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$50 GUIDE : 'Monster' Sends R.E.M. Spiraling to Top of Heap

October 23, 1994|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Just when it looked as if Nine Inch Nails' harrowing "The Downward Spiral" was clearly the album of the year, R.E.M. returns with "Monster," an exhilarating work that could capture year-end honors. The radical yet reassuring collection tops this edition of the guide--a way to keep up with what's exciting in pop on a budget of $50 a month.


M People, "Elegant Slumming" (Epic). When C+C Music Factory came out four years ago with the "Gonna Make You Sweat" album, the New York songwriting-production team appeared to be setting the tone for '90s dance music lite--music that is bubbly and seductive, yet intelligently crafted. But this London-based trio has taken over the leadership. "Moving On Up" expresses female resolve as joyously as Gloria Gaynor's late '70s gem "I Will Survive."

Various artists, "Natural Born Killers" soundtrack (Nothing/Interscope). The music in this masterfully designed package is delivered by everybody from Leonard Cohen and Patsy Cline to Patti Smith and the Cowboy Junkies. The key vision here, however, is courtesy of producer Trent Reznor, who mixed music and dialogue from the film in a reflection on these restless, explosive times that is ultimately more unsettling than the film itself. The most riveting moment: Reznor's own "Burn."

R.E.M., "Monster" (Warner Bros.). Longtime R.E.M. fans may worry on first listening that the band has sacrificed too much of its trademark sound in adopting noticeably harder rock textures--a feeling shared by many U2 fans upon hearing "Achtung Baby." But "Monster," like that 1991 album, gains authority and character on each listening. The themes focus mostly on obsession, but "Monster" stands chiefly as a celebration of rock 'n' roll's power to comfort, heal, amuse and provoke.


Oasis, "Definitely Maybe" (Epic). In the strongest debut by a British band since the Stone Roses in 1989, the battling Gallagher brothers take us back to the glory days of '60s and '70 English rock. Oasis combines the guitar-dominated sounds and songwriting sensibilities of everyone from Mott the Hoople and the Sweet to T. Rex and the Sex Pistols. It's all woven into an irresistible toast to youthful enthusiasm and desire.

Liz Phair, "Whip-Smart" (Matador). In just a few glorious minutes, Phair justifies all the acclaim she has been receiving. The revolutionary thing about the Chicago singer-songwriter is that the strongest weapon in her biting explorations of sexual politics isn't sonic assault or psychodrama desperation but wry intelligence.

R.E.M., "Monster" (Warner Bros). If you want to follow the guide literally, pick up the Jesus & Mary Chain's mostly acoustic but still tense "Stoned & Dethroned." But if you want to do a good deed, give a copy of "Monster" to a friend. Ever since Kurt Cobain's suicide in April tore the heart out of contemporary rock, the scene has been looking for an album that reaches out with the kind of vitality and celebration that will let us begin removing the black armbands. This is it.*

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