Holiday Gift-Giving--The Hints of '92

How does Madonna's musical product compare with her literary and film endeavors?. . .Which of those Seattle bands offers the best grunge for the buck? . . . Is Garth's latest album as good as his show?. . .Which rappers are for kids and which are for adults only?. . .Are there some worthy soundtrack albums out there?

Those are the kinds of questions facing holiday shoppers. Calendar's annual Top 40 Shopping Guide is designed to ease the burden by summarizing The Times' reviews of 40 of the nation's most popular and/or critically admired albums, listed alphabetically. The ratings are based on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). The comments are from the original reviews, but the ratings sometimes reflect additional staff input.

* * * Mary J. Blige, "What's the 411?," Uptown. "You Remind Me" is one of those perfect singer-to-song matches. Elsewhere Blige deftly jumps between vintage-sounding soul and hip-hop, turning in her best work on an I-wanna-be-Chaka remake of Rufus' 1976 hit "Sweet Thing."

* * 1/2 Michael Bolton, "Timeless (the Classics)," Columbia. It's brave of Bolton to barrel ahead, not caring whether it's culturally correct to record these soul classics. He disgraces neither himself nor the material he chooses on this album.

* * * Charles & Eddie, "Duophonic," Capitol. The duo has such an effortlessly sweet way of delivering soul music that it recalls the '70s style of Marvin Gaye, Al Green and the Chi-Lites. Nothing startlingly original, but "Would I Lie to You" is not to be missed.

* * * En Vogue, "Funky Divas," Atco/EastWest. Groomed to offer a '90s slant to the Supremes' classy crossover image, En Vogue also lifts ideas from James Brown and Aretha Franklin to create a sharper, more streetwise package.

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