IF THE MOST awful thing that happened to a superstar last year was the freak truck-tour bus collision that broke Gloria Estefan's back, then her recovery is one of the brightest events so far in 1991.
Not that it hasn't left its mark on her music. The shadow of mortality reaches deep into her new album, "Into the Light," and it gives her songs a dimension they haven't had before, a deeper appreciation of what makes life worthwhile.
So it's not just love, but caring, that lifts her first single, the leadoff "Coming Out of the Dark," out of the depths of despair. "Why be afraid if I'm not alone," she begins.
It's that connection and a new musical element -- the churchy gospel background arrangements of singer Betty Wright -- that set this apart from the light romance and dance-party sensibility of Estefan's previous hits.
That theme continues on through the next several tracks. A couple of high-spirited dance numbers -- the propulsively brassy "Seal Our Fate" and the percolating "What Goes Around" -- come with bonuses in their lyrical reflections on fate and what it takes to overcome it.
Topping them off is the ballad for her son, "Nayib's Song (I Am Here for You)," which sets up the mother-child relationship as a foundation from which both can "make some progress" against the discouraging world outside.
After those outstanding first four numbers, everything else seems a bit extraneous, though there are a few secondary high points.
"Heart With Your Name on It" is a syncopated Diane Warren number that could play in lounges around the world. "Sex in the '90s" has fun with the dangers of the modern dating game. And "Mama Yo Can't Go" is a spirited glance at the Cuban-American longing for the homeland that can't be revisited.
Nevertheless, despite that number and the Spanish version of the single, there's not enough Latin in Estefan this time (and no mention whatsoever of the Miami Sound Machine). Next time she shouldn't be as skimpy with her roots. Rating: 1/2 .
By rights, Blue Rodeo should be as renowned on this side of the border as it is in its native Canada. Here's a band that shines its own light on '60s folk-rock and writes bright, insightful songs that quite often invite you to hum along.
With the help of producer Pete Anderson, who has worked with Dwight Yoakam and Michelle Shocked, the Toronto quintet has cleared away all the intellectual overachievements of its second album, "Diamond Mine."
Instead, the members concentrated on the essences of their music -- the jangling doubled guitars, the perky melodies and the above-average lyrics, plaintively delivered by songwriters Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.
As a result, "Casino" is so uncluttered and natural that it's a bit of a shock to the ears at first in this age of synthesizers and sampling. Then it makes you think Beatles and Byrds. And then you want to hear it again. Rating: .
Nothing like a stunning oldie to win hearts and sell albums. It's working for the Norwegian trio A-ha. Best-known here for its 1985 smash "Take on Me," it's notched a hit in England with the delightful 1962 Everly Brothers fave "Crying in the Rain," and stand to do the same over here.
The group put that on first. And since it's hooked up with producers who have done Mike and the Mechanics and Tears for Fears, it's no surprise to find the rest of the album is a little aloof and electronic.
The only problem is that its tunefulness doesn't hold steady -- "Early Morning" and "Sycamore Leaves" are the only tracks that come close to the standard set in its opening number. Rating: 1/2 .
Unlike other '80s girl groups, the Bangles had only one singer capable of carrying off a solo act, singer and rhythm guitarist Susanna Hoffs. Out on her own with the help of Bangles producer David Kahne, she's sugar, spice and everything nice, but it's not enough.
Let's face it, the group was better. And so were its songs. Furthermore, the Bangles would never have attempted anything as ill-advised as Hoffs' stiff remake of the David Bowie song that gives her album its title.
Kahne's richly understated arrangements and Hoffs' granulated soprano compensate for the underlying shallowness of some of the material here -- the single "My Side of the Bed," for example, and the perky "That's Why Girls Cry" -- but still, isn't it time for her to grow up? Rating: 1/2 .
Even so, Hoffs' extended boy-craziness is preferable to the incomplete maturation of that most obnoxious of the pop-punk bands of the late '70s, the Knack. Brought back into the light by fellow Detroit native Don Was of Was (Not Was) fame, misogynistic chief honcho Doug Fieger hasn't lost his boyish hyperactivity.
Trouble is, the man who gave us "My Sharona" has evolved into a stylistic shoplifter so shameless and soulless that it hurts to hear it. On second thought, that never stopped people from buying Knack records back in 1979. This may turn into a comeback despite itself. Rating: No stars.
INTO THE LIGHT; Gloria Estefan (Epic EK-46988)
CASINO; Blue Rodeo (East West America 91601 Atlantic)
EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON; A-ha (Warner Bros. 26314)
WHEN YOU'RE A BOY; Susanna Hoffs (Columbia CK-46076)
SERIOUS FUN; The Knack (Charisma 91607 Atlantic)