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$50 GUIDE

Sure-Footed Tracks : POP MUSIC: ROCK, COUNTRY, R&B, RAP, LATIN, JAZZ

February 18, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Two strikingly different but equally assured soundtrack albums--the somber "Dead Man Walking" and the more comforting "Waiting to Exhale"--highlight this edition of our guideto keeping up with what's exciting in pop while staying within an album budget of $50 a month.

January

The Chemical Brothers, "Exit Planet Dust," Astralwerks/Caroline. Tricky and Goldie aren't the only British dance forces using beats to forge a bond with open-minded rock fans. Deejays Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons mix the latest styles (from jungle to trip-hop) with an aggression that approaches the techno-metal synthesis of beauty and brutality associated with peak Ministry.

Various artists, "Dead Man Walking," Columbia. The danger in sending your film to almost a dozen artists and asking for their musical responses is that you are pretty much obligated to use whatever they send back. So it's hard to know which was the bigger miracle: director Tim Robbins' choosing the right artists or the ability of those artists to come up with music, such as Bruce Springsteen's Oscar-nominated title song, that radiates with the power of Robbins' film about capital punishment.

Various artists, "Waiting to Exhale," Arista. Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige lead the parade of singers, but the star here is writer-producer Babyface. Among his achievements, he brings Houston down to earth, trading her normal vocal exuberance for convincing warmth. The album has already chalked up three Top 10 singles, with the best track waiting in the wings: Toni Braxton's sinuous "Let It Flow."

February

Bobbie Cryner, "Girl of Your Dreams," MCA. This country singer-songwriter's "You'd Think He'd Know Me Better" offers the intimacy and heartache of George Jones' classic "He Stopped Loving Her Today." The song, a highlight of Cryner's second album, begins with a woman's complaints about her husband's indifference, only to end with the husband's sad but biting rejoinder. In the mostly faceless world of '90s country stars, Cryner shows the character and dimension to stand out.

Jack Logan, "Mood Elevator," Restless/Medium Cool. Here's a thirtysomething guy from small-town Georgia who repairs swimming pool motors for a living--and suddenly comes up with enough eccentric but wise songs to fill a two-disc 1994 debut album that gets rave reviews. A fluke, right? Well, Logan returns here with 17 more songs that also tantalize and delight.

The Tony Rich Project, "Words," LaFace. Rich is off to a fast start, scoring a Top 10 single the first time out with "Nobody Knows." But the rest of this debut album convinces you that he's not in over his head. The single's R&B-pop sheen makes comparisons to Babyface inevitable, but there are other moments here in which the edginess of the beat and the provocativeness of the themes suggest a bolder presence.

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