B.B. King

Leave it to Riley B. King to remind us whence pop's many disparate styles sprang. Rap, rock, R&B, country—all were steeped, if not born, in the blues. And they are all represented here in this album of duets teaming the veteran bluesman with disciples from rock (Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones), folk (Tracy Chapman), R&B (D'Angelo), country (Marty Stuart, Willie Nelson) and hip hop (Heavy D). No vanity project, the album is a loving construction from start to finish and nears perfection at moments, as when King's stately guitar chimes with an inspired Van Morrison vocal performance on "If You Love Me," and his resonant tenor entwines with Simply Red's Mick Hucknall's aching vocal on Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love." King, who began his career back in the 1940s as a Memphis disc jockey known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, is 72 now, but if he's showing any age, it's in his face and not in his music. (MCA)

Chumbawamba

Masquerading as a collection of good-time drinking and dance-party songs, this album by a self-described anarchist rock group from Leeds, England, is intended as a subversive assault on yuppie indifference to underclass suffering. Hate to break it to them, but the disguise works too well. This party album is a tub of fun, brimming with dance-ready rhythms, riotous punk anthems and pub laugh-alongs. "Tubthumping," the opening track, which spins like a lager drinker's head from rollicking to morose, is an international hit that has gone to No. 1 in three countries. Which means that the eight-member group, after laboring 15 years in Utopian obscurity, now faces what must be, for them, a nagging problem: success. (Republic/Universal)

Rakim

It has been five years since Rakim Allah made a full-length album, and his return with this two-CD set is indeed welcome. Back in the mid-1980s the Long Island, N.Y., native and his former partner, Eric B, created a string of hits (which are included on the second CD) that remain hip-hop classics. With phrasing that was influenced by the cadences of jazz, Rakim brought an air of intensity and devout spirituality to what had pretty much been party music. With the current state of rap increasingly geared toward mindless retreads of R&B songs, it's a relief to hear Rakim lay down a rhyme built on intricate, literate word play. Of course The 18th Letter has a serious legacy to live up to. Yet while it may not reach the legendary status of albums like 1987's Paid in Full, his platinum debut CD, it is still a comeback that has been worth the wait. (Universal)

Jane's Addiction

Presumably looking to blow off creative steam, Porno for Pyros front man (and Lollapalooza festival organizer) Perry Farrell has reformed one of the defining acts of the alternative rock era. Although hypertalented Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) subs for bassist Eric Avery, the only original member declining to participate, the new lineup delivers only two tracks on Kettle Whistle, which is an otherwise uneven collection of previously unreleased songs and live performances from the group's late-'80s heyday. Apart from the ethereal title track, this fresh fix is for diehards only. (Warner Bros.)

Imani Coppola

Backed by some thumping, dance-beat percussion and blessed with talent that lets her perform engaging raps in a comforting, musical voice, this 19-year-old college sophomore joins the growing ranks of hip-hop artists who have helped lighten things up after years of gangsta wars. Coppola offers a wide-eyed—and worldly-wise—take on the problems of coming of age, a skill at finding and sampling tasty veins of classic rock (a guitar riff from Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" opens "Legend of a Cowgirl") and enough musical know-how to play keyboards, guitar, violin and other assorted string instruments. It is an irresistible package of talent, especially when combined with witty lyrics smartly delivered. On "Legend of a Cowgirl," she imagines "A female legend with a song...I'd give my sight to see her." No need, girl. You're already on the way. (Columbia)

>Music for the Holidays

WHAT A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS Louis Armstrong and friends Old Pops is in fine, convivial form, and the "friends" include Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Lionel Hampton, Mel Tormé (singing his own "The Christmas Song"), Dinah Washington and the bands of Gordon Jenkins, Benny Carter and Duke Ellington. (Hip-O)

CHRISTMAS AT THE BILTMORE ESTATE Judy Collins Few instruments are as well-suited to the ideally sweet, pure sound of Christmas music as Collins's still-crystalline voice, which glows in this live, mostly traditional concert at a North Carolina estate. Collins has written three new songs, one of which sets "The Night Before Christmas" to music. (Elektra)

THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM Nitty Gritty Dirt Band A warm, intimate collection mixing traditional tunes with more recent holiday songs like Steve Goodman's "Colorado Christmas," this cozy album features guest vocals by Alison Krauss and a visit from NGDB alumnus John McEuen. (Rising Tide)

CHRISTMAS EVE AND OTHER STORIES Trans-Siberian Orchestra This strikingly original concept album, conceived and executed by rock composer-producer Paul O'Neill, features lots of concert rock chords, big choirs and a story about an angel confronting war on Earth. Marlene Danielle, an original Cats cast member, adds her big voice to the proceedings. (Lava/Atlantic)

CHRISTMAS IS COMING HOME B.J. Thomas Sometimes the blandest performers make the best Christmas albums, and this mix of mostly new and a few traditional songs is a warm, ingratiating package. (Warner Resound)

COUNTRY CARES FOR KIDS Various artists Alabama's Randy Owen spearheaded this all-star album to benefit St. Jude children's hospital in Memphis. Highlights: Sammy Kershaw's duet with daughter Erin, 11, and Bryan White's version of "When You Wish upon a Star," not usually considered a holiday song but always a pleasure to hear. (BNA)

CHRISTMAS THROUGH A DIFFERENT WINDOW Ray Stevens Nothing here equals Stan Freberg's "Green Christmas" or "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Christmas at Ground Zero," but Stevens's satirical take on Christmas commercialism and the bubba subculture is often funny. (MCA Nashville)

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Alec Foege,
  • Ralph Novak.