Two hotshot British rock bands--Blur and Oasis--as well as a pair of longtime critical favorites--Randy Newman and Joe Ely--highlight this edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with what's exciting in pop on an album budget of $50 a month.
Blur, "The Great Escape" (Virgin). You'll be hearing a lot about the resurgence in British rock, so you ought to be familiar with the key players. I favor Oasis, which leans more toward the raw, rock side of Brit pop-rock than Blur, whose glorious melodies and satirical character studies reflect the more carefully crafted pop side. But Blur's Damon Albarn is an excellent writer whose tales about end-of-the-century tensions in England succeed on a variety of levels. "Country House" will catch your ear on the radio, but the most accomplished and convincing track is "The Universal." It's a look at a future society that has so surrendered its ambition and will that the only joy comes from a winning lottery ticket.
Garbage, "Garbage" (Almo). The best tales of anger and melancholy in this terrific debut album offer some of the haunting emotional strains found in the most accessible moments of the Jesus & Mary Chain--magnificently framed by the melodic pop distortion that group leader Butch Vig helped inject, as producer, into Nirvana's "Nevermind" and by a singer (Shirley Manson) who knows the value of economy and mystery.
Randy Newman, "Randy Newman's Faust" (Warner Bros.). In this splendidly entertaining and accomplished reworking of the Faust legend about the struggle for a man's soul, Newman seems to be both having fun with the musical theater tradition and saluting it. There are several moments so funny you'll laugh out loud, plus a few so tender (especially Bonnie Raitt's version of "Feels Like Home") that you'll be enchanted.
Joe Ely, "Letter to Laredo" (MCA). Ely has been chronicling his West Texas dreams about the open road and the right woman for two decades, picking up the praise of everyone from Keith Richards and Joe Strummer to Bruce Springsteen without making much of a commercial dent in either country or rock--the worlds that his music twists into a single style. This package, which is rich with Texas border influences, takes the dangerous but also rewarding step of summarizing many of the lessons learned.
Oasis, "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?" (Epic). There are bound to be complaints of Beatles rip-off in this second collection by the brothers Gallagher, but the music is so deliciously inviting that it's easy to picture the album as simply an exercise in trying to show what Lennon and McCartney might have sounded like if they were raised in the environment of '90s rock. Rich with ambition and a disarming feel-good spirit.
Various artists, "Dead Presidents" (Underworld/Capitol). The Guide usually ignores soundtracks built around old hits, but this 74-minute collection is too enticing a survey of '60s and '70s soul to overlook. Ranging from Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone" to James Brown's "The Payback," it's an especially valuable primer at a time when much of the hip-hop world seems eager to replace studio sampling with real instrumentation.