Which rapper is it that's safe for the kids to listen to? . . . Is the new Bryan Adams full of pretty ballads like that song from "Robin Hood"? . . . The Garth Brooks album was No. 1 for so many weeks, it must be really a classic, right? . . . Has Metallica sold out? . . . Do Michael and U2 still have it?
Those are the kinds of questions that can stymie the holiday shopper. Calendar's annual guide to the nation's top-selling albums is designed to ease the burden by summarizing The Times' reviews of 40 of the nation's most popular albums, listed alphabetically. The ratings are based on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent). The comments are from the original reviews, but the ratings sometimes reflect additional staff input.
** 1/2 Paula Abdul, "Spellbound," Virgin. On several tunes, it's Abdul minus the gloss and multitracking--and the singer does a creditable job most of the time. At least she took a chance on a more mature pop album that accents her vocals, but too much of the material is forgettable, mid-tempo romantic pop. (Dennis Hunt)
*** Bryan Adams, "Waking Up the Neighbours," A&M. Straightforward, good-natured rock acts like Adams are almost gone from the top of the charts these days, but he's likely to buck the trend, given this album's rollicking tunefulness and classic rock choruses, and the inclusion of the hit ballad "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You."
*** Boyz II Men, "Cooleyhighharmony," Motown. Sounding like Take 6 for the pubescent set, this baby-faced quartet's silky, coming-of-age style seems shrewdly aimed at teens who've wondered if there's life after hip-hop. (Connie Johnson)
** 1/2 Garth Brooks, "Ropin' the Wind," Capitol. Several of the songs echo strains that worked for Brooks before, and he can't resist story songs even if the stories are old, old, old. His failure to live up to his potential with a more consistent and revealing album is a disappointment.
*** C+C Music Factory, "Gonna Make You Sweat," Columbia. If Freedom Williams were a more interesting rapper, this hip-hop coalition might be a blueprint for '90s dance-pop. Even with Williams' limitations, this is some of the most delicious dance music of the season. (R.H.)
** Mariah Carey, "Emotions," Columbia. Carey's voice is still impressive. The problem on this gloomy album, even more so than on her debut, is the songs and production. Her lyrics are embarrassingly overripe, and her voice is often overwhelmed by the music. (Hunt)
*** Natalie Cole, "Unforgettable," Elektra. On this collection of 22 Nat King Cole classics, Cole has no better luck than her father with such pop novelties as "L-O-V-E." But on the classics she kicks into a sound and a groove that recall and occasionally expand upon Nat Cole's memorable performances. (Don Heckman)
** Color Me Badd, "C.M.B.," Giant. They bring the harmonious doo-wop sounds of such vocal groups as the Chi-Lites into the '90s, suitably hip-hopped up. But the vocals aren't polished and the raps are downright lame. (Hunt)
* "The Commitments," soundtrack, MCA. What is often appealing in the film about the fictional Irish soul group falls flat on record. These '60s soul gems require powerful R&B voices, but all the Commitments can muster is thin, pop-style vocals. You'll be better off tracking down the originals. (Hunt)
*** Harry Connick Jr., "Blue Light, Red Light," Columbia. A risky path: 12 new original tunes accompanied by a 17-piece orchestra. Connick brings it off with a startlingly versatile, hard-swinging performance that is far and away his most impressive recorded outing. (Heckman)
** 1/2 Dire Straits, "On Every Street," Warner Bros. The opening six songs form a cohesive, haunting, half-hour meditation on loss and unfulfilled yearning. But several ham-fisted attempts at Randy Newman-style ironic monologue derail the second half. (Mike Boehm)
** Genesis, "We Can't Dance," Atlantic. A self-conscious downer. Mixed in with the bathos are a few interesting ideas, and some awful ones. What's most striking is the almost complete dearth of intriguing musical touches. No one ever expected them to dance, but they used to at least \o7 play\f7 . (Chris Willman)
** 1/2 Amy Grant, "Heart in Motion," A&M. The best songs herald a nuanced singer and songwriter portraying the doubts and strains of marriage. Grant's bolder instincts retreat before a slew of one-dimensional romantic ballads and dance-pop notions that are obvious, over-produced bids for mass success. (M.B.)
*** 1/2 Guns N' Roses, "Use Your Illusion I," **** Guns N' Roses, "Use Your Illusion II," Geffen. The heart of this bold pair of albums is one of the most sprawling and seductive examinations of rock 'n' roll darkness, dreams and doubts since the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street," making them both indispensable works. (R.H.)