Listen Up, Elves!

Thinking about album gift ideas? Calendar's pop staff helps you sort through 40 of the nation's most popular and/or acclaimed albums.

** CHRISTINA AGUILERA, "Christina Aguilera," RCA. Aguilera has a stronger voice than most of today's young arrivals, but this collection of mediocre songs doesn't give her much chance to show it off.

* 1/2 LOU BEGA, "A Little Bit of Mambo," RCA. Bega either pictures himself as a tame Luther Campbell or a fun-loving Ricky Martin, and he's not interesting enough to make you spend the time to figure out which.

*** 1/2 FIONA APPLE, "When the Pawn Hits . . ," Clean Slate/Epic. Although Apple's new songs express as much emotional ambivalence as those on her 1996 debut, there is more of a self-assured, even playful, quality to her delivery.

** 1/2 THE ARTIST, "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic," NPG/Arista. He declares his triumph over pop trends in the techno-funk manifesto "Undisputed," but he would be more convincing were "Rave" anything more than an echo of the innovator he once was.

** BACKSTREET BOYS, "Millennium," Jive. Like cotton candy, the teen idols' latest collection is all spun-sugar melodies and melt-in-your-mouth sentiment, with nary a hint of substance.

*** BEASTIE BOYS, "The Sounds of Science," Grand Royal/Capitol. This anthology, featuring more than a dozen rare, unreleased or alternate tracks, showcases both the goofiness and the ambition. The sequencing seems random, but it's still great listening.

**** BECK, "Midnite Vultures," Geffen. Welcome to Beck's "Boogie Nights." The real jolt isn't his startling, sweat-drenched, scissor-split spin into full-blown soul music, but the quantum leap in emotional stakes and creative tension that accompanies it.

* GARTH BROOKS, "Garth Brooks in . . . the Life of Chris Gaines," Capitol. Brooks assumes the role of a fictional pop-rock star and sings his hits from the last two decades. Gaines may prove to be one fascinating dude on film, but he's a pretty dull one on record.

**** CAFETACUBA, "Reves/Yosoy," Warner Bros. The ambitious double album by the idiosyncratic Mexican quartet combines quirky instrumentals with songs of a dreamy, pastoral nature. Arguably rock en espanol's finest moment.

*** MARIAH CAREY, "Rainbow," Columbia. Carey continues to team with some of the hottest talent in urban music. But she also emphasizes the feature that made her a mega-star in the first place: her chops as a classic pop-soul balladeer.

*** GUSTAVO CERATI, "Bocanada," BMG Latin. The ex-Soda Stereo vocalist explores the elusive textures of electronica in a collection of moody songs that lure you into a world of unexpected beauty.

** 1/2 COUNTING CROWS, "This Desert Life," Geffen. As relentless bummers go, Counting Crows' third album is pleasant enough, with some endearing melodies to go with Adam Duritz's whine.

** CREED, "Human Clay," Wind-Up. Grunge twice removed. The songs sound less like knockoffs of such standard-bearers as Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains than facsimiles of Seven Mary Three and Stone Temple Pilots.

*** CELINE DION, "All the Way--A Decade of Song," Epic/550 Music. This greatest-hits collection generally showcases the Canadian songbird at her best. Although the seven new cuts are a mixed bag, the highlights are impressive.

*** DIXIE CHICKS, "Fly," Monument. The instrumental country trademarks still sparkle in the trio's follow-up to "Wide Open Spaces." Despite a few generic tunes, "Fly" generally shows advances in execution and material.

*** 1/2 DR. DRE, "The Chronic 2001," Aftermath/Interscope. Dre continues to fuse funk-soul and hip-hop, but he's not simply retracing his steps. The album has a convincing personal side rarely achieved in rap best-sellers, but the crude language detracts from the excellence elsewhere.

*** 1/2 FABULOSOS CADILLACS, "La Marcha del Golazo Solitario," BMG Latin. Romantic Latin pop from the '60s and '70s influences the latest by Argentina's rock 'n' roll big band.

** 1/2 FOO FIGHTERS, "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," Roswell/RCA. The band's most consistent collection so far, but for all his accomplishment in crafting individual songs, leader Dave Grohl has yet to complete a full album up to that same standard.

** GUNS N' ROSES, "Live Era '87-'93," Geffen. With just a couple of exceptions, GNR's songs have not become part of the rock-culture fabric the way the music of, say, Aerosmith and Metallica has. A great live album might have proved that to be an injustice, but this is not the one to do it.

*** HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL, "So . . . How's Your Girl?," Tommy Boy. Innovative producers Prince Paul and Dan the Automator unite for this tongue-in-cheek skewering of hip-hop narcissism. The 16-cut album has an eclectic vibe, but its humor is its strongest asset.

** FAITH HILL, "Breathe," Warner Bros. Hill tries to catch top-selling Shania Twain simply by mirroring her; there's a pop sheen on practically everything here. She does take a remarkable step with a version of Bruce Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind."

*** ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, "Enrique," Interscope. Essentially the kind of seamlessly produced, catchy record he made in his three-album Spanish-language career, with two steps forward: a gorgeous duet with Whitney Houston and a respectable version of Bruce Springsteen's "Sad Eyes."

** 1/2 KORN, "Issues," Immortal/Epic. Ah, to be young and in pain. Korn's real progress here is in the music, the richest array of sounds the band has made, comparable in places to, if derivative of, Trent Reznor's work.

*** KURUPT, "Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha," ANTRA/Artemis. This Dogg Pound member returns to top form on his second solo album. A hidden track, "Callin' Out Names," disses DMX and is the talk of the underground hip-hop scene.

*** LIL WAYNE, "Tha Block Is Hot," Cash Money/Universal. The New Orleans rapper's energetic debut wins with imaginative wordplay and dramatic production.

*** LIMP BIZKIT, "Significant Other," Flip/Interscope. Thequintet still packs plenty of stormy attitude, but it tempers the sledgehammer attack with a few subtle moves that add some welcome depth to the songs.

** 1/2 RICKY MARTIN, "Ricky Martin," Columbia. In this noisy, sparkling pop extravaganza, Martin covers so many musical genres with such an unapologetic hunger for world domination that it's difficult not to be blown away. Still, his considerable charisma can't hide the fact that the album sounds and feels prefabricated.

** METALLICA, "S&M;, Metallica With the San Francisco Symphony Conducted by Michael Kamen," Elektra. Michael Kamen's arrangements often display an 007 gushiness that works against Metallica's dynamic tension. But when slower songs are truly re-imagined, thetuxes pay their way.

*** ALANIS MORISSETTE, "MTV Unplugged," Maverick. A marvelous performance that finds her rethinking her songs rather than just replaying them. Includes four previously unreleased tunes, including a version of the Police's "King of Pain."

** 1/2 NAS, "Nastradamus," Columbia. On his fourth album, the rapper's insights and storytelling are as keen as ever. But his sense of urgency and emotion seem minimal, as if in graduating from the ghetto, he's misplaced the gritty edge that made him a hero.

*** NINE INCH NAILS, "The Fragile," Nothing. Trent Reznor strips away all his armor and expresses inner confusion and pain in ways that are both frightening and sad. There's no glamour or comfort in these tracks, only longing and dread. Not every step of this 100-minute musical journey is really necessary, but this is a profoundly challenging and moving work.

*** RAEKWON, "Immobilarity," Loud. The Wu-Tang Clan member demonstrates tremendous growth from his gangster-heavy debut, exchanging his relentless onslaught of crime capers for a number of cautionary, inspirational and light-hearted tales.

*** Q-TIP, "Amplified," Arista. Only a few tracks on this solo debut would have fit into the musical mission of Q-Tip's old group, a Tribe Called Quest. The various musical approaches make "Amplified" an eclectic and enjoyable hip-hop experience.

**** RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, "The Battle of Los Angeles," Epic. The breakthrough is that Rage begins to add some surprise left jabs and right hooks to its primal sonic attack, giving us music that is richer texturally and, in some places, warmer and more convincing.

** 1/2 LEANN RIMES, "LeAnn Rimes," Curb. Her voice has become richer, but at 17 she still imitates rather than truly inhabits the deepest emotions of these heartbreak-heavy country classics.

*** SANTANA, "Supernatural," Arista. Carlos Santana's guitar soars throughout this vigorous album, stimulated by a host of young guest artists, from Wyclef Jean to Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas.

** 1/2 SAVAGE GARDEN, "Affirmation," Columbia. The Australian dance-pop duo sometimes has a fetching innocence and a real sense of fun. But they plunge into Serious Territory about halfway through, turning the whole affair into a major drag.

*** BARBRA STREISAND, "A Love Like Ours," Columbia. The set of songs extolling the joys and blessings of l'amour offers some of the most unaffected, emotionally direct work that the uber-diva has done in years.

** THIRD EYE BLIND, "Blue," Elektra. The San Franciscans' yearning, churning rock-pop still carries echoes from the grunge '90s. It's pleasant, hard-rocking stuff that leaves no impression at all.

*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "End of Days" soundtrack, Geffen. Axl Rose reemerges after a long absence, with his new Guns N' Roses lineup featured right alongside Korn, Limp Bizkit, et al. But great acts don't just join the pack, they lead it, and the new GNR song, "Oh My God," provides few revelations about Rose's prospects of returning to the forefront.

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Albums and other gifts in this section are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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