Randy Travis (DreamWorks)

At the age of 40, Travis is what passes for an éminence grise in Nashville's middle-aged generation. This imposes an expectation of exceptional consistency on him—an expectation he more than meets, album after album. On his latest he presents a rich mix of lively tracks like "The Family Bible and the Farmer's Almanac" and "A Little Bitty Crack in Her Heart," along with the kind of languorous ballad Travis owns, "Where Can I Surrender?"

Rank having its privileges, Travis has access to terrific songs by such esteemed writers as Melba Montgomery ("A Heartache in the Works"), and he can enlist the services of stellar sidemen (guitarist Brent Mason; keyboardist Matt Rollings). They provide a rich showcase for his voice. And as always, he delivers.

Bottom Line: Nashville's young turks should sound this good

Melanie C (Virgin)

"We're turning into Spice Women now," Melanie Chisholm, the 25-year-old Liverpudlian better known as Sporty Spice, says in press material accompanying the release of her first solo album. While sister Spice Girls Scary and Posh are now married with children, Chisholm delivers a musical offspring designed to defy those who dismiss the Spice Girls as lip-synching marionettes. (And she has jettisoned her tomboy sweats for a more Punk Girl look.) Chisholm, who cowrote and nicely warbles all 12 tunes, also trades her bubblegum sound for more varied, if not especially hard-edged, dance-pop rhythms. She gets help from an impressive lineup of collaborators, including TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (who raps on "Never Be the Same Again") and producers Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers) and William Orbit (Madonna's Ray of Light).

Bottom Line: Surprisingly tangy fare from a well-seasoned Spice

311 (Capricorn)

Don't expect a hoedown from these sometimes corny native Nebraskans. Singsongy tunes and spiritual rapping are what this multimillion-selling act from midwestern Omaha is all about. Equal parts Dave Matthews and MC Hammer, singer Nick Hexum never met a groovy, uplifting sentiment he couldn't set to rhyming hip hop. Amid thumb-popping bass runs and crunchy-as-granola guitars, he mines every obvious self-empowerment trend from thinking for yourself ("Come Original") to stopping to smell the roses ("Life's Not a Race"). Except for a few transcendent melodies, this approach goes down like a bowl of soggy shredded wheat.

Bottom Line: Nutritious but annoying homegrown rock and rap

Various Artists (Vanguard)

Album of the week

Here's history with a beat. And what a beat! This three-CD set is a record of two landmark gospel-jazz concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939. The concerts were produced by John Hammond, the Columbia Records visionary who had already discovered Billie Holiday and Count Basie and would go on to sign Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Offering a forum, he said, for "talented Negro artists...who had been denied entry to the white world of popular music," Hammond presented a dazzling bill that included Basie and his marvelous band (featuring sax genius Lester Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton) and blues legends Sonny Terry and Big Bill Broonzy—not to mention gospel's Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the spectacular Golden Gate Quartet.

Bottom Line: Historic, swinging and spirited

>Melissa Etheridge

Never known as a mother of convention, openly gay hard-rocker Melissa Etheridge has had to yield to at least one maternal commonplace. With an 11-month-old son, Beckett, and a 2-year-old daughter, Bailey Jean, to care for, Etheridge has clipped her trademark long blonde locks. "My son," she says, "is a real hair-grabber."

But fans needn't fret that the 38-year-old guitar slinger has gone cuddly. Breakdown (Island Def Jam), her first album since 1995's platinum-selling Your Little Secret, is anything but. "I'm not writing songs about kids and rainbows," she says. "I had to show the darker side of life."

Darkest of all is "Scarecrow," about hate-crime murder victim Matthew Shepard. "The insanity of [the 1998 killing] just ripped me apart," she says. "My son was days away from being born, and I'm thinking, 'What kind of world is this?' "

But Etheridge finds solace at home in Los Angeles with partner Julie Cypher, 35, who carried both children to term. "I can't imagine my life without kids," she says. "What's hard to remember is what I did with all that spare time I used to have."

>FULL WESTERN DRESS The Derailers (Sire) Austin, Texas's purveyors of swinging country and rootsy rockabilly twang a tune with guest Buck Owens and sound like Everlys on "Then She Kissed Me."

ALABASTER BOX CeCe Winans (Wellspring Gospel) After a 1998 pop venture (Everlasting Love), gospel's 1995 Grammy winner returns to her true calling: singing her Lord's praises, joyfully.

JACK KEROUAC READS ON THE ROAD Jack Kerouac (RYKO) The Beat king sings and scats too (and not badly); but his readings from his masterwork make this long-lost treasure a real find.

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Alec Foege,
  • Monica Rizzo.