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Holiday Gift Guide : Calendar’s little helpers offer suggestions in pop, jazz, holiday, family and classical music, plus videos, computer games and books. (Good news: They’re easy to wrap.) : POP MUSIC

* * 1/2 ALICE IN CHAINS, “Alice in Chains,” Columbia. Shifts between teeth-gnashing metal, bluesy acoustic songs and pop-friendly, chorus-heavy tunes. Only the dynamic “Heaven Beside You” breaks the formulaic chains.

* * * BONE THUGS-N-HARMONY, “E.1999 Eternal,” Relativity. This Cleveland-based quartet has raised the stakes of the gangsta rap game. Bone isn’t content to just shoot at that next emcee or punk in their neighborhood; they’ll harmonize about it too, mixing graphic imagery with old-fashioned street-corner crooning.

* * * MARIAH CAREY, “Daydream,” Columbia. To her critics, Carey has the pipes without any creative water to rush through them. “Daydream,” however, has the material to silence her detractors as Carey offers something for everybody while remaining true to her essence.

* * * COOLIO, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Tommy Boy. Looks beyond the apathy, anger and hopelessness that most post-N.W.A. rap groups have institutionalized. Coolio uses the narrative side of his poetic gift to prove that there’s more to life in the ‘hood than drive-bys and drugs.

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* * * CYPRESS HILL, “Cypress Hill III (Temple of Boom),” Ruffhouse/Sony. The South Gate trio is still hooked on tales of gunfights, reputation tests and potent marijuana, over an engaging mix of horn bleats, eerie synthesizer squeals and snapping drum kicks.

* 1/2 EIGHTBALL & MJG, “On Top of the World,” Relativity/Suave. These 15 tracks of menacing but mundane G-funk roll nowhere fast. Only with the inspirational anti-drug tale “Funk Mission” and the wet-glass smooth “Space-Age Pimpin” do these two Memphis mack daddies make a name for themselves.

* * * 1/2 GENIUS/GZA, “Liquid Sword,” Geffen. Like a hip-hop M.C. Escher, Wu-Tang Clan member GZA serves up urban tales that reveal layer after layer of thought with repeated listenings. More evidence that the Wu-Tangs are the Scorseses of gangsta rap.

* * * THA DOGG POUND, “Dogg Food,” Death Row/Interscope. The Los Angeles rap duo pulls no punches in its formal album debut. Some listeners will be turned off by the relentless profanity, but while the themes are familiar, the music and delivery are wild and bold.

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* * * 1/2 VARIOUS ARTISTS, “Dead Presidents” soundtrack, Capitol. Sure they’re old, but unedited classics by Isaac Hayes, Al Green, the Dramatics, et al., demonstrate that the Dr. Dres and D’Angelos of the world have a long way to go.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (f a ir), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).


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