Thinking about album gift ideas? Calendar's pop staff helps you sort through 40 of the nation's most popular and/or acclaimed albums.
** AEROSMITH, "A Little South of Sanity," Geffen. On this lackluster two-CD live set, the performances are frequently routine, but more disappointing is the uninspired selection of tunes.
** 1/2 BARENAKED LADIES, "Stunt," Reprise. It seems as if the Canadian band's recent success has made it soft-headed and fuzzy. Here the group leaches out all the goofy word play and off-kilter wit, leaving only ordinary Top 40 pop fodder.
*** BEASTIE BOYS, "Hello Nasty," Grand Royal/Capitol. Directs attention back to the dynamic hip-hop that is the trio's core business. Not these erstwhile brats' most ambitious moment, but it's hard not to get swept up in the momentum of the slamming tracks and fiery raps.
**** BECK, "Mutations," DGC. A collection of psychedelic folk-rock and country waltzes that couldn't have wandered much further from "Odelay." Another fully formed creative facet of Beck we haven't seen before.
** BRANDY, "Never Say Never," Atlantic. Is a downcast and gloomy Brandy what her fans really want to hear? She shouldn't be so quick to relinquish her upbeat sweetness in her desire to explore more mature sounds.
*** GARTH BROOKS, "Double Live," Capitol. This two-CD set shows the shortcomings of Brooks' bigger-is-better mentality, reflecting the wild fluctuations in taste and temperament that make him both a frustrating and fascinating artist.
** MARIAH CAREY, "#1's," Columbia. All 13 of the singer's No. 1 hits, plus four new tracks. There's nothing terrible about singing hit songs that, however clumsily, express positive feelings and offer an emotional boost to listeners. But this homogenous presentation only emphasizes Carey's limitations.
**** SHERYL CROW, "The Globe Sessions," A&M. Forgoing her narrative technique for a more confessional approach, Crow lends her husky, world-wise mezzo to poignant, strikingly personal accounts of troubled and failed love affairs. She's able to draw inspiration from pain without wallowing in it.
*** DIXIE CHICKS, "Wide Open Spaces," Monument. This tradition-rooted Texas trio knows its way around country, western, honky-tonk, bluegrass, folk and country-rock. That range, plus their sweet, assured three-part harmonies, Natalie Maines' attractively steely lead vocals, and savvy song selection have propelled this major-label debut into the Top 10.
**** DRU HILL, "Enter the Dru," University/Island Black Music. For doubters who believe R&B isn't as strong and compelling as it used to be.
** 1/2 FAITH EVANS, "Keep the Faith," Arista. However heartfelt Evans' intentions may be in this homage to her late husband, the Notorious B.I.G., she seems more concerned with soliciting our empathy than with creating compelling R&B.
**** KIRK FRANKLIN, "The Nu Nation Project," GospoCentric/Interscope. You might wish the balance between contemporary snap and mainstream sheen leaned more to the former, but this is a classy work that celebrates the power of Franklin's alluring--and in some ways revolutionary--gospel-pop vision.
** GOO GOO DOLLS, "Dizzy Up the Girl," Warner Bros. This trio has never shied away from reaching out to teen listeners with songs that grapple with identity, romance and self-worth. But on its latest album, Goo's singer-songwriter John Rzeznick fails to leaven his earnestness with humor, leaving only heavy-handed anthems to self-absorption.
**** LAURYN HILL, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," RuffHouse/Columbia. The writer-producer-singer-rapper-arranger isn't the first to mix hip-hop and soul, but she may be the one who most fully defines the mix.
*** WHITNEY HOUSTON, "My Love Is Your Love," Arista. For her first new studio album in eight years, Houston has recruited both old colleagues and young R&B and hip-hop talent to come up with songs that reflect her growth as an artist and as an individual.
*** ICE CUBE, "War & Peace Vol. 1 (The War Disc)," Priority. The gangster rap pioneer relies on moody production to carry his still fiery messages.
** 1/2 ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, "Cosas Del Amor," Fonovisa. Unlike other pop stars of his generation, Iglesias writes his own material and sings it with conviction. Those foreign to the world of Latin kitsch, however, will remain utterly perplexed.
*** 1/2 JAY-Z, "Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life," Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam. Reconfirms the Brooklyn rapper's status as a superior wordsmith. Jay-Z's biggest asset is his ability to relay the most intricate details of life--especially one saturated with drugs, guns and disposable women.
*** R. KELLY, "R." Jive. With this double-CD set, Kelly aspires to both maintain his street credibility and expand on his crossover success. He blends hip-hop brio and bombast with some of his most tenderly soulful writing and singing to date.