SO MANY albums, so little time.
The holiday music crush is here, and this year the record industry has outdone itself by flooding the market with releases. There's a lot of money riding on these CDs and also some listening pleasure. So let's look at some of them.
Beck doesn't have the hype or name recognition of many of the high-powered stars, but the young musician may have made the most interesting CD of the bunch.
"Mutations" finds the always adventurous Beck in a mellow, creative mood. The sound is softer than his other works, but the music is invigorating. "Cold Brains" sounds as if it could fit on the Beatles' "Rubber Soul," and Beck's wounded vocal and acoustic guitar make this number special. It's that way throughout the album. The second track, "Nobody's Fault But My Own," has a harrowing musical backing straight off the Doors' "The End" but turns into a folky soliloquy.
Beck has a way of borrowing from the music of the past and making it current.
He loosens up and has some fun with "Tropicalia," which moves to a samba beat. "Dead Melodies" is a melancholy, dreamy number; "Bottle of Blues" is Beck getting down with a harmonica and gritty guitar.
"O Maria" has a jazz tempo; Beck gets into a peaceful groove on "Sing It Again" and closes the album with a slow, pensive "Static." Beck has made the most mature and appealing CD of his career. Rating: **** 1/2 .
U2 has been a dominant band for two decades. The Irish group, fronted by lead singer Bono, with the Edge on guitar, built its reputation on rock anthems for social causes. It's all here on the first of what is expected to be an ongoing collection of U2's best work. Also included in a limited edition of the album is a bonus CD of B-sides.
U2 flashes all its youthful power and energy on such memorable tracks on "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "New Year's Day," "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Where the Streets Have No Name."
Longtime U2 fans will have most of the 14 tracks on the collection but will want the 15 extra songs on the B-sides CD. Two stand out: Bono's searing cover of the old Top 40 hit "Everlasting Love" and a tender cover of "Unchained Melody." Rating: ****.
Four years ago Jewel became a star with her album "Pieces of You." It was filled with light poetry, pop optimism and catchy tunes. She'll never be confused with Bob Dylan, but her sometimes sappy lyrics and toe-tapping songs have made her a voice for the masses.
Jewel's new album is filled with predictable acoustic numbers, with a heavy layer of her poetic sensibility. Such numbers as "Fat Boy," "Kiss the Flame" and "Innocence Maintained" will please Jewel fans, though they fail to show any significant artistic growth.
Jewel does touch an inspirational nerve with the faith-affirming number "Life Uncommon" and the pop appeal of "Down So Long." Though Jewel sometimes sounds as if she's writing copy for greeting cards, her music has a way of growing on a listener. Rating: ***.
R. Kelly seems to be a misunderstood artist. Many know him best from the inspirational "I Believe I Can Fly." It's a wonderful and appealing song, and the best thing on his new double CD.
Kelly seems determined to do anything to extend his appeal here. That's why he sings a duet with Celine (She's Everywhere) Dion, a cheesy number called "I'm Your Angel." As if to win back his hip-hop credibility, Kelly returns with another duet with rapper Keith Murray on "Home Alone."
The rest of the CD features Kelly in various musical moods but never establishes his real identity. He turns hip-hop hard on such numbers as "Dollar Bill" and "Ghetto Queen," but it's not enough. Rating: ***.
Seal is emerging as a major force in contemporary music. "Human Being" is crammed with intense lyrics, a variety of sounds and, most of all, the dominating presence of an artist who refuses to be confined by pop star limitations.
"Just Like You Say" is Seal at his best, his crisp, clear vocal building with the energy of the music supplied by an orchestra. Seal turns to a soft, acoustic sound on "Princess," a brooding number.
"Human Being," the title track, is a lush number backed by a steady, soulful beat. Seal's silky vocal adds to the power of the song. "State of Grace" has a spiritual, mysterious sound and Seal's soft, alluring voice. This album marks another progression for Seal, who continues to grow in stature and style. Rating: ****.
Message to Dreamworks: OK, guys, we know you're trying to build a powerful entertainment company, and "Prince of Egypt" may be the biggest movie of the holiday season, but please, turn down the hype on the music. The three-CD collection for the film's soundtrack is a mixed blend of artists and songs, focusing on religion, country music and pop stars. Put them all together and you have a chaotic mix of American pop culture.
Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey shelve their egos and combine for the title track on Disc 1. It also features a show biz gallery of stars, including Steve Martin, Martin Short and Michelle Pfeiffer. Toss in Boyz II Men, K-Ci & Jo Jo, and Val Kilmer and you have a high-powered mess.
Disc 2, "Prince of Egypt -- Nashville" showcases country music. Pam Tillis, Vince Gill and Alabama appear in a hoedown salute to the prince. The best disc is the one labeled "Inspirational." Such artists as Kirk Franklin, Shirley Caesar, and BeBe and CeCe Winans provide just the right tone to give the film's music some spiritual authenticity.
It's not, enough, however, to justify this three-CD collection of overkill and promotion. Rating: **.
Oasis is the most overrated band of the '90s. The English band, led by the bad-boy Gallagher brothers, made millions by imitating the Beatles and acting like jerks. Oh well, give the people what they want.
The band's new album showcases all Oasis' shortcomings. The worst number here is a halfhearted live version of "I Am the Walrus." Rating: *.
BECK Mutations (DGC 25309)
U2 The Best of 1980-90; The B-Sides (Island 314-524-612-2)
JEWEL Spirit (Atlantic 82950)
R. KELLY R. (Jive 41625-2)
SEAL Human Being (Warner Bros. 46828-2)
VARIOUS ARTISTS "Prince of Egypt" Soundtrack (three CDs, Dreamworks 50041, 50045, 50050)
OASIS The Masterplan (Epic 68647)