The Jayhawks (American/Columbia)

The Jayhawks do not lack for guts. Unfazed by numerous personnel shifts (including the 1995 departure of coleader Mark Olson), the Minneapolis band not only shares its album's title with Brian Wilson's notoriously unfinished 1967 avant-pop masterwork, but also includes a track, "Mr. Wilson," that despite auteur Gary Louris's intentions ' seems to chide the ex-Beach Boy for failing to fulfill his artistic promise. That would be harder to take if this particular Smile didn't include songs as lovely as "Broken Harpoon" and "What Led Me to This Town." High points tend to be its quieter acoustic moments, but the addition of synthesized keyboards and drums lends the album a satisfyingly twitchy, 21st-century sound. And if Louris's dark, cryptic tunes could use a dose of Olson's refreshing directness, Louris has crafted several songs worth smiling over.

Bottom Line: A band spreads its wings

Eminem (Aftermath/Interscope)

When Eminem broke into the mainstream with 1999's controversial The Slim Shady LP, some attributed the Detroit rapper's success to the color of his skin—Eminem, né Marshall Mathers, is white. But after selling more than 3 million records and nabbing a Grammy, it's clear that his potent rhymes and unique perspective are the true keys to his success. Proof of his talent—if not his taste—is amply displayed on this bestselling and very, very vulgar CD. (Parents beware: The version of the hit single "The Real Slim Shady" included on the profanity-laced album sold in most stores is not the sanitized Top 40 radio version.) With producer Dr. Dre's bouncy beats and catchy hooks, Eminem weaves an upside-down fairy tale of revenge and mayhem that takes on dark irony in light of his recent arrest on gun charges. When he gleefully disses his own mom (as well as his wife), you wonder if he's kidding. On "Stan," set to a trip-hop groove, Eminem raps about an obsessed fan who takes his idol's violent fantasies to a tragic conclusion.

Bottom Line: Not for the faint of heart

Jill Sobule (Beyond)

Album of the week

Often described as Jewel with a sense of humor, Sobule attained one-hit-wonder status with her controversial 1995 single "I Kissed a Girl," an ode to exploring lesbianism before Ellen DeGeneres made it cool to talk about it. Although there's no similarly chart-ready single on this eclectic disc (Sobule's fourth release), Pearl is an entertaining collection of 12 deceptively upbeat tracks.

Here, Sobule slips smoothly from country on "Guy Who Doesn't Get It" to bossa nova on "Mary Kay," her sardonic look at a teacher who seduced a student. Sobule's light sensibility is well-captured on "Rainy Day Parade," where she chirps, "I used to have the stars in my pocket/Now I just watch them on TV." But the standout is "Heroes," a biting dissertation on our forever-failing icons: "Paul McCartney jealous of John/Even more so now that he's gone."

Bottom Line: Peerlessly perky satirist

BBMak (Hollywood)

If only they weren't lead-footed. This trio of pinup-worthy Brits have all but one of the requisite charms to make it as a boy band—they have zero dance ability. Still, they compensate for their embarrassingly clunky stage presence with musical talent galore. All three lads possess lead-vocal voices, and when their choirboy harmonies soar and entwine, the throbbing hearts of teenage girls are turned to porridge. Hailing from the north of England, all three BBs are on the sunny side of 30. And all three play instruments. Flautist Mark Barry and guitarist Stephen "Ste" McNally are 21; guitar playing elder Christian Burns is 26. That counts as venerable in comparison to most run-of-the-record-mill boy bands. The BBs also have impressive songwriting skills. The opening track, "Back Here," is pure romantic pop; "Still on Your Side" is an anthem for loyal lovers. And "Ghost of You and Me" treads beyond the rigidly virginal territory staked out by the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. Like the Australian duo Savage Garden, the BBs impart a little carnal knowledge with their sweet pop confections. Add a bit more edge and adults will swoon too.

Bottom Line: BBs gun for stardom

>LOVE GOD MURDER Johnny Cash (Legacy) "These songs are just for listening and singing," Cash writes in notes for Murder, one of three CDs in this inventive, thematically organized retrospective. "Don't go out and do it."

AFTERGLOW Crowded House (Capitol) Aussie pop maestro Neil Finn has culled the Crowded House archives for a baker's dozen of unreleased tracks and B-sides. Typically flavorful songcraft, piping hot.

ROYAL The Amazing Crowns (Time Bomb) Loud, raucous rockabilly performed at punk speed by Yanks who studied at the amps of the Clash, with shouted choruses patterned after English football chants.

  • Contributors:
  • Peter Ames Carlin,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Sona Charaipotra,
  • Steve Dougherty.