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.
* * * * Arrested Development, “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of. . .,” Chrysalis. This Georgia rap sextet supports its positive commentaries with bright and imaginative musical signatures. The wistful, spiritually tinged “Tennessee” is one of the year’s most captivating singles.
* * * 1/2 Garth Brooks, “The Chase,” Liberty. Brooks’ most consistent and fully satisfying album. He still has a blind spot for leaden story songs, but he expresses tenderness with remarkable conviction, and he continues to touch on provocative issues.
* * * Ice Cube, “The Predator,” Priority. The key selections make it essential listening, but the most powerful rap voice in the ‘hood hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunity to speak to the non-rap fans who may turn to the album in a genuine attempt to understand the angry young black viewpoint.
* * * Mudhoney, “Piece of Cake,” Reprise. Mixes lots of enticing rock tradition in its ‘90s grunge-rock assault. The result is a more accessible and good-natured sound than is found in many of its fellow Seattle bands. No Nirvana, but more than Pearl Jam.
* * * 1/2 Sugar, “Copper Blue,” Rykodisc. Former Husker Du leader Bob Mould returns to the group format and seems right in step with the “Lollapalooza” alternative rock crowd. But he displays a passion and songwriting craft that most bands can only dream about.
* * * 1/2 TLC, “Ooooooohhh . . . on the TLC Tip,” LaFace. This teen-style hip-hop has so much inviting R&B-pop; sheen that it’s easy to think it’s just kid stuff. But there’s a boldness that gives the album an unexpected punch.
* * * 1/2 Trisha Yearwood, “Hearts in Armor,” MCA. The album Wynonna Judd should have made--a collection that digs deeply into the rich character of country music without ending up a prisoner of it. Yearwood employs head and heart in one of the most absorbing country albums of the Garth era.
* * * * Neil Young, “Harvest Moon,” Reprise. Reunited with musicians and acoustic textures showcased 20 years ago in his celebrated “Harvest” album, Young delivers one of the warmest and most personal recordings of his career.