afloat.

(Richard Cromelin)

*** P.M. Dawn, “Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: the Utopian Experience,” Gee Street/Island. This New Jersey rap duo engagingly blends rap, hip-hop and ethereal peace-and-love messages that are a throwback to the ‘60s. (Hunt)

** Prince, “Diamonds and Pearls,” Paisley Park/Warner Bros. The man who was at the absolute creative center of pop in the ‘80s may be working with some different elements musically, but he has lost his daring songwriting edge. He seems to be grazing, and while the music is frequently catchy and clever, it’s rarely passionate or essential. (R.H.)

*** 1/2 Public Enemy, “Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black,” Def Jam/Columbia. Every track is filled with angry accusations, dares and challenges. But more than ever, it’s also complex and provocative in a positive way. Another big step by the leader of the rap pack. (S.H.)

*** 1/2 Bonnie Raitt, “Luck of the Draw,” Capitol. Where the Grammy-winning “Nick of Time” dealt with fear of independence, “Luck” looks at fear of interdependence. But if the lyrics are of fear, Raitt has fashioned recordings that are among her most frisky, funky and elegant. (S.H.)

*** Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik,” Warner Bros. The L.A. band seemed played out not long ago, but this album puts it back on top of the hill it built. Some lighter material adds new dimensions to the strutting funk and breast-beating chants the Peps are known for. (S.H.)

*** R.E.M., “Out of Time,” Warner Bros. Marks a recovery from 1988’s uncertain, compromised “Green,” restoring the early air of mystery and independence. The album is dominated by taut meditations in a chamber-rustic setting--contemplations on faith and love in a confusing world. (R.C.)

** 1/2 Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, “The Fire Inside,” Capitol. Some of the two- and three-chord riffs are rudimentary even by the standards of the godfather of rudimentary heartland rock. Seger sometimes shows a will to break the mold, but the effort comes up short. (S.H.)

** Lisa Stansfield, “Real Love,” Arista. The English soul singer teams again with the writers-producers behind the delicious “All Around the World.” But rather than explore new territory, Stansfield delivers songs so middle-of-the-road and uninvolving that “World” begins to look like beginner’s luck. (C.J.)

*** Keith Sweat, “Keep It Comin’,” Elektra. The “Dance Floor” half propels his signature catharsis of sex, rhythm and broken hearts over hard-core dance beats. The second half’s bedroom ballads pale next to all that hard-rocking sensuality, but Sweat’s intoxicating emotionalism smooths over the occasional vocal weakness and moist sentiment. (Elena Oumano)

** 1/2 Travis Tritt, “It’s All About to Change,” Warner Bros. This album often says to hell with anything resembling sensitivity about life and love. It makes for one jukebox classic, "(Here’s a Quarter) Call Someone Who Cares,” but Tritt is most potent when he stops grunting and sings from the heart on a couple of ballads. (R.L.)

**** U2, “Achtung Baby,” Island. While the arty, guitar-driven textures are among the most confident and vigorous ever by the band, the lyrics are introspective and self-questioning. After achieving massive popularity and acclaim for its tales of light, the group now tries to touch us with examinations of the darkness. (R.H.)

*** Van Halen, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” Warner Bros. An often cacophonous, uncompromising return to the pile-driving form that marked the band’s early success. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar dominates to an even greater degree than on the group’s past offerings. (J.R.)

*** Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, “The Sky Is Crying,” Epic. These 10 previously unreleased tracks form a good, varied collection of familiar pleasures and fresh surprises. A must for his fans, and for newcomers a good overview of a venturesome, incandescent talent. (M.B.)


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