Even though four of the artists in this edition of Calendar’s guide to what’s exciting in pop also made the list with past works, the new albums by Beck, Bikini Kill, Ani DiFranco and Rage Against the Machine show enough growth to warrant repeat investigation.
Bikini Kill, “Reject All American” (Kill Rock Stars)--It’s hard to tell whether the increased rock accessibility of this follow-up to 1993’s “Pussy Whipped” is due just to a change of record producers (John Goodmanson this time) or simply to a lot of time listening to CDs by old L.A. faves X and the Go-Go’s. Either way, it works nicely in these frequently anxious, questioning tracks.
Ani DiFranco, “Dilate” (Righteous Babe). Can women walk away with top honors in the annual Village Voice critics poll four years a row? DiFranco could be the one to extend the streak started by Liz Phair in 1993 and sustained by Courtney Love and Hole in 1994 and PJ Harvey last year. In the most gripping and assured of her eight albums, the 25-year-old New Yorker writes about a tumultuous relationship in punk-accented folk tunes.
Rage Against the Machine, “Evil Empire” (Epic). Every Rage fan I’ve met recently has agreed that “Evil Empire” isn’t as initially catchy as the band’s 1992 self-titled debut, and they’re right. Yet there is a compensating maturity that ultimately makes this a more satisfying work.
Beck, “Odelay” (DGC). Who would have figured after Beck’s horribly disorganized appearances on Lollapalooza last summer that he’d bounce back with a record that is little short of astonishing? Mixing strains that cross generations and genres (rock to hip-hop), he captures the contradictions and confusion of modern life with the energy and swirl of a food blender.
Maxwell, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite” (Columbia). Just when rap seemed as if it had chased male soul balladeers off the charts, a group of impressive talents--including Tony Rich and D’Angelo--have stepped forward to remind us of the glories of sensual, sensitive vocals. In this smooth, stylish debut, Maxwell adds another strong voice to the movement.
The Wallflowers, “Bringing Down the Horse” (Interscope). Here’s a new twist on rock’s “new Dylan” tradition. One of the reasons this band has begun getting lots of exposure is that it is headed by one of Dylan’s real sons, Jakob. The other reason is that it’s a smart and seductive album that features the wonder of a fresh, searching voice trying to reflect on contemporary attitudes and values.