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POP MUSIC | $50 GUIDE

Hole, Harvey, Hill Highlight Fall Field

October 25, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Hole and PJ Harvey--whose "Live Through This" and "To Bring You My Love" were named the best albums of 1994 and 1995, respectively, in the Village Voice's annual poll of U.S. pop critics--are back with new collections that again are likely to earn them high marks in this year's Voice competition. They are among the highlights in this edition of the Guide, which suggests how to keep up with what's best in pop music on an album budget of $50 a month.

SEPTEMBER

Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (Ruffhouse/Columbia). Until stepping out to write and produce the best Aretha Franklin single in years ("A Rose Is a Still a Rose"), Hill seemed like merely vocal decoration in the Fugees. But "Rose" and this solo debut suggest that fellow Fugee Wyclef Jean has not just an able partner but also a rival in the larger pop world. Writer-producer-singer-rapper-arranger Hill isn't the first to mix hip-hop and soul, but she may be the one who most fully defines the mix.

Hole's "Celebrity Skin" (DGC). "Oh, make me over. / I'm all I want to be / A walking study / In demonology." Those may end up as the most quoted pop lines of the year, but don't think Courtney Love's only strength is her ability to play off her teasing persona. Besides changing the band's sound from the ragged punk of "Live Through This" to a more accessible pop-rock sheen, Love has given us a surprisingly candid and insightful look at what it's like to lose your world and then try to piece it back together.

Elliott Smith's "XO" (DreamWorks). It's interesting how some longtime Smith fans complain that this major-label debut is "overproduced," while many newcomers to the singer-songwriter seem surprised at how sparse it is. My guess is that the debate over production will seem quaint once these tuneful and imaginative tales of dislocation and doubt sink in. The music's delicate folk base reminds you of early Simon & Garfunkel, but the overall vision leans more to the more eccentric edges of Tom Waits' "Heart of Saturday Night" days.

OCTOBER

Eels' "Electro-Shock Blues" (DreamWorks). Who would have expected one of the most inspiring albums of the year to be all about death? Eels leader E was so shaken by losses in his family circle that he apparently had no choice but to turn his grief into his art. Much of the pop-rock album is understandably dark, but there are surprisingly witty and ultimately uplifting moments in a work of immense imagination and range.

PJ Harvey's "Is This Desire?" (Island). Polly Jean Harvey continues to write about lust and salvation with a classic disregard for contemporary embroidery. There's no sense of today in earthy tales that show the same kind of attachment to the elements--from shooting stars to the bitter wind--that you'd expect from a 19th-century novelist. What is important to Harvey is the eternal struggle of man. Another entry in a commanding body of work.

Los Super Seven's "Los Super Seven" (RCA). These seven musicians--from Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas to young country star Rick Trevin~o and tejano standout Ruben Ramos--find a marvelous common ground in a salute to Mexican roots music that is one of the most joyous recordings of the year. A record so appealing that it could safely carry a money-back guarantee.*

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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