Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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more odds and ends... the 90s

Artists reviewed on this page:
Aziza A. - A Very Special Christmas Live - Amon Amarth - Anata - Asya - BWP - Backstreet Boys - Beck - Belly - Black Box - Boss - Doyle Bramhall II - Toni Braxton - The Breeders - Bridge To Havana - Chuck Brodsky - Jeff Buckley - Bush - Busta Rhymes - The Charlatans - Chef Aid: The South Park Album - Children Of Bodom - Cibo Matto - Converge - Cookie Crew - Cradle Of Filth - Sheryl Crow - Dark Tranquillity - Özcan Deniz - Dez Dickerson - Ani DiFranco - Dimmu Borgir - Celine Dion - Kenan Doğulu - Jermaine Dupri - Eminem - En Vogue - Esthero - Evanescence - For Real - Fountains Of Wayne - Gillette - Gorguts - Gorillaz - Grace Of My Heart Soundtrack - Grant Lee Buffalo - Cee-Lo Green - Green Day - Juliana Hatfield - Tim Hawkes - Helium - Lauryn Hill - Hole - The Honeydogs - Ihsahn - Immolation - In Flames - In From The Storm - Infectious Grooves - Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marvin Gaye - Joi - Judgment Night Soundtrack - Katatonia - Ahmet Kaya - KingBathmat - Lacuna Coil - Phoebe Legere - Lil Wayne - Machine Head - Marduk - Maxwell - Sarah McLachlan - Natalie Merchant - Meshuggah - Pharoahe Monch - Alanis Morissette - Morphine - Mos Def - Cavit Murtezaoğlu & Feryal Öney - Music From... Living Single - Music From And Inspired By The Hit TV Show The PJs - Me'Shell Ndegéocello - Necrophagist - Nevermore - Nicole - Nicole Renée - Oasis - Organized Konfusion - Orphaned Land - Outkast - Pain Of Salvation - Rahsaan Patterson - Pavement - Liz Phair - Playa - Porcupine Tree - Psycho Delicate - Rachid - Rage Against The Machine - Toshi Reagon - Suzanne Rhatigan - Ride - Rojda - Seal - Deniz Seki - 702 - Shadows Fall - Shithook - Silverchair - Sing Hollies In Reverse - Slipknot - Spin Doctors - Spirit Of '73: Rock For Choice - Matthew Sweet - Sweetbox - Anita Tijoux - Justin Timberlake - The Tonewelders - Tribe 8 - Birol Topaloğlu - Uncalled 4 Band - Uncle Tom - Unsane - Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack - Weed Inc. - Laura Wolfe

This section includes 90s artists we're still getting to know, or acts that are so new they only have one or two records. Plus a few movie soundtracks. If you're wondering, A Tribe Called Quest, Arch Enemy, Babes In Toyland, Adrian Belew, Babyface, Erykah Badu, Bikini Kill, Mary J. Blige, Buckethead, Cracker, Cynic, D'Angelo, Da Brat, Des'ree, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Missy Elliott, Candan Erçetin, Ginuwine, PJ Harvey, Lunachicks, Masters At Work, Material Issue, Mýa, Opeth, the Posies, 7 Year Bitch, Sleater-Kinney, Jill Sobule, Soul Asylum, Angie Stone, Timbaland & Magoo, Tony Toni Toné, Two Nice Girls, Hikaru Utada, Paul Westerberg, Wu-Tang Clan and Yo Yo now have new pages of their own. And we've moved the Bamboozled Soundtrack, Go-rin-no-sho, Plastic Soul, Pyramids Of Giza, Jill Scott and The Showgoats to our new 00's Odds and Ends page. Enjoy... (DBW)

Aziza A., Kulak Misafiri (2009)
Discussing Turkish culture without considering the Turkish-German experience is quite a bit like discussing Mexican culture without considering the Mexican-American experience. Apart from tech-death demigod Muhammed Suiçmez, the most prominent Turkish-German musicians seem to be rappers (notably Ceza and Kool Savaş) relating bleak immigrant chronicles over arabesk samples. Aziza A. is one of the few females in the genre, and though her 1997 debut fit comfortably into the Turkish hip hop pigeonhole, her third disc covers more territory, from dance pop to acid jazz ("Huzurum"). Aziza had always sung in addition to rapping, but now the former is outweighing the latter ("Zufrieden," a midtempo groove with a funky guitar hook). "Guzelsin" is the sort of smooth funk you'd expect from Patrice Rushen or maybe Daniela Mercury. Even "Soy De Ye," one of the few conventional Turkish hip hop cuts relying on Near Eastern strings, has stuttering sampled voices and DJ scratches straight out of '80s dance music. As on her previous releases, a couple of songs are in German ("Eigentlich"). Sometimes described as the Turkish Queen Latifah, to me she's closer to MC Lyte circa Act Like You Know - either way, this is a consistently pleasurable experience, and if I could speak either of her languages I suspect it would be an ?informative one to boot. (DBW)

Various, A Very Special Christmas Live (1999)
An all-star concert recorded in Washington DC, one of a series of benefits for the Special Olympics. Since most of the obvious Yuletide standards had turned up on earlier Very Special albums, the track list leans heavily on Fifties and Sixties rockers ("Rockin' Round The Christmas Tree," sung by Mary J. Blige with a casual authority that blows the rest of the vocalists away). But there's a fair amount of variety: Vanessa Williams delivers a respectable nightclub jazz take on "What Child Is This?"; Run-DMC serves up their "Christmas In Hollis" (originally written for a previous benefit album). Eric Clapton sticks to the blues, singing Sonny Thompson's "Christmas Tears" and donating predictable leads to John Popper ("Christmas Blues"), Sheryl Crow ("Merry Christmas Baby") and Tracy Chapman (the decidedly secular "Give Me One Reason" - she also gives a moving performance of "O Holy Night"). Jon Bon Jovi solidifies his claim to the throne of Dean Martin with MOR takes on two similarly-named tunes, "Please Come Home For Christmas" and Phil Spector's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." And of course everyone comes back for the singalong finale, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Sort of a Christmas album for people who don't like Christmas albums, and since I'm one of those people, I shouldn't be too critical: all the performances are tossoffs, but not unenjoyable, the money goes to a good cause, etc. etc. Just don't expect me to be enthusiastic. (DBW)

Amon Amarth, Twilight Of The Thunder God (2008)
Another Swedish melodic death metal band formed in the early 90s, Amon Amarth majors in Norse mythology with a minor in Tolkien (yes, their name is Sindarin for Mount Doom). There's nothing distinctive about Johan Hegg's grunted vocals, Fredrik Andersson's blast beat drumming, or Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg's intricate-yet-punishing guitars, but they put those pieces together well on some satisfying tunes ("Free Will Sacrifice"). Overall they're better at the "death metal" aspect than the "melodic": there's a lot of headbanging while you're listening ("No Fear For The Setting Sun"), but very little you'll be whistling afterwards. And there are several guests - Entombed frontman Lars Göran Petrov appears on "Guardians Of Asgard"; Apocalyptica adds strings to "Live For The Kill"; Roope Latvala contributes a guitar solo on the title track - but that can't disguise an overall lack of scope... one track is pretty much like another, and the disc too rarely ascends into the stratosphere. (DBW)

Amon Amarth, Surtur Rising (2011)
The band doesn't have any new ideas this time out, but what they do have is one righteous, precisely arranged, rage-filled tune after another ("Töck's Taunt - Loke's Treachery Part II"), together creating an invigorating roller coaster ride. Producer Jens Bogren gets a sound that's clear, balanced, and hard-hitting as I've ever heard, making the most familiar licks ("Slaves Of Fear") leap from the speakers, ready to do battle with your poor benighted eardrums. Similarly, the record doesn't overflow with virtuoso playing, but the solos are timely and effective ("A Beast Am I"). "War Of The Gods" sounds like a more vicious Judas Priest, while "The Last Stand Of Frej" is more deliberate but just as thunderous. As you might have guessed, the lyrics retell a Norse saga or two ("Wrath Of The Norsemen"). Some configurations of the album have bonus tracks: if Amon Amarth's KISS and Accept covers are as good as their take on System Of A Down's "Aerials," they're worth tracking down. (DBW)

Anata, The Conductor's Departure (2006)
Yet another fantastic Swedish death metal band, though this time more technical than melodic ("Cold Heart Forged In Hell"). Guitarists Fredrik Schälin and Andreas Allenmark and bassist Henrik Drake (Conny Pettersson's drumming is a bit thing) form anunstoppable machine, combining the lumbering inevitability of a stoner band with the atonal unpredictability of a tech-experimental band - they end up sounding like a cross between Immolation and Necrophagist, but to my ears better than either. Each heavy groove leads into the next mindblowing riff which leads into the next headbanging break, and every song sounds better than the one before... After a while, I just sit there with my mouth open ("The Great Juggler"), and by the end of the disc I can't remember why I ever wanted to listen to anything else. They're recording a new album in 2013 after a long layoff, though as far as I know they haven't replace Allenmark, who left in 2008. (DBW)

Asya, Aşktir Beni Güzel Yapan (2007)
It seems Turkish pop stars get started in one of two ways: as song contest winners or backup singers. Asya (born Tülay Keçialan) is the latter, having served four years backing up Nilüfer (who, in turn, had been a Eurovision contestant). On this disc, Asya's fifth, she wrote nearly everything (Gürsel Çelik co-wrote a couple of cuts), and the basic template is Near Eastern tonalities and instrumentation bolstered with electronic keyboards and percussion... Generally, the faster the tempo, the more electronics ("Teslim Oldum Aşka," bouncy disco), though the all-acoustic "Yeter" is quite peppy. ("Tesadüfen" is an exception to all those rules, midtempo with a soft rock chord progression, electric guitar and chattering synths.) It's all quite competent without stretching too hard, and thus the record has a low beta: when the compositions are solid, the tracks are a bit better ("Kırmızı Kart"); when they're mediocre ("Sendem Sonra," overly similar to Sting's "Fragile") it's still listenable. Produced by Bülent Seyhan. (DBW)

BWP, The Bytches (1991)
In the early 90s, before Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, the epic confrontation was waged between self-exploiting male-pleasing hip hop pseudo-feminism and self-exploiting male-bashing hip hop pseudo-feminism. (Hint: the male-pleasing side won.) Both sides used variations of NWA's name: HWA (Hoes With Attitude) were the nearly naked, down-4-whateva male fantasy (light-skinned, natch), while BWP (Bitches With Problems) were the casually dressed, cynical, horny but potentially castrating male nightmare. While neither act had rhyming skills or production savvy, BWP managed to score a hit of sorts with the overly blatant "Two Minute Brother" (similar in approach though not as catchy as 20 Fingers' "Short Dick Man"). This album contains that tune and lots more of the same: "Fuck A Brother," "Is The Pussy Still Good?," ad nauseum. If you've heard the vocabulary before, there's nothing particularly shocking here, and shock value is clearly what lead rapper Lyndah, second fiddle Tanisha Michelle and producer Mark Sexx were going for ("Shit Popper"). Sexx and Lyndah wrote all the material (except for some samples), and it's dreadfully boring: unvarying keyboard and drum loops behind stilted, unoriginal rhymes. Since Lyndah and Sexx see feminism as just women stepping into the male role - dominating instead of being dominated - the avowedly pro-woman numbers like "No Means No" come off as absurd, the anti-woman songs ("Cotex") are appalling, and all the "brothas ain't shit"-type songs are just sad. I may have rated this one too high. (DBW)

Backstreet Boys (1997)
Talk about multi-tasking: impresario Lou Pearlman put this band together in his spare time, when he wasn't running his massive Ponzi scheme, and he soon put together another multiplatinum boy band, 'N Sync, out of castoffs from this project. Apart from his boundless energy, the key to Pearlman's success was finding Swedish writer/producer Max Martin, who's become sort of a Diane Warren on steroids, writing innumerable hits for machine-manufactured stars the world over. Not just hits, but career-defining signature hits: "...Baby One More Time" for Britney Spears; "Since U Been Gone" for Kelly Clarkson; "I Kissed A Girl" for Katy Perry. I've always been kind of creeped out by Martin's aesthetic, but his ear for hooks and ability to match the song to the performer are impressive to say the least. And his first smash successes are on this record: the love songs "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)" and the irresistible "As Long As You Love Me"; the smoking electrofunk "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)." Apart from Martin's work, the Boys are essentially a teen idol pop group crooning ballads that drip with fake sincerity ("I'll Never Break Your Heart" - yeah, sure), or Ricky Martinesque dancefloor tripe ("Get Down (You're The One For Me)"), and unfortunately that material makes up most of the disc. Each of the five singers is passable though no one stands out the way Justin Timberlake did with 'N Sync. I'm reviewing the US version, which was patched together from the group's first two international releases. (DBW)

Backstreet Boys, Millennium (1999)
Martin came up with another massive ballad: "I Want It That Way," and to my ears it's not as golden as "Long As You Love Me" but it's close, and became their best-known song. Elsewhere, he basically sticks with his formulas, but he has a lot of them - "Backstreet's Back"-recalling party funk ("Larger Than Life"); "One More Time"-style electrocrunch ("Don't Want You Back"); soothing romantic nothings ("Don't Wanna Lose You Now") - and as before, a way with melody and arranging detail. The impersonality and calculation of his productions still puts me off, though... there are a lot of artists I love to hate, but Martin's one of the few I hate to love. And you can get a sense of how hard it is to do what he does by listening to the non-Martin tracks here: "No One Else Comes Close" has the same open-ended love lyrics and calming backdrop for group harmonies, but never transcends its transparent tripe. (Though actually the Mom tribute "The Perfect Fan," co-written by one of the Boys, is quite effective if overdone.) (DBW)

Beck, Odelay (1996)
The record which made Beck's rep as a slacker alt-rock deity. He produced with The Dust Brothers, who reuse their Beastie Boys schtick of piling on so many samples and shifting gears so frequently you won't notice there's no depth to the material. Many of the cuts follow the same pattern: obvious rock riff stated on (a) electric keyboard ("High 5") or (b) acoustic guitar doubled on fuzz electric ("Devil's Haircut"), on top of a hip-hop influenced drum loop, surrounded by retro touches like organ, and if you're lucky some computerized vocal effects. It results in one brilliant track, "Where It's At," but on most of the disc, he comes across like a kid trying to impress you with how fast he can solve a Rubik's Cube: you couldn't do it if you tried, but you don't care either. The lyrics are meaningless free association, and Beck's voice is bland, blase and lethargic - just like a million other angst boys - which only accentuates the unemotional dryness of the experience. Rock critics are famously impressed by this sort of facile genre bending, and the record turned up on a zillion year-end Ten Best lists. It is enjoyably trivial, but don't expect too much. Beck plays nearly all the instruments, though a few guests pop up, including Charlie Haden on bass. (DBW)

Belly, King (1995)
Tanya Donnelly sure has gone through a lot of bands: after leaving Throwing Muses and then The Breeders, she fronted Belly for a couple of years before finally giving up and going solo. The rest of the band is bassist Gail Greenwood and the Gorman brothers, Tom (guitar) and Chris (drums). Apparently this album turned off the underground without crossing over to the mainstream, but it's pretty good: the bright but unbubbly "Seal My Fate" seems like it should have been a hit, for example, and "Red" has a gorgeous countrified chorus. An unstable but intriguing mix of Neil Young grunge guitar and detached Blondie vibe/vocals ("Super-Connected," one of a few Greenwood co-writes; "Now They'll Sleep") plus a few added attractions: "Puberty" incorporates PJ Harvey-style droned harmonies. Though nothing's flat-out bad, there are a few ho-hum numbers (the plodding "Silverfish") and the overall impression is rather slight ("L'il Ennio"). (DBW)

Black Box, Dreamland (1990)
The early 90s saw the death throes of dance music based on soulful vocals and irrestistable melodies, before techno and electronica took over and everything went to hell. A number of terrific tunes hit dance floors in late 1990, including Deee-Lite's "Groove Is In The Heart," C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat," and several tunes by this Italian dance outfit. Mirko Limone, Valerio Semplici and Daniele Davoli wrote, produced and performed a series of impressive singles combining uptempo percussion-heavy grooves, unforgettable keyboard riffs, DJ-savvy breakdowns, and powerful vocals: "Everybody Everybody" (with its Sugar Bear-sounding "Owww"), "Strike It Up," and my favorite dance song of the decade, the insanely hook-filled "I Don't Know Anybody Else." The debt to disco is strong throughout ("Open Your Eyes" sounds like Chic's "He's The Greatest Dancer" plus electronic percussion), but the bright production and unpredictable cut-and-paste approach to song structure keep it from sounding dated. Most importantly, though, the record is anchored by the full-out vocals of former Weather Girl Martha Wash, who croons, wails and belts out nearly all the tunes ("Ghost Box" and the title track are instrumentals). Wash was originally uncredited on the record, as the gullible public was expected to believe that frontwoman/model Katrin Quinol was doing the singing - the fiction was impossible to sustain, in part because Wash was simultaneously ghost-singing similar hits for C+C Music Factory. There's one cover, a credible version of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy," though Wash's full-throttle vocal doesn't particularly suit that material. Loleatta Holloway adds vocals to "Ride On Time," the group's breakthrough single but actually one of the less interesting tunes; other guests include guitarist Sauro Malavasi and saxophonist Rudy Trevisi. For whatever reason, the group vanished into obscurity almost instantly - no followup ever made it across the Atlantic, at any rate. (DBW)

Boss, Born Gangstaz (1993)
The first and last record by Detroit native Boss may be the most perfectly nihilistic hip hop album ever. Staying in character throughout as a murderous blunt-smoking sociopath (together with her sidekick Dee), she has no faith and no mercy: life is a continual hail of bullets, and then you die. There's not a passing nod to religion or Black Power or any potentially positive force; even romance is quickly reduced to kill-or-be-raped-and-killed ("A Blind Date With Boss"). Who else would express nostalgia for bygone days - because they were more violent ("I Don't Give A Fuck")? She's not even particularly interested in blaming anybody for her situation. But somehow she remains convincingly human - not crossing the line into unfathomable monster or Geto Boys-style cartoon - by questioning her own actions, motives and sanity ("Deeper," a single), and between the lines of this "Diary Of A Mad Bitch" you uncover a scared, defiant, vulnerable person. In this context the obligatory anti-violence piece "1-800-Body-Bags" doesn't read as hypocrisy, just another layer of confusion. With all the gunshots, violent imagery and nonstop profanity, reviewers didn't pay any attention to the music, but much of it is excellent, with producers Def Jef, Erick Sermon, AMG and MC Serch creating layered, bass-heavy grooves, often built on smokey guitar licks ("Born Gangsta," "Recipe Of A Hoe," and especially the eminently chantable "I Don't Give A Fuck"). However, there's a lot of second-rate material that just rehashes Boss's main ideas ("Drive By," "2 To Da Head"), and it's so relentless it can be hard to sit through the whole thing. Guests include Onyx and Boss's parents(!), Lillie and Joe Laws. Boss rapidly faded away after The Wall Street Journal revealed that her life on the streets was largely fabricated, and was invisible until a 2001 appearance on a Krayzie Bone record. (DBW)

Doyle Bramhall II (1996)
Bramhall's father used to be in Stevie Ray Vaughan's backing band, and Junior's Texas drawl sounds a lot like SRV's. But the resemblance ends there: young Doyle's not a bluesman, he's more of a cross between late Allman Brothers and current dance-pop, with plenty of "alternative" angst thrown in. If you like this record, you'll really really like it, because every song sounds the same: clanging rhythm guitars playing standard chord progressions, lots of "where have I heard that before?" riffs, half-moaned misogynistic vocals, relentless 4/4 drums. In fact, it often sounds like a deliberate knockoff of Jagged Little Pill. I don't know what Wendy & Lisa saw in this guy - they produced, and co-wrote all three of the album's best tunes: "They Get Together" is reasonably catchy, the fingerpicking insturmental "Time" is fun, and the album closer "Stay A While" has the duo's characteristic ethereal touch. All of which just makes you wish they could get label support to make their own record, and dump this guy. (DBW)

Toni Braxton, Secrets (1996)
The African-American Celine Dion, Braxton has a big, anonymous voice tailor-made for Adult Contemporary ballads. She hit big with her debut, which occasionally projected a strong woman persona; she became far bigger this time around, femmeing out completely with a diaphanous wardrobe and a set of plaintive, plodding pleas. Ace craftsperson Diane Warren came up with the year's dominant ballad, "Un-Break My Heart," and R. Kelly and Tony Rich get in one number each, but most of the tunes are Babyface's, and all of the production bears his synth-based signature. He comes up with several nice melodies ("Why Should I Care," "You're Makin' Me High") and his acoustic guitar playing is a nice break from all the sustained synth lines ("There's No Me Without You"). But there are a lot of problems: first, Braxton's lack of emotional range or interpretative skill combined with the all-ballads format makes the record remarkably soporific. Then there's Kenny G's endless noodling on the overblown "How Could An Angel Break My Heart." But the record's low point is practically the only place where Braxton's involved with the writing: her lyrics on "Talking In My Sleep" are meant to be tough and thought-provoking, but all they provoke are laughs. If you loved "Un-Break My Heart," this is an hour of the same. If you're hoping Braxton can stretch beyond that, don't waste your money. (DBW)

The Breeders, Last Splash (1993)
Kim Deal didn't get a lot of air time when she played bass in the Pixies, but with the group winding down she switched to guitar and formed her own band with Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses, cutting Pod in 1990. After Donnelly was replaced by Deal's clone-like twin sister Kelley they broke through with this excellent record, which is notably more accessible than anything the Pixies did. Instrumentally it could hardly be more basic (the instrumental "S.O.S."), with heavily distorted buzzsaw guitar lines and primitive, half-spoken vocals that are simultaneously girlish and creepy. But the band really knows how to milk dynamic shifts (Kelley Deal's hard-rocking spotlight "I Just Wanna Get Along") - one track after another welds far out, funky licks onto big loud grunge choruses ("Cannonball"). It's especially fun when the Deal sisters' demented sensibilities run into their slow-grinding, tension-building riffs ("Invisible Man"; "Hag"). Kim also carries over the Pixies' weird obsession with surf rock (the steel guitar-slathered "No Aloha" and surging instrumental "Flipside," both of which just totally rock out; "Saints," with a huge lick). Even some of the more spaced-out stuff works (the epic, nightmarish, head-banging, Zeppelin-like "Roi," later reprised). And they even put together a jangly, radio-friendly anthem ("Divine Hammer," may be the high point). They fare worse when they slow things down ("Do You Love Me Now?"; the zombie waltz "Mad Lucas"), and sometimes you just can't tell what the hell they're getting at ("New Year"). But who cares? The rhythm section is Josephine Wigg (bass) and Jim Macpherson (drums); Carrie Bradley fiddles on the fun and completely incongruous country tune "Drivin' On." Co-produced by Kim Deal and Mark Freegard. I don't have the band's 2002 reunion album Title TK, but I did see them live when they toured to support the record, and they were good. (JA)

Various Artists, Bridge To Havana (rec. 1999, rel. 2004)
As part of a Clinton-era cultural exchange project, a group of gringo musicians went to Cuba for a week to write and record with their Cuban sistren and brethren, and then performed the resulting tunes in a concert, captured for posterity. This release collects the studio recordings on CD and the concert performances on DVD, and I'm reviewing them all together. The Cuban lineup features Giraldo Piloto ("Keeps Me Hangin' On"), Manolito and most of Sintesis while the US contingent is led by Gladys Knight ("Feelin' Good (Vacilón)"), Bonnie Raitt and Montell Jordan. This sort of well meaning exercise of intellectual solidarity rarely leads to significant artistic results, and generally that's the case here: Jordan and Alfonso's reggae "Walking On Sunshine" and Peter Frampton's Silvio Rodríguez-like "Hey Hey" are pleasant but extremely slight. The biggest disappointment, Brenda Russell and José Luis Cortés's DVD-only "Esto Es Pa' Gozar," is just a ramshackle jam. The best tunes are the ones which mostly resemble the artist's usual: Carlos Varela (with Beth Nielsen Chapman) on "Not So Close, Not So Far"; "Volveré" by Síntesis; Mick Fleetwood's reasonably catchy hippie consciousness tune "One World." (DBW)

Chuck Brodsky, The Baseball Ballads (2002)
Philly-raised folk singer-songwriter Brodsky had gotten a good reaction from a handful of baseball-themed songs he'd penned over the years, so he pulled them together, wrote a bunch of new ones, and whammo! Instant concept album. Brodsky has a pleasant voice (Dylanish but in a good way) and an easy gift for melody ("Gone To Heaven"). The story songs are invariably interesting ("The Ballad Of Ernie Klepp," about the first white player in the Negro Leagues) but often not much more than that: they're functional retellings of anecdotes but without much emotional resonance ("Dock Ellis' No-No"). The big exception is "Letters In The Dirt," a terrific song that's not so much about Dick Allen as about a kid growing up in Philadelphia trying to understand how we relate to our heroes. Produced mostly by Kristian and Brandon Bush, who also play bass and drums respectively; other musicians include Jenny Hersch, Don Porterfield (both bass) and David Hamburger (dobro and slide). (DBW)

Jeff Buckley, Grace (1994)
Whereas 70s and 80s hard rock bands relentlessly imitated Led Zeppelin's pomp and power chords, in the 90s a few artists emerged who were more inspired by the band's lighter side - by the drama, by the casual etherealness of songs like "Down By The Seaside"... in a word, by Plant rather than Page. Tori Amos is one of these artists, Jeff Buckley (Tim Buckley's son) was another. Buckley uses many of Plant's vocal mannerisms (though thankfully he doesn't "push") and epic multi-part structure, but in a mostly acoustic folk-rock context, basic rhythm section supplemented by occasional loud guitar and/or strings. "So Real" even uses guitar cues from Physical Graffiti's "Ten Years Gone." Unfortunately, Buckley shares their lack of concern for time, taking forever to get to the heart of a song ("Mojo Pin"), and love of repetition. Furthermore, he's all atmosphere, no melody - without his admittedly commanding presence, the tunes wouldn't amount to much. (Alroy tells me Tim Buckley had many of those same qualities, so my analysis of Jeff's influences may be totally off... wouldn't be the first time.) Buckley wrote most of the tunes - there's also a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" - and played most of the guitars plus some keyboards; Mick Grondahl's on bass and Matt Johnson's on drums. Produced by Andy Wallace. Buckley accidentally drowned before completing another album, and all that's available is a two-CD set of unfinished material, and some live recordings; read more at this fine fan site. (DBW)

Bush, Sixteen Stone (1994)
The fact that this hard rock band is overwhelmingly popular makes me want to move to another planet. Lead singer/songwriter Gavin Rossdale is so consumed with angst he can't be bothered to write melodies or play his guitar, and nearly every song has the exact same structure and arrangement: slow start, then chunky distorted rhythm and loping bass with Nigel Pulsford's minimal, echoey lead guitar weaving in and out of the mix. It gets dull during the opening "Everything Zen," let alone the whole album which follows. Rossdale's delivery is passionless, and his lyrics are piled-up non sequitur clichés - unless he's making some postmodern point I'm not getting. No overdubs, backing vocals or anything that might give the material some interest. The silver lining is Robin Goodridge's solid, creative drumming, and a couple of tunes do have some cathartic force ("Bomb," "Glycerine"). But there are probably five better bands on your block: this is nothing to go out of your way for. (DBW)

Busta Rhymes, The Coming (1996)
Busta Rhymes is the perfect guest rapper: his triple-time, larger than life clowning will liven up almost any track. But on his own, the schtick gets wearying, largely because he doesn't have anything to say except for vague apocalyptic prophecies ("Abandon Ship," "The End Of The World"), and equally unspecific cutdowns of other rappers ("Do My Thing"). Production on this disc, his second or third solo album, is by Easy Mo Bee, DJ Scratch, The Ummah, Rashad Smith and Busta, and it's uniformly dull - slow, rumbling synth strings and nearly identical beats from track to track. He certainly has his moments (the single "Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check"), and I don't deny that he's a kinetic performer - I'll watch one of his videos any time - but an hour spent just listening to him is about forty-five minutes too long. Guest artists include Q-Tip, Jamal, Redman, Rampage The Last Boy Scout, and a few people I've never heard of, but nobody makes much of an impression. This was a big hit, and his 1998 release (with a guest appearance by Janet Jackson) was even bigger. (DBW)

The Charlatans, Up To Our Hips (1994)
Known in the U.S. as Charlatans U.K. to distinguish them from an obscure 60s rock band, the Charlatans are another Stone Roses-influenced Britpop act. Singer Tim Burgess' laconic crooning isn't terribly melodic, drummer Jon Brookes delivers insistent percussion overdubs and a loud, if danceable Manchester beat, bassist Martin Blunt makes no particular use of his McCartney-like tone ("I Never Want An Easy Life..."), and guitarist Mark Collins apes the early 70s-style guitar god heroics of a John Squire. The only thing setting them apart is Rob Collins' blaring, repetitive, retro Hammond organ licks, which often leave them stranded in the late 60s (title track). On their third record since 1990, they simply refuse to expand their thoroughly derivative sound. About half the grooves are catchy, but the tunes are monotonously formulaic - "Come In Number 21," "Patrol," and "Inside-Looking Out" all exactly follow the Stone Roses' characteristically self-indulgent, discombulated groundplan; the ominously psychedelic, six-minute funk-techno instrumental "Feel Flows" has all of the Roses' ego and none of Squire's virtousity; the plodding, White Album-based semi-acoustic ballad "Autograph" just mirrors their influences. Things only fly on the faster, shorter, guitar-dominated tunes: "Can't Get Out Of Bed" has some energetic, Keith Richards-like strummery and Bee Gees-ish harmonies; "Jesus Hairdo" is an amusing Led Zeppelin photocopy, right down to its Plant-like nonsense lyrics, Jones-inspired electric piano, hard-kicking Bonham-based drums, and especially Mark Collins' unusually sharp Page-y slide guitar; he also pulls off a lyrical lead and some bona fide dynamics on the angsty "Another Rider Up In Flames." Producer Steve Hillage does get an authentic classic rock sound of them, but the songwriting leaves much to be desired. Rob Collins died in a car crash in 1996, after the 1995 release of their eponymous fourth record; despite this, they released further records in 1997 and 1999. (JA)

Various, Chef Aid: The South Park Album (1998)
The overnight success of the cable cartoon series South Park gave its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, license to do just about anything they wanted, and here's the result: they play keyboards and drums respectively on much of the album, and many of the tunes are Parker's. His writing and playing is surprisingly professional, particularly on the songs featuring Isaac Hayes, who is hilarious (in character as "Chef") parodying his sex god persona on "Chocolate Salty Balls," "No Substitute," "Simultaneous" and "Tonight Is Right For Love (With Meredith Baxter-Birney)," a duet with Meat Loaf. The backing is tuneful, authentic 70s slow funk, and an entire album of this material would have been well worth hearing. Unfortunately, the disc is packed with second- and third-rate efforts by artists old (Devo, Joe Strummer) and new (Rancid, Ween), plus the inevitable superstar collaborations (Rick James and Ike Turner on a tepid version of Parker's "Love Gravy"; Ozzy Osbourne, Ol' Dirty Bastard and DMX on Crystal Method's electronica "Nowhere To Run"). The only bright spot is Elton John's rousing "Wake Up Wendy." Worst of all are the songs sung by other South Park characters: "Eric Cartman"'s rendition of the Styx epic "Come Sail Away" is amusing the first time through, but "Ned Gerblansky"'s take on Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love" is a dreary exercise in bad taste. Largely produced and mixed by Rick Rubin. (DBW)

Children Of Bodom, Are You Dead Yet? (2005)
Nowadays, heavy metal has so many tiny subgenres it's impossible to keep track of them all. The Finnish band Children Of Bodom seems to play melodic death metal, not to be confused with melodic black metal. (Both styles use grunted vocals, slow tempos and synthesizers, but the "death" bands have more personal and less Satanic lyrics than the "black" bands.) Anyway, COB - named for an unsolved 1960 multiple murder case - has released five studio albums starting with 1997's Something Wild. There are a lot of top-notch headbanging riffs here, from the rapid-fire title track to the slow-burning "Punch Me I Bleed," the tunes are concise, and the band has a finely poised sense of menace ("Trashed, Lost & Strungout"). The problem is, they lose me each time Janne Wirman's cheesy synth comes in: whether it's playing high-speed single note solos ("Bastards Of Bodom") or adding atmostpheric background ("In Your Face"), the tones are bland and poppy, as if they'd escaped from an old Human League album. I'm not opposed to keyboards in metal, but they should sound, y'know, metal... Apparently their earlier albums have even more synth, so I'm gonna stay away from those. Vocalist/lead guitarist Alex Laiho runs the show, writing nearly all the songs and playing nearly all the leads, though second guitarist Roope Latvala (formerly of Steon) gets a couple in; the rhythm section is Jaska Raatinkainen (drums) and Henkka Seppälä (bass). (DBW)

Children Of Bodom, Blooddrunk (2008)
Very much in the same style, with brutal downtuned guitar vamps and way too much squiggly synth ("One Day You Will Cry"). Lyrically they stick with tired Satanizing (title track; "Banned From Heaven"). So if you're not crazy about the band's general approach the record will do nothing to change your mind, but if you like them it's solidly satisfying ("Tie My Rope," which turns into a lead guitar free-for-all). Though the tunes clock in around four minutes, Laiho packs a bunch of sections into each one: "LoBodomy" is a fascinating riff stew, and "Done With Everything, Die For Nothing" is a thrilling adrenaline cocktail. Even the less memorable tracks are well constructed ("Smile Pretty For The Devil"), so they get more mileage out of their formula than you'd think possible, but I do wish they'd mix in a new formula now and then. (DBW)

Cibo Matto, VIVA! La Woman (1996)
Two women (Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori), their keyboard, and streams of their collective consciousness. I saw them in Central Park and it was fun: they would spin a simple, Deee-lite-like groove, throw out some random lyrics and build to a mildly amusing chorus. For variety they brought in live musicians for a punk version of "The Candy Man," and ended with a hilarious spoken word piece about throwing up on Keanu Reeves. But in the studio, everything falls flat: the Reeves piece didn't make it to this disc, the cover of "Candy Man" is ambient trance like the rest (i.e. dull like house music, only hard to dance to), and the free-associated lyrics are self-consciously silly. When Hatori starts screaming the chorus of "Birthday Cake" you may find yourself running for the eject button. A couple of the quieter tunes make pleasant background music ("Sugar Water," "Apple") - otherwise, wait to see them in concert. (DBW)

Converge, Axe To Fall (2009)
Hailing from Salem, Mass., Converge has always incorporated hardcore punk, thrash metal and mathcore elements, but has varied the balance over the years. When at the top of their game, they take the best from each genre and serve up a stew of focused fury, mind-blowing complexity and pulse-pounding heaviness ("Dark Horse"; "Slave Driver," up Dillinger Escape Plan's alley). Other times, they just sound scattered and frantic ("Reap What You Sow"; "Losing Battle") but never boring. On most tracks drummer Ben Koller and bassist Nate Newton set out a treacherous sonic landscape on which guitarist/producer Kurt Ballou lays down rhythm and lead, supplemented by a variety of guest musicians (Cave In's two guitarists appear on "Effigy"; most of Genghis Tron is on "Wretched World"). Meanwhile, vocalist Jacob Bannon has a perpetual air of confused frustration, as if he'd been woken up from a drunken bender by being dropped off a roof. Most of the tempos are fast ("Dead Beat"), though they slow down for a headbanging vamp every so often, especially during the six-minute centerpiece "Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast." (DBW)

Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind (2012)
At this point in their career, Converge has two basic operating modes: full-speed hardcore punk ("Vicious Muse"; "Sparrow's Fall") and tempo-shifting mini-epics ("Coral Blue"). I much prefer the latter, and this collection focuses on the former (most of the tracks clock in under three minutes, often well under). And apart from a few gems ("Predatory Glow," one of the all-time great riff tunes), the tunes are not as striking as most of Axe To Fall. That said, the individual tracks are well executed ("Sadness Comes Home," alternately blood-boiling and chilling) and everything sounds great thanks to Ballou's furious-but-clear production ("Trespasses"). (DBW)

Cookie Crew, Fade To Black (1991)
When I say early 90s pop-rap, you probably think MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, but there was a lot of better stuff out there too: Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte's Act Like You Know, and the debut from this British duo. The primary producer is Dazzle, who takes unashamedly pop hooks like Brenda Russell's "So Good So Right" ("Secrets (Of Success)") and Sister Sledge's "He's The Greatest Dancer" ("Like Brother Like Sister") and cooks up entertainingly lightweight tracks. Though it's unambitious, he rarely missteps ("The Powers Of Positive Thinking," using the same Bill Withers sample which turned up on Boss's "Deeper") so it's hard to complain about. The rhymes are similarly good-natured, socially conscious (title track) though rarely penetrating, and the rappers do fall into the same, Monie Love-recalling candence in song after song ("Time 2B What We Wanna Be," based on an Earth, Wind & Fire sample). Gang Starr produced Guru's guest shot, "A Word To The Conscious"; Roy Ayers adds extensive vibes to the enjoyable dance cut "Love Will Bring Us Back Together." (DBW)

Cradle Of Filth, Thornography (2006)
A British heavy metal band formed in the early 90s, Cradle Of Filth has some similarities to Marilyn Manson: Gothic makeup, gender-vague pseudonyms (lead singer Dani Filth) and a calculated, desperate desire to offend. Pretty much all borrowed from Alice Cooper. Over the years, Cradle Of Filth has won plenty of fans while alienating others by remaining vague on whether they really believe all this stuff about vampires or they're just screwing around (as evidenced by tongue-in-cheek covers like Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman"). What's sillier, someone who really worships the devil, or someone who just pretends to? This album, the group's twelfth, is more of the same mock-poetic mock-blasphemy ("Rise Of The Pentagram"; "Libertina Grimm"), produced by Rob Caggiano (formerly of Anthrax). Apparently the grandiosity is reined in from earlier discs, though there's still a symphonic opening with a pretentious title ("Under Pregnant Skies She Comes Alive Like Miss Leviathan"), and a bunch of seven-minute cuts ("I Am The Thorn"). Tunewise, there are about as many misses ("The Byronic Man"; a cover of Heaven 17's 1983 "Temptation"; "Cemetery And Sundown" spoils the "Symphony Of Destruction" riff) as hits ("Libertina Grimm," with a Sabbath-quality bent lick). But when they're on, they're really on: "The Foetus Of A New Day Kicking," one of the shortest songs, is an eye-opener; piano-like keyboards are set against metal guitars on the strangely moving, mostly instrumental "Rise Of The Pentagram"; and the mini-opera "Lovesick For Mina" conveys overwrought emotion like King Diamond at his best. (DBW)

Sheryl Crow, Tuesday Night Music Club (1993)
Once in a great while, an album comes along that's so staggeringly unoriginal it makes you question your faith in humanity. This isn't that album, but it's damn close: so many standard rock elements are reused here you might think you're listening to a Seventies Mellow Rock compilation. "Strong Enough" is a mostly-acoustic tune that strongly recalls Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac; "The Na-Na Song" is an embarrassing stream-of-consciousness ripoff of John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance"; "I Shall Believe" is every mushy self-help anthem you ever heard, and less. A massive seller behind the hit single "All I Wanna Do," which features the "Suzy Q" bass line endlessly repeated while Crow half-sings pseudo-poetic verses, and a chorus that really was catchy the first hundred thousand times I heard it. Crow's voice is featureless, which suits the material, and the band is slick and professional: when it comes to lowest common denominator, Bonnie Raitt Lite, WalMart-targeted rock and roll, Crow delivers. (DBW)

Dark Tranquillity, The Gallery (1995)
Yet another Swedish melodic death metal band, Dark Tranquillity has been influential within that scene since the beginning of the 90s, and their reputation primarily rests on this disc. The sound is pristine and potent - guitarists Niklas Sundin and Fredrik Johansson layer crisp melodies and crunching rhythms with equal aplomb - and though most of the disc is at a furious pace ("The One Brooding Warning") they do incorporate some mellow sections ("Lethe"; title track). Often the individual licks aren't particularly noteworthy ("Punish My Heaven"), though when they are, the genre-defining mix of precision and power sounds wonderful ("The Dividing Line"; the concluding suite "Mine Is The Grandeur... Of Melancholy Burning"). Overall, though, the disc is lacking in drama and emotional impact... it doesn't help that new vocalist Mikael Stanne's growl has no emotional shading, or indeed any variation at all. Produced by the band and Fredrik Nordström, who also produced At The Gates's 1995 Slaughter Of The Soul - another technically impressive disc that doesn't move me much. A recent CD reissue includes several covers including Metallica's "My Friend Of Misery." (DBW)

Dark Tranquillity, Fiction (2007)
The intervening twelve years haven't dimmed the band's ferocity, but they do seem to have lost almost everything else. Stanne sticks to a low growl for the most part, though he does sing clean a couple of times ("Misery's Crown," where he declaims like an 80s goth). The sound is furious and technical ("The Lesser Faith"; "Empty Me" with uncountable time signatures) but uninvolving, partly because it's so unchanging, and partly because the guitars and basses are so down-tuned and muddy, you can hardly tell what they're playing - Martin Brändström's trebly keyboards are stuck carrying the melodies. And since I can't make out any of the lyrics, I'm left with nothing to listen for... I'm stuck here going "Yep, that Anders Jivarp sure is one technically proficient drummer. How many more songs until I can change the CD and listen to some actual music?" The standout track is "Inside The Particle Storm," with a quiet middle that permits some dynamic range and ultimately some actual emotion. Produced by the band and Tue Madsen; the only guest is Nell Sigland, who adds vocals to the closer "The Mundane And The Magic." (DBW)

Özcan Deniz, Ses Ve Ayrilik (2004)
There used to be a legend about East Sixth Street in Manhattan that the entire row of Indian restaurants sold food from the same kitchen. Well, Türkpop is a bit like that, in that the best songs from a whole slew of artists all come from a tiny handful of songwriters. Sezen Aksu didn't write any of these songs, and Deniz himself wrote several, but two of the strongest are from reliable hit provider Nazan Öncel: "Canim" is present in three full versions (plus a brief intro); the dance mix and acoustic guitar mix are fine, though Öncel's orchestrated arrangement is where the emotion really comes through. And like Öncel, Deniz integrates traditional instrumentation directly into pop songs ("Tomurcuk"), where, say, Candan Erçetin tends to keep folk instruments on folk songs, Greek instruments on Greek songs, and so on. Each approach have its merits, but as easily bored and unappreciative of authenticity as I am, I tend to prefer the former. Deniz himself is tough to pin down, traveling from electronic dance ("Yanima Gel (Remix)") to slow love song ("Olmadi") by way of every point in between ("Anlayamadim," bubbling over with crafty hooks). The upside of that is, he's unpredictable; the downside is, he doesn't quite establish an identity, which his anonymous though clear voice doesn't help. (DBW)

Dez Dickerson, Oneman (1997)
If you know who Dickerson is at all, it's probably for his stint as lead guitarist in Prince's backup band: last time I saw him was his brief appearance in "Purple Rain" singing "(I Want To Be A) Modernaire." In the intervening years he's become a born-again Christian, and this collection of guitar-driven pop rock is mostly religious-themed ("Real To Me," "This Song," title track), but he mostly manages to avoid the usual clichés. Phil Solem of the flash-in-the-pan Rembrandts worked on a couple of tracks here, and the disc echoes that band's Beatle-derived feel-good rock, with bright, chunky rhythm guitar chords all over the place. Dickerson - who wrote everything except one cover, produced, played nearly all the guitar and bass parts and sang all the vocals - stays within his limits: he doesn't try to outplay or outsing everyone else on the planet, he just crafts three to four minute pop songs. There's very little variety from track to track, but it's all very earnest, and pleasant enough. If you're a fan of undemanding guitar pop, you'll be pleasantly surprised by this disc. (DBW)

Ani DiFranco, Puddle Dive (1993)
A folk singer from Buffalo, NY, who's built herself into a cottage industry without any help from record companies, developing her own Righteous Babe label by selling self-written, self-produced tapes out of the back of her Volkswagon. Singer/songwriters tend to be self-absorbed - nature of the beast - but DiFranco pushes it to an extreme on her fourth album, spitting out song after song about her solitary life on the road, making the same observations that urban hipsters have made about small towns since the beginning of time ("4th Of July," "God's Country," "Back Around"), and including a few self-congratulatory "I see through corporate conditioning" odes ("My IQ," "Willing To Fight"). She evidently works quickly: clutches of words appear with no evident relation to the rest of a song ("Names And Dates And Times"), while the melodies give "rudimentary" a bad name ("Egos Like Hairdos"). But what's striking and valuable about the record is precisely that fuck-it bravado: DiFranco's voice ranges from a cutting sneer to a quavery yodel, all the arrangements are built around her harshly strummed acoustic guitar - instruments ranging from violin to marimba crop up here and there, but they're purely decorative - she's tough enough to show weakness ("Used To You"), and she frequently finds powerful images that most people would be afraid to touch ("Pick Yer Nose," "Blood In The Boardroom"). Arresting if aggravating, but probably not her best work; DiFranco's 1995 Not A Pretty Girl is often cited as a high point, and I'll be looking for it. (DBW)

Ani DiFranco, To The Teeth (1999)
DiFranco's twelveth album in ten years (not counting some collaborations) finds her mellow, having smoothed out the rough edges in her voice and her songwriting - mild declarations outweigh manifestos here - so it's consistently dull rather than intermittently annoying. Half-spoken vocals with no discernable melody, sluggish acoustic guitar accompaniment, soporific six- and seven-minute running times (the anti-NRA title track), lyrics so direct they read like diary excerpts ("Short Shoulder"), and an overall depressed manner ("Carry You Around"). The closest comparison I can find is Tracy Chapman in her most artless moments. The only track with arresting energy is the rock star whine "Freakshow"; the one excellent song is "Hello Birmingham," a keenly detailed meditation on political assassinations. The spare arrangements usually include guitar (DiFranco), drums (Daren Hahn), acoustic bass (Jason Mercer), organ (Julie Wolf), and occasional horns (Maceo Parker on sax, Brian Wolf on trumpet and trombone) - Prince adds faint vocals to "Providence." There's an amazingly detailed fan site. (DBW)

Dimmu Borgir, In Sorte Diaboli (2007)
Norway's Dimmu Borgir has achieved notable success over the years by stretching the definition of black metal to include everything from symphonic orchestration to the sort of lead guitar harmonies more commonly found in melodic death metal ("The Conspiracy Unfolds"). But they haven't turned their back on Satan: the lyrics tell a story about a medieval priest's assistant who comes to appreciate the joys of devil-worship. Despite the touches of synth - courtesy of Mustis - and strings, guitarists Silenoz and Galder carry most of the weight, while new drummer Hellhammer (previously with Mayhem) rarely lets up. ICS Vortex is scarcely audible on bass; he also handles the occasional sung choruses, singing in an almost operatic power metal style ("The Serpentine Offering"), while frontman Shagrath contributes the menacing growling that make up the bulk of the vocals. It's all quite silly but rather effective in its way ("The Foreshadowing Furnace"). Produced by Fredrik Nordström, Patrik Jerksten and the band. (DBW)

Celine Dion (1992)
The French Canadian Toni Braxton, Dion has a beautiful voice but brings absolutely no personality to her material: she's the kind of artist who could sing her own diary without giving you the impression that it meant anything to her. It's a talent that makes her a natural for movie themes, and this disc includes the title song from "Beauty And The Beast," a duet with Peabo Bryson. This was either her first or second album in English, and it's in the mold of her later releases: lush ballads and bouncy pop. Sometimes it sounds like Mariah Carey's worst moments, particularly when Carey cohort Walter Afanasieff is on hand ("If You Could See Me Now," "If I Were You"), but where Carey's got a deep bag of vocal tricks, Dion just keeps plugging away until she's made it to the end of the cut. Half the songs are by Diane Warren, and they're tenth hand romantic clichés wedded to servicable but unmemorable melodies ("Nothing Broken But My Heart," "Love Can Move Mountains"). Prince's donated "With This Tear" is no better. Producers include Ric Wake and Guy Roche, and they don't have one original idea between them. But this kind of music isn't about originality, it's about catering to sentimentality - music's answer to soap operas - and on that level it's a complete success. (DBW)

Kenan Doğulu, Patron (2009)
Istanbul-born pop singer Doğulu embraces a multitude of Western styles with a decidedly retro bent (the neo-soul "Cadİ Kazanİ"). He wrote all the songs, his brother Ozan produced, and between them they get all the little things right: "Nights In White Satin" organ on "Aşkkolik"; oom-pah brass on the Mod swaggerer "Etme"; the technofunk title track captures the essence of late Timbaland while avoiding pastiche; "Salak" sounds just like Gorillaz. And the big things are pretty good too: most songs are well-defined and vital (the romantic yet vaguely threatening "Olur Mu?"); Doğulu's voice is supple enough to accommodate each genre he takes on ("Öp," where he convincingly imitates Justin Timberlake), while bringing cohesion to what could have sounded like a patchwork. Though they mostly eschew Near Eastern melodic and instrumental trappings, a Turkish sensibility still gleams through ("Rübeni Bileceksin," despite vague similarities to the children's song "Michael Finnegan"; the plaintive "Sevdim"). (DBW)

Kenan Doğulu, Aşka Türlü Şeyler (2012)
Doğulu toned things down considerably, with a strong emphasis on gentle rhythms, whether programmed ("İstanbul") or live instruments ("Zevk Alalım") - only "Kalp Kalbe Karşı" is a viable summons to the dancefloor - and he's competent and comfortable ("Bir İleri İki Geri"). Unfortunately, the record's also not nearly as melodic ("Bal Gibi"): sometimes artists forget that mellow music needs to be more tuneful than the hard stuff. Do)gulu is both versatile and talented; on this release there's ample evidence of the former ("Tencere Kapak," a Candan Erçetin-like homage to '60s pop français) but scant of the latter ("Güle Güle" - tranquil but tuneful - is an exception). (DBW)

Jermaine Dupri, Life In 1472 (1998)
Hot producer Dupri assembled a top-flight cast for his first solo album, bringing in artists he'd brought to the limelight (Da Brat, Xscape) or at least made hits for (Mariah Carey). But somewhere along the line he got so focused on star power he forgot about making good music. The disc is overloaded with hip hop clichéfests ("Turn It Out," "Money Ain't A Thing," "You Get Dealt Wit") featuring inarticulate, highly commercial rappers like Jay-Z, Mase and Snoop Dogg and one obvious sample per song. "The Party Continues" (with Da Brat and Usher) isn't much better, and Slick Rick's "Fresh" is incredibly dull. (However, "Get Your Shit Right" - with DMX and the Mad Rapper - and "Protectors Of 1472" have fine, ominous grooves.) Dupri certainly knows how to create interesting, original backing tracks, and I don't understand why he so consistently failed to do so here. The two slow R&B tunes are standouts: "Lay You Down" with Trina and Tamara Powell, and Carey's lovely cover of the Rainy Davis hit "Sweetheart" (also released on her concurrent greatest hits compiliation). Hopefully, this was an abberation, and Dupri's not descending into Puffy-style music-by-numbers. I will give him credit for not including any annoying interludes or hidden tracks. Other guests include Too Short, Eightball, Lil' Kim, Warren G and Keith Sweat. (DBW)

Jermaine Dupri Presents 12 Soulful Nights Of Christmas (1998)
Dupri put his name on this set of Yuletide R&B, but he doesn't appear and only produced two tracks: Faith's simple, touching "A Christmas Lullabye" and Trey Lorenz's "My Younger Days," built on a sample of Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay." There's an unusually high proportion of original tunes, with just a couple of workhorses like "The Christmas Song" (sung by Tamia), and most of them are pretty good: Gerald Levert's "Christmas Without My Girl," Brian McKnight's "Because Of His Love." McKnight also wrote and produced Xscape's feature, "Christmas Without You," and his low-key, Babyface-singin'-like-Stevie Wonder approach underlies much of the disc (Kenny Lattimore's "This Time Of Year"). Trina Broussard's "Not Really Christmas" is perhaps the best of the bunch, with a smoky nightclub vibe, live instruments, an irresistable fade chant and an emotive but not overdone lead vocal. The sixteen-year old Alicia Keys performs a neo-soul version of "Little Drummer Girl" produced by Rodney Jerkins - her Erykah Badu impression sounds great, though her streetwise spoken intro is cloying. Chaka Khan sings "Christmas Only Once A Year"... the melody sounds very familiar but I can't quite place it. That ever happen to you? Boy, it's frustrating. Anyway, the disc is too much of a good thing - virtually all in the same style at the same tempo - but that beats the hell out of too much of a bad thing. (DBW)

Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Easily the most overrated hip hop album of the year. The music is thin, with Eminem and the other producers - Bass Brothers, F.B.T., Doctor Dre - blending brittle keyboard lines, nursery rhyme melodies and tinny beats. There are a few clever rhymes here, and Em does have a smooth delivery, but his vocabulary is mostly limited to four-letter words, and he repeats drab choruses endlessly ("Kill You"). He's phenomenally self-absorbed, ranting about his media representation at length that would embarass Chuck D. ("The Way I Am"), referring to his record sales on almost every track, and packing in trivial pop-culture references to obscure his total lack of originality or message ("The Real Slim Shady"). The intended-to-offend schtick that underlies his popularity is nothing new: Sticky Fingaz, who guests on "Remember Me?," worked the same material with a more forceful, unhinged presentation and better backing tracks; Gravediggaz and the Geto Boys went farther describing horrific violence, without the misogynist slant; Ghostface Killah's "Wildflower" is a far more honest anti-woman tirade than "Kim," Em's vicious verbal assault on his wife (who attempted suicide soon after the disc was released); Dre's N.W.A. blazed a trail for homophobic ignorance back in the 80s. Eminem's about as inventive and creative as a three-year-old who's discovered he can rattle his parents by saying "fuck." Critics and networks (especially MTV) lining up to defend the disc are either misguidedly attempting to support free expression by ascribing non-existent artistic value (a la 2 Live Crew), or just trying to pump up their hipness quotient by backing a "controversial" artist popular with disaffected youth (a la Marilyn Manson). (DBW)

En Vogue, Funky Divas (1992)
Highly commercialized R&B, as influenced by hip hop as by Philly soul. The four lead singers - Terry Ellis, Maxine Jones, Cindy Herron and Dawn Robinson - can really sing, and many of the arrangements here give them each a chance to shine. The hit single "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" is an irresistable blend of taunting vocals, quick cuts, smooth harmonies, and a stolen James Brown riff. Now for the negatives: Svengalis Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster are extremely derivative. Besides the uncredited Brown reference, they cover both singles from the Curtis Mayfield/Aretha Franklin collaboration Sparkle (releasing "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" as this album's second single), and "Free Your Mind" has a "U Got The Look" style dance rock groove and a sanitized Funkadelic chorus. And did we really need another cover of "Yesterday," no matter how nice the vocals are? Nothing else matches the promise of "My Lovin'," but it's a step up from their debut Born To Sing, and since the band lost one of its voices and its production team soon after this release, this is the place to start if you want to have the En Vogue experience. (DBW)

Esthero, Breath From Another (1998)
Ontario-born Jenny-Bea Englishman transformed herself into trip-hop vocalist Esthero, sounding a little like Erykah Badu, a little like Deborah Harry ("Lounge"), a bit like Deee-Lite and a lot like Björk (the samba-meets-screamo "Heaven Sent"). Generally the mood is mellow, dispassionate and detached, which doesn't normally float my boat, and while Esthero and musician/producer Doc mix up genres indiscriminately (wah-wah guitars on the otherwise Sade-like "Country Livin'") that's par for the course in trip-hop. What really makes the record stand out is the casual melodicism ("Swallow Me") and judicious use of off-kilter musical elements, which are given enough space to assert themselves without becoming gimmicks: the ballsy brass on the fragment "Flipher Overture"; coffeehouse acoustic guitar and film noir strings on "That Girl." Her lyrics are also more ambitious than the usual dancefloor mutterings (the cosmic "Indigo Boy"; title track, a pointed statement of purpose). Esthero went seven years before her next release, Wikked Lil' Grrrls, which only featured Doc on two cuts, and since then she's popped up mostly on hip hop records. (DBW)

Evanescence, Fallen (2003)
The Little Rock-based band exploded onto the scene with this major label debut, driven by three very different songwriters: goth frontwoman Amy Lee, hard rock guitarist Ben Moody, and Christian rock keyboardist David Hodges. Their three styles coalesced into a sound - tuneful but vaguely "alternative"; overflowing with angst and emotion but highly professional; equal parts mournful synths and raging guitar distortion - that's immediately identifiable (though not far from Lacuna Coil's). The first two tracks, both singles, set the tone: "Bring Me To Life" (with nü-metal style vocals from Paul McCoy) and "Going Under" are constructed more like dance tracks than traditional rockers, fading guitars, strings, keyboard, live and programmed drums up and down in the mix as Lee emotes. "My Immortal" - another big hit - and "Hello" don't fit the mold: they're essentially straight ballads. Though it's all a bit overwrought and precious ("My Last Breath"), there are enough satisfying riffs ("Whisper"; "Tourniquet") and thrilling vocals ("Everybody's Fool") to reward you for persisting through it all. Produced by Moody and Dave Fortman. Hodges left right before the record was released, Moody split shortly afterwards, and the band became Lee's show. (DBW)

Yonca Evcimik, Şöhret (2008)
Evcimik originally made a name for herself as an actress and dancer, but shot to far greater fame after recording her first album - 1991's Abone - in her late twenties. This disc (her most recent) contains seven new songs and two remixes, so it's on the border between an EP and LP (please don't call it an ELP), but there's a lot going on here: three tracks feature U.Ur, evidently an acoustic rock combo led by Ceyhun Pome ("Ah Be Yonca," with a cute quote from "On Broadway"). Evcimik ranges from funky pop (title track) to up-down techno ("Çapkın Kız") and succeeds in each field she essays. Not counting the remixes, "Anasının Kuzusu" is the only tune that doesn't pull its weight. Arranged by Onur Betin. (DBW)

For Real, It's A Natural Thang (1994)
Four young black women with really strong voices. Make you think of En Vogue? The producers apparently did too - everything from the programmed pseudo-hip hop drumming to the sassy lyrics ("You Don't Wanna Miss") and vocal style sound like an En Vogue knockoff, and that band was only marginally original to start with. The album has one key track, the a capella "You Don't Know Nothin'," with lovely harmonies and a hummable tune - after hearing them sing that at a Stevie Wonder concert, I was looking forward to hearing this. But everything else is mechanical and obvious, with trite lyrics ("I'm Thinking Of You") and familiar-sounding tunes - the only other enjoyable one is "I Like." The group's close-cropped hair and dressed-down appearance is a sign that they really do want to be more than someone else's shadow, and the fact that many of the tunes are band-written has some potential for future growth, but this debut is not auspicious. (DBW)

For Real, Free (1996)
Usually it's a bad sign when a group starts posing nude on their album covers. But this is actually a definite step up from their debut: Dallas Austin took over as main producer, and he chucked the high-tech hip-hop in favor of 60s retro: live-sounding piano, bass and drums. This makes for fewer distractions from the group's vocals, and he's also written a bunch of nice, smooth tunes ("Like I Do," "Hold Me") though he occasionally slides over the boundaries of good taste ("Good Morning Sunshine"). Stevie Wonder's uncredited guest vocal on "How Can I Get Close To You" is also fun, though the tune is in a generic Boys II Men mold. Austin's influence extends to SoulShock, the other main producers - Steve Bray also sneaks in one track - and they come up with mellow, tuneful R&B on "Remember" and the title track. For good measure, the year's hottest songwriter Diane Warren contributes "The Saddest Song I Ever Heard" (it isn't). This time around the band members didn't contribute much to the songwriting, but everything else is improved, and if you're into the current wave of group-vocal R&B you should enjoy this. (DBW)

Fountains Of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (1999)
I'm a sucker for melodious rock, but check out that rating: I do have some kind of self respect. This is the glossily produced second major-label effort by the frequently annoying pop-rock revival band, which is basically the Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood show (they even produced; Schlesinger is on bass, Collingwood on guitar and dorky lead vocals). They're only even vaguely distinct when they try to rip off the Cars: cheesy synth meets 50s sock hop (title track, the high point). But even then they keep things totally professional, with slicker melodies and harmonies ("Denise"), and some cautiously loud guitars ("It Must Be Summer"). Whenever they get away from the Cars thing, they actually sound a lot like the dB's ("The Valley Of Malls," which has a decent hook) - when they're not dishing out a clueless "acid rock" tribute ("Go, Hippie"), an early 70s Kinks-style number ("Laser Show"), or a sappy early 70s pop ballad, complete with strings ("Prom Theme"). Lyrically they're clever but frustrating: they push too hard with the humor, they overuse pop culture references, they're obsessed with teenage girls (no, really), and often they're just vapid. They try really hard ("Amity Gardens"), but they're hopelessly dull ("Red Dragon Tattoo"), and they're especially wimpy when they slow things down ("Hat And Feet"; "A Fine Day For A Parade," with Ron Sexsmith on backing vocals; the shockingly generic pop song "Troubled Times"; "The Senator's Daughter," one of the few catchy tunes). Although there is some modest entertainment in here (the chipper, economical "Lost In Space"), they're so tedious I found myself thinking, "shoot me before I drop dead from boredom." Jody Porter is the second guitarist, and Brian Young is on drums - he sounds totally anonymous here, although he was outstanding with the Posies. (JA)

Gillette, On The Attack (1995)
When Gillette's one hit "Short Dick Man" (bowlderized to "Short Short Man" - both versions are here) hit the airwaves, I thought it was a no-talent's dull entry in the BWP "let's counter misogyny with misandry" microgenre. But for some reason I got the CD anyway, and I'm glad I did, because more often than not her cheerful, sex-positive-if-male-negative strings of one-liners are a hoot ("Mr. Personality" - it's not a compliment). Most often the blend of rock vamps and yelled couplets recalls early Beastie Boys ("Wanna Wild Thing"), while the more dance-oriented insouciant numbers are closer to Gwen Stefani, Da Brat or even Lisa M ("Coochie Dance"). What it lacks in originality ("Pay Back" borrows the "Tush" riff; "You're A Dog" replays the George Clinton tune) the record makes up in enthusiasm (the title track with its honest-to-Satan metal guitars). Produced by 20 Fingers (Manny Mohr, Charlie Babie, J.J. Flores and Onofrio Lollino), who also produced her little-heard follow-up Shake Your Money Maker; the striking guitar solos come from Lenny Vertucci and Greg Suran. (DBW)

Gorguts, Obscura (1998)
Like a dictionary pretending to be a novel, or a picture book pretending to be a film, the third release by this Quebec tech death unit consists of breathtaking building blocks that are nonetheless unsatisfying when considered as art. If you're in a band, you'll want to hear the innovative effects - wrenched guitars like a scab torn off a wound on "Faceless Ones"; heavy riffs slipping into pinch harmonics in "The Art Of Sombre Ecstasy"; anarchic strings in "Earthly Love"; jazz touches in "La Vie Est Prelude" - but for the ordinary listener, it's ultimately an empty experience because the effects rarely cohere into songs, let alone an album (the slow trudge "Clouded"). But "Nostalgia," with fuzzed-out noise, funky bass and droning vamps, is a blast, and "Sweet Silence" packs its cacophony so densely it's never dull. Produced by the band with Pierre Rémillard. (DBW)

Gorillaz, Plastic Beach (2010)
As much as I defend the right of artists to break out of pigeonholes and disregard genre boundaries, I've been skeptical of all the rockers - from U2 and Radiohead to Kathleen Hanna - who switched majors to electronica and hip hop in the 90s, because it seems like a lazy route to remaining "relevant" compared with digging deeper into the forms that had brought them into the public eye in the first place. Damon Alborn may be the only one of the bunch to become more successful after changing paths: his Britpop band Blur made some waves, but "virtual band" (consisting of four cartoon characters whose parts are played by different musicians from one album to the next) Gorillaz became a worldwide multiplatinum sensation. Perhaps that's because Alborn takes the cut-and-paste freedom of modern dance music as a starting point, not the destination: he doesn't use the guest rappers (Snoop Dogg, De La Soul), unexpected genres (The Syrian National Orchestra For Arabic Music on "White Flag") and (gasp!) rockers (Mick Jones, Lou Reed) for cheap recognition value, but to create actual songs ("Stylo," with Bobby Womack and Mos Def; ). Improbably, the Cerrone-like "Empire Ants" is as touching as it is danceable, and "Rhinestone Eyes" is even better. The mood is often downbeat ("Stylo") or even disconsolate ("On Melancholy Hill," with hints of Peter Gabriel), with just a little party fodder ("Glitter Freeze," with The Fall's Mark E. Smith; the Auto-Tuned "Superfast Jellyfish"). Gorillaz also put out a second album, The Fall, at the end of the year, and it seems much less substantial. (DBW)

Various, Grace Of My Heart Soundtrack (1996)
It's time to play "Spot The Ripoff." In making the soundtrack for a film loosely based on the life of Carole King, producer Larry Klein decided to write new songs with current artists that sound like specific artists from the early and mid 1960s. Even when the execution is successful - J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr sounds just like Harvest-era Neil Young, For Real does a good job of imitating the Supremes - it's distasteful, and when they miss their mark it's really embarrassing: the surf music number ("Take A Run At The Sun") is exceptionally irritating, and the Everly Brothers imitation is tuneless tripe the real Everlys never would have come near. Bizarrely, Joni Mitchell came on board to rip off herself: "Man From Mars," sung by Kristen Vigard (unless you're lucky enough to find a misprinted copy with Mitchell singing) is a copy of the For The Roses sound, with a clever, deceptively mellow arrangement and a surprisingly mundane lyric. Only a couple of tunes are more than outright knockoffs: the single "God Give Me Strength" written and performed by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello is original enough, it's just not very interesting; Juned's "Groovin' On You" is a nice mix of psychedelic pop rock with Suzanne Vega-style breathy vocals and syncopated rhythm guitar. I don't really know who would enjoy this record, since I'd assume nostalgia buffs would rather hear the original songs by the original artists, and the ahistorical pop consumer would miss the point of all the anachronistic touches. Usually movie soundtracks are thrown together quickly and sloppily, and are forgotten as soon as the movie leaves the theaters; this time, the producers put a lot of thought and effort into the soundtrack, and it was forgettable even before the movie closed. (DBW)

Grant Lee Buffalo, Copperopolis (1996)
The Mantovani of 90s alt rock, singer/songwriter/full-time egotist Grant Lee Phillips tries hard to put the "I" back in "rock band." That leads critics to compare him to 70s icons like David Bowie and Neil Young whose personalities nearly overshadowed their own music. Indeed, Phillips' creaky, whispery tenor, soul cowboy harmonica playing, and affinity for feedback, acoustic jangle, and stately 3/4 time signatures do recall Young on Quaaludes, and bassist/keyboard player/producer Paul Kimble does toss in a Bowie-sized serving of odd instrumentation and studio tweaking. But Phillips' artsy-fartsy influences are from elsewhere: "The Bridge" is a flat-out Carly Simon imitation; the glacial "All That I Have" is an old timey torch song; the more up-tempo tunes ("Better For Us") recall 70s pop rock like Air Supply, Badfinger, or (at best) a mopey Wings ("Comes To Blows"); "Even The Oxen" is a John Mellencamp-style confessional anthem, and "Homespun" a snarling, Tom Petty-ish foot-stomper; and when Phillips' lyrics aren't full of sophomoric nihilism and self-pity ("Hyperion And Sunset") they retread the all-American jingoism of Mellencamp, Petty, and Bruce Springsteen ("Bethlehem Steel," with a brooding string arrangement that almost salvages the song's monotonous, repetitive rhythm; "Crackdown," a current events whine). Laden with dramatic flourishes, meandering melodies, and woeful low-energy angst, Phillips' sluggish tunes are usually flat and forgettable ("The Only Way Down"), but the few strong ones do have some emotional resonance ("Homespun"; "Arousing Thunder," with Roger McGuinn-style guitar and vocals). Mood music for the recovering nose-ring addict. The drummer is Joey Peters, and there are a few bit players on pedal steel, violin, and horns. (JA)

Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer (2010)
Atlanta hip hop/soul singer/songwriter Cee-Lo Green has shown evidence of his abundant talents since his 90s work with Goodie Mob, but he seemed to have trouble focusing: his solo debut followed so many different threads it never knit together, and for every smash success like "Crazy" (working with DJ Danger Mouse under the name Gnarls Barkley) there was an incoherent mess (e.g. the second Gnarls Barkley album). This time Green went to the opposite extreme, relentlessly hewing to a late 60s/early 70s retro-soul sound: "Bodies" is a precise imitation of an Isaac Hayes slow burn; "No One's Gonna Love You" copies Ron Isley; "It's OK" has the bounce of a 1966 H-D-H hit. The "Billie Jean" bite on "Bright Lights Bigger City" is a recent reference by comparison. Green had a smash single with "Fuck You" (written with 2010 ubiquity Bruno Mars), and even if you find the song's strident appeal to everyone's inner second grader cloying (as I do), it's nearly impossible to resist the joyful, bouncing groove... I believe it's the first song with the word "You" in the title to be nominated for a Grammy. The album as a whole follows the same pattern: as photocopied and superficial as most of it is, it's so well rendered and catchy you'll be unlikely to complain. Still, it's a relief when genuine feeling shows through the contrivance on the Gamble/Huff-like "Fool For You" (with sky-high backing vox from Phillip Bailey). (DBW)

Green Day, Insomniac (1995)
The follow-up to the factory-made California punk band's breakthrough album Dookie, this is a textbook example of how teenagers are manipulated by the mass media. Everything about it screams teen rebellion, from the militaristic, double-time, 80s-style punk drumbeats to the satiricial, Norman Rockwell-inspired, apocalyptic cover art to the liberal use of generic obscenities like "shit." And everything about it is entirely fake, from frontman Billie Joe's affected quasi-Cockney enunciation to his monotonous, just-loud-enough guitar distortion to drummer Tre Cool's ridiculously self-referential pseudonym. Joe's idea of "punk" is to play at an unwavering, speedy tempo, strum power chords non-stop, stick with standard power trio instrumentation, eschew overdubs, and bitch and whine about the boredom of the middle-class American lifestyle ("Brat") - the kind of thing done with ten times the sincerity by older bands like the Jam and the Meat Puppets. But at heart he's just another prefab AOR professional, singing in key, playing flawlessly, arranging Beatles-style vocal harmonies, and ripping off 70s dinosaurs like the Who ("Panic Song"), Kinks ("Walking Contradiction"), and Aerosmith ("Bab's Uvula Who?") - at his best he has the band veer into a punk take on early 80s American New Wave ("No Pride"), or even REM's power-pop formula ("Geek Stink Breath"). Every track here sounds exactly the same, and every one is entirely dispensable in its tuneful, foot-tapping catchiness; if you had to turn one into a hit, I guess it would be "Stuart And The Ave." or the metal-punk head-banger "Brain Stew." For self-deluded nose-ring wearers only. (JA)

Juliana Hatfield, Only Everything (1995)
The slickest and most high-profile release by the ex-Blake Babies bassist. Despite all the unromantic, depressingly poetic lyrics, Hatfield's commercial sense is unimpeachable. She plays all the guitars and keyboards and some of the bass, and proves to be a competent lead guitarist ("Dumbfun") and a pounding rhythm player, belying her girlish, clean-cut vocals. She puts across a series of hard-driving rockers with blazingly distorted guitars, irresistable hooks, and gobs of energy ("OK OK"; the lurching "You Blues"; best of all "What A Life"). She does drop to a lower gear for a demo-like experiment ("Outsider"), a sludgy down-tempo number ("Bottles And Flowers"), and some Nirvana-style quiet/loud alternation (the impressive "Universal Heartbeat," with a mesmerizing Wurlitzer line; "Dying Proof"; "Hang Down From Heaven"). Golly, there's even a cut in French ("Fleur De Lys") and a druggy grunge waltz ("Congratulations"). And in a couple of places she even falls back to the breezy, innocent-sounding pop rock that marked her earlier work ("Live On Tomorrow"; "My Darling," with a mellotron line). Some of the material does drag ("Simplicity Is Beautiful"), and as with all of her records the production is fairly monotonous. But this is tour de force of rock technique, from dynamics, melody and harmony right down to guitar tone. Most of the bass parts are by Dean Fisher; Josh Feese and Mike Levesque are on drums. Co-produced by Hatfield and engineers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie. (JA)

Tim Hawkes, Make You Worry (1998)
It's a rare record that cuts through my deep-seated prejudices. I got this disc in the mail, and the approach is one I usually hate: rambling voice-over vocals (by Hawkes) over programmed beats, plus guitars and loops masterminded by a keyboardist/producer (Brent Bodrug). But here it works, mostly because the grooves are so catchy they're just irresistable ("Better Place," "Son To Shine," "What's It For"). The bass lines (played by Drew Birston) are truly funky; the rock guitar licks (by Bruno Ierullo, Kevin Vienneau and Mike Hampson) are fierce; even the drum programming sounds fresh (Denton Whited contributes some real drumming). I'm not enthralled with Hawkes' subject matter, lyrics or delivery ("Tell Me" and "What's It For" practically define sophomoric philosphizing), but he's come up with some damn fine tunes. The slower numbers can drag, though ("Did I Make You Worry"), and the trip hop remixes are a waste of time, draining the energy out of some of the best material ("Station"). You can get more information through Bodrug's B-Group Music web site; I'd certainly be interested in hearing more Bodrug productions (hint, hint). (DBW)

Helium, The Dirt Of Luck (1995)
Along with the Posies, Helium was one of the best things to come out of American rock music in the 90s. Leader Mary Timony delivers grinding, grungy, neurotic, unconventionally structured, brilliantly arranged, self-produced indie rock ("Pat's Trick," a.k.a. "Beautiful Thing"), sometimes bordering on acts like Yo La Tengo or Pavement, but entirely distinct. Timony's ringing, deliberate instrumental and vocal hooks are insiduous ("Silver Angel"; "All The X's Have Wings"; "Flower Of The Apocalypse"). Her taut rhythms are methodical and tension-building ("Trixie's Star"). Her shy and precise vocals are remarkably angsty. She gets a sparse, intimate sound out of elaborate orchestrations. She's primarily a guitarist who plays the instrument like a converted violinist, but her grab bag is impressive, ranging from bass and drums to keyboards (the creepy, beautiful instrumental "Comet #9") and even xylophone ("Baby's Going Underground"). And although her fractured, image-strewn poetic fantasies are a little pretentious, they're always striking and intelligent. A lot of the material is too wimpy ("Honeycomb") or more often too arcane to be memorable, but there are still plenty of idiosyncratic masterpieces ("Medusa"; the head-banging "Skeleton," a dissertation on dynamics; the ecstatic "Superball"; the straightforward rocker "Oh The Wind And Rain," a.k.a. "I Want Everything You Do"), making this record an intermittent auditory orgasm. Ash Bowie is on bass and so on; Shawn King Devlin is on drums. (JA)

Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
This solo effort by the former Fugee, mostly self-written and produced (though a lawsuit alleged otherwise), is retro soul with live bass, keyboards and occasional horns and strings over a bedrock of simple programmed beats... hardly any samples (aside from the cover of "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You"). Some of the instrumental flourishes are very clever (the harp runs on the ballad "When It Hurts So Bad"), but they don't make up for the relentless ordinary compositions ("Final Hour," "Ex-Factor" - the rambunctious "Every Ghetto, Every City" is an exception). But Hill's the rare artist who sounds credible both as a rapper and as a singer, and she gets high marks for sociopolitical relevance: the hit single "Doo Wop (That Thing)" updates the battle of the sexes (though the verse taking underdressed women to task is a bit hypocritical coming from the micromini-clad Hill, and the slam against Koreans is doubly so); "Final Hour"; and the song for her young child is touching ("To Zion," with an overmild guitar solo from Carlos Santana). But many of the songs are so personal to Hill they don't resonate the way confessional lyrics should ("Lost Ones," "Superstar," which at least has a smokey soul groove), and her lyrics can be distressingly obvious ("Lost Ones"). Mary J. Blige ("I Used To Love Him") and D'Angelo ("Nothing Even Matters") each drop by for a forgettable duet, and Shelley Thunder contributes a verse to the reggae-influenced "Forgive Them Father." Musicians include James Poyser (keys), Grace Paradise (harp), Johari Newton (guitar), Chris Meredith (bass), Dean Frasier (sax), Everol Ray (trumpet). Hill racked up ten Grammy nominations and won five including Album of the Year, but has released almost nothing since. (DBW)

Hole, Live Through This (1994)
Courtney Love has a lot of talent, all right: too bad most of it is for self-promotion. The leader of this Seattle grunge outfit can occasionally put together a solid lyric ("Doll Parts") and has an enviable Brian Johnson yell, but she relies way too heavily on three pet themes - ambivalent reflections on beauty standards, getting sick, and dying - and one arranging concept: alternating quiet and loud sections, which the band does on every single song, even the punk rave-up "She Walks On Me." Kristen Pfaff on bass and Eric Erlandson on guitar (with Love) gamely repeat two- and three-chord progressions with mild distortion; Patty Schemel plays a solid, original drum part on "Gutless," but spends much of the album bashing on her kit apparently at random. At times it all sounds like Blondie without the hooks or danceability ("Credit In The Straight World"). The musical and lyrical approach is so unvarying you might think you're listening to the same song twelve times, the only variety being the repeated commonplace serving as a chorus: "Plump," "Miss World," "Jennifer's Body," "I Think That I Would Die" - I can't tell the goddamn difference. Cleanly produced by Paul O. Holderine and Sean Slade; no listed guests, but Kat Bjelland co-wrote one tune. (DBW)

The Honeydogs, Everything, I Bet You (1996)
Minnesota's greatest Jewish alt-country band - no, really - got national attention with its minor-label sophomore album, jump-started by their superbly melodious, mid-tempo love song "Your Blue Door." Lead vocalist/guitarist Adam Levy writes everything, and he's genuinely talented, delivering well-structured tunes, solid hooks, thoughtful lyrics, and just enough stylistic variety to keep things interesting. The rest of the band has a raw, sincere sound, although they're a bit faceless (Noah Levy, drums and backing vocals; Trent Norton, bass; Tommy Borschied, lead guitar). They've got a soft spot for slow-paced, dominantly acoustic, super-sincere country, which suits Adam Levy's warm, confessional baritone quite well ("Miles Away"; the dreamily waltzing instrumental "P'Twgs"). They even take a couple stabs at jumpy, chugging honky tonk ("Kandiyohi"; the clichéd "Busy Man"). It's pleasant, and they score with a series of sweet, innocent love songs (the aching "Bad Day, Good Night"; the old timey "Over You"; "Miriam," much like "Blue Door" and just as good). And fortunately they mix things up with some surprisingly aggressive, Replacements-style college rock ("Glee") that reflects similar influences like the Rolling Stones (the foot-stomping "Tell Me") and Gram Parsons ("Moth"). One of the key alt-country records of the decade. Co-produced by the band and Tom Herbers, with several incidental players like Jon Duncan (accordion, keyboards), Mike "Raz" Russell (fiddle), and John "Strawberry" Fields (wurlitzer). I've never seen their 1995 debut, but I've seen them live. (JA)

The Honeydogs, Seen A Ghost (1997)
It's weird, Levy's talent is everywhere here but it just doesn't add up to much. With more cash on hand he uses more elaborate production - there's a string quartet on several cuts (the pretty, stripped-down "Sweat Pea"); "Into Thin Air" has a Revolver-like psychedelic sound; and the respectable Replacements imitation "Twitch" is a little weird too. But mostly it's the same kind of thing. And talk about spinning gears: there's even an ill-advised rerecording of "My Blue Door" with the same basic arrangement. There are some brisk, jangly tunes with catchy hooks ("Rumor Has It"; the late 70s English New Wave-style "Cut Me Loose, Napoleon"), they're fairly successful when they go back to their country-rock sound ("Those Things Are Hers"; the reverby, mellow title track; "Mainline," with a nice walking bass line), a few tunes create some drama ("Donna's 7"), and Levy's slashing rhythm guitar brings a Stones-y sound to some of the midtempo rockers ("Cherub"), while his witty, colorful, slightly morbid lyrics are intriguing. But when they slow things down and throw in some sugar they practically sound like John Cougar ("I Miss You"), and the country tunes can be pretty generic ("Sans Sucre"). Good music to chill out by, but it's often just plain dull ("Old John Brown"), there are no real standout tracks, and basically the record is nothing special. Co-produced again by the band and Tom Herbers. Bit players include Fields, and on many tracks Duncan; Al Kooper shows up on two numbers as well. I've also got 2001's overproduced Here's Luck, which is no improvement. (JA)

Ihsahn, Eremita (2012)
Best known as the frontman for Norwegian black metal band Emperor, Ihsahn has spent the last decade focusing on his solo work, which retains some black metal touches ("The Paranoid," perhaps the most conventional number) while incorporating a host of other influences, frequently venturing into long songs and instrumental flights of fancy ("The Eagle And The Snake"). He's black metal's Porcupine Tree, sort of, and continuing the parallel, though he's a talented songwriter and arranger (the soaring "Arrival"), his supersized soundscapes can test your patience ("The Grave"). Even the few unsuccessful cuts are incongruous enough to hold your attention (the squalling sax opposite croaked vocals on the not-very-cathartic "Catharsis"). Ultimately, the weakness of the album is that it's so focused on technique it's less than involving emotionally; still, it's worth hearing: Metal fans are often stereotyped as unwilling to step outside their comfort zones; Ihsahn takes enough risks that you should find something to challenge your sensibilities no matter what kind of music you normally listen to ("The Departure," which veers between headbanging riffage and Jane Siberry-ish gossamer). (DBW)

Immolation, Majesty And Decay (2010)
Visceral, unironic and deliberately unhip, death metal doesn't seem very New York-y, and in fact this quartet is from Yonkers, just outside the city limits. They've followed the same basic blueprint since their 1991 debut: twin guitars playing extremely dissonant low-end patterns, with angry growling from frontman/bassist Ross Dolan and the drums (via Steve Shalaty) loping along behind. Similarly, every song has the same basic structure and mood, apart from the grand, drama-filled "The Rapture Of Ghosts" and a couple of link tracks (the factually if unimaginatively titled "Interlude"). The best material - "The Comfort Of Cowards"; title track - is ear-catching and exhilarating, with the sort of mindbending licks that technical death metal bands might come across, but taking enough time to explore them before rushing off somewhere else. Most of the material isn't up to that level, but their approach to composition is so idiosyncratic the misses are as novel and unpredictable as the successes: the riffs may leave you unfulfilled - often, even - but they won't remind you of anyone else's riffs, and the same goes for Robert Vigna's twisted, cryptic leads. (DBW)

In Flames, Whoracle (1997)
Generally considered the high-water mark for this Gothenberg melodic death metal crew, with the menacing snarls, ferocity and precise riffing that define the mini-genre. Though there's no singing of actual notes, otherwise they cover a lot of territory, revving up to near-punk speed on "Morphing Into Primal," changing pace on the slow multi-part "Jester Script Transifigured," and using an unexpected amount of acoustic guitar (the closing title track). They also make heavy use of harmonized lead guitars ("The Hive") in a manner reminiscent of The Scorpions - crap, am I gonna have to review them too? - inspiring successors such as Trivium. So they have a lot of compelling elements, but the actual tunes are very dull and dry, with the best rising to the level of "adequate" ("Jotun"; "Episode 666"): song after song starts out with promise then goes nowhere ("Food For The Gods"). Oh, and I have no idea what they were getting at with their deafening cover of Depeche Mode's irritating "Everything Counts." (DBW)

In From The Storm (1995)
Eddie Kramer put together an amazing lineup for this Jimi Hendrix tribute album: a melange of top guitarists (Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Robben Ford, Steve Vai, Steve Lukather, Brian May), Hendrix associates (Noel Redding, Buddy Miles, Billy Cox, Mike Finnegan), and highly respected non-rock musicians (Taj Mahal, Tony Williams, Stanley Clarke, Bootsy Collins, Toots Thielemans). Most tracks also feature the London Metropolitan Orchestra, which sounds out of place even on the mellower tunes ("Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)") thanks to overly obtrusive arrangements by (variously) Nick Ingman, Joe Mardin, Michael Kamen and Bernie Worrell. The guitarists are mostly content to imitate Jimi's signature style, without adding much of their own personalities (Vai is the most impressively lyrical). As a result, it's like listening to Jimi on an off day, with a bunch of noisy strings on top, and unsurprisingly, the best track is the one with no guitars: Thielemans's affecting harmonica version of "Little Wing." Though it's a dull listen overall, the disc indirectly reveals how underrated Hendrix is as a vocalist: the high-quality stand-ins - Paul Rodgers, Corey Glover, Sting - fall short of Jimi's original vocal every single time. (DBW)

Infectious Grooves, Sarsippius' Ark (1993)
This funk-metal outfit was a Suicidal Tendencies side project: frontman Mike Muir and bassist Robert Trujillo (who co-wrote all the tunes) plus temporary drummer Josh Freese were concurrently in ST, and rhythm guitarist Dean Pleasants joined up later, so only lead guitarist Adam Siegel was a true outsider. I get the feeling that the sole impetus behind the group was that Trujillo wanted to show off his formidable funk bass skills, because Muir doesn't have much to say ("Don't Stop, Spread The Jam!") and there's no real metal influence, just lots of guitar distortion ("Turtle Wax"). As a result, the sound is VERY close to the Red Hot Chili Peppers ("These Freaks Are Here To Party"), except that the recording quality is sketchy ("Infectious Grooves," cut to 8-track by an earlier lineup). There are two covers, and I don't know which is more damning: that they can't find anything interesting to do with "Immigrant Song," or that the straight-up take on "Fame" is the album's highlight. Almost forgot to mention: nearly every track is prefaced by a longwinded, unfunny introduction by "Sarsippius," who sounds suspiciously like the Funky Granny, only far less entertaining ("Legend In His Own Mind (Ladies Love 'Sip)"). (DBW)

Infectious Grooves, Groove Family Cyco (1994)
If you're curious about the band, make sure you start here. The same basic approach as the previous disc, but it works eight million times better. First of all, most of the silliness is gone: no Sarsippius interludes, no lo-fi home recordings. The metal elements are baked-in, not pasted on, from the blastoff "Violent & Funky." Trujillo's bass is as far-forward as ever, but this time there's something for him to play off of ("Boom Boom Boom"). Muir finds some content to sink his teeth into, with a loose concept about a family of lunatics (title track; the ultra-creepy, strangely affectionate spoken-word "Cousin Randy," which is almost in Les Claypool territory). And the capper is a hilarious slap at/parody of Rage Against The Machine, "Do What I Tell Ya!" Produced by Michael Vail Blum. (DBW)

Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marvin Gaye (1995)
Tribute albums have a common set of problems: tackily "modern" updating of classic songs, weak performances by flavors of their respective months, and Bono singing with a dead person. This set steps right into all of those traps. Madonna's trance take on "I Want You" (with Massive Attack) is sterile and dull; "good for you" rappers Digable Planets and Speech each get a track full of blathering ("Mavin, You're The Man," "Like Marvin Said (What's Going On)"); and Bono embarasses himself (if such a thing is still possible) with an ex post facto duet with Marvin on "Save The Children." Mostly the best work is by artists who stay close to Marvin's original approach: R&B crooners Boys II Men doing "Let's Get It On"; Sounds Of Blackness in a gospelly medley of "God Is Love/Mercy Mercy Me." Marvin's daughter Nona Gaye gets the plum title track (produced by Me'Shell NdegéOcello with Wendy & Lisa), but her performance is drab. The set list focuses on Marvin's 70s work almost exclusively - fair enough, since he didn't write many of his 60s hits. There's one redeeming, transcendent moment: Stevie Wonder's rollicking rendition of "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow" (with For Real on backing vocals) not only outshines the original hit, it's more playful and energetic than anything Stevie's cut in ages. (DBW)

Joi, Star Kitty's Revenge (2002)
Joi is vaguely similar to Erykah Badu - high, thin voice; retro approach; outré presentation - but on closer examination the differences outweigh the similarities: Joi relies heavily on electronic-sounding production, is much more interested in being wild and crazy ("Lick") than in projecting intelligence or depth, and she's completely missing Badu's lyrical and melodic skills. Dallas Austin serves up some of his usual high-tech backing without his usual taste: "Techno Pimp," with an overprocessed rap, repetitive bass vamp, and squealing chorus, is perhaps the most annoying song I've ever heard, "Mr. Neo-Soul" Rafael Saadiq co-produced and played guitar and bass on several tracks. The genre-mandatory Chaka Khan cover is "I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone)"; there's also a cover of Bootsy Collins' "Munchies For Your Love" that's deadly dull without his epic bass solo. "Missing You" has a nice middle, with bass and guitar by Van Hunt, but it's awfully little awfully late. Joi's 1994 debut The Pendulum Vibe is supposed to be great... unless I find it real cheap I'm never going to find out. (DBW)

Judgment Night (1993)
Soundtrack to a horror flick; the unoriginal idea here was to pair hard rock/metal bands with rappers, which had been done years before by UTFO and Public Enemy, both working with Anthrax. None of those acts appear here, instead there's a succession of well-known and obscure artists. Most often the strategy is to rap over heavy metal backing: this is most successful with Slayer and Ice-T on "Disorder," partly because the band bangs out their hi-speed riffs with precision, partly because Ice-T sounds comfortable here (at the time he fronted his own hardcore band, Body Count). Also Living Colour and Run-DMC mesh well on "Me, Myself & My Microphone," plus Dinosaur Jr and Del The Funky Homosapien crank out the catchy "Missing Link." The record's big disappointment is Sonic Youth's collaboration with Cypress Hill: the music is dull hip hop trance, with only the occasional sonik guitar sound, and Kim repeating herself like she's meditating on Valium, while the rappers create yet another boring ode to marijuana. The rest of the tracks are predictable: Biohazard and Onyx are violent but dull, De La Soul is mellow and samples a crummy Tom Petty tune ("Fallin'"), House of Pain rants and whines, Sir Mix-A-Lot reports his pornographic fantasies. Another Cypress Hill appearance, with Pearl Jam, is a forgettable bonus track. (DBW)

Katatonia, Night Is The New Day (2009)
Formed in Stockholm in the early 90s, Katatonia has tackled a variety of metal styles through the years, incorporating doom and extreme elements. By their eighth studio album, they're using clean sung vocals - by Jonas Renske - on even the loudest songs ("Ashen"), heavy low-end riffs - by guitarists Anders Nyström and Fredrick Norrman - alternating with lovely melodic sections ("Forsaker"), with a deep melancholy tone pervading throughout ("Departer," one of the few tunes making extensive use of keyboards). In other words, they sound like Opeth without the death growls or long running times - it's no surprise to find that Åkerfeldt contributed vocals to a 1996 album, or that Renske and Nyström joined him in the Bloodbath side project. They're mining a narrow vein, and one song sounds much like another, but the compositions are solid ("Liberation"; "The Longest Year") and often challenging ("Onward Into Battle") without ever breaking the somber, sedate but seething mood. (DBW)

Ahmet Kaya, Hosçakalin Gözüm (2001)
Ahmet Kaya was essentially a folk singer, serious and unsmiling, and his songs are sober and affecting, collected but lacerating ("Al Öfkami") though the sound is dated - not quite early 70s Leonard Cohen, but close. (The clouds do lift briefly on "Hadi Bize Gidelim" and - though less so - "Ada Sehilleri.") And just like Cohen in that era, some tunes are so basic there's nothing happening apart from the urgent-yet-gloomy vibe (title track), while others are larded with inexplicable, corny arranging touches: Addams Family strings on "Diyarbakır Hasreti"; hokey fuzz guitar on "Hadi Bize Gidelim." Kaya's vocals and strummed guitar predominate ("Sin Yazmaın" is just voice and 12-string), as additional colors - woodwind and string orchestration on "Memleket Hazreti"; dueling bağlamas on Xoşnav Tilli's "Kervan" - add depth without distracting. Groovy as you and I may consider him, Leonard Cohen is a cult artist in the West, and it says something positive about Turkey that Kaya is a top seller there. Of course, it's quite a bit less positive that Kaya was hounded into exile simply for saying he'd like to record a song in Kurdish (his father's ethnicity). A posthumous release, and I don't know how it was assembled - it's quite possible that the albums released during his lifetime are better. (DBW)

KingBathmat, Blue Sea, Black Heart (2008)
This Hastings-based band has been putting out their self-made CDs since the late 90s, and I think this is their sixth full-length release. They sound quite a bit like pre-Kid A Radiohead, with lots of trippy touches like keyboard washes ("Play By The Rules"), processed vocals ("Brainwash"), and vague, sleepy vocals (courtesy of singer/songwriter/bassist John Bassett). They're also big on the Porcupine Tree trick of mellow tunes shifting unpredictably into hard rock ("Paper Bag," the record's standout track). Guitarist Lee Sulsh and drummer Bernie Smirnoff (formerly of The Vipers) are game, but don't seem to have much input into the sound. So when you look past the groovy production touches, the disc really comes down to Bassett's songwriting, which is erratic - when he misses he misses big (the unbearably repetitive "Somebody Else's Child"), and when he succeeds he sort of succeeds (the bombastic "The World Outside") - but somehow endearing. As my then-not-yet-wife put it, "I like this band. They're kinda good and bad at the same time." Downloadable for three pounds at their official site. (DBW)

Lacuna Coil, Comalies (2002)
An Italian gothic metal band with female (Cristina Scabbia) and male (Andrea Ferro) lead singers, and high contrast between atmospheric keyboard and crunching guitar sections (courtesy of guitarists Cristiano Migliore and Marco Biazzi). If that makes you think of Evanescence, yes, they're pretty similar, though Lacuna Coil is heavier and makes more use of the guy singer. This was the band's third full-length (following two EPs), and the first single "Heaven's A Lie" mapped out their approach: Scabbia's high, clear chorus vocals acting as an antiseptic to Ferro's gruff, half-spoken verses, with tightly arranged ensemble parts and few solos. Second single "Swamped" is in the same vein, though it's really carried by a cathartic, so-simple-it's-irresistable riff. Most of the tunes aren't as memorable, however, so the schtick gets old by the time the album is half-over ("Tight Rope") - by the end of the disc, I'd forgotten it was still playing, and that's not exactly the effect heavy metal is supposed to have. Produced by Waldemar Sorychta. (DBW)

Lacuna Coil, Karmacode (2006)
Produced by Sorychta again, but the sound is louder and heavier, with less reliance on the trippy atmospheric stuff and more rocking out ("To The Edge"; "The Game"). Fine with me, as long as they can come up with enough revved-up riff tunes like "Fragile." There's no one song as striking as "Swamped" but overall the disc is much more solid: though they've lost some of what made them stand out, the melodicism ("Closer") and Scabbia's cool, oddly detached vocals - metal's Deborah Harry? - still mark the band's territory. And they find new ways to capture attention: "Our Truth" and "You Create" sport Middle Eastern-sounding melismatic vocal hooks. On the downside, drummer Criz Mozzati is one of the dullest metal musicians I've ever heard: he only knows one fill - four sixteenth-note snare hits at the end of a phrase - which is the same lick the guy from Spin Doctors was always using. And you know what happened to them. (DBW)

Phoebe Legere, Last Tango In Bubbleland (1997)
A broadly talented, idiosyncratic performer, Legere has a jaw-dropping vocal range, plays everything from piano to guitar to accordion, and had the guts to write an opera about a 300-pound woman who becomes US president. Formerly contemptuous of artists who take the easy route (see Mariah Carey), Legere has evidently decided it's time to sell out: not only does the packaging play up her blonde bombshell looks, the music is dull lowest common denominator dance-pop. The attempts at humor fall flat ("Armageddon A Go Go," "You Devil"), the inspirational numbers are embarrassing ("Amazing Love"), the beats are rote ("Love Bubble"), the vocals are listless ("Madly"), and for all her abilities, she can't seem to write a catchy tune to save her life. There's a brief operatic snippet thrown on as a hidden track; it's so much better than anything else on the disc it's more infuriating than anything else. There may be more going on here than meets the ear, but until I figure out what it is, I'm recommending you stay a mile away from this release. Produced by Tristan Avakian. (DBW)

Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (2008)
New Orleans-based Lil Wayne started out in Hot Boys (a rap trio which also produced Juvenile) in the late 90s, but soon went solo. His career got off to a slow start, but he broke through after some hit guest shots - including Destiny's Child's "Soldier" - and followed up with a steady rain of official releases and mix tapes, all showcasing his wide range of vocal approaches. Wayne (born Dwayne Carter) refuses to stay in one bag, extending from hardcore street stories ("Shoot Me Down") to popwise seduction raps ("Tie My Hands," produced by Robin Thicke) and everything in between, while adapting his flow to match each style. (Curiously, he's most engaging when his voice sounds most laid-back - almost strung-out - as on the playfully egomaniacal "I'm Me.") Wayne's subject matter - his commercial success and sexual prowess, peppered with an occasional social comment ("Dontgetit") - is ordinary enough, but his rhymes are continually surprising ("A Milli"). And though he didn't produce any tracks himself, his kitchen sink approach clearly informs the multitude of offbeat, memorable productions here ("Comfortable," produced by Kanye West with a guest appearance by Babyface; Streetrunner's "Playing With Fire," with a chorus adapted from the Stones song and sung by Betty Wright). Most of the elements are familiar - sped-up soul sample ("Stop! In The Name Of Love" on "Gossip"); Auto-Tune vocals ("Got Money") - but cleverly used: the smash single "Lollipop," based on a keyboard vamp and simple repeated vocal, is actually one of the less interesting cuts on the disc. When it all comes together on one track, the effect is euphoric: Deezle Harrison's "Mrs. Officer," with its ironic subject matter, hilarious one-liners and gorgeous voice-imitating-a-siren hook, is my favorite song of 2008. Lots of guests, from standard bearers (Jay-Z; Busta Rhymes) to upstarts (T-Pain; Static Major). (DBW)

Lil Wayne, I Am Not A Human Being (2010)
Wayne's second album of 2010 (after the ill-conceived "rock" foray Rebirth) is a frustrating clash of first-rate one-liners and tenth-rate backing tracks. As varied as his subject matter and tone get - the straight-up seduction number "With You"; a new nerdy persona on "What's Wrong With Them," backed by Nicki Minaj's pseudo-Caribbean vocals; the defensive relationship fatigue chronicle "I'm Single" - is how unvarying the robotic, default-settings synth/drum loops are. Presumably to speed up recording further prior to Wayne's looming incarceration, almost every track has a featured guest, and Drake's four dispassionate recitations of his fame and fortune are far more than anyone needed.When the songs are just empty collections of "I rule" boasts, the record can be excruciating ("Gonorrhea"); the better cuts make you wish he'd put more effort into the production (title track, with more of Rebirth's unimaginative loud guitars)... Ultimately, the quasi-romantic "Popular" is the only song that rises above all the problems and shows just how good Lil Wayne can be. (DBW)

Machine Head, The Blackening (2007)
Oakland's Machine Head has been playing various kinds of heavy metal since 1992, and this time they combine elements from several subgenres rather than sticking to one. For example, the lengthy suite "Clenching The Fists Of Descent" - one of four nine-minute-plus tunes - has an acoustic opening, groove metal verses, death metal vocals, and a highly technical shred solo. Factoring in the anti-establishment lyrics, they're closer to Sepultura than anyone else I've heard. When the riffs are up to par (the anti-anti-metal Dimebag Darrell tribute "Aesthetics Of Hate"; "Wolves"), they're tough to beat; often, though, the individual licks are ordinary ("Beautiful Mourning"; "Now I Lay Thee Down"). So the record's good but not the masterpiece it's being hailed as. Frontman Robb Flynn is the center of attention, writing most of the songs and playing most of the leads; Phil Demmel also plays lead (resulting in some spectacular duels), while the rhythm section of Adam Duce (bass) and Dave McClain (drums) is either brutal or chilled-out as the occasion demands. I saw Machine Head opening for Lamb Of God early in 2007, and reviewed the show. (DBW)

Marduk, Wormwood (2009)
I can't recommend that you support this Swedish black metal act financially, because they're so far-right they continually have to point out they aren't exactly technically pro-Nazi, but if you get a chance to hear them for free, take it. Musically they stick to a garage-style four-piece template, without using the symphonic or melodic elements of a Dimmu Borgir. But they're terrific at serving up tunes that rock like crazy and are creepy as hell, generally at the same time ("Funeral Dawn"; "Whorecrown"). The effect is created more by the production - layering guitars and sound effects in a shifting dynamic landscape - than the individual players: guitarist Morgan Håkansson and drummer Lars Broddesson don't stand out, though bassist Magnus "Devo" Andersson whips out some striking runs and vocalist Mortuus is as intense when whispering as when screaming. There are some raging punk tempos ("This Fleshly Void"), but the band is most effective on slower numbers, more portentous than battering ("Phosphorous Redeemer"; "Unclosing The Curse"). (DBW)

Maxwell, Urban Hang Suite (1996)
This debut album was a big hit, and people started proclaiming unassuming young singer/songwriter/producer Maxwell the savior of romantic R&B. As so often happens these days, the secret of Maxwell's success is a good record collection: his slow, deliberate grooves mix programmed drums with real live bass guitar, wah-wah (from none other than Wah Wah Watson), and gentle crooning recalling Al Green ("Whenever Wherever Whatever"). There's nothing original anywhere, and the melodies and hooks are nothing special ("Sumthin' Sumthin'"). I can only think this record hit because of the evocative lyrics celebrating seduction, romance and (gasp!) commitment ("Suitelady"). But then, that symbol guy did the same thing better on disc two of Emancipation, and nobody paid any attention. Go figure. (DBW)

Sarah McLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)
A stereotypical singer/songwriter in some ways, with a pensive, allusive, romance-focused approach and a voice that's two parts early Joni Mitchell and one part Stevie Nicks, with a little weird yodeling thrown in. Her lyrics are scattershot: clever ("Hold On"), damnably vague ("Circle"), direct ("Good Enough") or banal: the title track sounds like someone doing her Affirmations. The basic instrumentation is the usual postmodern folkie mix of guitars, piano, drums and bass, but producer Pierre Marchand adds lots of irritating gimmicks: backwards-sounding guitars, distracting programmed drums (title track), embarrassing would-be dance grooves ("Possession") - it works only on the revved-up, almost funky "Circle." The acoustic version of "Possession" at the end of the album just points up the overproduction everywhere else; the best tracks are the ones Marchand mostly left alone, like the gentle "Ice Cream." McLachlan's 1997 Surfacing was a big hit, and is most likely the place to start with her. (DBW)

Natalie Merchant, Tigerlily (Merchant: 1995)
Cutting a solo album seems to have given ex-10,000 Maniacs frontwoman Natalie Merchant an opportunity to indulge all of her worst habits. None of the vocals on this slick yuppie rock record rise much above a whisper; her melodies are frequently elliptical ("River"); and a lot of the tracks run five minutes or more, with "I May Know The Word" taking her eight catatonic minutes to come up with "stop." It's passable, though. There's some competent, mid-tempo rock ("Wonder"; "Jealousy"; "Carnival," which nods to 70s funk a la Santana or War). On the faster songs the drumming has a hiphop flavor, and everything has a vivid, spartan acoustic sound that gives it some warmth and sincerity. Guitarist/backup singer Jennifer Turner plays some creative, lightly distorted electric guitar leads (the grandiose, Elton John-style power ballad "Seven Years"). The catchiest tune ("San Andreas Fault") gets away with a hypo-mellow electric piano part and wordless chorus. And when Merchant is concise (the piano ballad "The Letter") or hits on an actual tune (the James Taylor-like "Beloved Wife"), her sentimentality works. But unless you're in love with her unwaveringly wistful tone, you'll be lucky to keep yourself awake. Merchant wrote everything and handled keyboards. There's also Barrie Maguire (bass) and Peter Yanowitz (drums), and there are a half-dozen incidental players on percussion, violin, cello, and guitar. Not produced; John Holbrook engineered and mixed. (JA)

Meshuggah, obZen (2008)
Swedish metal outfit Meshuggah has built a reputation for highly technical math metal, and when I'd listened to them before I'd found their music to be so confusing and low end-y I couldn't get anything out of it. On this sixth full-length, though, they've pulled back from the arbitrary time signatures and excessive down-tuning and focused on writing songs that are still complex but accessible ("Electric Red"; "Pineal Gland Optics"). Guitarists Frederik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström pound out complementary rhythm parts and occasionally solo - they also overdub bass - while drummer Tomas Haake races along; I'm still not wild about Jens Kidman, whose vocals are an unchanging mid-register scream, but fortunately he's silent for long stretches ("Pravus"). Apart from the nine-minute extravanza "Dancers To A Discordant System," most of the compositions pack their barrage of riffs into five minutes or so; they often set a frenetic pace ("Bleed," ultimately monotonous), but are more powerful when they slow things down ("This Spiteful Snake") and work with contrasting dynamics. The disc doesn't change much from track to track, though, and at album-length all the intricate aggression starts to lose its emotional impact. (DBW)

Pharoahe Monch, Desire (2007)
After the demise of Organized Konfusion, Monch spent years behind the scenes, and seems to have used the time well. Monch is one of the few rappers who can expound on social themes without sacrificing entertainment value, thanks in part to a remarkable gift for one-liners ("What It Is"); moreover he doesn't fall back on easy platitudes. His voice isn't distinctive, which may be one reason he's better known for writing verses than for delivering them, but he's adept enough to cover "Welcome To The Terrordome," convincingly spitting Chuck D's initial verses and then adding his own post-9/11 update. With production from Mr. Porter, Bo McKensie, Black Milk ("Let's Go") and Monch, the music is as noteworthy as the words: a thick stew of R&B horns ("Push" featuring Tower Of Power), rock guitars and gospel vocals ("Free") that's constantly evolving rather than looped ("Body Baby"). A few guests (MeLa Machinko; Erykah Badu on "Hold On") vary the sound without detracting from Monch's unifying purpose; the nine-minute soap opera "Trilogy," with a Marvin Gaye impression from Dwele, is the only track that doesn't hit the mark. (DBW)

Pharoahe Monch, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (2011)
In the same direction as Desire, as Monch's producers reuse the template of old-school R&B horns, organ and gospel ("Let My People Go"), cleverly pouring old wine into new bottles ("Funky Worm" squiggles on "Calculated Amalgamation"). And the most successful tracks are just as rewarding: "Black Hand Side" featuring Styles P and Phonte is an affecting masterstroke. However, at times Monch seems to be going through the motions lyrically as well as musically (the puffery-disguised-as-inspiration "Still Standing," with Jill Scott; the overlong lament "The Grand Illusion"). Lots of guests again, which provides ups and downs: The title track benefits from Immortal Technique, though Vernon Reid's lead is strangely unfocused; MeLa Machinko's intense vocals ground "Shine," while Jean Grae's rap does the same for "Assassins." (DBW)

Pharoahe Monch, PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (2014)
Monch uses the same basic ingredients as the previous two discs, and while the throwback soul elements are initially comforting ("Bad M.F."; "D.R.E.A.M." with Talib Kweli) it's far harsher emotionally - downbeat, dispirited, paranoiac, angry, resentful - with hardly any humor or levity of any kind. So the album is arguably a more powerful experience than its forebears, but in territory you may not want to explore very often ("Losing My Mind," featuring dEnAuN). The lyrics continue Monch's theme from W.A.R., an extended metaphor representing his journey through the music industry as a soldier's travails during wartime ("The Jungle"). "Damage," which borrows its chorus from an LL hit, was the single, but nearly every track is equally strong ("Rapid Eye Movement" featuring Black Thought). (DBW)

Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill (1995)
Basically, this record comes down to what you think of the line "Would she go down on you in a theater?" If that sounds like a gutsy sister being in-your-face and telling it like it is, you'll probably love (and probably already own) this album, and you won't be put off by the braindead drum loops, fourth-hand guitar licks or Morissette's grating yelps and gasps. If you think it's a sad example of self-exploitation and internalized sexism, well, you'll find a lot to dislike here. Her self-absorbed anger ("You Oughta Know") is really all she's got to share, so the love songs ("Head Over Feet") are hollow, and when she tries to get deep ("Hand In My Pocket," "Ironic") the results are unintentionally hilarious. There are a few good points: Lance Morrison's bass playing is vigorous and sometimes interesting; "Mary Jane" is a tender, if rambling, ballad; and a few of Morissette's vocal flights are ear-catching. Producer/guitarist Glen Ballard cowrote everything; Flea is the only notable guest. This debut won four Grammies, sold over 15 million copies, and became the best-selling record ever by a female solo artist. (DBW)

Morphine, Cure For Pain (1993)
This three-piece rock band manages to cook up a unique sound, as Mark Sandman's two-string bass, Dana Colley's baritone sax, and Jerome Deupree's light jazz drumming team up to create a spare, sinister mood. Sandman also writes the tunes, overdubs a little guitar and organ, and sings the lyrics of quiet desperation (the sardonic "I'm Free Now," "In Spite Of Me"). What could be an exercise in self-pitying angst becomes cathartic and enjoyable thanks to consistently good hooks ("Buena," "Thursday," title track) and a refreshing lack of lengthy soloing. That said, it's an emotionally limited approach, and there's very little variation from song to song ("Sheila"). If you're chronically depressed and want to stay that way, this could be the band for you. For everyone else, this is pleasant to chill out by every once in a while, but nothing to get addicted to. (DBW)

Mos Def, Black On Both Sides (1999)
Mos Def is a Brooklyn rapper focused on racism and the direction of hip hop culture - in the KRS-One tradition - who plays most of his own backing tracks on keyboards, bass and drums. Unfortunately, most of his retro-soul grooves are overly simple and not gripping ("Love"), and his delivery is so dry and conversational it's easy to tune him out. When he does use samples, it's no better: "Ms. Fat Booty" is based on a vocal snippet from Aretha Franklin that's repeated so often it becomes annoying. "Rock N Roll" (produced by The Beatnuts' Psycho Les) starts as a verbal critique of Apartheid-Oriented Radio, and then erupts into a post-punk rock noisefest, but it has the passionless feel of an academic exercise. But for all the problems, there are still some blistering political lyrics ("Mathematics," a devastating collection of statistical evidence of institutional racism; "New World Water"). The omnipresent Busta Rhymes pops up on "Do It Now," and his energy is a welcome contrast to Mos Def's low-key delivery; Talib Kweli appears on "Know That"; and Q-Tip guests on "Mr. Nigga," an antiracist screed that bizarrely cites OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson as recent victims of discrimination. Producers include Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Mr. Khaliyl, Etch-A-Sketch, Ge-ology, D-Prosper, DJ Premier, Diamond, BB Keys, Ayatollah, 88 Keys and Mos Def himself, all of whom follow the same basic approach. (DBW)

Cavit Murtezaoğlu & Feryal Öney, Tebriz'den Toros'a (2012)
Okay, I'm getting farther than usual into musical waters I don't know how to swim in, but please bear with me. Though singers Feryal Öney and Cavit Murtezaoğlu are from Turkey and Iran respectively, their work together is based in Azerbaijani folk music, with healthy borrowings from other styles. The working unit is known as Tebriz Toros (referencing Tabriz and Turkey's Taurus Mountains), featuring Murtezaoğlu's nephew Arslan Hazreti (one-stringed kemancha), Can Porvas (piano), Uğur Küçük (bağlama), Abdullah Shakar (bass), and Selda Öztürk & Mehmet Aydın (percussion). The group produces a denser sound than I've heard in folk music from the area ("Ali Kimi Yari Var"), and every instrument pulls its weight, playing a different role either melodically or rhythmically. The songs themselves - mostly composed by Murtezaoğlu with a variety of lyricists - range from sea chanty-like simplicity to jazz-pop urbanity ("Ayanda," spotlighting Shakar and Porvas), from gravity to revelry ("Bahariye - Sah Hatai"), but each is distinct and stays with you. Best of all, there are Öney's vocals, which can deliver anything from a soothing caress to a stinging slap to an oracular vision ("Aldi Dert Beni"). The two principals rarely duet; most often, Murtezaoğlu introduces the tune before turning it over to Öney ("Aşkın Elinden"), while a few tunes are pure solos ("Cameye Sadi"). (DBW)

Muse, The Resistance (2009)
When Muse first ventured out of Teignmouth, England, in 1999 they sounded like a lot of other "alt-rock" bands, and were thought to be another Radiohead knockoff. But they forged an identity for themselves, reaching into dance beats, theatrical grandiosity ("United States Of Eurasia") and conceptual suites (the concluding three-part "Exogenesis: Symphony"). At their best, they combine the post-disco euphoria of, say, Franz Ferdinand with the Big Ideas of an art-rock outfit ("Uprising," deservedly a hit single). When they're not at their best (which is fairly often), they're the New Millenium version of Queen: fun and superficially ambitious if thin verging on silly ("Unnatural Selection"). Frontman Matthew Bellamy sings with a lot of vibrato and has a catch in his voice exactly like Bono's ("Resistance"), which gets on my nerves; since he also plays lead guitar and writes everything, though, I'll give him a pass. (DBW)

Muse, The 2nd Law (2012)
Another step in the same direction, Muse's latest pulls elements from various pop and rock styles, emphasizing danceability and emotional appeals without fear of going over the top ("Animals"). And again, the top cuts are transcendent: "Supremacy" kicks off with a heavy metal riff, "Kashmir" strings, and then a crooned verse over what sounds like a Hans Zimmer-scored battle scene; "The 2nd Law: Unsustainable" makes great use of an ultraprocessed keyboard riff straight out of Dr. Luke's bag. The lesser tracks, though, come across as pastiches of other bands: The Bono love reappears on "Follow Me," a big ballad with an overblown synth arrangement, and "Big Freeze" (with INXS-style rhythm guitar for good measure); "Panic Station," albeit funky, recalls "Another One Bites The Dust." If you're looking to them to save rock 'n' roll you'll be disappointed, but they're both intelligent and fun, and that's enough for me. (DBW)

Music From And Inspired By The Hit TV Show Living Single (1997)
All together now: soundtrack albums are lame. Nine times out of ten, you get a random assortment of artists disposing of tracks they didn't want cluttering up their own albums. This effort fits the mold, though it's slightly better than most, because the TV show stars the well-connected Queen Latifah. Her one number, "Ladies Night Out," is pleasant, with her usual female-positive good humor. Sandra St. Victor (erstwhile Family Stand member and Paula Abdul producer) contributes a remix of "Chocolate" featuring Yo Yo; it's amusing with a solid groove. But most of the album is turned over to routine Babyface-inspired midtempo grinds by instantly forgettable artists like Nadanuf, K-Ball and Deborah Williams; Dwayne Wiggins, who can do much better, limps through "1-4-3 (Strawberry)." Then there's Eric Benét's take on Stevie Wonder's "Superwoman": he copies every vocal mannerism so closely it's more like a remix - clichéd hip hop drums added - than a cover version. Nonchalant serves up yet another hip hop version of Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots," titled "Until The Day." Which leaves it up to old schooler Chaka Khan to steal the show with her dramatic vocals on the Prince-donated "Pain," which also features Me'Shell Ndegéocello, saxman Joshua Redman and Wah Wah Watson. (DBW)

Music From And Inspired By The Hit TV Show The PJs (1999)
This soundtrack to the rapidly cancelled Eddie Murphy claymation sitcom went straight into the bargain bin, despite the presence of a terrifying array of front-line hip hop talent: Snoop Dogg, Raekwon, Jermaine Dupri & Da Brat, Raphael Saadiq and Q-Tip, etc. But you have to suspect the artists knew the project was going to tank, because in nearly all cases they supplied substandard tunes (Goodie Mob's "Hat Low"), and there are several "let my protegé do the work" collaborations: R.O.C. is more audible on Dupri & Da Brat's "It's Nothing" than either of the headliners, Timbaland's "Talkin' Trash" is a showcase for squeaky-voiced Bassy; Raekwon's dance-pop "Giant Size" mostly features the American Cream Team. Then there are the artists that weren't much good to start with: Destiny's Child's "No More Rainy Days" is their usual formulaic pseudo-soul; Sy Smith's "What I Am" (yes, based on that damn Edie Brickell song) is just about unlistenable. The only pleasant surprise is the gently grooving "Here I Go" by Infamous Syndicate. Cuts by two 70s funk vets, Earth Wind & Fire and George Clinton, are ruined by trendy loop-based production (by Wyclef Jean and Quincy Jones III, respectively), but even there, the tunes weren't much to start with. For me, the only worthwhile tracks are "Way 2 Strong" and "The Ghetto" by Bizzy Bone and Krayzie Bone respectively, both lovely, subtle grooves produced by DJ U-Neek. (DBW)

Nas, It Was Written (1996)
Nas's unvarnished debut Illmatic got lots of praise but little sales, so the Queens-based rapper moved toward mainstream production (much of it from Trackmasters) and adopting a mafioso/drug lord persona. Predictable charges of selling out ensued, but at least on this album (his biggest seller to date) he makes it work: Nas pours out one-liners that are clever on their own but take on added power in pointed narratives about city life, generally focusing on the thuggish side of things ("Shootouts") but also drawing a tender portrait of young women caught in the middle ("Black Girl Lost"). DJ Premier's "I Gave You Power," a meditation on violence and its discontents told from the point of view of a gun, is one of the most moving songs I've heard. The music isn't nearly as remarkable, often looping slow soul samples ("Live Nigga Rap") or drawing on lame pop hits ("Street Dreams," based on the similarly titled Eurythmics tune), though generally it's an effective enough backdrop. The single "If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)" puts the pieces together, with a sung chorus from Lauryn Hill dramatizing Nas's simple, sober wish for love, peace and understanding atop an 80's synth-funk hook. (DBW)

Me'Shell Ndegéocello, Peace Beyond Passion (1996)
On Ndegéocello's second album, she finds a schtick - simple, repetitive fusion/funk vamps with live instruments, performed by jazz musicians - and sticks with it. The end result is easy listening funk: carefully produced tunes ("Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart") that simmer but never come to a boil, despite all the right retro elements (wah-wah, Rhodes) The mellowness applies to her singing as well - she often half-speaks ("Mary Magdalene") and never seems to commit herself fully. Couple that with unbearably pretentious lyrical concepts ("Leviticus: Faggot") and it's no surprise this album was better loved by critics than by the general public. There are some comforting, familiar hooks ("Deuterotomy: Niggerman," Bill Withers' "Who Is He And What Is He To You") which are entertaining if you're not paying too much attention or don't have much background in soul music. Ndegéocello played bass, some guitar and presumably keyboards; other players include Wah Wah Watson and Wendy Melvoin (guitar), Joshua Redman (sax), Billy Preston (organ), Oliver Gene Lake (drums), Federico Gonzalez Peña (Rhodes), Luis Conté (percussion). Produced by David Gamson. (DBW)

Necrophagist, Epitaph (2004)
A pungent mix of grindcore's frenzied stops, starts and switches with neoclassical guitar solos a la Yngwie Malmsteen or Randy Rhodes. Mainman Muhammed Suiçmez is equally proficient at both, and while each style can seem superficial on its own, the combination is plenty serious ("Seven"). Each tune comprises a clutch of novel, unexpectedly satisfying licks - incorporating groove, note cascades, and plenty of pinch harmonics - while tempos range from the slow grind opening "The Stillborn One" to the racing "Only Ash Remains." More importantly, what sets quality technical death metal from the rest is how the brief musical sections are pieced together, and this record passes that test with flying colors: the segments are not only intriguing on their own, they make up coherent songs ("Diminished To Be"). While the group's first album, Onset Of Putrefaction, was nearly all performed or programmed by the leader, this is a band effort, and bassist Stephan Fimmers - whose funk-inspired slapping recalls Atheist - and drummer Hannes Grossmann contribute to the mix; it's harder to distinguish second guitarist Christian Muenzner from Suiçmez though there are certainly plenty of six-string heroics to go around ("Ignominious & Pale"). I don't get much out of Suiçmez's grunting, and the lyrics are Carcass-style gore ("Stabwound"), but the compositions are so rewarding it hardly matters. Muenzner and Grossmann later left the band to join Obscura; Suiçmez has persevered through various lineup changes and continues to tour, but hasn't released a follow-up disc to date. (DBW)

Nevermore, The Obsidian Conspiracy (2010)
When Nevermore is good they're very very good, but when they're bad they kinda suck. Like West Coast brethren Machine Head, Nevermore doesn't stay in one heavy metal pigeonhole, incorporating thrash, prog, death and groove elements ("Moonrise (Through Mirrors Of Death)"). They're also one of the few U.S. bands to delve into power metal, a mostly European variant characterized by neo-classical instrumental passages and emotive, operatic vocals ("Without Morals"). It may not be fair to mock Warrel Dane's vocal heroics when I have no problem with the absurd grunting that defines most death metal vocals, but I can't help feeling it's a big put-on, particularly when the compositions are equally pompous ("Emptiness Unobstructed"). That said, if you're going to dip your toe into power metal waters you might as well start with Nevermore, for two reasons: Dane and guitarist Jeff Loomis are so capable they get more out of the sub-genre than most ("She Comes In Colors"), plus the band really delivers the goods when they stick to more digestible forms (the melodic death-influenced title track). The band broke up shortly after this release, but (despite Loomis's generic solo guitar whiz Plains Of Oblivion) I'll be interested to follow what they each do next. (DBW)

Nickel Creek (2000)
On authenticity grounds I ought to prefer bluegrass as played by grizzled backwoodsmen rather than a fresh-scrubbed young family (well, parts of two families). But 1) I've never been an authenticity freak - I like early Police more than real reggae - and 2) this trio has not only impressive instrumental brio ("Ode To A Butterfly," with face-melting mandolin runs) but also lovely clear voices ("Out Of The Woods") and clear, bright, spare arrangements ("The Lighthouse's Tale"). So even when they're playing a hoary folk tune like "The Fox" it's enjoyable, and when they come up with a great song they have the strengths of 70s Fleetwood Mac without the production gloss ("When You Come Back Down"). Chris Thile (mandolin) is the most arresting, but Sara Watkins (fiddle) and brother Chris (guitar) each get plenty of opportunities to shine ("Cuckoo's Nest"), and more importantly to subordinate flash to the needs of the song (the relatively simple but powerful vamp of "Reasons Why"; Chris's father Scott plays restrained bass throughout). Produced by Alison Krauss, this third release got much more attention than their first two. (DBW)

Nicole, Make It Hot (1998)
The first release on Missy Elliott's Gold Mind label, and Elliott is everywhere: writing, rapping, and bringing along other proteges (Mocha, Lil' Mo), to the point where it's hard to remember this is supposed to be Nicole's album. But Nicole is a legit talent, with a fine voice - smooth, sly and commanding all at once - and she contributes lyrics to several songs (the lush love song "Nervous"). Timbaland produced the dense, smokey title track, co-written with Elliott; the rest of the production is split between Elliott, Big Baby & Suga Mike, and Smokey (from Playa, another Virginia Beach act). Brian Alexander Morgan contributes one track, the lovely spacey "I Can't See." Missy's work ranks with her best - the ballads have bite ("Boy You Should Listen") and the funky hip hop grooves have soft underbellies ("In Da Streets") - while the other producers stick to romantic R&B ("Silly Love Songs," "Testing Our Love"). Overlooked. Nicole was supposed to have another album in October 2001, Elektric Blue, but I guess it got lost in the shuffle. (DBW)

Nicole Renée (1998)
Nicole Renée is a young NY-based singer/songwriter who's a devastatingly accurate imitator of 80s Prince, from the varispeeding and vocal inflections to the sexual metaphors ("Rockin' Chair," "Strawberry") to the extensive use of wah-wah ("Cocaine Lane"). She produced and arranged almost every track, writing or co-writing everything to boot, and she has a sure touch with sly funk ("Telephone"), synth ballads ("Sound Of Love"), and loud rock ("Rocking Chair") - effortlessly melodic and memorable. Her lyrics are simple but heartfelt and often moving (the social lament "Ain't Nothing Changed"). But it's all so derivative it's hard to fully enjoy - the most modern touches are subtle samples from 70s artists like Grover Washington Jr., Rufus and the Isley Brothers. I don't know how she got to be so well connected so quickly: outside talent involved with the project includes Bernie Worrell, Will Calhoun, Lamont Dozier, Will Lee, Vince Montana, Wah Wah Watson, and Doug Wimbish. She's so good at so many things one has to hope she'll develop her own style; meanwhile, if you are jonesing for Prince, put that D'Angelo dreck back on the rack and pick this up. (DBW)

Oasis, Definitely Maybe (1994)
I can't endorse the critical consensus that these guys are Beatles imitators: lead singer Liam Gallagher's nasal whine bears a passing resemblance to Lennon's voice, and there are trippy retro touches here and there, that's all. Overall, Oasis is your basic bad band - four-piece rock with the same approach on every song (right down to the guitar distortion); trite, remarkably repetitive lyrics ("Columbia"); medium-grade, unoriginal riffs ("Up In The Sky") - they're imitating everybody. (For example, "Cigarettes & Alcohol" is an unabashed ripoff of T. Rex's "Bang A Gong.") The group tacks on one acoustic piece where guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher noodles incessantly, showing he has no ideas on any kind of guitar. Rhythm section Paul Arthurs (rhythm guitar), Paul McGuigan (bass) and Tony McCarroll (drums) isn't given much to do, so maybe it's not their fault they sound anonymous and dull. Gallagher does do a fair job of depicting adolescent confusion and solipsism (after "I," his favorite word is "maybe"), and come up with a couple of passable, sentimental pop songs: "Live Forever" and "Slide Away." He amplified both those areas on their next release, (What's The Story) Morning Glory containing the huge hit "Wonderwall," before the group started their slide into obscurity. (DBW)

Oasis, (What's The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
Noel Gallagher is totally in control again, writing everything and co-producing with Owen Morris. Like before, he persistently mines 70s classic rock conventions as channeled by the Stone Roses, with a wall-of-noise approach - screaming guitars, soaring string quartet-style mellotrons - that conceals a distressing lack of depth. Mostly it does work, though: the jangle-anthem "Roll With It" is harmless good fun; there's a bombastic, scarily on-target, imitation early 70s Paul McCartney epic ("Look Back In Anger"); Noel's lead guitar recalls early Led Zeppelin on the foot-stomping rocker "Morning Glory"; and the multi-tracked guitars on "Hey Now!" are downright thunderous - think Marc Bolan or even Joe Walsh. But the track lengths are indulgent, the material is occasionally disposable (their mellow pop-rock ballad "Cast No Shadow"), and brother Liam's vocals are unbearable: he shows off a decent falsetto on the jokey, hand-clapping, Monkees-like cowboy tune "She's Electric," but his sneering distracts completely from their lumbering, but danceable big-deal hit "Wonderwall" (an extreme example of their Manchester beats-meets-the-Beatles formula). Noel doesn't help with lyrics that range from dull and vague to flat-out embarassing (the tuneful power ballad/drug anthem "Champagne Supernova," with Paul Weller guesting on lead guitar). The record makes it clear why the Gallaghers were the mid-90s kings of the Britpop movement, but it's fundamentally thin. McCarroll was out, appearing here only on the churning hard rocker "Some Might Say," so the drummer is Alan White (apparently not that Alan White). I also have their 1997 disc, which is much in the same vein: bombastic, retro, vocally painful, and occasionally a heck of a lot of fun. (JA)

Organized Konfusion, Stress: The Extinction Agenda (1994)
Queens alt hip hop duo Organized Konfusion (not to be confused with Atlanta's Organized Noize) was Pharoahe Monch and Prince Poetry, and Their second disc is a concise compendium of early 90s hip hop styles: mellow jazz loops like Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr, diffuse political calls to "organize" recalling Poor Righteous Teachers, a laid-back, "we're just messing around" demeanor a la De La Soul, except when Prince Poetry brings a manic edge along the lines of Sticky Fingas. However, apart from a few compelling moments (the elegant bass underpinning "3-2-1"; a searing Monch verse on "Thirteen"), the duo rarely finds anything new or exciting in these tropes, only a series of now-stale cultural references (Amy Fisher, e.g.). "Stray Bullet," narrated by the titular munition, was the likely inspiration for Nas's "I Gave You Power," but the Nas track is much more powerful. The only guests are Q-Tip and O.C., both on "Let's Organize." Largely self-produced; Buckwild contributed two tracks and Rockwilder one. (DBW)

Orphaned Land, The Never Ending Way Of ORwarriOR (2010)
This Israeli band incorporates elements from various Middle Eastern music traditions - sung in English, Hebrew and Arabic - into their brand of progressive metal. Generally the way it plays out is that the sweeping epics ("The Warrior") mostly rely on rock instrumentation and Opeth-style alternation of heavy and mellow segments, sometimes incorporating Arabic melodies. In between are shorter songs mostly driven by traditional string instruments, with little or no metal content ("His Leaf Shall Not Wither"; "Olat Ha'tamid"). The multi-culti, we're-all-one message is certainly admirable ("In Thy Never Ending Way"), and at points the marriage of approaches is mind-expanding (the riff-riding roller coaster "Disciples Of The Sacred Oath II"). At other times the syncretism - while never sounding contrived - seems more theoretical than actual; not to mention that some of the tunes are just dull ("New Jerusalem"). (DBW)

Outkast, Aquemini (1998)
The third album by this Atlanta-based hip hop duo (Andre Benjamin and Big Boi) has been hailed as a masterpiece, but I don't see it. The slick production - based largely on keyboards and drum programming, with some live instruments and few samples - brings flexibility and some tunefulness to their midtempo grooves, and the rhymes are clever, although neither has a particularly remarkable delivery. But it's so laid back it rarely generates excitement ("Rosa Parks," which title aside is purely about partying) except on a couple of powerful tunes like "West Savannah" and the title track. The trick of having Big Boi present gansta rap clichés followed by Benjamin's positive-minded social comment on the same subject is clever, but it's overused: on the title track, "Da Art Of Storytellin'," and several more. There's an endless stream of guest stars, which helps break up the monotony, but some of the appearances seem ill-considered - George Clinton appears on "Synthesizer," but doesn't have anything to say and is barely audible anyway; Erykah Badu fits in like a sore thumb on the endless "Liberation." Other guests include Raekwon, and Witchdoctor (on the unusually lively "Mamacita"). Overlong, overblown and overhyped, it's still an enjoyable record, and terrific in spots. Mostly produced by Outkast, with some help from Organized Noize and others. (DBW)

Pain Of Salvation, Scarsick (2006)
Pain Of Salvation cut their first record in the mid-90s, not long after fellow progressive metal Swedes Opeth. But their loud sections aren't as loud as Opeth's, and the quiet parts aren't as quiet: they eschew both death metal (no Satanic growling) and acoustic folk, instead incorporating a wide range of synth and studio effects, as well as outside influences like rap ("Spitfall") and New Wave ("Disco Queen"). In fact, they sound quite a bit like neo-prog rockers Coheed And Cambria. Daniel Gildenlöw is the main man - singing, playing lead guitar, writing all the songs and producing - and he's competent at all those roles but not brilliant in any of them. The compositions change gears frequently ("America," with a heavy verse, a dinner theater chorus, and a silly banjo break) but apart from the thundering title track the individual sections aren't really gripping. Wordwise, the album is a critique of US consumerism, often trite ("Cribcaged") though the occasional zinger hits home. And the record does build up some steam toward the end, from the groovy syncopated riff on "Mrs. Modern Mother Mary" through the wah-wah-driven "Flame To The Moth," before going off the rails with the ten-minute bore "Enter Rain." (DBW)

Rahsaan Patterson (1997)
Patterson's debut showcases both his retro 70s and 80s soul approach - keyed by strikingly Princely vocals ("So Fine"; the a capella "Joy") - and unerring ear for melody ("Spend The Night," like a new and improved DeBarge). He works as hard to stick to old sounds as someone like M.I.A. works to find something new, from funky clavinet ("Stop By") and sitar ("Come Over") to deftly arranged strings ("Can't We Wait A Minute"). Combined with the quality of his output ("My Sweetheart," a singalong anthem with wah-wah and horns), that puts him in a class with Nicole Renée or Diane Birch, and easily more tuneful and memorable than Raphael Saadiq's curiously in-demand later work. The album barely varies in tempo and not at all in mood; if the lyrics ever rose above romantic commonplaces ("Stay Awhile"; "One More Night"), it would be a minor classic. Though he's never threatened the top of the charts, he's continued to release music, and I'll be tracking down more of it. (DBW)

Pavement, Wowee Zowee (1995)
Not their best effort from what I've heard - 1997's Brighten The Corners is definitely better, while 1993's Westing (By Musket & Sextant) is almost unlistenable. But the notorious indie rock band's fourth album does communicate their anarchic creativity and leader Steve Malkmus' knack for tossing off engaging melodies. He often sticks with mellow, rough-hewn, low-volume indie rock that spotlights his conspiratorial vocals ("Motion Suggests"; the gorgeous "We Dance" and "Black Out") - his poor pitch control and talkiness strongly recall Lou Reed, although he's just got a better voice. The record's got tons of problems; Malkmus often splices a good hook with random noisemaking ("At & T"), and there are several incoherent, drugged-out experimental numbers (the Dead-ish "Extradition"), dull ballads ("Fight This Generation"), and disorganized, noxiously noisy punk songs ("Serpentine Pad"; "Best Friends Arm"). They also get bogged down by layering piles of ringing, distorted, Sonic Youth-style guitars on almost everything ("Grounded"; the hypnotic mantra "Fight This Generation"). But there's plenty of the band's patented wackiness, with oddball electronic effects, quirky percussion, and retro electronic keyboard sounds ("Western Homes"); the overdriven Hüsker Dü punk thing works occasionally ("Flux = Rad"); there's some shambolic, but basically enjoyable rock ("Grave Architecture"; "Pueblo"; the Bob Mould-like "Kennel District"); and they shift gears for some sedate country ("Father To A Sister Of Thought") and a freaky, ear-blasting, 60s-flavored riff fest ("Half A Canyon"). And they do come up with one really memorable hard rock anthem ("Rattled By The Rush") and an irresistably goofy funk/folk rock groove ("Brinx Job"). An out-of-control, excessive record that still shines in places. (JA)

Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville (1993)
Hailing from Chicago, Liz Phair blends singer-songwriter introspection with low-fi indie production, but on most songs the introspection doesn't add up to anything. The tracks break down into three categories: energetic and driving full-band garage rock ("Never Said," "Help Me, Mary"); morose and tuneless unaccompanied guitar-and-vocal numbers with fumbling electric guitar backing ("Glory," "Dance Of The Seven Veils"); and morose and tuneless full-band garage rock ("Soap Star Joe," "Divorce Song"). Unfortunately, the first category is heavily outweighed by the other two. Phair's voice perpetually sounds like she's about to pass out from exhaustion, and by the end of the disc you may feel the same way. Rock critics slobbered over this principally because of Phair's overt sexuality, which involves more double standards than I have time to get into at the moment. But there's nothing revelatory about Phair's "I'm so ambivalent about guys and sex" schtick - "Fuck And Run" is no more profound than Pat Benatar's similarly themed "Promises In The Dark," and far less entertaining. Written and arranged by Phair; production and a variety of instruments by Brad Wood. (DBW)

Pig Destroyer, Book Burner (2012)
Richmond-based Pig Destroyer has only two key instrumentalists - guitarist Scott Hull and former Misery Index drummer Adam Jarvis; there's also J.R. Hayes on vocals and Blake Harrison on inaudible electronics - but they're more than enough on this bracing set of super-brisk, supercatchy deathgrind. Nineteen songs whiz by in thirty-two minutes, with Hull throwing off gripping riffs the way aluminum foil you accidentally microwaved gives off sparks (don't try that at home, kids). The individual licks aren't nearly as offbeat as the latest from War From A Whores Mouth, but they're equally satisfying ("Eve," with guest shrieking from Kat Katz). Personally I'm not a huge fan of micro-songs (ten tracks clock in under ninety seconds) because there's no time to build up a full head of steam, so I get more out of the longer cuts (the relatively gargantuan, four-minute "Permanent Funeral"). (DBW)

Playa, Cheers 2 U (1997)
The also-rans in Timbaland's Virgina Beach clique, this R&B vocal trio didn't find much success with their only LP to date. Despite name guests (Foxy Brown on "I Gotta Know") and six tracks produced by Timbaland, this is a wearying effort, an endless succession of loop-based, midtempo grinds with no particular melody ("Everybody Wanna Luv Somebody"; title track, which bears a strong resemblance to "I Can't Make You Love Me"). Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's one contribution is a standout ("Ms. Parker"), making inventive use of synthesized noise; Aaliyah gets nothing to do on her guest shot, just adding undistinguished backing vocals to "One Man Woman." Damningly, the best track is a two-minute a capella tossoff ("Gospel Interlude"), the only evidence on the disc that the Playas - Static (who wrote most of the lyrics), Smokey (who produced several tracks), and Black - really can sing. (DBW)

Porcupine Tree, Fear Of A Blank Planet (2007)
The brainchild of British producer Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree started in the 90s as a studio-only mock band recording lengthy electronic soundscapes a la The Orb. But over the years - and after working with Opeth - Wilson moved in the direction of conventional song structures, rock instrumentation, and slightly less lengthy running times. He's even held together a steady supporting cast: Richard Barbieri (keys), Colin Edwin (bass), Gavin Harrison (drums). What he ends up with is modern prog rock - not unlike Coheed And Cambria - and to drive the point home he recruits Rush's Alex Lifeson to play guitar on the seventeen-minute "Anesthetize" (which later heads straight into heavy metal before a mellow Floyd-esque denouement). When Wilson comes up with good hooks, he can pull terrific things out of them (title track). Many of the best sections come when he hews closest to traditional rock, though he also constructs a gripping finale with synth and orchestra on "Sleep Together." At other times, though, he sticks too long with limited ideas ("My Ashes," with too-prominent organ), and the undersold vocals sound like an afterthought throughout ("Way Out Of Here"). (DBW)

Porcupine Tree, The Incident (2009)
Wilson more or less sticks to the same script of introspective prog rock tunes, this time forging an album-long suite of not-terribly-long songs (the centerpiece "Time Flies" is the only ten-minuter). And as with numerous pop symphonies going back to the early 70s, there are too many framing fragments ("Occam's Razor"; the organ-heavy "The Yellow Windows Of The Evening Train") and miscellaneous spare parts ("Kneel And Disconnect"), and too few substantive works: the title track, with a Nine Inch Nails-recalling sleazy synth groove; the driving Rush job "Octane Twisted." Wilson may have gotten carried away with his disconnection message at the expense of songcraft: "The Blind House" runs its theme into the ground, becoming mind-numbing rather than portentous; the concluding "I Drive The Hearse" tries to be prettily disconcerting but only achieves pretty. The bonus CD, with four songs that didn't fit into the album concept, is more fun: the thumping but creepy rocker "Bonnie The Cat"; "Flicker" sounds like CSN forced to play an RNC benefit, but in a good way. Somehow Porcupine Tree racks up a lot of hipster/indie cred for pulling off a lot of Led Zeppelin's old tricks (the fade of "Remember Me Lover"; the jagged vamp "Circle Of Manias")... not that I'm complaining. (DBW)

Psycho Delicate, Love Songs For The Dysfunctional (1998)
I got this in the mail; they're a Harrisburg, PA quartet that piles clever, ironic lyrics (courtesy of bassist Mike Hoover) atop straightforward, catchy, midvolume rockers with intricate production. They don't stick with any one sound, ranging from "Peter Gunn"-style post-surf ("Nihilistic Girl") to psychedelia ("Liquid Sky") to funk (the fade of "Puppet World"), frequently tongue-in-cheek, but the constants are enthusiastic performance, high-pitched backing vocals, and riff-filled songwriting. There's such a profusion of hooks you don't mind that many of them sound just a tad familiar ("Zombie Of The Stratosphere"). Guitarist/keyboardist Tom Diecidue rides the waves, playing lots of enjoyable, economical solos and little fills; drummer Chris Bair seems to never play the same thing twice (in a good way), while Hoover stays more in the background. It seems like they made a point of using every production gimmick in the book, with sound effects (including the ever-popular "feet walking away") and every guitar treatment you can imagine. What really sets them apart, though, is the lyrics: often focusing on twisted love as the title indicates ("Lack Of Medication," "Stigmata"), Hoover also finds time for pop-culture satire ("Drive-in Massacre," the Zappaesque mini-opera "Porno Movie"). The hidden track making fun of hidden tracks is just brilliant, though they spoil things a bit by including a subsequent hidden track of their own. "Secret weapon" Mike Strickler adds backing vocals, some guitar, and lead vocals on "She Melts In My Mouth"; Steph Diecidue, Lisa Nesbit-Reuss and Dan Swift also add vocals. And don't miss their home page, where Hoover explains that they spent so much money on this record they'll never make a studio recording again. Hopefully he's just kidding. (DBW)

Rachid, Prototype (1998)
The best 1998 pop or R&B record I've heard, but it got lost in the shuffle because singer/songwriter Rachid doesn't fit into anybody's format - some of the midtempo grooves recall Seal, but they're far denser, with a bewildering profusion of musical styles including North African tonalities ("Kiss & Tell," one of the few true dance tracks), every variety of funk and R&B you can think of, and little touches of rock and folk. The attention to detail is startling: the drum programming seems to come out of a bottomless pit of sounds and rhythms, and the arrangements continually surprise, with a slde guitar riff here, a wah-wah'd keyboard there, a scratched sample somewhere else. But he's never using artifice to disguise a lack of melody - every tune is solidly hummable - he's just compulsively musical. His voice is a combination of Corey Glover and Boyz II Men, and his intense theatricality holds your attention despite the production tricks. The lyrics are relentlessly personal ("Ghostcalling," apparently a kissoff to his mostly absent father, Kool & The Gang's Ronald Bell), with wordplay that's clever without being cute, and jaundiced views of love that consistently ring true ("Evil," the single "Pride"). Though a lot of the disc simmers with rage (the anti-record industry "Prodigal Pete"), Rachid takes time out for a beautiful, melodic trance tune ("Charade") and an irresistable, simpleminded anthem a la 80s Prince ("Zöe's World"). As a bonus track, he tacks on a lovely soul ballad in French - I don't want to make a guess at the title. I couldn't find much information about Rachid on the net - does anyone know of a decent site? (DBW)

Rage Against The Machine (1992)
The debut of the phenomenally popular hardcore/nü-metal band. Vocalist Zack de la Rocha sounds like he really wanted to be Chuck D, but he's not black, so he has to settle for yelling his political lyrics over snarling speed metal backing ("Killing In The Name"). He ends up with a bewildering mix of hip hop clichés, repetitive gun/bullet metaphors, and occasionally clever indictments of modern capitalist society and our compliance with our own brainwashing ("Silence can be violent/Sorta like a slit wrist"). Since he's so angry about so many things, he rarely stays focused, shifting from topic to topic within each song, but there are a few exceptions: "Take The Power Back" about Eurocentric curriculums, "Bullet In The Head" about the Gulf War, "Wake Up" about assassinations of political leaders. But his delivery is mindnumbing. The musical backing is facile and loud, with servicable though derivative riffs; the best effort is "Take The Power Back," where they turn down the distortion, add funky bass, and end up sounding like Living Colour with a hangover. Otherwise, the production, arrangement and instrumentation is nearly identical on every track. The band put out a few big-sellers over the next few years, broke up, and recently reformed. (DBW)

Toshi Reagon, The Rejected Stone (1994)
Gospel-voiced folk-rock singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon is the daughter of Sweet Honey In The Rock singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, and thankfully she's inherited the social conscience without the self-congratulation. The prevailing groove is deceptively simple: slow, pulsing folk-rock with acoustic guitars and prominent bass, plus full-throttle (and often multitracked) vocals, and topped with jarring distorted lead guitar. One exception is the demo-like "Paradise," with tense garage guitar reminiscent of PJ Harvey's 4-Track Demos. Three of the eight songs are covers: Flora Molton's "Rolling Along (The Rejected Stone)," Ernest Lawler's "Life Is Just A Book" and Bernice's "The Other Side" - all rearranged into midtempo rockers. Throughout, the riffs aren't novel but somehow sound primal rather than derivative ("This Could Be Heaven")... still, the songwriting is the weak link, because the performances are terrific. Self-produced; Reagon plays bass, half the guitars and some drums, Adam Widoff plays most of the lead guitars, Matt Chamberlain is on drums. I have her 1999 and 2002 discs, and they're far smoother and less gripping; watch for reviews soon. (DBW)

Suzanne Rhatigan, To Hell With Love (1992)
I guess you'd call this kind of music "bar band": it's pasteurized process country/blues/rock. It's not at all original, but here it's very well done: the rhythm and horn arrangements are hard-hitting and professional, most of Rhatigan's tunes are catchy ("Shelter Me," "Learning To Cry"), and she's got a fine voice, though at times you wish she'd get over herself (title track). Rhatigan wrote more or less every note here, but she didn't write most of the lyrics, which is a problem: song after song is clichéd, cutesy (title track) and often smutty ("Open Up," "Don't Talk"). Produced by Fred Maher; the only band member I'm familiar with is Bernie Worrell, who sounds completely comfortable in this atmosphere and gets in some fine playing ("The Spinner Of Years"). (DBW)

Ride, Smile (1990)
A mercifully brief compilation of the Oxford band's first two four-song EP's, both released that year. Sludgy and tuneless, it's mostly a dull, amateurish ripoff of earlier British mope rock a la the Stone Roses, the Smiths, and New Order, with echoey drums, monotonous, unintelligibly moaned vocals, and overdistorted guitars that churn away for no particular reason. The first, eponymous EP is weak: the druggy mope-fest "Drive Blind" is an excuse for a repetitive, siren-like digital delay riff and loads of feedback; "All I Can See" is slathered with backwards and wah-wah'ed guitar parts; five minutes of "Close My Eyes" and its foppish, simplistic descending riff will literally put you to sleep; "Chelsea Girl" is at least upbeat and almost hummable, but it's a New Order imitation plain and simple. Play, which amazingly enough hit #32 in the British charts, isn't much better. The fast-paced "Perfect Time," "Furthest Sense," and especially the hyper-jangly "Like A Daydream" show them finally starting to use some head-pounding dynamics and lush, indulgent guitar noodling, but they're exactly like the Stone Roses; and the sluggish, apocalyptic "Silver" is incredibly dull. Produced by the band; no detailed credits are given. I have their 1992 album Going Blank Again, which features their biggest hit ("Leave Them All Behind") and is definitely better. (JA)

Rojda, Hat (2011)
I'm not much for lounge/chill music, especially when it dresses up its sluggish grooves with exotic (i.e. non-European) touches. At the same time, I don't care much about authenticity for its own sake. But Rojda Şenses is a different story: She's a real-deal Kurdish folksinger who embraces Western dance music ("Çeme Bişerika"), and every track here not only embodies both traditions, but is flat-out fun ("Dilan"). Her vocals are riveting no matter how busy ("Şimzer") or meager ("Lawe Mın") the backing instrumentation is. But if you are a fan of downtempo electronica, watch out: your other records will seem torpid and underachieving once you've heard Rojda's conviction and flair ("Xurfani"; the spectacular, disarming "Hey Nabe"). Not that she's the sole attraction: the swirling mix of instruments is enveloping ("Sal Çu"), and you'll want to welcome many of the melodies to take up residence in your head ("Eze"; "Re Ke Libinya"). As noted, the Turkish authorities aren't big fans of Kurdish cultural efforts, and Rojda spent a year in prison for performing a song in Kurdish. I'll just point out that the least traditional song is also the least successful: "Xezal" sounds more or less like a Celine Dion doused-torch number. I haven't been able to find any discographic info, so I don't know who wrote, produced or played anything; I can say all of those elements are noticeably improved from 2006's Sebra Min. (DBW)

Seal (1994)
This followup to Seal's hit debut is another helping of anally produced (by Trevor Horn), midtempo funk lite grooves with pretentious cosmic lyrics ("Dreaming In Metaphors"). Seal puts little exertion into his vocals, half speaking the verses, and almost none of his melodies are memorable ("I'm Alive"), relying excessively on atmosphere. The approach really works on one song, the huge hit "Kiss From A Rose," where all the production tricks - sudden massed choruses, appearing and disappearing strings - combine to form an irresistable ballad that stands up to repeated listening; the sly opener "Bring It On" is also enjoyable. His sincerity is evident, and he clearly has some sort of mystique, but I don't get it and won't attempt to explain it. Apart from the principal players - Gus Isodore, Wendy Melvoin & Lisa Coleman, Jamie Muhoberac - there are a zillion guest musicians, but thanks to Horn's style of cooking with too many ingredients, everyone is absorbed into a indistinguishable, tasteless mush: Melvoin's predilection for wah-wah is the only perceptible signature. Among the talent wasted is Jeff Beck, Pino Palladino Andy Newmark, and Joni Mitchell, who adds three words of backing vocals to "If I Could." (DBW)

Deniz Seki, Sahici (2008)
Another Turkish pop singer/songwriter who frequently paints outside the lines, bringing elements like thundering piano ("Pişman Olmadım") or funk bass ("Kayboldum," a highlight) to the usual mix of percussion, keyboards, guitars and massed strings ("Bu Senin Seçimin"). At other points, she dives headlong into electronic dance music ("Zirve"), while "Yine Hüzün" is a perfectly plausible samba and "Oyun" is horn-heavy salsa. Her overall approach isn't far from Candan Erçetin, only without the folkloric leanings, and with a bit more emphasis on going-for-broke dramatic belting ("İmkansızsa"; "Adaletsiz Seçim," a duet with Hüsnü Şenlendirici) - the song material isn't quite as strong, but if you like one you should try the other. Though Seki wrote most of the songs, a few come from others ("Yeter," with lyrics by Sezen Aksu; Murat Yeter composed the sublime "Şaka Değil"). (DBW)

Deniz Seki, Sözyaşlarım (2011)
Lavishly put-together, and if anything more accomplished than Seki's previous release. There are pulse-raising barn-burners ("Aşk Müzikali") and lush distilled romances ("Hayallerim Hayal Oldi"), each sung with a simmering, graceful restraint that makes me think of Dionne Warwick. Turkish and Western European elements are woven together so finely that you can't say where one ends and the other begins ("Soyadımı Sen Yaz"). For all that, I don't enjoy the record very much, and I'm not sure why so I'm going to blame the tunes, which I'll call insubstantial ("Kork Benden Bundan Sonra"; "Bitti"). Again, mostly self-penned; "Uyan" - a fine, lilting number - is a cover of Rosario Flores's "Dejame Ver" with new lyrics by Seki. (DBW)

702, No Doubt (1996)
How many young female R&B trios does the world need? SWV, Jade, Total, En Vogue (post-Dawn Robinson), Destiny's Child (current lineup)... they're basically indistinguishable, all with pleasant voices and mild hip hop affectations. The point of historical interest is four songs written by then-unknown Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, including the hit single "Steelio," and the lovely, Blige-like "Round & Round" (which quotes Diana Ross's "Upside Down"). But by and large, the tunes are just so much hip hop/soul muzak thanks to the generic synth-loop stylings of producers Terry Williams, Chad Elliott, Donell Jones and the Characters (Troy Taylor and Charles Farrar): everything has midtempo beats, midrange harmonies, and middling melodies, and most tunes have shockingly cut-rate arrangements, just one keyboard wash per measure ("Get It Together"). Taylor and Farrar, who wrote most of the songs Missy didn't write, succeed in creating just one catchy tune - "All I Want," based on the Jackson 5's "It's Great To Be Here." Malik Pendleton's "Word Iz Bond" is perhaps the most repetitive track, but there's not much to choose from. I can never tell which group member is singing, and I don't think that's because I'm not listening closely enough: I think none of them has a spark of individuality. (DBW)

702 (1999)
A big improvement over their debut, but there's still nothing here you can't find done better by someone else. Missy wrote another huge hit for them, "Where My Girls At?" and fortunately, this time she produced as well (with Rapture Stewart and Eric Seats). It's the same futuristic syncopated keyboards and percussion Elliott uses with Timbaland, but that's a heck of a lot better than the minimal mush on the previous record. Elliott's other contribution ("Gotta Leave") is similar but less interesting; Timbaland's influence also dominates Greg Charley's "Finally" and Maurice Wilcher's "Seven." Shoulshock & Carlin borrow Dallas Austin's magic formula (acoustic guitar + prominent drum programming = edgy yet tender dance track) to good effect on "You Don't Know." Charley mines the same vein with "Make Time," while Pi and Jam tackles a Babyface-style overblown ballad ("You'll Just Never Know," with real live backing musicians including bassist Romeo Williams). This time each singer - Irish, Meelah and Mishah - gets an interlude to herself, and though I still can't tell their voices apart, I'm getting closer (whoever sings "You'll Just Never Know" also sings "Don't You Go Breaking My Heart," doing a Mariah Carey impression on both). Other writers and producers include Marc Kinchen, Dutch and Warryn Campbell. (DBW)

Shadows Fall, Threads Of Life (2007)
An early player in the incestuous Massachusetts metalcore scene - their first vocalist went on to All That Remains, his replacement Brian Fair had been in Overcast, and Killswitch Engage guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz played drums on their first demo - Shadows Fall has put out six albums over the past decade, gradually moving toward thrash. Here, they mostly avoid walls of noise in favor of harmonized guitar licks ("Failure Of The Devout") and warp-speed solos ("Burning The Lives"), while there's noticeably more clean singing (the single "Redemption") than lower-register screaming ("Storming"). They have their share of solid tunes (the crunching "Dread Uprising"; the epic "Final Call"), and the one metal ballad isn't awful ("Another Hero Lost"). But in the current crop of metal bands they don't stand out, lacking the take-no-prisoners ruthlessness of Lamb Of God, the tunefulness of Trivium or the versatility of Machine Head. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz. (DBW)

Shithook, When A Boy Scout Get The Blues (1998)
I got this disc in the mail, and everything about the packaging screamed "drunken frat boys." So I was shocked to hear a collection of clever, straightforward rock and roll with solid hooks ("What's The Name Of That Dog?"), amusing lyrics ("Flunkin' Out Again") and country roots ("It's Not The Liquor Talkin' Now"). Though the instrumentation is mostly standard four-piece rock and roll, "My Kinda Ugly" has an interesting arrangement combining piano, steel guitar, and a rowdy vocal chorus. The tunes are nearly all written and sung by Pee Wee, who also plays guitar; bassist Double D's one contribution ("Tic Tac Toe") isn't much. Second guitarist Tiny and drummer Silverbub don't sing or write much (Tiny does handle vocals on "Blood Thinner") but they provide solid backup. Shithook may not be the best band in Nebraska, but they're the best one I've heard, and you can order their CD by writing to 3010 South 35th St, Lincoln, NE, 68506. (DBW)

Silverchair, Frogstomp (1995)
Did you ever watch a Pearl Jam video and say to yourself, "Shit, I could do that"? Well, so did these guys, but they went out and did something about it: they got a contract and put out this record, and it sold millions. That's what a "get up and go" attitude can do for you. To be fair, the sound is sparer and the guitars are a bit louder than Pearl Jam's, but Daniel Johns' vocals are just Eddie Vedder's, and the medium tempos, dynamic shifts and occasional acoustic guitar are the same Led Zeppelin-derived schlock that marks so much current rock. They also throw in one hardcore instrumental ("Madman") just to show how versatile they are. The good news is that the arrangements occasionally leave breathing room for Ben Gilles' sensitive drumming, and several of the tunes end with simmering, vaguely entertaining jams ("Pure Massacre"). Also, the band members were only 16 when they made this, so they may improve with age. Written by Johns, alone or with Gillies (I guess bass player Chris Joannou is just along for the ride); produced by Kevin Shirley. There's a fan site with the usual goodies. The trio came out with another disc in 1997, Freak Show, which I haven't heard. (DBW)

Sing Hollies In Reverse (1995)
An excellent alt rock tribute record matching the Hollies' best material with a pile of tuneful, tongue-in-cheek performances. The better-known players all acquit themselves quite well: Dramarama's John Easdale (the frenetic "Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress"), the Continental Drifers ("I Can't Let Go"), Carla Olson with ex-Holly Mikael Rickfors ("Touch"), Material Issue (a blistering "Bus Stop"), and best of all the Posies ("King Midas In Reverse"). Several minor leaguers really stand out (the Jigsaw Seen, "On A Carousel"; the Wondermints' sparkling "You Need Love"), everyone else is reasonably competent (Tommy Keene, "Carrie Anne"; the Loud Family, "Look Through Any Winow"; the Flamingoes' "Water On The Brain"; Bill Lloyd, "Step Inside"; Andrew, "Heading For A Fall"; the Shakin' Apostles, "Dear Eloise"; Mitch Easter's one-man-band "Pay You Back With Interest"), and low points are few (Steve Wynn's sluggish "The Air That I Breathe"; E's stoned-out "Jennifer Eccles"), although several cuts are as goofy as the originals (gifted cover artist Kristian Hoffman's "I'm Alive"; Losers Lounge's "After The Fox"). Jon Brion's big psychedelic wig-out "Sorry Suzanne" is one of the few really daring arrangements, but there's plenty of stylistic variety, from cub's primitive, "Louie Louie"-like "You Know He Did" to the Sneetches' dreamily romantic "So Lonely." A joyful diversion. (JA)

Slipknot, Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses (2004)
If you're like me, you came across an article about this Des Moine metal band and stopped reading when you found out they always wear masks, and they have three drummers and two DJs. Still reading? Good, because there is a lot to like about the band once you get past the silliness. Most often they're in the same low-end, high-powered ballpark as Lamb Of God, with yelled vocals, propulsive drumming, and angular guitar vamps ("Three Nil"; "Opium Of The People"). And they can't be written off as nü-metal: frenetic - almost Bucketheady - guitars solos appear on several tracks ("Welcome"). Corey Taylor (who also fronts Stone Sour) can also sing melodically, which he does mainly on choruses ("Duality"), and raps a bit (apparently he did more of this on the band's earlier records). "The Blister Exists" is a powerhouse post-thrasher, while "The Virus Of Life" is stately and deliberate. They do fall flat on their masked faces, though, when they attempt a ballad ("Circle"; "Vermilion Pt. 2" is better). Produced by Rick Rubin. (DBW)

Slipknot, All Hope Is Gone (2008)
Back in action after a hiatus, Slipknot mostly sticks to their patented brand of knotty, dense metal ("This Cold Black") with frills: "Psychosocial" has a Nickelbackesque sung chorus contrasting with a brutal, percussive breakdown. And again the lyrics range from bilious venting (the pallid "Vendetta") to portrayals of derangement ("Gehenna"); the rapping is gone except for the Rage-like "Wherein Lies Continue." Too many of the tunes, though, are merely functional, particularly the slower ones ("Dead Memories"; the dreary "Snuff")... While Subliminal had shown musical growth, this release, while somewhat satisfying, is basically a placeholder. Produced by the band with Dave Fortman; as is becoming customary, a special edition includes a few bonus tracks and a "making of" DVD. (DBW)

Spin Doctors, Pocket Full Of Kryptonite (1991)
A rock band that focuses on midtempo lite funk grooves - moderately distorted, syncopated rhythm guitar (Eric Schenkman), subdued slap and pop bass (Mark White), nondescript vocals (Christopher Barron), no frills - as if they'd been listening to people who listened to people who listened to James Brown. Track by track it's not bad - "Two Princes" was the big hit - but after a whole album of the same routine with mind-numbingly familiar chord progressions and strikingly unimaginative drumming (Aaron Comess), you'll be begging for mercy. The only attempts they make to vary the formula are the dull ballad "Forty Or Fifty" and a guest appearance by Blues Traveler John Popper, who adds his usual high-speed incoherence to "More Than She Knows." Schenkman also indulges himself with a lame wah-wah'd Hendrix imitation on the album-closing medley "Shinbone Alley"/"Hard To Exist." They occasionally come up with a clever lyric ("Jimmy Olsen's Blues"), but overall they're a lowest-common-denominator blend - like weak decaf. If you care, the band split up in 1993, but reformed some ten years later. (DBW)

Various, Spirit Of '73: Rock For Choice (1995)
A pro-choice benefit compilation, featuring remakes of 70s songs by 90s artists. About half the tracks are kitchy remakes of disco or AM hits by hard rock acts: Letters To Cleo ("Dreams," with grunge dynamics and an appropriate switch of "prayers/praying" for "players/playing"); Eve's Plum ("If I Can't Have You"); L7 teams up with Riot Grrrl patron saint Joan Jett for a remake of the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb"). Worst of this bunch is Babes In Toyland's karaoke version of Andrea True's "More More More," with distorted bass and beats plopped onto the original track. Then there are the covers of singer-songwriters by singer-songwriters. Two Joni Mitchell covers slavishly imitate her approach - Sarah McLachlan copies every last vocal inflection on "Blue," while Roseanne Cash's "River" is servicable but equally predictable. Roberta Flack is better served: Cassandra Wilson applies her usual acoustic guitar-and-percussion formula to "Killing Me Softly" - right after Melissa Ferrick uses the exact same approach to better effect on "Feel Like Makin' Love." Worst of this bunch is Sophie B. Hawkins's shambling "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." No real surprises anywhere; the only tracks really worth seeking out are the grinding, funky version of "We Are Family" by Ebony Vibe Everlasting, and the Indigo Girls's surprisingly energetic - if lengthy - version of Ferron's "It Won't Take Long." (DBW)

Matthew Sweet, Altered Beast (1993)
A 70s pop-rock revivalist whose intricate overproduction masks anything resembling a personality, Sweet's main talent is recruiting sidemen - like several of his discs, this one is made worthwhile by the brilliant lead guitar work of CBGB's veterans Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. Warhorses are everywhere in the credits: Nicky Hopkins and Pete Thomas on several tracks each, plus guests Byron Berline (wonderfully melodic on "The Ugly Truth"), Ivan Julian, Fred Maher, Jody Stephens, and even Mick Fleetwood. Sweet handles bass, rhythm guitar, and all vocals, and writes everything. The production standards are extremely high, with a slick country-rock vibe that's closest to Stephens' old band Big Star despite similarities to (say) Neil Young ("The Ugly Truth"), the Flying Burrito Brothers ("Do It Again"), the early Eagles ("Someone To Pull The Trigger"), or REM ("Devil With The Green Eyes"). But Sweet's perfectionism leads to exhausting four-minute running times and blaring layers of overdubs. Worse, his wistful tenor vocals, predictable vocal harmonies, generic lyrics, meandering melodies, and infrequent hooks are all utterly bland. His better stuff sticks strictly to his role models' formulas: overdriven power-pop ("Dinosaur Act"; "In Too Deep"), cheery country rock ("Life Without You"; "Where Do You Go"), and some pleasant Big Star-style soft rock ballads ("Time Capsule"; "Evergreen"; "Reaching Out," where Hopkins and Fleetwood do deliver a Fleetwood Mac-ish sound). And as good as Lloyd and Quine are, it's frustrating to hear their intense, unpredictable soloing wasted on an artist with none of the avant garde sensibilities of a Tom Verlaine or Lou Reed (although Lloyd pushes "Falling" straight into Television territory). Co-produced by Richard Dashut; Ric Menck and Ron Pangborn also are on drums; Greg Leisz adds lap and pedal steel guitar parts. (JA)

Matthew Sweet, 100% Fun (1995)
Well, at least it's well over 50% this time: Sweet hooks up with producer Brendan O'Brien and suddenly seems a heck of a lot more focused. He opens with a sing-songy, anthemic love song with a lurching country-rock rhythm ("Sick Of Myself"), and closes nicely with a big, booming piano-based ballad a la Elton John ("Smog Moon"). In between, he goes back over and over to his mid-60s Beatles/early 70s Big Star/mid-80s REM-based power-pop formula, with gilded harmonies and yummy hooks ("Get Older"; the power ballad "Not When I Need It"; the super-smiley "We're The Same"); he even echoes Big Star's Stax-Volt influences on the glowing, 12/8 electric piano ballad "Everything Changes." Quine and Lloyd are underused, but Lloyd rocks out on the thumping, McCartney-esque "Giving It Back To You"; they duel on a slightly menacing, mellotron-augmented alt rocker with a wavering 6/8 sea chantey beat ("Lost My Mind"); and "Super Baby" has a strutting Rolling Stones rhythm and squawking guitars. O'Brien, who adds guitar and/or keyboards to most tracks, does let Sweet indulge in some tedious pop-rock with mushy lyrics and monotonous harmonies ("Come To Love," where his vocal resemblance to Michael Stipe is pronounced; the sleepy, sickly-Sweet "I Almost Forgot"). Still, though, he mostly holds Sweet to three tolerable minutes per track, and his harpsichord - not to mention an MG's beat and surf rock guitar - helps give "Walk Out" a fun 60s vibe. Sweet just can't match the Posies' brilliant, imaginative approach to power-pop, but this time around he does push his limits pretty hard. The lineup is more steady here: no guests, Sweet on bass and rhythm guitar, Leisz on pedal steel, Menck or Stuart Johnson on drums. (JA)

Sweetbox, Everything's Gonna Be Alright (1998)
Sooner or later, someone was going to think of blending classical music and hip hop. The only question was, would it be done intelligently or as a gimmick, and fortunately, by and large, it's the former. The title track and breakthrough single relies on J.S. Bach's well known "Air" (performed by the German Symphony Orchestra, no less), and it works beautifully as a hip-hop soul ballad. I could rhapsodize about great music being timeless and so forth, but the truth is, the tune's success is more about producer/songwriter Geo actually knowing his classical music: if you'd beamed in the first Brandenberg Concerto or Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, it would've sounded like shit. The other big classical tune is "Don't Go Away," which I think is based on a Mahler piece, and vocalist Tina Harris really shines in the more complex musical environment. Fast forwarding to the 1980s, "U Make My Love Come Down" features Evelyn "Champagne" King on a remake of her signature song that doesn't break any new ground. "If I Can't Have You" is the Yvonne Elliman hit, supplemented by a predictable rap. Elsewhere, Geo comes up with his own tunes, which vary widely: "Mama Papa" uses a distorted riff that's shocking after all the strings, but in a good way; "Get On Down" is a totally derivative attempt at house-rockin' dance (sample lyric: "Party people get up, everybody get down"); "Sometimes" is a gentle love song that doesn't quite come across. It's a two-person show, with all keyboards and drum programming by Geo, and practically all vocals by Harris: she acquits herself ably as a singer and rapper, but as of this release doesn't project any personality - she could be any of a hundred singers. So yes, the hit single is the best thing about the record, but it's not a letdown. (DBW)

Tarkan, Karma (2001)
Do you know what it's like to rise rapidly to the top of your field? Neither do I, but it must be less satisfying than it looks, because - like so many in other disciplines - Tarkan had no sooner climbed to the pinnacle of Turkish pop than he set out to cross over internationally, starting with this disc. And as so often, in reaching to broaden his appeal he stepped away from his core strengths, so he ends up sounding like an also-ran ("Kuzu Kuzu," one of a series of uninvolving ballads; "Her Nerdeysen," a "Smooth"-aping variation on the "Mockingbird" melody), though some of the pandering is undeniably effective ("Ay," laid-back but insistent electro-funk). The few songs with clearly discernable Near Eastern roots provide nearly all the high points (the happening dance track "Hüp," by Nazan Öncel) - though they're not uniformly superb either ("Yandim"): I have to assume his earlier albums have more going for them. Incidentally, the album title is a pun: in addition to the Sanskrit meaning, it's Turkish for "crossover." (DBW)

Anita Tijoux, Kaos (2007)
On paper, Chilean/French rapper/singer Anita Tijoux is sort of a Latin American M.I.A.: an avowedly political hip hop artist working on a dance-music canvas with colors both global (the reggaefied "Cronica De Una Muerte Anunciada") and local. (You could also consider her Chile's Lauryn Hill, as she split from a successful group - Makiza - and has retired a surprising number of times considering her relative youth.) But the differences are enormous: Tijoux's much more melody-based and laid-back (even "Dolores, Dolares" is more soothing than challenging) and far less experimental ("Llévame Muy Lejos," basically a pure R&B love song). In fact, if you brought some of M.I.A.'s line-crossing to Tijoux's grounded grooving, or vice versa, you'd really have something. As it is, the record's enjoyable (the single "Despabílite" is wonderful chill-out music) and tuneful ("Algun Día Te Diré"), but rarely extraordinary. (DBW)

Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
I guess the space bar on Timberlake's keyboard is broken. Anyway, the former 'N Sync frontman generated a remarkably long list of hit singles from this second solo disc, mostly produced with Danja and a resurgent Timbaland. The electrofunk production was hailed as hypermodern by some, but it's really straight from the 80s: "Until The End Of Time" samples Prince's Linn drum machine while "Sexy Ladies" recycles lyrics from "Sexy Dancer"; the enormously irritating leadoff single "SexyBack" overuses a spoken Bootsy impersonation. The compositions themselves are mostly overlong and obvious, both ballads ("What Goes Around.../...Comes Around"; the endless, lamebrained "Summer Love") and dance tunes ("LoveStoned"). Meanwhile, the album's best tracks eschew all the electronics and let Timberlake's fine Michael Jackson-ish falsetto take center stage: "Damn Girl"(a ballad with live-sounding drums produced with will.i.am) and the gospel testimonial "Losing My Way" (featuring Hezekiah Walker and The Love Fellowship Choir). Bloated and overhyped as the record is, Timberlake's talent often redeems it ("My Love"). (DBW)

The Tonewelders, Five Sticks (1999)
A laid-back country-rock band led by singer/songwriter David Glennon, who has one simple schtick: inverting clichés. So you get song titles like "There's A Last Time For Everything" and "When Good Things Happen To Bad People" and lyrics like "I'd always love the ones I hurt" sprinkled through his whiny tales of self-absorption ("If I Could Take My Own Advice"). It gets old real quick, and his thin, quavery voice doesn't help matters. The tunes are servicable but unmemorable, with the band supplying the same mild-mannered backing throughout the disc (except for the honky-tonk piano driven "Talk Me Down"), often with a lead guitar soloing aimlessly for the entire song ("I'll Take A Little"). The one solidly enjoyable tune is "Plan Z," with heavier guitars and sax licks giving a George Thoroughgood type of feel, and the cleverest lyrics on the album. You can find the group online at www.tonewelders.com. (DBW)

Tribe 8, Fist City (1995)
Studiously politically incorrect lesbian power punk, with several tunes trashing all things woman-friendly ("Manipulate," "Neanderthal Dyke"). Sometimes they hit the bullseye: it's hard to imagine anyone else singing "Butch In The Streets (Femme In The Sheets)," and I'm glad someone did. But more often they're all shock value, no substance: "Frat Pig" is a boring rape revenge anthem, and "Kick" is a moronic ode to heroin addiction with lines like "I love you so lying in your own puke." The good news is, the band rocks: "Romeo And Julio" has lightning riffs and dynamics shifts; "Freedom" is a classic headbanger; the performances and production are crisp throughout. You don't really need this unless you're a lesbian fed up with the Birkenstocks-n-herbal tea culture, but it has something to offer the rest of us too. (DBW)

Birol Topaloğlu, Kıyı Boyu Karadeniz (2011)
I don't want to assume you have the same prejudices I do, but I generally think of folkloric or traditional music as pain-filled - responding either to crushing oppression or the small miseries and drudgeries of everyday life. And since so much Anatolian music is so melancholy anyway, I wasn't expecting this disc documenting the music of the Laz people of the East Black Sea to be a good-time affair. But it's a blast: Topaloğlu's voice is gravelly, but his singing is spirited ("Girilsun Karsilamasi"); the band capers through zippy 2/4 and 10/8 numbers, often two-chord affairs - as he leads by example on guda (bagpipe-looking, calliope-sounding), kemençe (basically a fiddle) and bağlama. Only a couple of songs are slow, and those are more tender than sad ("İnce Xarxan"). Compared to Yasemin Yıldız (who works in a similar style) I find the enterprise lacks depth, and more importantly, melodies that stick in your head ("Elenistam" excepted). But if you're having trouble getting out of bed, this could be the rousing kick in the butt you're looking for. (DBW)

Uncalled 4 Band, Back 2 Basix (2003)
The band dropped the Quiet Storm smooth grooves and science-fiction plot of their previous release, Can U C Beyond?, and though less ambitious this release is much more enjoyable. Generally I'm disappointed that recent go-go has narrowed its sights so dramatically, dispensing with horns and guitar and writing mostly about strippers (if you don't know what an "ass clap" is, almost any current go-go show will soon address the topic). UCB (better abbreviated U4B if you ask me) is the exception that proves the rule: they use the same musical and thematic ingredients but to much better effect, building enjoyable, compulsively danceable grooves out of uncomplicated keyboard licks and basic chants ("Holla At Your Boy"; their signature hit “Splash Girl," with a subtle quote from "Push It"; and, yes, "Strip Club"). The polyrhythms rarely break new ground, but provide enough interest to keep the whole enterprise moving forward. One unusual feature is a singer who sounds like he escaped from New Edition, adding an unsettlingly youthful dimension to roughneck tales like "F.W.M.N." They do serve up old-school crank on one tune, the scene homage "We Love Go-Go," though there too the main draws are the percussionists and the expansive personalities of the vocalists. (DBW)

Uncle Tom (1999)
These LA dudes have the precise production and guitar crunch of a retro power trio, combined with the whiny, self-absorbed (and endlessly crude) lyrics of an post-grunge alterna-act. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Best is basically the whole show, and his talent is undeniable - he has an impressive command of guitar styles and tones, both on lead and rhythm, so he can go from Bush-like slow grooves to stomping rock and roll recalling AC/DC ("Dancin' In A Minefield") to arena anthems ("Small Man"). And he has an enviable knack for constructing memorable tunes ("Blonde Hair") that build up to a satisfying payoff chorus ("I'm In Love With My Gun"). Louie Shilling on drums and Fling on bass never step into the foreground, but they keep things rolling right along. So if it weren't for those incredibly obnoxious, raging-yet-self-pitying lyrics ("You Can't Hurt Me") and aggressively irritating, almost punk vocals ("Everyone Wants To Be Me"), you'd have yourself a real swell record right here. (DBW)

Unsane (1991)
How different is noise-rock from grunge, anyway? Or any other kind of post-punk? They all use essentially the same four-on-the-floor instrumentation, fuzzbox distortion, unconcern for singing in tune, and despite varying levels of nonconformism they're all bent - unlike the true No Wavers - on ear-catching repeated licks and mood-creating rhythms. Anyway, NYC's Unsane is supposed to be a pioneer of noise-rock, but they have a lot in common with Hüsker Dü, early Soul Asylum or even Sister-era Sonic Youth. Which is not a negative ("Exterminator," ending in protracted chaos; "Maggot," with a hypnotic bass line). On the other hand, many tracks have lots of sound and fury but not much else ("Vandal-X"), and all the vocals sound like someone yelling through a telephone. Generally it's drummer Charlie Ondras who keeps the record moving in the right direction ("Action Man") - he would die of a heroin overdose shortly after completing this album. (DBW)

Various, Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack (1995)
What makes this soundtrack album stand out from the pack is Babyface's compositions and production (he wrote all the tunes except for one standard), and the top-notch talent that he attracted to the project. In the industry, Babyface is considered one of the few male songwriters whose lyrics convincingly depict women's feelings, leading Whitney Houston (one of the film's stars) to ask him to score the film. The soundtrack's performers read like a Who's Who of black female singers: Houston, Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, SWV, CeCe Winans. There are also a number of new, lesser known talents, particularly teenage sensation Brandy, who sings the funky hit "Sittin' Up In My Room." Babyface is a thoughtful producer who can spin out slow jam after slow jam without falling into a rut. He also does a good job of matching the tune to the artist, giving Mary J. Blige the quietly angry "Not Gon' Cry" and Chanté Moore the dreamy "Wey U," while letting Chaka Khan milk the standard "My Funny Valentine" for all it's worth. Sonja Marie's "And I Gave My Love To You" (which she co-wrote) is a lovely tune, featuring piano by Patrice Rushen. There are a couple of disappointments: TLC's grinding "This Is How It Works" is a weaker version of earlier triumphs like "Red Light Special," and Aretha Franklin's take on "It Hurts Like Hell" is a bit too sedate. But with 16 tracks and over 70 minutes, you can't go wrong: practically every song here is A-side material. (DBW)

Weed Inc., Trampled, Beated And Obeyed (1999)
This Portsmouth, New Hampshire rock trio plays straightforward rock and roll, and plays it well. Bassist Tim McCoy is never content with keeping time, playing precise melodic runs; drummer Norm Fuller is great at holding down a groove without ever falling into a rut; lead vocalist/guitarist Leo Ganley is adept at a wide range of guitar tones, sometimes shifting from Byrds-y chiming to distorted crunch within a single song ("Fading Love"). But steady-rolling musicians are a dime a dozen: what sets the Weedies apart is the effortless catchiness of their compositions. "Coral Snake" is propulsive funk-rock, "Queen Bee" is the kind of anthem car radios were made for, and "Tumble Into The Sun" is a slinky tribute to the days when the Stones could write ballads. Guests add occasional piano, horns and strings, but they're almost redundant because the trio's sound is so full by itself. There are some problems, though: their professionalism and versatility get in their way sometimes, making the band seem faceless and overrehearsed, and Ganley's vocals have a whiny quality that reminds me of that guy from Counting Crows. Self-produced; you can order the record through the band's web site. (DBW)

Various, Why Do Fools Fall In Love? Soundtrack (1998)
Soundtrack to the unsuccessful movie depicting 50's hitmaker Frankie Lymon, highly anticipated because hotter-than-hot Missy Elliott produced and appeared on many of the tracks. Mostly working with Timbaland, she again manages to create an atmosphere that's both ominous and fun, and though all the tracks are nominally by other artists (except for "Get Contact," a high-energy duet by Missy and Busta Rhymes), she's all over the place with guest raps and spoken asides (Coko's "He'll Be Back"). (Though she doesn't appear on protege Nicole's Blige-like testimonial "Without You.") Perhaps the best production is the remake of the title song (by Lymon), where Gina Thompson is listed as the artist but she's really a glorified (though enjoyable) backup vocalist, with more space given to Mocha's raps and Missy dropping little slices of the original tune into a thoroughly contemporary hip-hop track. Lamest is the cut by Melanie B. (yes, the Spice Girl), which has a solid groove but depends on overfamiliar Wu strings, and ends with an irritating spoken vocal that undercuts the message of the rest of the tune. That said, it's still better than any of the non-Missy tracks, which are completely generic, spontaneity-free 90s soul: the now-threesome En Vogue sings a Diane Warren tune ("No Fool No More"); Mint Condition's "Love Is For Fools" features one of the least interesting Stevie Wonder imitations I've heard in a while. Little Richard adds the one retro touch, with a pointless note-for-note recreation of his "Keep A-Knockin" that lacks the original's manic energy. (DBW)

Laura Wolfe, Little Pieces (1998)
Why are most singer-songwriters so mild-mannered? I don't know the answer, but Laura Wolfe will have you asking the question as soon as you hear her larger-than-life debut, where she displays more energy than ten Joni Mitchell imitators. Wolfe could get by on her huge, thrilling voice (she also sings in the Lavender Lights gospel choir), but she also writes thoughtful, exuberant songs with equal parts humor and sadness, and quirky jazz-based chord changes, which she plays on guitar. Many of the songs cover common themes like growing up ("The Wording Of Things") and romance ("Me And Lu Blues"), but it's never pat - she doesn't take the easy way out. The side openers "City Child" and "All I Can Give" are extended pieces that build up mesmerizing momentum; you'll have a hard time getting them out of your head. While most songs are performed without overdubbing (several sound like live recordings), "The Dawn" spotlights a one-woman choral section, with a gorgeous, complex arrangement that reminds me of Prince's best work. When I saw Wolfe live that same year, she was playing with an intelligent, Jaco-inspired fretless bass player who added more depth to the material, and she had an offhand yet intense stage manner. (DBW)

Laura Wolfe, Siren (2005)
Much more polished and radio-friendly, recorded with Dido's producer (Steve Addabbo) and rhythm section (Keith Golden and Alex Alexander). Indeed, the opening "Breathe" sounds just like one of Dido's ethereal yet everyday compositions. Fortunately for me and everyone else who doesn't care for Dido, Wolfe doesn't stay in that box: witness the taut "Nuclear Love," switching from a tender country-rock verse to a raucous, near-punk chorus, or the good-time "Naked," with a wah-wah guitar solo and a horn section - horns also appear on a Latinize remake of "City Child." Meanwhile, the gentle "Uma" recalls the better singer-songwriters of the 70s with unpredictable harmonic changes, and the title track builds from Moody Blues-style organ swells to an anthemic chorus. As before, her singing is a strong point, completely confident even when making unusual choices ("Underworld"), and as before, Wolfe wrote every note. (DBW)

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