Newcomers Allison Moorer and Eminem are matched up with such veterans as Paul Westerberg and the Roots in this guide to keeping up with what's exciting in pop on a budget of $50 a month.
Lynn Miles' "Night in a Strange Town" (Philo). For every right move this Ottawa singer-songwriter makes lyrically in her fourth CD, she stumbles with a wrong one. Describing emotional need, for instance, she follows a strong image ("Like the sisters need Jesus") with an obvious one ("Like a junkie needs his needle"). If you stick with these folk-tinged tunes, however, you'll find times when everything turns out so well (as on the unguarded "Map of My Heart" and the affectionate "Rust") that you'll forgive her the miscues.
Allison Moorer's "Alabama Song" (MCA Nashville). Let's give a cheer to the Oscar voters. For the second straight year, they've drawn welcome attention to outstanding but little-known songwriters. Last year it was a best song nomination (though no Oscar) for Elliott Smith's "Miss Misery" from "Good Will Hunting." This time, it's a best song nomination for Moorer and co-writer Gwil Owen for "A Soft Place to Fall" from "The Horse Whisperer." That song's not on this CD, but there is plenty to enjoy. Moorer sings mostly heartache songs with an authority that reminds you of the best of the country tradition, not today's slick Nashville norm.
Sparklehorse's "Good Morning Spider" (Capitol). Sparklehorse auteur Mark Linkous proves adroit at a wide range of emotions, moving from the spectacular, psychedelic-edged sonic assault of "Pig" to a song, "Painbirds," that feels like a cross between Tony Joe White's swamp rock and a lush pop daydream, to "Sick of Goodbyes," which is the kind of country-blues lament that Keith Richards and Gram Parsons might have come up with if they had ever found a way to put a band together.
Eminem's "The Slim Shady LP" (Aftermath/Interscope). "God sent me to piss the world off," rapper Eminem taunts in the most bratty assault on public decency since the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" more than a decade ago. Certain to be one of the most talked-about rap tracks of 1999, "Guilty" is a mix of humor and shock-rap that pits Eminem as the bad conscience against producer Dr. Dre as the good conscience, until Eminem remembers whom he's dealing with and calls Dre on his own infamous reputation as a member of gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. The album contains some of the fastest and most outrageous R-rated raps in hard-core history, some fun-filled, others stark and raw. Beware: not for all sensibilities.
The Roots' "Things Fall Apart" (MCA). "Either stand tall or sit the [expletive] down," the group declares midway through this 70-minute gem. This rap band was once considered too progressive to sell many records, but now that Erykah Badu (who is a guest on one track), Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean, among others, have escalated the sophistication level in hip-hop, the Roots seem right on target in the marketplace. Their songs speak about standing tall in whatever you do, from the concert stage to sociopolitical affairs. Rap that is as rich musically (equal parts jazz and funk) and lyrically. A bull's-eye.
Paul Westerberg's "Suicaine Gratifaction" (Capitol). At his best with the Replacements, Westerberg wrote youth anthems that rivaled the Who's in terms of passion and insight. And some of the old gang is giving him a hard time for trying to look back now on the old attitudes from the perspective of a man who is nearing 40. But Westerberg should no more be concerned with those outcries than Bob Dylan was in the '60s when he was attacked for going electric. In the best of these often achingly heartwarmingly candid moments of self-examination, Westerberg extends his art rather than compromises it.
Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.