Pet Shop Boys (Sire/London)

The idea of intelligent dance music might, for some, sound like an oxymoron. Yet there are artists who create rhythm-based music that delights both head and hindquarters. Chief among these are England's Pet Shop Boys, who have married a witty, often deadpan sensibility to topical beats and atmospheric ambience since the late'80s. On their first CD in three years, the duo (Neil Tennant, 45, and Chris Lowe, 40) once again concoct pulsating and provocative songs that plumb infidelity, insecurities, love and sexual and social mores. While "New York City Boy" recalls the campiness of the Village People, Tennant and Lowe have some thoughtful things to say about self-respect. Dance tunes such as "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" are fun without being mindless.

Bottom Line: Wit and insight to a thumping beat

Fiona Apple (Clean Slate/Epic)

Album of the week

When last seen, the juicy-sounding Apple was launching her 1996 hit "Criminal" with a teenage-boy-friendly video in which she flitted about a bedroom in her underwear. She looked oversexed, undernourished and underage. Now the singer-songwriter is 22, and her voice has dropped into a husky, more worldly alto that makes her sound more woman than waif. While she sounded on her debut album as if at the mercy of her emotions and in the throes of unrequited love, she is now the one who holds the reins in romance. Singing in a jazzy drawl, she informs an old object of obsession ("Love Ridden") that the nights of hopping in bed with him are over: "I want your warm [body]/But it'll only make me colder when it's over.... Only kisses on the cheek from now on." Apple's sharp songwriting, gorgeous vocals, spare atmospheric piano and drum-driven production make her sophomore work a beauty.

Bottom Line: Delicious Apple

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Reprise)

It's Déjà Vu (and 4 Way Street) all over again. With those two early 1970s albums, the already super-group CS&N (starring, respectively, ex-Byrd David Crosby, Buffalo Springfield's Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, late of the Hollies) enhanced their sweet, soaring harmonies by adding another Springfield grad, Neil Young. But Young brought more than just another high-register vocal—plaintive and expressive as his is—to the group. With his passionate, feedback-fed electric guitar playing and his enigmatically vivid lyrics, Young rescued CS&N from encroaching wimpiness. And so he does here, adding muscle to a reunion album that limps at the outset with "Faith in Me," a tune full of homilies ("There's always a new worry/ That will not go away") set to an island beat. While his partners tend toward clumsy moralizing ("Seen Enough"), Young is the alchemist who makes the old magic work.

Bottom Line: The Younger, the better

Stan Freberg (Rhino)

Stan Freberg is the 20th century's arch-satirist, both profound and profoundly funny. This four-CD (plus one videotape) collection traces Freberg's career from his 1951 mock soap opera ("John and Martha," in which the two principals gush each other's names in ersatz passion) to his hilarious, dead-on parodies of TV shows (Dragnet) and pop tunes ("Banana Boat [Day-O]," "Heartbreak Hotel") that themselves became radio hits in the 1950s. Equally funny, if less familiar, are the pitch-perfect commercials Freberg made for everything from Sunsweet prunes to Mars bars in the 1960s. The highlights here, however, are bits from Freberg's spoofed-up history The United States of America. (Puzzled by Jefferson's handwriting, Franklin wonders what " 'Purfuit of Happineff' " means.) At 73, Freberg is in effect retired, just when his pop culture needs him.

Bottom Line: Aural treats from a national treasure

Meredith Brooks (Capitol)

As much as we'd like to quote Elton John and say the "Bitch" is back, we're thwarted by Brooks, who hasn't followed her 1997 hit of that title with another as sassy and irresistible. She has, however, engineered a return to radio, thanks to the first single from this, her second album. "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" is a revamped version of the 1970 hit hippie singer Melanie recorded with the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Brooks covers the gospel anthem with a nice assist from Queen Latifah and Los Angeles's Crenshaw High School choir, participants in an admirable student mentoring program Brooks launched this year. None of the other 11 tunes, all written or cowritten by Brooks, quite grab your attention the way "Bitch" did. Instead, Brooks sings—in a slightly off-kilter, Liz Phair style—mid-tempo rock lyrics that sound like rhyming journal jottings: "Just get real/Don't be a cosmic woo woo.... Let everybody deal."

Bottom Line: Clichéd rock

>WOW 2000 Various Artists (Sparrow) Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith and other contemporary Christian stalwarts contribute to this compilation. Hidden bonus track: "Friend of Mine," by Columbine High Schoolers Jonathan and Stephen Cohen.

TOO POOR Jimmy Ray Thudpucker (Universal) "Can't visit friends on the weekend, girl/They're afraid you're gonna steal their stuff," sings Doonesbury's expatriate rocker in a satiric faux single by comic-strip artist Garry Trudeau; sales to benefit NetAid.

BLUES EVERYWHERE I GO Odetta (MC Records) At 68, her voice as ringing and resonant as ever, the folk-blues politico performs (with Dr. John) rarities like Big Bill Broonzy's "W.P.A. Blues."

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