Salt-N-Pepa

For more than 11 years, Salt-N-Pepa (Cheryl James, Sandi Denton and deejay Dee Dee "Spinderella" Roper) have combined love of family, community, self, sex and God into an empowering brand of pop-rap that never fails to entertain while it educates. One of the biggest selling female rap acts ever stays on the good foot with their uneven but ultimately enjoyable fifth album. While attempting to tackle a gamut of genres—their subtle interpolation of Aretha Franklin's hit "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" is renamed "Do Me Right"; a bluesy rock number, "Imagine," features vocals by Sheryl Crow—they stumble occasionally, as on a dance-hall ditty called "Friends." Yet even with its faults, Brand New succeeds thanks to the winning spirit of its creators. (London/Red Ant/Island)

Patti Smith

With her Leonard-Cohen-on-estrogen voice, her disdain for melody and her penchant for brooding poetry about pain and distress, Smith, now 50, hasn't exactly been pop music's good-time girl. This second album in her comeback cycle, however, verges on the dirgelike so determinedly that it's unlikely to win her any new fans. Of course, Gone Again, her 1996 return to performing after a 16-year hiatus, was hardly a frolic either. It was inspired by the death of her husband, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith. But this album includes songs titled "Dead City," "Death Singing" and "Memento Mori" and such lines as "I never wanted to see the sun" and "Every day is eternity." The funereal tone is heightened by Smith's declamatory, talk-singing style. Well, Smith never pretended to be Cyndi Lauper. Ever since her 1975 debut, Horses, she has been serious about her poetry and music. Her admirers might still wish that she had better diction—to make the poetry clearer—but they're unlikely to be any more put off by her heavy-handedness than they were before. (Arista)

Shania Twain

As Ricky Ricardo might have said, country's Shania Twain has a lot of exclaiming to do. Just check out a few of the hyper-wrought song titles on this follow-up to her 9 million-selling 1995 album, The Woman in Me: "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" "Whatever You Do! Don't!" "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" Perhaps she was on a sugar high. Or maybe it's the influence of her husband, Robert John "Mutt" Lange, the producer of such power-rock acts as Def Leppard and Bryan Adams. As he did on Woman, Lange gives these tunes a hard pop quality that makes them closer to Def Lep's lite-metal than any confection heard at the Grand Ole Opry. While that may not be to every country fan's liking, it makes for an hour of nearly unrelenting fun. Welcome back, Shania! (Mercury)

Mike Watt

The son of a career Navy man, Mike Watt figured he was taking a different course in the late '70s when he hit the road as a rock bassist. But after hitches with '80s punk pioneers the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, Watt, now 39, began to see plenty of parallels between his life and his father's years at sea. Inspired, he set to work on a suite of autobiographical songs, using the Navy as a metaphor for the rock and roll life. Ranging from jazzy improvs to full-on punk thrash, Contemplating can be tough sailing, rocked by discordant guitars and Watt's rumbling voice. But as the story unfolds—tied together by nautical sound effects and Watt's propulsive bass—this concept album becomes something larger than musical autobiography: It's a meditation on the meaning of work, friendship and the quest for adventure. (Columbia)

Letters to Cleo

Best known for their 1994 single "Here and Now," which played during the closing credits of Melrose Place a few years ago, Letters to Cleo is back with their third album, a collection of catchy power-pop tracks that feature lead singer Kay Hanley's little-girl vocals floating above the fuzz-guitar work of Michael Eisenstein and Greg McKenna. The Boston quintet's talent for pleasing pop melodies shows itself in tracks like the mid-tempo, hook-heavy "Because of You" and the retro-sounding, sing-along ear candy of "Co-pilot." Lest anyone think that this group can't rock, however, there's plenty of heavier material, including the punkish, edgy opener, "I Got Time." With a high-energy mix of muscle and melody, Letters to Cleo makes this a special delivery indeed. (Revolution)

Bill Cosby

Before the murder of his son Ennis, Bill Cosby supervised the recording of the music that would become Hello, Friend: To Ennis With Love, the comedy star's first musical project in six years and his fourth album as producer with the jazz label Verve. After recruiting a choice group of talented New York City jazz musicians, Cosby selected and arranged an up-tempo batch of his favorite jazz tunes. The trumpet team of Lester Bowie and Philip Harper successfully tackle "Stella by Starlight," a song mythologized by Miles Davis, and pianist Cedar Walton stands tall on Horace Silver's classic "Sister Sadie." Cosby includes Johnny Mercer's "Laura," which pivots on Craig Handy's haunting tenor sax, as well as his own instrumental composition "Wide Open." To his credit, Cosby keeps the mood light and playful and turns Hello, Friend into both a lovely performance and a labor of love. (Verve)

Delbert McClinton

On his first new album in four years, Texas-bred blues-rocker McClinton flips through his Filofax and enlists top-drawer talent like Lyle Lovett, Patty Loveless and Bekka Bramlett. Everyone is at peak form here, with vocalist Bramlett (Delaney & Bonnie's daughter) matching ol' Del note for note on the honky-tonk cooker "Old Weakness." McClinton evokes the moody, swamp-rock feel of John Fogerty on "Somebody to Love You." But it's an uncorked rocker like "Monkey Around," with some nasty (as in fine) slide-guitar work by Lee Roy Parnell, that tells us why, when Del calls, friends come running. (Rising Tide)

>Jim Morrison

FOREVER YOUNG JIM MORRISON, THE DOORS' SEX-and-death-obsessed lead singer, would have loved the headline that appeared above his photo on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1981, 10 years after he expired from heart failure in a Paris bathtub: "He's hot, he's sexy and he's dead." Although interest peaked with Oliver Stone's 1991 biopic, The Doors, Morrison's cult lives on, and fans are bound to snap up copies of the latest posthumous release, The Doors Box Set (Elektra), a four-CD collection of mostly concert recordings and studio outtakes culled by his surviving bandmates. "We spent a lot of time going through our archives, which was like entering a time machine," says keyboard wizard Ray Manzarek, now 58 and living in Los Angeles. "It brought us back to a different era, and it also made me realize again that we made a lot of good music. And we did it in a short period, from 1967 to '71. I mean, Jim Morrison only made it to 27. That's the tragedy."

Highlighting the set is a reunion track titled "Orange County Suite," which features a vocal and piano solo recorded by Morrison in 1970, with fresh instrumental backing by Manzarek, drummer John Densmore, 52, and guitarist Robby Krieger, 51, both of whom also live in L.A. Krieger, who wrote the song that Morrison is best remembered for, 1967's "Light My Fire," says, to no one's surprise, that he and his bandmates weathered stormy relations with the self-styled Lizard King. "It was hard living with Jim," he says. "It would have been great if we'd just had a guy like Sting—a normal guy who's extremely talented too. Someone who didn't have to be on the verge of life and death every second."

  • Contributors:
  • Amy Linden,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Peter Ames Carlin,
  • Marisa Sandora,
  • Bob Gulla,
  • Andrew Abrahams,
  • Alan Paul.