Lisa Loeb

When Lisa Loeb topped the charts in 1994 with "Stay (I Missed You)," an unabashedly sweet acoustic ballad from the Reality Bites soundtrack, she seemed daringly different. At the height of the gloomy grunge era, there didn't seem to be much call for an earnest, bookish singer-songwriter in horn-rimmed glasses. But in 1997, amid the folk-rock successes of Jewel, Paula Cole and Shawn Colvin (who sings harmony on "Falling in Love," the CD's strongest track), Loeb is in perfect synch (unless a few lapses into greeting-card lyrics make you cringe). Stylish arrangements and melodic odes to lost love set off Firecracker with a muted bang. (Geffen)

The Replacements

Fast, rude and perpetually on the verge of exploding, the Replacements were the closest the '80s got to the raging heart of rock and roll. Loved by critics, worshiped by their cult of fans, this Minneapolis quartet had too much contempt for videos to make an impact on MTV, and that derailed their hopes of mainstream success. Breaking up in 1991, the Replacements joined the Velvet Underground on the list of landmark bands who never had a hit.

In a just world, this double-CD retrospective would change that. Divided between shoulda-been hits (the anthemic "Alex Chilton," the hushed, yearning "Skyway") and a collection of B-sides and outtakes (including a cock-tail-lounge-in-hell take on "Cruella DeVille" and the catchy screamer "Beer for Breakfast"), the set captures Paul Westerberg and bandmates in all their brilliant, ragged glory. (Reprise)

Courtney Pine

British saxophonist Courtney Pine isn't the first jazz player to borrow from hip-hop and dance. But on Underground, his eighth CD since 1987, Pine bridges the stylistic gap between the old and new schools better than most. He doesn't try to break new ground or fuse some bold new partnership between genres. Instead, Pine concentrates on the soul and the feeling of the music, using hip-hop's turntable scratches and jittery syncopation to accent his already fluid Coltrane-flavored solos. Add the stellar contributions of pianist Cyrus Chestnut, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and soul-pop singer Jhelisa, who shines on a remake of Donny Hathaway's "Tryin' Times," and you have a richly satisfying collection that deserves to be heard. (Antilles)

Phish

As Duke Ellington suggested, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." For Phish it don't mean a thing except for that swing. Though the Vermont rock quartet's lyrics tend to be meaningless at best, musically they are marvelous—a well oiled, free-flowing machine capable of group improvisation of the highest order. On this live album recorded last spring in Hamburg, Germany, the songs flow seamlessly together, creating a vast, multi-textured aural landscape that reflects the group's impressive maturation. Guitarist Trey Anastasio unleashes dazzling flights of virtuosity that never lose touch with their melodic origins or collapse into mere showing off. It's more than enough to let you forget that the album's best lyrics come courtesy of ZZ Top, on a cover of the band's absurdist blues, "Jesus Just Left Chica-o." (Elektra)

The Wilsons

A JAZZ PORTRAIT OF BRIAN WILSON
Various Artists

Long renowned for his spectacular work with the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson's appearances since his mid-to-late-'60s heyday have been brief, puzzling and only partially satisfying. So it goes in this musical union with daughters Carnie and Wendy. Family ties aside, it's a strange match—the oddball studio genius with two-thirds of the Wilson Phillips lite-pop act—and for the most part the pieces don't mesh. Carnie and Wendy's tunes are pleasant, if unspectacular, exercises in mid-'90s pop. And of the four songs Brian appears on (he's more of a guest, actually), only "Everything I Need" stands out, mostly because its mawkish lyrics and melody make for such a disappointing reunion with Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher.

Wouldn't It Be Nice proves more satisfying. Most of the artists stick to Wilson's progressive work from the late '60s and early 70s and find many jumping-off points for variations in his dark, adventurous melodies. Guitarist-singer Dori Caymmi gives "Caroline No" a breezy Brazilian touch, while arranger Vince Mendoza and guitarist John Abercrombie invest the melancholy "Don't Talk" with a new cinematic grandeur. But what really stands out is the depth of Wilson's post-surfing songs—as complex, powerful and mysterious as the ocean itself. (The Wilsons, Mercury; Wouldn't It Be Nice, Blue Note)

Aaron Neville

Considering he is an established pop icon with a famously angelic voice, Aaron Neville could be taking more of an artistic chance than he does on this gloppy solo effort. By doubling up slick songwriting titans Babyface and Diane Warren (on "Say What's in My Heart") and reteaming with his hit-making duet partner Linda Ronstadt (on Rodney Crowell and Will Jennings's syrupy "Please Remember Me" and the Roberta Flack hit "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"), the New Orleans R&B great has taken out a virtual insurance policy on his recording career. Ironically, the most flavorful tracks here are the five that Neville himself had a hand in writing. But other than "Sweet Amelia," a skimpy version of the spicy Creole gumbo he used to cook up with the Neville Brothers, this disc has little to do with what made him who he is. (A&M)

Martina McBride

A few-frills country singer with a crystalline, oak-sturdy voice, Martina McBride has evolved herself into an unsullied, above-the-fray position similar to that which Kitty Wells has always held among her contemporaries.

This, her fourth album, is a pleasure from start to finish, in spite of its shaky first track, a version of Little Jimmy Dickens's old standby "I'm Little But I'm Loud," which is as childish as one would expect from a recording originally made when McBride was (singing at an 4-H convention, saved by her mom and unearthed, rashly, for this collection). The rest of the tracks are uniformly entertaining, with tasteful, appealingly varied songwriting contributions by such splendid Nashville artists as Beth Neilsen Chapman, Tony Martin and Brent Bourgeois, as well as pop writers Cynthia Weil and Jim Brickman. McBride, in fact, sings the sweetly romantic Brickman-Jack Kugell song "Valentine" in front of a quartet that includes Brickman on piano. And Clint Black joins McBride for an invigorating duet on "Still Holding On," a tribute to fidelity he wrote with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart.

McBride does seem to be right on track. Let's just hope she isn't squirreling away anything else from her childhood. (RCA)

>Ric Ocasek

TROUBLE IN MIND

SINCE THE BREAKUP OF THE CARS A decade ago, Ric Ocasek has been producing hit records for such alternative rockers as Hole, Weezer and Nada Surf. Beginning Nov. 16 the man who sang such Cars hits as "You Might Think" and "Shake It Up" will tour for the first time in 10 years, trying to drum up interest in his fifth solo album, Troublizing (Columbia). "I'd done so much [touring] with the Cars, I really didn't want to go into all that again," says Ocasek, 48, who lives in New York City with his model-actress wife, Paulina Porizkova. "But since I've had a good break, I'll have some fun doing it."

Is this record, your first in four years, a comeback of sorts?

Not in the least. I did it because I'm a songwriter first. It's in my heart. I can't not do it. I already did the megastar thing. I don't need to recapture that. I don't even consider it a solo album because I haven't been with the Cars for 10 years, and I didn't do it by myself.

What does troublizing mean?

It's a nonword that sounded like it meant something—like "realizing the trouble you're in." I guess the songs are about not realizing the trouble you're in but [having] a ray of hope. And it's a neat word in print.

Where do your poems fit in?

I'm always working on one. I have huge journals full of stuff. I basically steal from my poems to write lyrics.

  • Contributors:
  • Alec Foege,
  • Peter Ames Carlin,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Alan Paul,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Jeremy Helligar.