Pearl Jam

Though it sells lots of CDs, Pearl Jam has always kept its alternative credentials in working order with a serious, somber sound that rarely brings words like fun and party to mind. On Vitalogy, its third—and best—release, the band not only pleases hard-core fans, but also manages to lighten up just enough to attract skeptics who had consigned it to the grunge-rock ghetto. As usual, singer Eddie Vedder's intensity drives every song, yet even he seems to be enjoying himself more this time out (witness "Bugs," his goofy, spoken-word rant about arachnids). Whether it's the retro-punk thrash of "Spin the Black Circle," the arena-rock thump of "Satan's Bed," the slow-building fury of "Not for You" or the sad "Nothing-man," every tune seems more open and inviting than anything the band has done before.

Bruce Springsteen did it with Born in the U.S.A., U2 did it with Achtung Baby. Now Pearl Jam does it with Vitalogy; by mixing artistic integrity with keen commercial instincts, the band has expanded its music—and come up with a classic. (Epic)"

IF EVERY DAY WAS LIKE CHRISTMAS

Elvis Presley

Nearly two decades after Elvis's death, his record company is still finding fresh ways to repackage his musical canon.

If Every Day Was Like Christmas gathers together all the singer's Yuletide-themed recordings in one big overstuffed stocking. The best material comes from E.'s 1957 session with the Jordanaires, from which emerged a rockabilly "Blue Christmas" and a gutbucket "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" (my, what sharp sideburns you have, Santa). Be sure to seek out the collectors' edition (available only in CD format), with a pop-up model of Graceland, all frosted in snow and bedecked with lights. Merry Christmas, baby.

Amazing Grace assembles a vast offering of Elvis's devotional recordings. Yes, he was the King of rock and roll, but like many of the great pop singers who emerged in the '50s, Elvis was well-versed in gospel music, an avocation to which he returned again and again during his career. This two-CD set is not for the casual fan. It captures Elvis in his most vibrato-drenched, cornpone style, at his most lugubrious and—like it or not—at his most sincere. Hey, the King was a complicated cat. That's why the guys in marketing can keep carving him up eight ways from Sunday. (RCA)

Vanessa Williams

Williams keeps piling up those appellations. Most recently the beauty queen-actress-pop star has added the label Broadway sensation (for Kiss of the Spider Woman) and now chanteuse. Only one song here, "The Way That You Love Me," has a truly contemporary feel and beat. The rest are imbued with timeless maturity and sophistication.

Of course, Williams has already proved her ability to handle stately ballads (her "Save the Best for Last" was nominated for a Grammy last year). She exercises that flair adroitly on the title track, and is equally impressive on the more brisk and exotic "Betcha Never." But while her voice is sweet and clear, it lacks the coloratura to carry off more complex, demanding material, such as the languorous jazz-vamp, "Sister Moon," written by Sting.

Still, for Williams to don the restrictive, old-fashioned attire of a torch singer at this stage in her career is daring. Add one more designation to her ever-expanding resume: risk taker. (Wing/Mercury)

John Anderson

The distinctively rustic and intimate sound of Anderson's voice is one of the treasures of country music in the '90s. But the wonder of his singing after more than 20 years in Nashville is that his expressive resources—the ingenuous gusto, the quizzical shadings, the gentleness and sincerity—remain vibrant and spontaneous, never hardening into mannerism.

Christmas Time is a better-than-average album of its kind, paced by an excellent session band, the bracing title cut (which Anderson cowrote) and several revivified chestnuts. Fans will not want to miss Anderson's recitation of The Night Before Christmas. However you feel about the story, his soft, hearty voice speaks the way it sings—with unself-conscious warmth and wonder and a captivating country lilt. (BNA)

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey can sing. Still, she's out to prove it again on her first seasonal album. Listeners with sensitive eardrums will cringe at Carey's Olympian vocal bit, but crooning Christmas carols seems to be her calling. That pained, soulful expression that sometimes makes her sound like she's suffering from heartburn translates well to the inherently schmaltzy genre. And although her watch-me-SING attitude adds nothing but a few new octaves to hallowed tunes like "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night," both songs send chills up all the right places, and the frisky girl-group jubilance of "All I Want for Christmas Is You," one of three songs Carey cowrote, makes it as good as any of the classics that surround it. (Columbia)"

Buddy Guy

Winning a couple of Grammys may have tamed certain auburn-haired blues artists who then became stars on VH-1. (Could that be you, Bonnie?) But not the main Guy. With two Grammys on his shelf, he's still the meanest S.O.B. (that's Sultan Of the Blues) performing right now. Guy and producer Eddie Kramer pay careful attention to the pace of the record, working diligently to vary both styles and tempos. When blues lovers hear the simplified, deliciously moody "Trouble Blues," they'll fondly recall the heyday of Chicago's Chess Records. And Guy kicks out the jams with "Man of Many Words," which could be found in the middle of any Black Crowes set list. Better make some more space on the mantel, Buddy. Slippin' In seems bound to keep those shiny gold Grammys coming. (Silvertone)

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Eric Levin,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Andrew Abrahams.