Time to Give 'Em an Earful

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

* 1/2 BACKSTREET BOYS, "Black & Blue," Jive. Listening to these 13 songs is a bit like pinging around inside a pinball machine. Giant grinding beats slam you from pole to pole, there are lots of flashy effects, the environment is completely artificial, and once the ball is launched you can see exactly where it's going.

*** ERYKAH BADU, "Mama's Gun," Motown. Badu aims for the individuality and punch of "Baduizm," which was one of the most dazzling debuts of the '90s, but only reaches it in key moments. The arrangements seem icy and impersonal at times, and traces of excessive mannerisms surface elsewhere.

** 1/2 BAHA MEN, "Who Let The Dogs Out," Artemis. The title song is major-league mindless fun, but the rest is a mixed bag of styles--teen pop ballads, propulsive hip-hop, classic R&B.; The closer the veteran Bahamian group sticks to its Caribbean roots, the better it sounds.

*** BLINK-182, "The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back)," MCA. This 20-track live collection accurately re-creates the superstar goof-punk trio's concert experience, along with an awesome new studio track, plus a bonus segment featuring obscenity-laden quips. Ah, sweet memories.

*** CAPONE-N-NOREAGA, "The Reunion," Tommy Boy. The New York duo picks up on the pleasurable path of its spectacular debut, 1997's "The War Report," spending much of its time rapping about life in the streets, but breathing new life into what otherwise would be standard narratives.

** 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.

** 1/2 ELVIS CRESPO, "Wow Flash!" Sony Discos. The merengue sensation switches gears on his third outing, and it sounds tame next to the raucous fun of its predecessors. "Wow Flash!" might be a bit of a disappointment, but it doesn't shake Crespo's credibility as a major Latin artist.

*** 1/2 DIDO, "No Angel," Arista. There is a gentle grace to this seductive singer-songwriter's work that recalls the elegance of Sting and Peter Gabriel, who is one of her songwriting partners on this stylish debut.

*** 1/2 EMINEM, "The Marshall Mathers LP," Aftermath/Interscope. The rapper puts on disc all the forbidden thoughts and scandalous scenarios that accompany adolescence and just watches the fallout. The creative advance is in the way he weaves more autobiographical elements into the lyrics.

** EVERCLEAR, "Songs From an American Movie, Vol. II: Good Time for a Bad Attitude," Capitol. Arguably, the aggressive guitar rock is better-suited to the characters' jagged self-esteem swings. Yet somehow the musical explorations on the recent predecessor added new spins. This return to earlier form seems too familiar.

** 1/2 GREEN DAY, "Warning," Reprise. The veteran punk trio shakes off the transitional aspects of 1997's "Nimrod" to craft a more coherent, less aggressive but still rebellious collection that also draws on the even older pop traditions of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Who.

** 1/2 ALAN JACKSON, "When Somebody Loves You," Arista Nashville. There's nary a discouraging word about life or love here, but as lightweight and country-radio-friendly as most of it is, Jackson musters one truly evocative, late-night-at-the-bar scene sketch in 'Maybe I Should Stay Here."

*** 1/2 WYCLEF JEAN, "The Ecleftic--2 Sides II a Book," Columbia. The Fugee's second solo album is more hip-hop- minded than his debut. but it's still a freewheeling, wildly eclectic affair.

*** R. KELLY, "TP-2.Com," Jive. The Windy City soul man's ruminations on his erotic exploits and his struggle with celebrity aren't remarkably fresh, but Kelly's sensuous style makes the album entertaining and engaging.

** 1/2 LIMP BIZKIT, "Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water," Flip/Interscope. Raconteur of rage Fred Durst apparently has a long enemies list, and "Chocolate Starfish" is a kind of rap-rock jihad against all those who would dare to speak his name in vain. Durst's tantrums are supposed to provide bracing shock treatment, but in the end they're just numbingly shrill.

*** LUDACRIS, "Back for the First Time," Island/Def Jam South. Featuring the type of rowdy, raucous, dance-inducing hip-hop currently in vogue in the South, the major-label debut album from this Atlanta artist works like an aural adrenaline shot. Bombastic production, crafty lyrics and catchy hooks make this party-flavored album irresistible.

*** MADONNA, "Music," Warner Bros./Maverick. Madonna still can't escape some of the vocal anonymity that often accompanies dance-oriented workouts, but there are moments when she demonstrates, both as a writer and a singer, that the creative advances in "Ray of Light" were no fluke.

** MARILYN MANSON, "Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)," Nothing/Interscope. Manson reconnects sonically with much of the droning, industrial-rock gloom of "Antichrist," in case that's what his audience really wants. But he holds on to some of the more accessible undercurrents of "Mechanical Animals" (including the Bowie accent) in case that's what will sell. This is music that sounds reasonable on the radio but crumbles under scrutiny.

*** RICKY MARTIN, "Sound Loaded," Columbia. Nothing here makes for deep, life-changing listening, but Martin, with some help from producer-collaborator Robi Rosa, recaptures some of the spirit that made 1998's "Vuelve" one of the best Latin albums of the year.

** 1/2 MATCHBOX TWENTY, "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty," Atlantic. The band scraps most of the regimented rock riffing that framed its hit debut in favor of a looser, more fluid instrumental concept. But for all his vocal suppleness and agile phrasing, singer Rob Thomas doesn't get far beneath the surface.

*** 1/2 MYSTIKAL, "Let's Get Ready . . . ," Jive. On his explosive fifth album, the New Orleans rapper adds some social commentary and personal reflection to his music, creating a personality that's as hard to ignore as a stampede.

*** NELLY, "Country Grammar," Universal. This debut collection establishes the St. Louis rapper as a force to be reckoned with. The combination of easygoing rapping and easily accessible production pushes his album over the top.

*** NINE INCH NAILS, "Things Fall Apart," Nothing. This single-disc remix collection may appease fans who felt "The Fragile" didn't break new ground for Trent Reznor. The eight revisions here generally avoid the emotional black holes that are Reznor's trademark, and at times the addition of a dance beat trivializes the source material.

* 1/2 98 DEGREES, "Revelation," Universal. Mired in production bombast, these L.A.-based Ohioans hardly sound human, let alone in touch with the

feelings poured out in such gooey ballads as "My Everything." Far clunkier are the Latin-flavored and hip-hop-tinged attempts to diversify the group's sound.

** 'N SYNC, "No Strings Attached," Jive. The group sticks with the super-slick R&B-pop; formula that has served it so well, but some fresh ingredients--monolithic dance breaks, scratching and bits of rapping--bring 'N Sync straight into the '90s.

** 1/2 THE OFFSPRING, "Conspiracy of One," Columbia. The Orange County punk-rock pacesetters go by the numbers on "Conspiracy of One," stepping back from the ambition and attitude of 1998's "Americana" and settling for an unprovocative set of generic punk.

**** OUTKAST, "Stankonia," LaFace/Arista. The acclaimed Atlanta rap duo serves up its usual quotient of upbeat party songs posing as quasi-political rants. But the record's most interesting moments are gorgeous Prince-style soul.

** MASTER P, "Ghetto Postage," No Limit/Priority. On his seventh album, the New Orleans rap mogul attempts to increase his lover-man stock--a serious misstep. Master P succeeds when he delivers rowdy, chest-thumping music, and he didn't do it enough of it this time.

*** PRODIGY OF MOBB DEEP, "H.N.I.C.," Loud. A strong solo album that traverses much of the same sinister subject matter he and his Mobb Deep partner Havoc traditionally explore. His menacing verse details bone-crushing activities with an intimidating aura crystallized in his chilling, deadpan delivery.

** 1/2 RADIOHEAD, "Kid A," Capitol. The English band gives itself over almost entirely to its impressionistic side, jettisoning its Beatles-proportioned frameworks and prominent vocals for a free-floating, fragmented mood piece. Sounds like a side trip.

** JA RULE, "Rule 3:36," Murder Inc./Def Jam. Most of the selections lack the punch of the New York rapper's earlier work, which was fashioned by stronger production and featured better lyrics.

** 1/2 SADE, "Lover's Rock," Epic. The Nigerian singer's first collection in eight years pretty much picks up where 1992's rather tepid "Love Deluxe" left off. The only disappointment is the singer's reliance on artificial beats to set up moods that before were largely acoustic.

*** SCARFACE, "Last of a Dying Breed," Rap-A-Lot/ Virgin. The Houston rapper's sixth album is another strong round of bleak examinations of life's darkest side. Scarface's talent is in making listeners empathize with him, and there's a definite sense of sorrow, disappointment and regret in his strongest work.

*** JILL SCOTT, "Who Is Jill Scott? Words & Sounds Vol. 1," Hidden Beach/Epic. With an earthy vibe, Scott fluctuates between sensuous and sad in this fresh presentation of modern soul music.

*** PAUL SIMON, "You're the One," Warner Bros. The musical textures aren't as distinctive as those that ran through much of "Graceland," but the songs themselves are illuminating and mostly upbeat reflections on life and love.

*** FATBOY SLIM, "Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars," Astralwerks. This Brit's homage to old-school wild style strives for something more than skin-deep sensation, with singers Macy Gray and Bootsy Collins providing a soul-stirring undertow.

** 1/2 BRITNEY SPEARS, "Oops! . . . I Did It Again," Jive. Spears' sophomore collection has all the brass and burble that millennial adolescents expect from their ear candy. More jaded listeners will hear the same slick soul-pop, metronomic beats and overwrought balladry as before, but, really, who cares what they think?

**** U2, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," Interscope. The great Irish rock band returns to its classic musical stance with a collection of soulful and affecting songs that reach out with open arms and an open heart.

*** THE WALLFLOWERS, "Breach," Interscope. In the best of his new songs, leader Jakob Dylan moves forward as a writer, reflecting on alienation, the disorienting sensation of fame and following in his famous father's footsteps.

** 1/2 WU-TANG CLAN, "The W," Loud. The requisite ingredients are all here--from RZA's pointillist keyboard swatches to the Hong Kong action-film mythology--but it never really achieves critical mass.

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

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