Pete Townshend (Redline)

When he wasn't composing sublime three-minute symphonies such as "I Can't Explain," inventing the rock opera (Tommy) or wowing worshipful fans with his windmill guitar-playing, Townshend also found time to fashion a sci-fi musical epic that bears a striking resemblance to the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix. Written when Keanu Reeves was still in his Dr. Dentons, this rock-operatic precursor also foretells a society in which people are controlled by a fascistic computer system called the Grid. Townshend's opus, Lifehouse Chronicles, was written in 1970 for The Who but never performed. (Some of the tunes on this 11-track sampler were on 1971's Who's Next; the entire work was released as a six-CD set in the U.K. this year.) Here, on synthesizer, Townshend creates the baroque majesty of "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Be Fooled Again."

Bottom Line: Highlights from a lost masterpiece

The Judds (Curb)

With all those turn-of-the-century festivities hogging the spotlight, this emotion-dripping familial reunion concert by Wynonna and Naomi Judd on New Year's Eve in Phoenix attracted less attention than it otherwise might have.

Still, it seems to have been more memorable for its sentiment than for its music. Mama Naomi, returning to the stage after a hepatitis-prompted nine-year layoff, was in remarkably strong voice. But as usual the blustery, look-at-me style of daughter Wynonna came close to upstaging her.

And producer Larry Strickland limited the duo's set to such Judd standbys as "Girls Night Out" and "Love Can Build a Bridge," passing up a golden opportunity to let them sing "Reunited," "Two of a Kind" or any of a songbook's worth of great together-again pop songs. Nor did Strickland or the Judds invite any of their star buddies to participate, except of course for Wynonna's actress sister Ashley. Serving as the evening's emcee, she delivers a touching introduction and even sings a little herself—albeit in a nondescript way that doesn't suggest she should quit her day job of movie star. The Judds are well served by some splendid backup musicians, including keyboard player Mark Jordan, Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson on harmonica and Fats Kaplin on steel guitar and fiddle.

Die-hard fans probably have all 23 of these songs on various albums in their collections. The unconverted would be better off starting with a greatest-hits package, in which the music is less diluted by hoopla.

Bottom Line: Togetherness, again

Sinéad O'Connor (Atlantic)

Album of the week

As a celebrity, Sinead O'Connor can be exasperating. Whether tearing up the Pope's photo on Saturday Night Live (in 1992) or declaring herself a priest and adopting the name Mother Bernadette Marie, she's done plenty to rile the public. O'Connor acknowledges her bad-girl reputation here on "The Lamb's Book of Life," a Celtic-meets-hip-hop track in which she admits, "I know I have done many things/To give you reason not to listen to me." She may not know how to behave, but this album shows she's still capable of creating some of the best music in pop. Assisted by an array of gifted producers, including Wyclef Jean, Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs and Dave Stewart, O'Connor sings with passion and purpose in these songs about love and spiritual searching.

Bottom Line: Full of fire

Steve Wariner (Capitol)

Long a musician's musician and Nashville favorite, Wariner could well gain commercial success—maybe even popular acclaim—with this exceptionally imaginative, entertaining album. Not that he's been laboring in obscurity all these years. At 45, Wariner has, after all, had 30 singles reach the Top 10. But he has never attained the country-idol status of, say, the two buddies who join him for duets on this collection—Garth Brooks and Clint Black.

With Faith, however, Wariner becomes nearly as accessible as those two vastly popular stars. An accomplished songwriter—he wrote Brooks's "Longneck Bottle" and Black's "Nothin' but the Taillights"—Wariner cowrote all the songs with such collaborators as Bill Anderson, Rick Carnes and Rodney Crowell. The highlight, "I Just Do," is a western-swing-tinged tune with lively backup by a crack studio band that includes pianist Matt Rollings and fiddler Aubrey Haynie. Anderson-Wariner's "Make It Look Easy" cleverly tells how hard it is to break up gracefully. And "Bloodlines," a guitar duet between Wariner and his 16-year-old son Ryan, evokes the great collaborations between Nashville studio wizard Chet Atkins and British rocker Mark Knopfler. Wariner may be too old to become the next new sensation, but he isn't too old to be discovered by new throngs of fans.

Bottom Line: Some new sides of an old familiar face

>ROYAL BLUE Koko Taylor (Alligator) Belting the blues Chicago-style, Koko is joined by royals old (B.B. King) and young (Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb' Mo') on her first CD in seven years.

NYC GHOSTS & FLOWERS Sonic Youth (Geffen) Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and mates release another wildly noncommercial yet compelling experiment in rock-poetry fusion.

THEN AND NOW Lynyrd Skynyrd (CMC) The unapologetic redneck rockers reprise "Free Bird," "Sweet Home Alabama" and the rest, with Johnny Van Zant taking late bro Ronnie's vocals.

>Kid Rock

When it came time for Kid Rock to record a follow-up album to his 1998 breakthrough Devil Without a Cause, he opted to make a prequel instead of a sequel. Rummaging through two early and largely forgotten efforts—1993's The Polyfuze Method and 1996's Early Mornin' Stoned Pimp—he created the aptly titled History of Rock (Lava/Atlantic). "It would have been so easy to just slap those two records together and make a ton of cash," he says, "but I put time and effort into it."

The hard work paid off. Although Rock rerecorded several tracks and added two new songs, History illustrates that his multiplatinum status wasn't built in a day. "I wrote corny stuff," says Rock (he isn't kidding; just listen to "Born to Be a Hick"). "But I always thought it was important for kids to know that I didn't just pop up overnight."

When Rock (real name: Robert Ritchie) isn't in the studio, the 29-year-old single dad is home in Detroit with son Junior, 7. Rock hopes his upcoming summer tour with Metallica will silence his critics once again. "I'm ready for people to take shots at me," he says. "I'm very cocky because I've always backed it up."

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Joseph V. Tirella.