Thinking about album gift ideas? Calendar's pop staff helps you sort through 40 of the nation's most popular and/or acclaimed albums.
** AEROSMITH, "A Little South of Sanity," Geffen. On this lackluster two-CD live set, the performances are frequently routine, but more disappointing is the uninspired selection of tunes.
** 1/2 BARENAKED LADIES, "Stunt," Reprise. It seems as if the Canadian band's recent success has made it soft-headed and fuzzy. Here the group leaches out all the goofy word play and off-kilter wit, leaving only ordinary Top 40 pop fodder.
*** BEASTIE BOYS, "Hello Nasty," Grand Royal/Capitol. Directs attention back to the dynamic hip-hop that is the trio's core business. Not these erstwhile brats' most ambitious moment, but it's hard not to get swept up in the momentum of the slamming tracks and fiery raps.
**** BECK, "Mutations," DGC. A collection of psychedelic folk-rock and country waltzes that couldn't have wandered much further from "Odelay." Another fully formed creative facet of Beck we haven't seen before.
** BRANDY, "Never Say Never," Atlantic. Is a downcast and gloomy Brandy what her fans really want to hear? She shouldn't be so quick to relinquish her upbeat sweetness in her desire to explore more mature sounds.
*** GARTH BROOKS, "Double Live," Capitol. This two-CD set shows the shortcomings of Brooks' bigger-is-better mentality, reflecting the wild fluctuations in taste and temperament that make him both a frustrating and fascinating artist.
** MARIAH CAREY, "#1's," Columbia. All 13 of the singer's No. 1 hits, plus four new tracks. There's nothing terrible about singing hit songs that, however clumsily, express positive feelings and offer an emotional boost to listeners. But this homogenous presentation only emphasizes Carey's limitations.
**** SHERYL CROW, "The Globe Sessions," A&M.; Forgoing her narrative technique for a more confessional approach, Crow lends her husky, world-wise mezzo to poignant, strikingly personal accounts of troubled and failed love affairs. She's able to draw inspiration from pain without wallowing in it.
*** DIXIE CHICKS, "Wide Open Spaces," Monument. This tradition-rooted Texas trio knows its way around country, western, honky-tonk, bluegrass, folk and country-rock. That range, plus their sweet, assured three-part harmonies, Natalie Maines' attractively steely lead vocals, and savvy song selection have propelled this major-label debut into the Top 10.
**** DRU HILL, "Enter the Dru," University/Island Black Music. For doubters who believe R&B; isn't as strong and compelling as it used to be.
** 1/2 FAITH EVANS, "Keep the Faith," Arista. However heartfelt Evans' intentions may be in this homage to her late husband, the Notorious B.I.G., she seems more concerned with soliciting our empathy than with creating compelling R&B.;
**** KIRK FRANKLIN, "The Nu Nation Project," GospoCentric/Interscope. You might wish the balance between contemporary snap and mainstream sheen leaned more to the former, but this is a classy work that celebrates the power of Franklin's alluring--and in some ways revolutionary--gospel-pop vision.
** GOO GOO DOLLS, "Dizzy Up the Girl," Warner Bros. This trio has never shied away from reaching out to teen listeners with songs that grapple with identity, romance and self-worth. But on its latest album, Goo's singer-songwriter John Rzeznick fails to leaven his earnestness with humor, leaving only heavy-handed anthems to self-absorption.
**** LAURYN HILL, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," RuffHouse/Columbia. The writer-producer-singer-rapper-arranger isn't the first to mix hip-hop and soul, but she may be the one who most fully defines the mix.
*** WHITNEY HOUSTON, "My Love Is Your Love," Arista. For her first new studio album in eight years, Houston has recruited both old colleagues and young R&B; and hip-hop talent to come up with songs that reflect her growth as an artist and as an individual.
*** ICE CUBE, "War & Peace Vol. 1 (The War Disc)," Priority. The gangster rap pioneer relies on moody production to carry his still fiery messages.
** 1/2 ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, "Cosas Del Amor," Fonovisa. Unlike other pop stars of his generation, Iglesias writes his own material and sings it with conviction. Those foreign to the world of Latin kitsch, however, will remain utterly perplexed.
*** 1/2 JAY-Z, "Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life," Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam. Reconfirms the Brooklyn rapper's status as a superior wordsmith. Jay-Z's biggest asset is his ability to relay the most intricate details of life--especially one saturated with drugs, guns and disposable women.
*** R. KELLY, "R." Jive. With this double-CD set, Kelly aspires to both maintain his street credibility and expand on his crossover success. He blends hip-hop brio and bombast with some of his most tenderly soulful writing and singing to date.
** 1/2 KORN, "Follow the Leader," Immortal/Epic. The Pied Pipers of post-grunge metal tap a sort of free-floating, mall-rat angst that's both insular and small-minded. Despite the funk-slapped bass and the sometimes fun roar of singer Jonathan Davis, the tactics usually ring silly and false.
*** 1/2 LOS SUPER SEVEN, "Los Super Seven," RCA. Tex-Mex and Chicano artists including members of Los Lobos team for an exploration of their musical roots. A masterful revival album that looks into the future with unflinching optimism.
*** 1/2 MALDITA VECINDAD, "Mostros," BMG. With one delicate exception ("El Cocodrilo"), the album covers the Mexican band's familiar territory, but with a renewed sense of maturity. Retains the essence of Mexico while looking to the world with a joyous lust for new, foreign sounds.
** 1/2 BARRY MANILOW, "Manilow Sings Sinatra," Arista. With the benefit of Sinatra-style production and stunning arrangements, Manilow manages to do a pleasant job of joining the ranks of the Sinatra wannabes. But really, who would you rather hear sing "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning"?
*** METALLICA, "Garage Inc.," Elektra. A sequel to the 1987 "Garage Days Revisited" EP (included in its entirety here), this two-disc collection features all the outside material Metallica has tackled over the years, plus 11 newly recorded.
*** 1/2 METHOD MAN, "Tical 2000: Judgment Day," Def Jam. The Wu-Tang Clan member keeps his musical mission consistent on his second solo album. Backed with top-notch production, Method Man's strongest assets emerge: his distinct, gravelly voice and uncanny knack for coining catch phrases.
*** MIA X, "Mama Drama," No Limit/Priority. On her third album, the lone female rapper in Master P's family finds the delicate balance between sensationalized boasts and a more gentle, feminine approach.
**** ALANIS MORISSETTE, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," Maverick. A brave, soul-searching work that looks at life's challenges and rewards with the primal scream intensity of John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" collection.
** 1/2 THE OFFSPRING, "Americana," Columbia. Cleverly crafted tunes and snappy playing make all the familiar sneers and jeers sizzle anew on the Orange County band's fifth album. It's just a shame the Offspring can't match its incite-ful musical attack with a more insightful sense of purpose.
**** OUTKAST, "Aquemini," LaFace/Arista. The Atlanta duo's third brilliant slice of hip-hop. The group explores the bleakest aspects of humanity while encouraging its listeners to examine themselves, and the collection supplies some of the lushest tracks ever included on a hip-hop record.
*** PEARL JAM, "Live on Two Legs," Epic. These 16 tracks selected from this outstanding rock band's summer tour may have been the ones that sounded best on tape, but there are too many essential Pearl Jam songs missing for the collection to be as satisfying as it could have been.
*** PHISH, "The Story of the Ghost," Elektra. The Vermont quartet wriggled its way through the rock 'n' roll food chain and entered the Top 10 with its new album, which wraps the band's metaphysical parables around circular, complex melodies that sound like rootsy prog-rock.
*** 1/2 R.E.M., "Up," Warner Bros. Guilt and flagging spirits, laden with fin de sieecle anxiety, set to a new sonic construct that's a muted pop baroque. No bopping tunes for the kids here.
*** THE ROLLING STONES, "No Security," Virgin. Market-driven motives aside, this actually ranks high among the Stones' live recordings. The playing is top-notch, the song selection is not entirely predictable, and there are soulful duets with Dave Matthews and Taj Mahal. Go figure.
*** THE RZA, "RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo," Gee Street. The Wu-Tang Clan mastermind raps with fury over his intricate production on the soundtrack from his forthcoming direct-to-video movie.
** 1/2 SEAL, "Human Being," Warner Bros. The album strives to be a cohesive, close-in look at loss, mainly sketching the death throes of a love affair, but the listener is distracted with too many ostentatious sound-scapes.
*** 1/2 TIMBALAND, "Tim's Bio: From the Motion Picture: Life From Da Bassment," Blackground/Atlantic. Catchy, dance-inducing production and nonconfrontational rapping by the man responsible for recent hits from Aaliyah, Ginuwine and others.
**** U2, "The Best of 1980-90," Island. The best rock band since the '60s sweetens a masterful single disc "best of" in this limited edition, budget-priced package with a second disc of B-sides, most of which would have been respectable entries on the quartet's original studio collections.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "The Prince of Egypt: Music From the Motion Picture Soundtrack"; "The Prince of Egypt--Inspirational"; "The Prince of Egypt--Nashville," DreamWorks. These three separate CDs featuring music from and inspired by "The Prince of Egypt" pack so much star power and accessible warmth that their chances of being commercially ignored are about as good as those of the Red Sea parting again.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Belly," Def Jam. The fierce, uncompromising rapping from prominent artists such as DMX and Nas on this soundtrack commands attention.
*** ROB ZOMBIE, "Hellbilly Deluxe," Geffen. Bears an uncanny likeness to the singer's now-defunct main gig, White Zombie, but the overall sound is leaner, and the tracks are infused with the campiest elements of Zombie's B-movie obsessions.