Independence Unites These Diverse Artists

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

The link between such otherwise diverse artists as Manu Chao, the White Stripes and Lucinda Williams is a restless independence that keeps them from settling for the conventional boundaries of pop. Their often inspiring, heartfelt collections highlight this edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with what's noteworthy in pop on an album budget of $50 a month.

July

Manu Chao's "Proxima Estacion ... Esperanza," Virgin. Chao is a globe-trotting artist in the best sense. He was raised in Paris but became a star in rock en espa n ol with the band Mano Negra. He sings in English and Spanish on his second solo album. The opening track, "Merry Blues," has a relaxed, reggae feel that would make it feel at home alongside Jimmy Cliff on the classic "The Harder They Come" soundtrack album. But Chao mostly employs aggressive horn and percussion touches that you would expect at carnival time in the Latin American countryside. An enchanting musical spirit. The White Stripes' "White Blood Cells," Sympathy for the Record Industry. In a year when rock has staged a stirring creative comeback, this may be the most invigorating rock album of them all. Singer-guitarist Jack White is a powerful presence with the cocky self-assurance and disarming vulnerability of Billy Corgan, with a touch of maverick Johnny Cash thrown in. He and drummer Meg White come as close to the explosiveness of Led Zeppelin as a duo can, then turn without missing a beat to "We're Going to Be Friends," a song as delicate and affecting as a great Brian Wilson ballad. Thrilling potential. Lucinda Williams' "Essence," Lost Highway. I am swimming upstream by suggesting that this album is superior to "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," Williams' much-acclaimed album that was named the best collection of 1998 by the nation's pop critics. But these songs--from the disillusionment of "Blue" to the heartache of "Reason to Cry"--are more straightforward and ultimately more affecting. They're the Williams tunes you'll be calling for in concert five years from now.

August

Bilal's "1st Born Second," Interscope. Women have been pretty much setting the pace in the neo-soul revival, but Bilal Oliver, a 21-year-old Philadelphian, is capable of joining D'Angelo in a counterattack. Once you get past the hokey intro with its pillow-talk bravado, Bilal exerts the solid craft and seriousness of purpose of a major artist. The highlight is "Second Born," a look at social injustice that reminds you of the eloquence of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Shea Seger's "The May Street Project," RCA. Beth Orton once looked like the one who would merge English dance-music textures with conventional songwriting traditions in soulful and illuminating ways, but she seemed to run into a wall creatively with her second album, 1999's "Central Reservation." Seger, a 21-year-old Texan who lives in London, may fill the void. The music has more range than Orton's, from the buoyant "Walk on Rainbows" to the trippy, hometown reflections of "May Street." Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator)," Acony. In her first album for her own label, she and partner David Rawlings move from the Appalachian confines of their first two collections. The music still draws from the traditional folk-country roots celebrated on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, but it moves ahead a generation or so to incorporate some of the bluesy tone and imagery of the '50s. "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and "Elvis Presley Blues" make a marvelous pairing that speaks about artistic priorities and personal daydreams. Welch and Rawlings play at the El Rey Theatre on Sept. 7.

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