Thinking about album gift ideas? Calendar's pop staff helps you sort through 40 of the nation's most popular and/or acclaimed albums.
* 1/2 BACKSTREET BOYS, "Black & Blue," Jive. Listening to these 13 songs is a bit like pinging around inside a pinball machine. Giant grinding beats slam you from pole to pole, there are lots of flashy effects, the environment is completely artificial, and once the ball is launched you can see exactly where it's going.
*** ERYKAH BADU, "Mama's Gun," Motown. Badu aims for the individuality and punch of "Baduizm," which was one of the most dazzling debuts of the '90s, but only reaches it in key moments. The arrangements seem icy and impersonal at times, and traces of excessive mannerisms surface elsewhere.
** 1/2 BAHA MEN, "Who Let The Dogs Out," Artemis. The title song is major-league mindless fun, but the rest is a mixed bag of styles--teen pop ballads, propulsive hip-hop, classic R&B. The closer the veteran Bahamian group sticks to its Caribbean roots, the better it sounds.
*** BLINK-182, "The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back)," MCA. This 20-track live collection accurately re-creates the superstar goof-punk trio's concert experience, along with an awesome new studio track, plus a bonus segment featuring obscenity-laden quips. Ah, sweet memories.
*** CAPONE-N-NOREAGA, "The Reunion," Tommy Boy. The New York duo picks up on the pleasurable path of its spectacular debut, 1997's "The War Report," spending much of its time rapping about life in the streets, but breathing new life into what otherwise would be standard narratives.
** 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.
** 1/2 ELVIS CRESPO, "Wow Flash!" Sony Discos. The merengue sensation switches gears on his third outing, and it sounds tame next to the raucous fun of its predecessors. "Wow Flash!" might be a bit of a disappointment, but it doesn't shake Crespo's credibility as a major Latin artist.
*** 1/2 DIDO, "No Angel," Arista. There is a gentle grace to this seductive singer-songwriter's work that recalls the elegance of Sting and Peter Gabriel, who is one of her songwriting partners on this stylish debut.
*** 1/2 EMINEM, "The Marshall Mathers LP," Aftermath/Interscope. The rapper puts on disc all the forbidden thoughts and scandalous scenarios that accompany adolescence and just watches the fallout. The creative advance is in the way he weaves more autobiographical elements into the lyrics.
** EVERCLEAR, "Songs From an American Movie, Vol. II: Good Time for a Bad Attitude," Capitol. Arguably, the aggressive guitar rock is better-suited to the characters' jagged self-esteem swings. Yet somehow the musical explorations on the recent predecessor added new spins. This return to earlier form seems too familiar.
** 1/2 GREEN DAY, "Warning," Reprise. The veteran punk trio shakes off the transitional aspects of 1997's "Nimrod" to craft a more coherent, less aggressive but still rebellious collection that also draws on the even older pop traditions of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Who.
** 1/2 ALAN JACKSON, "When Somebody Loves You," Arista Nashville. There's nary a discouraging word about life or love here, but as lightweight and country-radio-friendly as most of it is, Jackson musters one truly evocative, late-night-at-the-bar scene sketch in 'Maybe I Should Stay Here."
*** 1/2 WYCLEF JEAN, "The Ecleftic--2 Sides II a Book," Columbia. The Fugee's second solo album is more hip-hop- minded than his debut. but it's still a freewheeling, wildly eclectic affair.
*** R. KELLY, "TP-2.Com," Jive. The Windy City soul man's ruminations on his erotic exploits and his struggle with celebrity aren't remarkably fresh, but Kelly's sensuous style makes the album entertaining and engaging.
** 1/2 LIMP BIZKIT, "Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water," Flip/Interscope. Raconteur of rage Fred Durst apparently has a long enemies list, and "Chocolate Starfish" is a kind of rap-rock jihad against all those who would dare to speak his name in vain. Durst's tantrums are supposed to provide bracing shock treatment, but in the end they're just numbingly shrill.
*** LUDACRIS, "Back for the First Time," Island/Def Jam South. Featuring the type of rowdy, raucous, dance-inducing hip-hop currently in vogue in the South, the major-label debut album from this Atlanta artist works like an aural adrenaline shot. Bombastic production, crafty lyrics and catchy hooks make this party-flavored album irresistible.
*** MADONNA, "Music," Warner Bros./Maverick. Madonna still can't escape some of the vocal anonymity that often accompanies dance-oriented workouts, but there are moments when she demonstrates, both as a writer and a singer, that the creative advances in "Ray of Light" were no fluke.