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


Pick Hits

PINK
Missundaztood (Arista)
Teen idols have matured at their peril since Del Shannon told us the name he was born with, and between the Internet gossip roast and Carson Daly's Dick Clark act, the current crop will have it even tougher. Which makes this meeting of L.A. Reid's double-platinum Philadelphia white girl and justly forgotten 4 Non Blondes emoter Linda Perry even more of a feat. These are pop songs in the sense that they deliver their payloads in 90 seconds. But they're also confessional, dark, downtempo—and, OK, a little gauche sometimes, which just makes them seem realer. Despite Pink's audacious claim that she's not as pretty as "damn Britney Spears," celebrity anxiety takes a backseat to a credible personal pain rooted in credible family travails, a pain held at bay by expression. Artistically, it's a next step for a genre I never thought would take one. I wish I believed Justin Timberlake's solo debut will sound half as honest, frustrated, and fulfilled. A

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS
Southern Rock Opera (drivebytruckers.com)
The alt-country reprobates enter three-guitar heaven on a what-it-says-it-is that gains power and bite as the fat lady's moment approaches. When Patterson Hood lets his bandmates write songs on the first disc, you can take a piss break, but Mike Cooley and Rob Malone both contribute winners on the second—about alcoholism and Cassie Gaines easing her brother into Lynyrd Skynyrd, respectively. Although George Wallace is treated to a crucial cameo, Skynyrd are the tragic heroes throughout. The last three songs get them on the plane, up in the air, and plummeting to their doom. Every detail and digression tells. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

SIGUR RÒS
Àgaetís Byrjun (Fat Cat)
Once there was a sensitive, conceited young fellow named Jonsi Birgisson who lived on a permafrost island surrounded by a cold, dark sea. Jonsi was a well-meaning person who loved music, and he yearned to put more warmth in the world even though he wasn't exactly sure what warmth was. Not just "throwing an electric blanket on the corpse of electronica," that he knew. Jonsi longed to blaze "inspired new avenues in sonic landscapes," to deliver "shamelessly tear-stained epics" in "the falsetto cadence of angels," to turn "4AD-styled, sepia-toned instrumental passages" into "awe-inspiring new-religious mantras." Stuff like that. He did all this and more on a thematically linked work where some of the sonic landscapes were entrancing (although not warm). Because he was conceited, sometimes he would announce that these soundscapes were destined to change musical history, and then sometimes mean people would make fun of him. But he always had the perfect retort. "You have to admit I'm smarter than Enya," he would say. And about that he was certainly right. B


Additional Consumer News

HONORABLE MENTION: Craig David,Born to Do It (Wildstar/Atlantic): it's the rhythm not the song, but the singer helps ("Rewind," "Booty Man"); Yeah Yeah Yeahs(Shifty): femme-punk self-definition, by now a trope among many others, done with spunk, funk, and downtown noise ("Bang," "Mystery Girl"); the Stratford 4,The Revolt Against Tired Noises (Jetset): more-Brit-than-thou San Fran mopesters cross the sainted Only Ones with the accursed Spiritualized ("All Mistakes Are Mine," "Hydroplane"); Unknown Prophets,World Premier (Unknown Prophets): beatwise, Classical 101 meets Hip Hop 101; rhymewise, Twin Cities whiteboys moralize sincerely and fantasize boastfully ("Almost There," "Never"); Blu Cantrell,So Blu (Arista): higher-res than Res, more songful than Mary ("Swingin'," "The One"); Alligator Records 30th Anniversary Collection(Alligator): the endless varieties of endless boogie, turn-of-the-millennium style (Little Charlie & the Nightcats, "I'll Take You Back"; Corey Harris & Henry Butler, "If You Let a Man Kick You Once"); Baxendale,You Will Have Your Revenge (Le Grand Magistery): cleverer than most faux disco without ever achieving the truth faux disco yearns for ("Music for Girls," "The Future . . . "); Muscular Christians,Dan Marino: Important Message (Mediaman Media): folk songs for an age of electronic media and confusion-is-sex ("Harvey Fierstein," "The Cosby Show," "Richard's Brown Baby Boy"); DJ Vadim,U.S.S.R. (Ninja Tune import): basslines with a sense of humor ("Your Revolution," "Viagra"); They Might Be Giants,Mink Car (Restless): but that doesn't mean they hate short people ("Older," "Wicked Little Critta"); Britney Spears,Britney (Jive): hardly the first not-terribly-bright teenager to approach self-knowledge via the words of others ("Overprotected," "Cinderella"); Trick Daddy,Thugs Are Us (Slip-N-Slide/Atlantic): gangsta without apologies as entertainment without apologies ("Can't F**k With the South," "Take It to Da House"); Radiohead,I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (Capitol): four from Kid A, three from they forget, and one minor new love song add up to a slightly unhinged live remix album ("National Anthem," "Everything in Its Right Place"); Bubba Sparxxx,Dark Days, Bright Nights (Beat Club/Interscope): there are smarter rednecks ("Ugly," "Bubba Talk"); Dan Bern,New American Language (Messenger): weird dreams for justice ("God Said No," "Thanksgiving Day Parade"); Macy Gray,The Id (Epic): extraordinary voice, interesting person, familiar ideas, ordinary music ("Gimme All Your Lovin' or I Will Kill You," "Nutmeg Phantasy"); Bitch and Animal,Eternally Hard (Righteous Animal): but with a gooey center, yum ("Ganja," "Six States Away").

CHOICE CUTS: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band,"American Skin (41 Shots)" (Live in New York City, Columbia); Tori Amos," '97 Bonnie & Clyde" (Strange Little Girls, Atlantic); Backbone,"5 Deuce-4 Tre," "O.K." (Concrete Law,Universal); Big Bill Morganfield & Taj Mahal,"Strong Man Holler" (Blind Pig Records 25th Anniversary Collection, Blind Pig); David Wilcox, "Johnny's Camaro" (The Very Best of David Wilcox, A&M).

DUDS: Tiffany Anders,Funny Cry Happy Gift (Up); Chitlin' Fooks (Hidden Agenda); Shawn Colvin,Whole New You (Columbia); Daft Punk,Alive 1997 (Virgin); Faith Evans,Faithfully (Bad Boy); Lil John & the East Side Boyz,Put Yo Hood Up (TVT); Next,Welcome II Nextasy (Arista); Joan Osborne,Righteous Love (Interscope); O-Town (J); Spiritualized,Let It All Come Down (Arista); Suzanne Vega,Songs in Red and Gray (A&M).


ADDRESSES: Alligator,Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660, www.alligator.com; County,P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906; Delmark,4121 North Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618, www.delmark.com; www.drivebytruckers.com,P.O. Box 667, Athens, GA 30603, www.drivebytruckers.com; Jetset,67 Vestry Street, 5C, NYC 10013, www.jetset.sinner.com; Le Grand Magistery,P.O. Box 611, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48303, www.magistery.com; Mediaman Media,833 Broadway, fifth floor, NYC 10010; Messenger,P.O. Box 1607, NYC 10113, www.messenger-records.com; Ninja Tune,1751 Richardson, suite 4501, Montreal, PQ, Canada, H3K 1G6, ninjatune.net; Righteous Babe,Box 95, Ellicott Station, Buffalo, NY 14205, www.info@righteousbabe.com; Select Cuts,c/o Caroline, 109 West 29th Street, NYC 10001, www.astralwerks.com; Shifty,259 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211, www.yeahyeahyeahs.com; Unknown Prophets,P.O. Box 581105, Minneapolis, MN 55458-1105, www.unknownprophets@aol.com.

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