Popstakes

Insofar as popular music improves when something is "at stake," to cite the existentialist cliché, it was structurally foreordained that in the Age of Britney, Pink and Shakira can make albums that feel riskier than, say, the Unknown Prophets' or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs'. But I'm still surprised, which is part of the effect.


CLARENCE ASHLEY
The Music of Clarence "Tom" Ashley 1929-1933: Greenback Dollar (County)
Always a card, singer-comic-guitarist/banjoist Ashley was still blacking up with the Stanley Brothers in the '40s. He had such a good ear that his 1962 arrangement of the then obscure "Amazing Grace" eventually made it the best-known song in America. Well before then, in his thirties, he recorded one of Harry Smith's greatest hits, "Coo Coo Bird," and the rest of these three-minute songs. All are traditional, not to say deliberately archaic, with Ashley's droll musicality shielding them from nostalgia. He believed in entertainment, that was his trade, but not if he had to get mushy about it. Folk music that means to be folk music—as defined, for once, by one of the folk. A MINUS

DUNGEON FAMILY
Even in Darkness (Arista)
Better than most posse albums, and why not? Better posse. But the posse gets together primarily to party, and hence the mood is more narrowly hedonistic than one might expect, with the morality tales, both by Goodie Mobsters, not so much buried in the mix as lost in a flow that rushes forward as it changes course, switches gears, and creates a disturbance in your work habits. The one that proves they really are P-Funk comes pretty early, however: "Crooked Booty," which one doctor diagnosed and a better one prescribed. B PLUS

MICHAEL JACKSON
Invincible (Epic)
Jackson's obsession with fame, his grotesque life magnified by his grotesque wealth, are such an offense to rock aesthetes that the fact that he's a great musician is now often forgotten. I use the present tense because (a) his skills seem undiminished and (b) as only Frank Kogan has listened dispassionately enough to remark, he's doing new stuff with them—his funk is steelier and his ballads are airier, both to disquieting effect. At 78 minutes this is too long, and especially given his history, "The Lost Children" is offensive. But the first three tracks are the Rodney Jerkins of the year, "2000 Watts" is the Teddy Riley of the past five years, and even the prunables offer small surprises. Don't believe the hype matters. A MINUS

MADONNA
GHV2: Greatest Hits Volume 2 (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
I prefer Erotica, the last time her shape-shifting audacity was more than a trope, and Music, the Mirwais-informed culmination of a period that could well last the rest of her career—could in the end be remembered as her career. Instead of playing at pop, using it as a platform from which to mount a fusillade of cultural challenges, she now ispop—blandness at its best, a model of a modern mental health, replete with ecumenical enlightenment, domestic contentment, liberal politics, and plenty of exercise. Not that she's limited to these themes; on the contrary, she role-plays as a matter of course, because (as she's long since established) that's what pop professionals do. And now it's time to sum up. So she gleans goodies from the overrated Bedtime Storiesand Ray of Light, mixes in the glorious soundtrack-only "Beautiful Stranger" and the dismal soundtrack-only "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," and hands it all over to Mirwais for sonic tweaking I'm not interested enough to pin down. An essential package. B PLUS

OUTKAST
Big Boi & Dre Present . . . OutKast (Arista)
Subtract the seven Aqueminiand Stankoniatracks from this best-of and you're left with only one that could compete with them—the more-song-than-rap single "The Whole World." Everything else, including two other new tracks, streamlines the tangle-rooted funk of their must-own albums into a discernibly Southern G-funk that meditates on the constraints of life outside the law: hit-the-streets pep talk, Christmas carol, the shallow-as-its-title title track "Southernplayalistic-adillacmuzik," and my favorite, the languid "Crumblin' Herb," about doing what you can while you're still alive to inhale it. More pleasurable than most gangsta hedonism, yes—and all the early OutKast most will ever need. B PLUS

SELECT CUTS FROM BLOOD & FIRE CHAPTER TWO (Select Cuts import)
More Euro-pomo dubs of Jamaican-pomodub classics that respect the tropical source by remaining far beatier than the Macro Dub Infectionnorm. Just to get my bearings, though, I played them up against Heartbeat's honorable King Tubby comp, Black Foundation in Dub, and suddenly what stood out was how tricky the techno remixes were. The well-dispersed echoes and dimensional effects and stealth riffs that keep you waiting in '70s dub are the music here—pervasive, almost continual, with just enough space between to set them off. Detail density suitable for the active mind, mystical amazements suitable for the blown one. A MINUS

SHAKIRA
Laundry Service (Epic)
Vulgar, confident, full of fun, this is the Cher album Cher never made—must be that Middle Eastern blood. Christian Middle East it may be (Cher's Armenian, Shakira Lebanese), but the intensity of the vibrato is more Islamic than Iberian. On the other hand, the stylistic appetite of this Colombian superstar is pure rock en Español—nothing like Andean-where-she's-Caribbean panpipes for a soupçon of inauthentic authenticity. How freely she deploys her freshly mastered English—the corners the Anglo-Saxon consonants put on her Latin gush, the slightly misbegotten metaphors, the awkward, carnal, unhesitatingly female chauvinist "Underneath your clothes/There's an endless story/There's the man I chose/There's my territory." And as you might expect, her voice swallows contradictions as easily as it switches timbres. A MINUS

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