Sheryl Crow

Her 1993 debut, Tuesday Night Music Club, sold 8 million copies and made the former backup singer for Michael Jackson and Don Henley a star. But industry insiders who remembered her earlier solo effort, a slick, soulless album that was mercifully never released, still wondered if Crow was the real thing or a multiplatinum one-hit phenom.

Well, if her new, country-tinged "If It Makes You Happy" (the first single from this catchy, confident CD) hasn't convinced the doubters yet, it's just a matter of time. Crow plays guitar and organ and wails her heart out. She also produced, wrote or cowrote all 13 of the album's songs. The opener, "Maybe Angels," an arena-sized rocker, settles into a bluesy groove. Two standout tracks that follow—"Hard to Make a Stand" and "Everyday Is a Winding Road"—bristle with enough radio-friendly hooks to make them almost surefire hits.

Gearing into ballad mode on "Oh Marie," a sad portrait of a party girl, Crow (who has admitted to battling depression in the past) plumbs the emotional depths. In fact all of the songs written by Crow—which include "Home" and "Ordinary Morning"—journey into a dark, deceptive terrain. But it is a satisfying journey indeed. (A&M)

Jim Lauderdale

One of the top songwriters in Nashville, Lauderdale is an amazingly prolific tunesmith whose songs have been recorded by Patty Loveless, George Strait and Vince Gill, among others. He is also a quietly charismatic performer and a distinctive vocalist with a plaintive, instantly recognizable drawl. Leaving Atlantic Records after two lovely, but puny-selling, discs (the first, 1994's Pretty Close to the Truth, is among the decade's best country-rock albums), he cut Persimmons for the little Upstart label just before getting recalled to the majors by RCA.

Lauderdale's greatest virtue has also been his curse—he's too restlessly creative for mass marketing. On Persimmons he gives us his most relaxed, rawest-sounding album yet. Stylistically, Persimmons is all over the place, from straight country ("Some Things Are Too Good to Last," sung with Emmylou Harris) to mid-'60s garage-band rock ("Tears So Strong"), to blues ("Optimistic Messenger") to near-metal ("Jupiter's Rising"). There are two out-and-out classics: the pun-gently soulful "Don't Leave Your Light Low" and "Do You Like It," a lament masquerading as a good-time shuffle. Persimmons is as unvarnished an album as Lauderdale is likely to make. I'm betting his next release, for RCA, will be his most commercial yet. Here's to his prospective success, with hopes the price doesn't come too high. (Upstart)

Various Artists

The celebrated conductor and composer was born and reared in the Boston area. But New York, New York, was clearly in his blood. Bernstein's theater scores On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953), along with the far darker, more mature West Side Story (1957), pulse with the energy and grittiness of a city that embraced him as its unofficial composer laureate.

A battalion of performers has been deployed to sing Bernstein's songs, among them Metropolitan Opera star Dawn Upshaw and two-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who imbues "A Little Bit in Love" with captivating warmth and charm. And conductor Eric Stern rates hosannas for his co-arrangement (with Paul Ford) of "Some Other Time," effectively sung by Mandy Patinkin—who, thankfully, left his signature melodramatic mannerisms at the studio door. (Nonesuch)

Pet Shop Boys

If doing the Macarena leaves you gasping for breath, you should approach the latest Pet Shop Boys CD with caution: Trying to boogie down to the first three tracks could be hazardous to your health. While vocalist Neil Tennant remains as serenely composed as ever, partner Chris Lowe whips up a symphony of keyboard frills and percussive, zillion-beats-per-minute rhythms on the album-opening "Discotecca." The pace barely lets up until the third song, "Metamorphosis," goes out with a wham-bang. Then the British duo turn the beat around and settle into their trademark brand of catchy but cool, synthesized pop. Coming after the initial, dance-crazed jolt, even the sexy, Latin-tinged swing of "Up Against It" and "Before" seems almost too polite. One keeps hoping the Boys will forget their manners and throw another musical fit. (Atlantic)

>Johnny Copeland

HEART FULL OF SOUL

WHEN HE WAS 9 YEARS OLD, Johnny "Clyde" Copeland carried his first guitar out into the vast Arkansas fields where his family farmed and taught himself to play the blues. Fifty years later, Copeland, now a Grammy-winning guitarist and singer, is still playing his emotive, Texas-style country blues. But whenever the itinerant, New Jersey-based musician performs these days, it is to an unusual accompaniment: the pulse of a battery-powered pump implanted in his chest. "I don't feel bad at all onstage," says Copeland, 59, who wears a gray fanny pack holding the two rechargeable batteries that power his pump. "It energizes me in some kind of way."

Copeland became a candidate for an organ transplant in May 1995, when his heart was irreparably weakened after a series of heart attacks. "We couldn't get a heart in time to keep him alive," says Dr. Mehmet Oz, 36, a surgeon at New York's Columbia Presbyterian hospital, where Copeland underwent emergency open-heart surgery to implant the pump. Without the device, says Oz, "Mr. Copeland would have been a ghost."

Yet within four months after the operation, he was back performing in blues clubs and music festivals, most recently at the Long Beach (Calif.) Blues Festival. And in July, Copeland—who won a 1986 Grammy for his blues guitar duel with Albert Collins and Robert Cray on Showdown!—released Jungle Swing (Verve), a collection including mostly his own tunes. As he waits for the beep that will summon him to the hospital when a suitable heart donor is found, the singer says he never anticipated the pump's most unwelcome side effect: it throws his timing off when he tries to write a new song. Otherwise "my illness hasn't really affected my music," says Copeland, who began his career in the 1950s touring Texas with Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, originator of the classic "Hound Dog." He credits her with teaching him his creed. "The blues is still the same," he says, hand over his heart. "The feeling is still in here."

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold,
  • Tony Scherman,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Lisa Kay Greissinger.