Looking for gift ideas? The list of the most popular CDs is always a place to start. For a little guidance, Calendar's pop staff surveyed 40 of the nation's most popular or critically acclaimed albums.
* 1/2 MICHAEL BOLTON, "All That Matters," Columbia. More of the same politely sentimental adult-contemporary arrangements and subtlety-be-damned vocals that Lord Bolton has been using to seduce fans and irritate critics for years.
** CELINE DION, "Let's Talk About Love," 550 Music/Epic. Dion's voice is a technical marvel, but her delivery lacks the personality and intuitive sense of drama that are a diva's stock in trade.
**** JANET JACKSON, "The Velvet Rope," Virgin. Addresses the social, emotional and sexual politics of relationships, peppering the wistful, spirited pop melodies and sinuous R&B; rhythms with compelling jazz, folk and techno nuances.
** ELTON JOHN, "The Big Picture," Rocket/A&M.; Lacks the character, freshness and moody theatricality of John and Bernie Taupin's classic early work. Instead of stretching its creative vision, the team has consigned itself to the middle of the road.
** 1/2 SARAH McLACHLAN, "Surfacing," Arista. Showcases her considerable strengths--a shimmering soprano voice and a knack for intelligent, emotionally forthright lyrics but also suffers from a lack of compelling craftsmanship and textural daring.
*** 1/2 OASIS, "Be Here Now," Epic. In its
most bombastic and boldly personal effort yet, the English band lays claim to the pantheon of rock greats while wistfully reflecting on its own long and winding road to stardom.
*** PAUL SIMON, "Songs From the Capeman," Warner Bros. Simon's first stage musical allows him to draw on many of the diverse styles that have influenced him, and the 13 songs here are models of elegant, unaffected musicianship.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Soul Food" soundtrack, LaFace/Arista. As on "Waiting to Exhale," Babyface and company have assembled an eclectic, star-studded lineup, from Puff Daddy to Boyz II Men. What most of the songs share are blithely sensuous arrangements and unabashed sentimentality.
Albums and other items in Gift Guide are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).