BeBe (Motown)

With the recent crossover successes of such contemporary gospel acts as Yolanda Adams, Mary Mary and Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ, BeBe Winans (now called simply BeBe) must be feeling mighty proud. As a member of the first family of gospel, he, along with sister CeCe Winans, accomplished the small miracle of getting sacred music played on R&B radio. But on this, his second solo album, BeBe has turned from the spiritual to the secular with less than uplifting results.

Like many of today's big R&B releases, Love & Freedom rolls out the guest stars on several tracks, including Brian McKnight and Joe on "Coming Back Home" and Stephanie Mills on "Everyday." But only Stevie Wonder inspires BeBe to greater heights, on a rousing version of Wonder's "Jesus Children of America" (from his brilliant 1973 opus Innervisions). Not surprisingly, BeBe delivers his most righteous solo vocal on a cover of gospel singer Donnie McClurkin's "Stand," which takes him right back to the choir pew, where BeBe shines brightest.

Bottom Line: His spirit isn't in it

Madonna (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

On her last CD, 1998's Grammy-winning Ray of Light, the girl's material was freighted with heavy themes about birth, death, motherhood and celebrity. Now having unburdened herself of those weighty matters, she's back on the dance floor, where she first launched her career lo these many trends ago. Having previously caught the disco, vogue and techno waves as they peaked, Madonna now surfs the ecstatic rave craze on the generically titled Music. While Ray of Light owed much to that album's producer, techno wiz William Orbit, it is another artist whose stamp is all over Music: Cher. On many of these songs, Madonna uses the same distorted vocal gimmick that enlivened Cher's 1999 comeback hit, "Believe," at times to unintended comic effect—in places, it sounds as if she's backed by the Teletubbies. Elsewhere, the trance and techno studio effects by Ms. M's new collaborator, Mirwais Ahmadza'i, are mesmerizing, with the synthesizers bleating and blipping and sounding like a cybersonic calliope. On two tracks ("I Deserve It" and "Don't Tell Me") Madonna gives her least mannered vocal performance in years, accompanied by a nontechno instrument called the acoustic guitar. Meet Madonna the folkie. Another old-fashioned attribute—terrific songwriting—provides Music's highlight on "What It Feels Like for a Girl."

Bottom Line: Good, shockingly controversy-free dance music

Mark Knopfler (Warner Bros.)

Knopfler, 52, is not the bluesiest guitarist of his generation, nor is he the most fiery. He is, however, the most lyrical pop guitar player, a musician with a sense of invention and melody to rival such legends as Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery and even Chet Atkins, Knopfler's sometime duet partner and mentor. So appealing is Knopfler's guitar-playing, in fact, that one is willing to overlook the fact that his singing has deteriorated since his Dire Straits days. Perhaps it's an awareness of his own limitations that led Knopfler to invite such guest vocalists as Van Morrison, Squeeze alumni Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, and James Taylor, whose work on the title track, especially, shines out from its surroundings. Taylor's pungent voice beautifully complements Knopfler's liquid, mellifluous guitar.

Bottom Line: Great guitar, so-so voice

The Tom Tom Club (Rykodisc)

Even the title of this latest from the Tom Tom Club says multiple personality disorder. Each of the band's six members brings an individual flair to the CD's eclectic offerings. Blending organ, guitar, bass, DJ scratching, simple lyrics and, yes, even tom-toms, they create a mosh pit of funk, reggae, dance, pop, hip-hop and R&B material. It's a mix that hasn't been heard since the band's last album a full eight years ago. Four of the Club's members have returned from that '92 effort, notably husband-and-wife team Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, former members of the new wave Talking Heads. The hiatus certainly has not affected Frantz and Weymouth's ability to come up with whimsical party music.

The Good's best numbers showcase the mature, soulful vocals of Charles Pettigrew (formerly of Charles and Eddie). His serious grooves, such as "(C'mon) Surrender" and "Holy Water" (about lust and drugs, respectively), may remind you of Al Green. And they certainly contrast with a tune like "Who Feelin' It," which is nearly weightless. There may be something for everybody here stylistically, but the album's 10 original and two cover tracks are not uniformly well-done.

Bottom Line: The wacky, the engaging and the uneven

Fastball (Hollywood)

Album of the week

Don't worry, we don't mean you. But you may know a pop-music fan of a certain age who listens to classic-rock radio and grouses about how they don't make music like they used to. We're talking about people who stopped buying new CDs long before their AARP cards arrived. Well, here's a new album by a trio of guys who are making music that will appeal to aging, er, classic-oriented rock fans weaned on albums that came in jackets, not jewel boxes. Fastball's Tony Scaizo (bass, vocals), Miles Zuniga (guitar, vocals) and drummer Joey Shuffield scored a hit two years ago with "The Way," and once again they harken back to rock's golden era with an album chock-full of melodic hooks, shimmering guitar breaks, boogie piano (provided fittingly by Beatles side-man Billy Preston) and exuberant choruses. "I'm an island, but you're an ocean/ It's a stormy sea of love and emotion," Scaizo sings on "You're an Ocean." Tell your friends to quit complaining.

Bottom Line: High and tight

>Emmylou Harris

While driving with her dog from her Nashville home to New Orleans, where she was completing her new album, singer Emmylou Harris, who has written an album's worth of original material only once before (for her 1985 landmark country opera, The Ballad of Sally Rose), found inspiration along the interstate. "When I saw the sign for Meridian, Miss.," says Alabama-born Harris, "I kept thinking of this song."

That song, about a poor girl from the South, turned out to be the title track of Harris's latest effort, Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch), which continues the nine-time Grammy Award winner's tradition of eclectic country music. "I never wanted to sing what other people thought were country songs," says the thrice-divorced Harris.

She never has. Like her late friend and collaborator, country rocker Gram Parsons, Harris, 53, who executive produced last year's Return of the Grievous Angel, a tribute to Parsons, has been a pioneer her entire career. "After Gram's death, I was a woman with a mission," says Harris, who will kick off a coast-to-coast tour this month. "I wanted to carry his music forward."

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Ericka Souter,
  • Joseph V. Tirella.