Willie Nelson

Billed as the follow-up to 1978's Stardust, this is, in fact, the fourth album of pre-rock standards that Nelson has cut since Stardust. Rather than a sequel, Moonlight Becomes You is the latest installment in a miniseries: Willie's stripped-down versions of Tin Pan Alley classics. Problem is, Willie may be runnin' out of chestnuts. Stardust triumphed in part because ever)' song was a flawless classic. These tunes are mostly second-tier standards, and only a few—like "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" or "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise"—would have made it on to Stardust.

But Willie, as usual, throws us a curve. The best thing here isn't from Tin Pan Alley, it's a new version of his own haunting "December Day," which simply underscores the fact that Nelson's best songs are fully on a par with the classics he loves. The suggested strategy for buying his records? Get 'em all. You'll probably stub your toe on a gem. (Justice)

Plantation Lullabies

As one of the newest artists on Madonna's label, this singer-songwriter and one-woman band (bass, guitar and keyboards) mixes a smooth, sexy alto with a revolutionary" vibe on her impressive debut album. One minute, NdegéOcello (pronounced N-day-gay-o-chello) is sensuously purring permission to run her ringers through her lover's dreadlocks; the next minute she's protesting in "Soul on Ice" that African-Americans have "been indoctrinated...by the white racist standard of beauty." Blurring genres, NdegéOcello conjures a funky psychedelic jam session in "Shoot'n Up and Gett'n High," swings uptempo with heavy percussion and old-school jazz riffs in "Step into the Projects" and sings of unrequited love in the subtle reggae-spiced "Sweet Love." Painfully honest about the black experience, NdegéOcello takes hip hop to a higher level. (Maverick/Sire/Reprise)

Salt 'N' Pepa

Today's female MCs are getting harder and rougher, so it should be no shock that Salt 'N' Pepa's fourth album is raunchy, rowdy and fully befitting the girls whose hits include "Let's Talk About Sex." Their certified-gold hit "Shoop" is a grinding, bluesy come-on that overflows with good-natured lewdness. Yet Salt 'N' Pepa never allow themselves to be exploited. Okay, there's the somewhat regressive line about wanting to have some guy's baby (on the R&B-stoked "Whatta Man," featuring En Vogue), but missteps like that are easily forgot on an album that includes a poignant call for AIDS education. (Next Plateau/London/PLG)

Billy Pilgrim

It makes sense that singers Andrew Hyra and Kristian Bush would call their two-man band Billy Pilgrim, after Kurt Vonnegut's time-traveling protagonist in the classic Slaughterhouse Five. With a pop-folk feel straight out of the '70s, Billy Pilgrim's first album recalls a lime when seamless harmonies, infectious melodies and nimble acoustic-guitar playing were ample currency for any band.

Gender notwithstanding, this pair is the spitting aural image of the Indigo Girls and the latest chips off the neo-folk block that produced Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman and Shawn Colvin. While those female folkies pen lyrics about the foibles of relationships, Hyra and Bush offer the male perspective with catchy hooks certain to reel in a catch of new fans. (Atlantic)

Bing Crosby

Not just a nostalgiafest but a vital musical treat, this four-CD set includes most of the 21 Crosby tracks that sold a million copies as singles during his trail-blazing career. (Missing is the singer's earlier work before he began recording for Decca, ancestor of today's MCA.)

Crosby's jazz influences are particularly apparent in this extraordinarily clean collection, not only in his casual, rhythmically urgent singing style but also in his frequent collaborations with such jazz bands as Woody Herman's Woodchoppers and the Bobcats, a Dixieland group fronted by Bing's brother Bob. The album also includes duets with first wife Dixie Lee, his eldest (and later most estranged) son, Gary, and film costar Mary Martin.

This set is the ideal antidote for those who recall Bing only as a dysfunctional father and wearer of a bad hairpiece. He's not just the guy who made the pop culture safe for Sinatra and Presley. He was the creator of pop music that remains consistently entertaining. (MCA)

  • Contributors:
  • Tony Scherman,
  • Karen Good,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Peter Castro,
  • Ralph Novak.