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Holiday Recordings : POP : It’s Ring-a-Ling Recordings Time : How Sinatra, GNR Stack Up to That Doggy in the Window

Calendar music critics and writers present their opinions on the year’s recordings to help you through the holiday season. Some of the reviews may assist the gift-impaired: See our Top 40 Shopping Guide for the nation’s most popular or critically acclaimed albums, and subsequent tips on the year’s best children’s recordings, the class of classical releases, which boxed sets are wothwhile (and which are merely long and expensive) and a spin through jazz and pop holiday music. The ratings range from one star (poor) to four (excellent). Five stars are reserved for outstanding historical retrospectives.

* * * Babyface, “For the Cool in You,” Epic. In contrast to his production work with L.A. Reid, Babyface is more adept at mood-enhancing ballads than dance-floor jams. At this stage his music lacks depth and complexity, but the straightforward way he flaunts his emotions is more than fair compensation. (Connie Johnson)

* * 1/2 Blind Melon, “Blind Melon,” Capitol. The L.A. band’s debut is a bit like Jefferson Airplane or Fleetwood Mac doing Pearl Jam, highlighted by delicate guitar work and Shannon Hoon’ attractively hermaphroditic voice. (Steve Hochman)

* 1/2 Michael Bolton, “The One Thing,” Columbia. On several songs Bolton calms the wretched excess--which leaves them completely characterless. He’s like the class bully who goes to reform school and returns better behaved--but so boring that no one will talk to him. (Jean Rosenbluth)

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* * * Toni Braxton, “Toni Braxton,” LaFace/Arista. She sounds like an unlikely hybrid of Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker and Tracy Chapman, and she’s armed with impressive tunes on her debut album. (C.J.)

* * 1/2 Garth Brooks, “In Pieces,” Liberty. Brooks continues to serve up songs with strong points of view and penetrating looks at relationships. None of it, however, adds up to the breakthrough step that would take his artistry up another level. (Robert Hilburn)

* * * 1/2 Tevin Campbell, “I’m Ready,” Giant. One of the best vocalists of his generation and a collection that’s totally free of filler. Though his background is church-oriented, Campbell manages to sound comfortable in the racier setting provided by Prince’s four songs. (C.J.)

* 1/2 Mariah Carey, “Music Box,” Columbia. Carey has toned down her vocal showboating, but you still don’t get much emotion from these pop-soul songs. They’re geared to a Kenny G and Michael Bolton audience that likes its soul whitewashed and in small doses. (Dennis Hunt)

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* * 1/2 Phil Collins, “Both Sides,” Atlantic. The material is all uniformly pretty and expressively sung, but it’s also just plain uniform. Some outside input might have freed Collins to do what he does best and provided some alternative ideas. (J.R.)

* * * Color Me Badd, “Time and Chance,” Giant. What the group lacks in command, it makes up for in supple charm. Longer on laid-back appeal than substance, but there’s a subtle, sumptuous craft in several selections, and a definite trace of maturity. (C.J.)

* * * Cranberries, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?,” Island. The Irish group surrounds singer Dolores O’Riordan--whose quivering alto eerily resembles Joni Mitchell’s--with Celtic-flavored folk tinged with gospel sensibilities. A beautifully understated debut. (Mario Munnoz)

* * * Cypress Hill, “Black Sunday,” Columbia. This guided tour of the surreal world of psychedelic hip-hop boasts sharper insights, crisper beats and a more tantalizingly ominous tone than the South Gate rap trio’s debut. (D.H.)

* * Eazy-E, “It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa,” Ruthless/Priority. He seems to have been a more “authentic” hoodlum than any of his more talented former colleagues in N.W.A., and he devotes most of his weak-beat solo EP to proving this fact at tedious length. (Jonathan Gold)

* * * Guns N’ Roses, “The Spaghetti Incident?,” Geffen. The emphasis in this album of favorite songs is on obscure punk and hard-rock tunes. Despite the dangers of indulgence, GNR infuses it with the warm, disarming spirit of musicians eager to share some lively personal rock passions. Warning: Some listeners may be offended by the presence of a song written by Charles Manson, an uncredited bonus track that was not on review copies of the album.

* * * Ice Cube, “Lethal Injection,” Priority. Ice Cube seems incapable of recording a bad album, and there’s a presence in the production here that has been absent in his last couple of records. If you’ve followed Cube’s career, you’ve heard much of this before, but it still may be one of the best rap records of the year. (J.G.)

* * 1/2 Elton John, “Duets,” MCA. John and Leonard Cohen playing off each other on “Born to Lose” is alluring and unexpected, but the rest of the match-ups don’t fare as well on this generally amusing diversion. (J.R.)

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* * 1/2 Janet Jackson, “janet.,” Virgin. Too often, Jackson’s new carnality seems as much a costume as the social consciousness paraded through her last album. The album isn’t a total loss thanks to some beats that blast real funk. (Chris Willman)

* * R. Kelly, “12 Play,” Jive. Bedroom-directed soul singing and rap interludes. Kelly is an authoritative R&B; seducer, but the level of raunch makes it hard to take him seriously when he gets romantic. (Richard Cromelin)

* * Billy Joel, “River of Dreams,” Columbia. Protest singer isn’t the strongest suit in Joel’s closet, but here he evidences a case of Don Henley envy that won’t quit. His stretches seem heartfelt, if strained, but he’s on surer footing with his odes to Christie. (C.W.)

* * 1/2 Lemonheads, “Come on Feel the Lemonheads,” Atlantic. Evan Dando borrows the styles of aggressive antecedents as backdrops for his sketchy, laid-back musings. You wish he’d work a little harder--the songs are built around good ideas that he didn’t break a sweat bothering to flesh out. (C.W.)

* * 1/2 Meat Loaf, “Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell,” MCA. Attempts to re-create the shameless theatrical juvenilia of Meat Loaf’s ’77 debut. Runs the gamut from very bad to very good, taste always taking the back seat. (C.W.)

* * * 1/2 Nirvana, “In Utero,” DGC. Another brashly satisfying punk broadside, full of nervy, bawling, slap-happy spunk. Kurt Cobain’s talent isn’t totally matured, but in the best moments he sets aside his irony and finds real emotions. (C.W.)

* 1/2 Shaquille O’Neal, “Shaq Diesel,” Jive. The only rap finesse on the basketball star’s debut comes from the guest artists. But O’Neal is a good sport about his effort, and scores a point for his “I love you, mommy,” shout-out. (Heidi Siegmund)

* * * Pearl Jam, “Vs.,” Epic. It’s still a band of limited imagination, but the players are much more attuned to singer Eddie Vedder’s stormy nature than on the debut, and the music claims a broader emotional and sonic turf. (R.C.)

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* * * M.C. Ren, “Shock of the Hour,” Ruthless/Relativity. A small, ugly masterpiece of gangsta rap. The former N.W.A. member hews close to the basic form of the genre, and embodies pretty much everything that the mainstream hated about N.W.A.--villainy, vulgarity, over-the-top misogyny. (J.G.)

* * 1/2 Linda Ronstadt, “Winter Light,” Elektra. Ronstadt’s voice is still a marvel, but her flair for picking and producing material does waver some. The common ground is arrangements tending a little toward the tepid, but even Ronstadt’s weaker efforts pretty well redefine pretty in a world that hasn’t heard of it lately. (C.W.)

* * 1/2 Salt-N-Pepa, “Very Necessary,” Next Plateau/London. Maybe the guys who get off on rap’s female-bashing have it coming, but male-bashing can certainly be done better than Salt-N-Pepa do here. They make some insightful points on their social commentary tracks, but the music mostly meanders. (D.H.)

* * * Frank Sinatra, “Duets,” Capitol. A mixed bag of tricks--some of the match-ups are appropriate, others are stunt casting, more marquee value than chemistry. But none are embarrassments, and the sharply rendered charts deserved this digital dusting-off. (C.W.)

* * * 1/2 Smashing Pumpkins, “Siamese Dream,” Virgin. The Pumpkins can crank it up, but it’s the truly quiet moments that set the alternative rock heroes apart. The songs tend to drift in places, but the balance between the harsh and the sweet makes for a strong and distinctive package. (S.H.)

* * * 1/2 Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Doggystyle,” Death Row/Interscope. The controversial Snoop delivers in his much anticipated debut. No rapper has ever occupied a beat the way he does, and Dr. Dre’s production takes hip-hop to another level. (J.G.)

* * * Rod Stewart, “Unplugged. . .and Seated,” Warner Bros. A full band and orchestra do a fair amount of rocking out amid the ballads. Not so much a pointedly “acoustic” detour as just close to the way Stewart would be smart to arrange his stuff all the time. (C.W.)

* * * George Strait, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” MCA. Includes several of the country star’s liveliest, most expressive vocal performances in years. He still tends to get syrupy in the love songs, but the upbeat honky-tonkers glide along. (Randy Lewis)

* * * 1/2 10,000 Maniacs, “10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged,” Elektra. The group’s swan song isn’t that far afield from its usual live set, but the setting provides even more tender context for Natalie Merchant’s bittersweetness. (C.W).

* * * Too Short, “Get in Where You Fit In,” Jive. Backed by some lazy, funky grooves, the Oakland rapper cannily makes you feel what it’s like to be a libidinous young man on the loose in the ‘hood. For guys only. (D.H.)

* * * A Tribe Called Quest, “Midnight Marauders,” Jive. Gets under your skin as if by osmosis, as rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dog lull you into their cool world with laid-back rhyme flows and even more languid beats. (H.S.)

* * * Various artists, “The Beavis and Butt-head Experience,” Geffen. The minimalist approach of the TV show, fleshed out with songs by such bands as Aerosmith, Run-DMC, Primus, et al. Uneven, but as Butt-head points out, you need stuff that sucks to have stuff that’s cool. (R.C.)

* * 1/2 Various artists, “Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles,” Giant. The idea was good--13 country stars interpreting Eagles tunes. But most of the arrangements remain in the shadow of the original versions instead of challenging them. (R.H.)

* * * Various artists, “Sleepless in Seattle” soundtrack, Epic. Quirky versions of standards (e.g. Jimmy Durante crooning “As Time Goes By”) and some conventional romantic tunes add up to an enjoyable collection even if you haven’t seen the movie, but at 37 minutes it’s way too short. (D.H.)

* * Various artists, “Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix,” Reprise. Many are called to honor the Hendrix sound, but few choose to emulate his spirit of experimentation. Among the exceptions: PM Dawn’s Prince-ly “You Got Me Floatin’ ” and classical fiddler Nigel Kennedy’s “Fire.” (R.C.)

* * * Xscape, “Hummin’ Comin’ at ‘Cha,” Columbia. Looking for an experimental extension of En Vogue? Try this Atlanta quartet, whose debut album of vocal-group R&B; with a hip-hop edge has a fair share of sassy, psychedelic charm. (R.C.)

* * 1/2 Trisha Yearwood, “The Song Remembers When,” MCA. The ballad emphasis cuts her appeal in half, and while Yearwood’s seamless vocals are fetching enough when the material is there, this third album doesn’t make good on her considerable promise. (C.W.)


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