** MARILYN MANSON, "Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)," Nothing/Interscope. Manson reconnects sonically with much of the droning, industrial-rock gloom of "Antichrist," in case that's what his audience really wants. But he holds on to some of the more accessible undercurrents of "Mechanical Animals" (including the Bowie accent) in case that's what will sell. This is music that sounds reasonable on the radio but crumbles under scrutiny.
*** RICKY MARTIN, "Sound Loaded," Columbia. Nothing here makes for deep, life-changing listening, but Martin, with some help from producer-collaborator Robi Rosa, recaptures some of the spirit that made 1998's "Vuelve" one of the best Latin albums of the year.
** 1/2 MATCHBOX TWENTY, "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty," Atlantic. The band scraps most of the regimented rock riffing that framed its hit debut in favor of a looser, more fluid instrumental concept. But for all his vocal suppleness and agile phrasing, singer Rob Thomas doesn't get far beneath the surface.
*** 1/2 MYSTIKAL, "Let's Get Ready . . . ," Jive. On his explosive fifth album, the New Orleans rapper adds some social commentary and personal reflection to his music, creating a personality that's as hard to ignore as a stampede.
*** NELLY, "Country Grammar," Universal. This debut collection establishes the St. Louis rapper as a force to be reckoned with. The combination of easygoing rapping and easily accessible production pushes his album over the top.
*** NINE INCH NAILS, "Things Fall Apart," Nothing. This single-disc remix collection may appease fans who felt "The Fragile" didn't break new ground for Trent Reznor. The eight revisions here generally avoid the emotional black holes that are Reznor's trademark, and at times the addition of a dance beat trivializes the source material.
* 1/2 98 DEGREES, "Revelation," Universal. Mired in production bombast, these L.A.-based Ohioans hardly sound human, let alone in touch with the
feelings poured out in such gooey ballads as "My Everything." Far clunkier are the Latin-flavored and hip-hop-tinged attempts to diversify the group's sound.
** 'N SYNC, "No Strings Attached," Jive. The group sticks with the super-slick R&B-pop formula that has served it so well, but some fresh ingredients--monolithic dance breaks, scratching and bits of rapping--bring 'N Sync straight into the '90s.
** 1/2 THE OFFSPRING, "Conspiracy of One," Columbia. The Orange County punk-rock pacesetters go by the numbers on "Conspiracy of One," stepping back from the ambition and attitude of 1998's "Americana" and settling for an unprovocative set of generic punk.
**** OUTKAST, "Stankonia," LaFace/Arista. The acclaimed Atlanta rap duo serves up its usual quotient of upbeat party songs posing as quasi-political rants. But the record's most interesting moments are gorgeous Prince-style soul.
** MASTER P, "Ghetto Postage," No Limit/Priority. On his seventh album, the New Orleans rap mogul attempts to increase his lover-man stock--a serious misstep. Master P succeeds when he delivers rowdy, chest-thumping music, and he didn't do it enough of it this time.
*** PRODIGY OF MOBB DEEP, "H.N.I.C.," Loud. A strong solo album that traverses much of the same sinister subject matter he and his Mobb Deep partner Havoc traditionally explore. His menacing verse details bone-crushing activities with an intimidating aura crystallized in his chilling, deadpan delivery.
** 1/2 RADIOHEAD, "Kid A," Capitol. The English band gives itself over almost entirely to its impressionistic side, jettisoning its Beatles-proportioned frameworks and prominent vocals for a free-floating, fragmented mood piece. Sounds like a side trip.
** JA RULE, "Rule 3:36," Murder Inc./Def Jam. Most of the selections lack the punch of the New York rapper's earlier work, which was fashioned by stronger production and featured better lyrics.
** 1/2 SADE, "Lover's Rock," Epic. The Nigerian singer's first collection in eight years pretty much picks up where 1992's rather tepid "Love Deluxe" left off. The only disappointment is the singer's reliance on artificial beats to set up moods that before were largely acoustic.
*** SCARFACE, "Last of a Dying Breed," Rap-A-Lot/ Virgin. The Houston rapper's sixth album is another strong round of bleak examinations of life's darkest side. Scarface's talent is in making listeners empathize with him, and there's a definite sense of sorrow, disappointment and regret in his strongest work.
*** JILL SCOTT, "Who Is Jill Scott? Words & Sounds Vol. 1," Hidden Beach/Epic. With an earthy vibe, Scott fluctuates between sensuous and sad in this fresh presentation of modern soul music.
*** PAUL SIMON, "You're the One," Warner Bros. The musical textures aren't as distinctive as those that ran through much of "Graceland," but the songs themselves are illuminating and mostly upbeat reflections on life and love.