Thinking about album gift ideas? Calendar's pop staff helps you sort through 40 of the nation's most popular and/or acclaimed albums.
** CHRISTINA AGUILERA, "Christina Aguilera," RCA. Aguilera has a stronger voice than most of today's young arrivals, but this collection of mediocre songs doesn't give her much chance to show it off.
* 1/2 LOU BEGA, "A Little Bit of Mambo," RCA. Bega either pictures himself as a tame Luther Campbell or a fun-loving Ricky Martin, and he's not interesting enough to make you spend the time to figure out which.
*** 1/2 FIONA APPLE, "When the Pawn Hits . . ," Clean Slate/Epic. Although Apple's new songs express as much emotional ambivalence as those on her 1996 debut, there is more of a self-assured, even playful, quality to her delivery.
** 1/2 THE ARTIST, "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic," NPG/Arista. He declares his triumph over pop trends in the techno-funk manifesto "Undisputed," but he would be more convincing were "Rave" anything more than an echo of the innovator he once was.
** BACKSTREET BOYS, "Millennium," Jive. Like cotton candy, the teen idols' latest collection is all spun-sugar melodies and melt-in-your-mouth sentiment, with nary a hint of substance.
*** BEASTIE BOYS, "The Sounds of Science," Grand Royal/Capitol. This anthology, featuring more than a dozen rare, unreleased or alternate tracks, showcases both the goofiness and the ambition. The sequencing seems random, but it's still great listening.
**** BECK, "Midnite Vultures," Geffen. Welcome to Beck's "Boogie Nights." The real jolt isn't his startling, sweat-drenched, scissor-split spin into full-blown soul music, but the quantum leap in emotional stakes and creative tension that accompanies it.
* GARTH BROOKS, "Garth Brooks in . . . the Life of Chris Gaines," Capitol. Brooks assumes the role of a fictional pop-rock star and sings his hits from the last two decades. Gaines may prove to be one fascinating dude on film, but he's a pretty dull one on record.
**** CAFETACUBA, "Reves/Yosoy," Warner Bros. The ambitious double album by the idiosyncratic Mexican quartet combines quirky instrumentals with songs of a dreamy, pastoral nature. Arguably rock en espanol's finest moment.
*** MARIAH CAREY, "Rainbow," Columbia. Carey continues to team with some of the hottest talent in urban music. But she also emphasizes the feature that made her a mega-star in the first place: her chops as a classic pop-soul balladeer.
*** GUSTAVO CERATI, "Bocanada," BMG Latin. The ex-Soda Stereo vocalist explores the elusive textures of electronica in a collection of moody songs that lure you into a world of unexpected beauty.
** 1/2 COUNTING CROWS, "This Desert Life," Geffen. As relentless bummers go, Counting Crows' third album is pleasant enough, with some endearing melodies to go with Adam Duritz's whine.
** CREED, "Human Clay," Wind-Up. Grunge twice removed. The songs sound less like knockoffs of such standard-bearers as Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains than facsimiles of Seven Mary Three and Stone Temple Pilots.
*** CELINE DION, "All the Way--A Decade of Song," Epic/550 Music. This greatest-hits collection generally showcases the Canadian songbird at her best. Although the seven new cuts are a mixed bag, the highlights are impressive.
*** DIXIE CHICKS, "Fly," Monument. The instrumental country trademarks still sparkle in the trio's follow-up to "Wide Open Spaces." Despite a few generic tunes, "Fly" generally shows advances in execution and material.
*** 1/2 DR. DRE, "The Chronic 2001," Aftermath/Interscope. Dre continues to fuse funk-soul and hip-hop, but he's not simply retracing his steps. The album has a convincing personal side rarely achieved in rap best-sellers, but the crude language detracts from the excellence elsewhere.
*** 1/2 FABULOSOS CADILLACS, "La Marcha del Golazo Solitario," BMG Latin. Romantic Latin pop from the '60s and '70s influences the latest by Argentina's rock 'n' roll big band.
** 1/2 FOO FIGHTERS, "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," Roswell/RCA. The band's most consistent collection so far, but for all his accomplishment in crafting individual songs, leader Dave Grohl has yet to complete a full album up to that same standard.
** GUNS N' ROSES, "Live Era '87-'93," Geffen. With just a couple of exceptions, GNR's songs have not become part of the rock-culture fabric the way the music of, say, Aerosmith and Metallica has. A great live album might have proved that to be an injustice, but this is not the one to do it.
*** HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL, "So . . . How's Your Girl?," Tommy Boy. Innovative producers Prince Paul and Dan the Automator unite for this tongue-in-cheek skewering of hip-hop narcissism. The 16-cut album has an eclectic vibe, but its humor is its strongest asset.
** FAITH HILL, "Breathe," Warner Bros. Hill tries to catch top-selling Shania Twain simply by mirroring her; there's a pop sheen on practically everything here. She does take a remarkable step with a version of Bruce Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind."