James Brown

Chuck Berry? Elvis? The Beatles? When it comes down to who has had the most profound and lasting influence on pop music, no one can touch the Godfather of Soul.

This anthology (four CDs or cassettes) is the Fort Knox of funk. It chronologically traces Brown's evolution from a poor follow-the-crowd R&B singer from Georgia to the absolutely original, superbad superstar.

Disc No. 1 contains the greatest advances. On the earliest tracks, such as "Try Me" and "Bewildered" from the late '50s, Brown is trying to get over as a cookie-cutter pop singer. This smoothed-out doo-wop music isn't all that far from the Ink Spots. But even in this era, there were hints of genius. Mired in the schmaltzy ballad "I Know It's True," Brown still had a flair for using horns and drums.

By the time he recorded "Think" in 1960, James had discovered the funk, and he never decamped. He became a method singer, and that method was madness. His eruptive delivery was completely unpredictable. With "Bring It Up (Hipster's Avenue)" in 1966, lyrics had really become a moot point. A single phrase would suffice.

Brown was always a character. On "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, Pts. 1, 2, 3," an extended, previously unreleased version of his 1965 hit, you hear the singer exhorting his longtime sax man, Maceo Parker, to play a solo. By the end of the jam, Brown is getting into a dialogue with the horns themselves. (If Brown was, as advertised, "the hardest working man in show business," the guys who worked in his backing bands were tied for second.)

The music is fast and furious the rest of the way. Disc Nos. 2 through 4 present a dizzying cavalcade of hits: "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me) Pt. 1," "Licking Stick-Licking Stick," "Give It Up or Turn it a Loose."

Brown got so far into his grooves that many of his songs were released as two-part singles, including "Money Won't Change You" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine." (In 1971, "Soul Power" was a three-purl single.) They're presented here in their original, unedited versions.

There are many collections of Brown's work, but none so deep or well documented. (Polydor)

Paula Abdul

That notion about diamonds being a girl's best friend doesn't apply if the gal in question happens to be a platinum pop star. For that breed, more precious than gems by far are her producer(s) and composer(s).

Now, just as Janet Jackson relies on the team of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam to sustain her on the pop charts, Abdul has turned to a team—Paul Lord and V. Jeffrey Smith—to produce most of her second album. (Those two, along with Sandra St. Victor, make up the Family Stand, a promising pop-soul trio in its own right.)

Rather than the popcorn pop of Abdul's 1988 debut album, which made her a star, this project is more ambitious. The title track, for instance, finds Abdul lifting heavier musical lumber than ever before—and sounding almost brassy. Between her energy and Smith and Lord's swanky production, Paula handily brings off such daring cuts as "Vibeology," a caroming, son-of-Flubber dance number.

By way of variety, "The Promise of a New Day" has a kicking beat but with those breathy vocals, minor-key undercurrents and martial rhythms that recall the music Prince has written or arranged for the female performers he has taken under his serape.

You don't realize how dynamic the Lord-Smith tracks are until you hear the blandness of the few tracks produced by others. In fact, Prince wrote and produced the album's least pre-possessing song, the stark "U." And Don Was whips up watered-down Margaritaville pop for Abdul on "Alright Tonight," a John Hiatt tune.

With the help of new best friends Lord and Smith, however, Abdul has rearranged her stripes in a most impressive way. Even those who miss her helium-light dance-style vocals will find it hard to resist being swept away by Spellbound. (Virgin/Captive)

Aaron Neville

This record will have some critics ready to pounce. "Just as we expected," those who review first and ask questions later may be tempted to write. "Our peerless patriarch of pop-soul singers does some duets with Linda Ronstadt, wins some Grammys, and hits adult radio. Then he serves up this slick patchwork of songs."

Not so fast, folks. No question, there's a commercial polish to Neville's first solo outing in 20-plus years. But he's not playing with his brothers here (except on one track), which makes it easier for Neville to roam in a more stylized, romantic setting.

He puts his own dreamy spin on such covers as John Hiatt's "It Feels Like Rain," with Ry Cooder lending a delicate hand on slide guitar. "Don't Go, Please Stay" matches Neville's pristine falsetto with the Grace Episcopal Choir's angels-on-high backing.

Of course, it wouldn't be a complete Aaron Neville record without I he charismatic presence of Ronstadt, who also coproduced. Together, they soar on "Close Your Eyes," a Chuck Willis ballad where the two might be carving their initials on a' tree to immortalize their recording love affair. Less swoon-fill are the title track's light honky-tonk and the '50s doo-wop—gospel mix on "I Bid You Good Night."

The final track, Neville's rendering of Schubert's "Ave Maria," is both powerful in its delivery and a little over-the-top, as if he still has to prove he can perform any song under the sun. Don't sweat it, Aaron. We're convinced. (A&M)"

Metal Church

You who are about to go deaf, we salute you.

From the first track, Metal Church is operating at max decibels, thanks to the jackhammering guitars of John Marshall and Craig Wells, smash-face drumming by Kirk Arlington and the indignant voice of Mike Howe.

The majority of the album is written by Howe and Kurdt Vanderhoof, a Church founder who no longer performs but helps in the studio. Their lyrics mostly decry modern problems, such as child abuse in "In Harm's Way." But the boys misstep badly on "The Final Word": "What other country do you know that pays you without work/When you need some money see your welfare officer/There's a lot of other things that you can take a stand about/So you and all your activists can take the next train out."

Boy, remember when having long hair made you the least likely espouser of right-wing rhetoric?

On this album, Metal Church never overcomes its Morton Downey Jr.—like fulminations. Oh, there arc guitar workouts, such as "Betrayed," which has the record's best riff. But unless you've got a superhigh noise threshold, this kind of assaultive style is more punishing than fun. (Epic)"

>GENESIS: A HISTORY

FEW BANDS HAVE UNDERGONE AS radical a midlife shift as Genesis, as this documentary shows. In the beginning (about 1968), founder Peter Gabriel stamped the band with his taste for odd stage spectacle: masks, costumes, surreal soliloquies. But after Gabriel and guitarist Steve Hackett left, the group wobbled until Phil Collins led them in a mainstream direction. Since the success of Abacab a decade ago, the trio has never looked back. But now you can. For Genesis, hindsight is fascinating. (PolyGram)

  • Contributors:
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Andrew Abrahams.