12 pop music albums

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Gangsta's Paradise

Tommy Boy TBCD 1141

"That's How It Is", the intro track to 's second album, features the pioneer gangsta-rapper discussing with a friend how desperate they both are to get out of the ghetto: the friend is off to college, while 's trying to hustle his way out. Gunfire interrupts their conversation; the college kid gets more animated, but stays calm. "You know sump'n?" he says, musing upon the gangsta life, "much as I hate this mu'fu', love this mu'fu'."

It's his acknowledgement of the essential paradox at the heart of gangsta- rap - the combination of excitement and revulsion that fuels its appeal. As he admits on "Gangsta's Paradise", he's "the kind of G(angsta) that little homies wanna be like", though part of the blame, at least, is laid upon the unreachable desires of American consumerism: "too much television- watchin' got me chasin' dreams". Having conquered crack addiction and come back punching out hits, 's in a better position than most to comment upon it, and he manages to go beyond simply celebrating the usual G-Funk hedonist imperatives of Tanqueray gin, Chronic weed, and agreeable girls. Sure, they're all present and correct to some degree, but so is "Recoup This", an attack on those still "playing games I used to play back in '79, with the same bullshit and the same old lies". For once, the onus is on life rather than death, with pleas for firearms restraint and, in the Aids warning "Too Hot", free latex distribution.

To a certain extent, 's late-blooming success has been dependent on his choice of tried and trusted samples - or "interpolations", as they're called here. His breakthrough last year with "Fantastic Voyage" used the old Lakeside hit of the same name, and "Gangsta's Paradise" came pre-sold on the back of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise". For the album of the same name, clearly sees no reason in altering the strategy: these tracks adapt memorable grooves from Sly Stone, The Isley Brothers, Billy Paul and even Herbie Hancock's classic "Chameleon" riff from Headhunters, but without the imaginative re-structuring that has made rap one of the more exciting genres of recent years. For the most part, these tracks simply echo others' genius, the better to convey his own.

Baby Bird


Baby Bird CD3

After three independent releases in under a year, and another two planned for January, Steven Jones (aka Baby Bird) has signed a deal with a slightly bigger label, which will release all his subsequent recordings. It's something of a shame: inspired, whimsical amateurism of this sort deserves less, in the most positive way.

Jones is the UK equivalent of the American solo artist R Stevie Moore, with an abundance of off-the-wall pop strategies rendered with a lo-fi immediacy, his primitive equipment buckling under the ambition of his arrangements. But whatever the songs lack in professionalism, they usually make up for in character. With most tracks, the logistics favour simplicity: in "I Don't Want To Wake You Up", a song about dreaming of the dead, simple guitar figures hang suspended like ghosts in a yearning, cavernous space; "Cool & Crazy Things To Do", likewise, makes a virtue of Jones's low-budget conditions, sounding like U2 in one of their more intimate moments.

The biggest problem facing Baby Bird is his output, and the lack of quality control: too many of these songs are little more than doodles, quaint the first time round, but annoyingly twee thereafter. And while the similarity of reverb settings on his voice and guitar gives the album an appealing mood of wistfulness, the lack of variety in tempo and technique betrays the over-methodical overdub technique. But it's ultimately hard to dislike an album which includes a credit for the singer's prosthetic stomach. Tong Cox Sasha Oakenfold Essential Mix

The DJ mix album has become almost a genre unto itself, with a veritable avalanche of releases over the past few months, the best being Coldcut's recent entry in the Journeys By DJ series, and this double-CD offering from four of the genre's most acclaimed spinners.

The skill here is twofold, a combination of talent-spotting, as it applies to the functional requirements of the dancefloor, and linear composition, seguing selections into a musical journey of sufficient interest and fluidity to carry along even the unconverted. All four DJs here fulfill the brief with flying colours: Pete Tong offers a four-square, footwise mix to start things off, before Carl Cox maps out some of the more discreet techno exercises, from Laurent Garnier to Hyperspace. The second disc is, if anything, even better: a colossal thunderclap announces Sasha's glistening selection of pumping techno pulses, before Paul Oakenfold winds things up with a mix that includes the relatively well-known likes of The Prodigy and Utah Saints.

Through both discs, the mechanistic nature of modern techno determines the shape of the mixes, with sounds manipulated like cogs and pistons in some giant engine, rather than being used to represent the humanity behind the sound, as is often the case with traditional instruments like guitars. Here, the organising intelligence behind the music leaves it deliberately empty, ready for vacant possession by the dancer. Ignore your prejudices, leave that alleged Greatest Dance Album Ever in the rack and pick up this snapshot of UK clubland '95: it's as close to a dancefloor as you'll get without breaking sweat. Luther Vandross This is Christmas

This is pretty much what you'd expect - which is to say, more like purgatory than Christmas. Apart from three seasonal standards, Luther has chosen to co-write all the material here, bloating the songs with characteristically rich, fruity arrangements and a generous coating of marzipan icing. Most tracks follow his trademark ballad formula, with glutinous synthesised strings swamping the likes of "With a Christmas Heart"; unfortunately, the synthetic approach spreads even to the tubular bell sounds on "I Listen to the Bells", a brittle pop-funk duet with Darlene Love which, unsurprisingly, compares poorly with her work on Phil Spector's Christmas album.

Of the three standards, "O Come All Ye Faithful" is an exercise in odious choral piety, while the prim jazz-funk of "My Favorite Things" suggests that Luther's favourite things are considerably less inspiring than John Coltrane's. The best thing here, by default, is a version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" taken at an appropriately slow and slushy pace. A pretty joyless affair, all things considered.

Various Artists Even Santa Gets the Blues

This compilation makes a much better fist of the festive duties than Luther's album, despite having to accommodate some of the label's more dubious recordings. There are fine contributions from the likes of Lowell Fulsom and Jesse Belvin, and the "Blue Christmas" theme is especially well served by both albino bluesman Johnny Winter, whose "Please Come Home for Christmas" is a superb slice of Southern-soul-styled blues, and BB King, whose "Christmas Celebration" comes beautifully upholstered with warmly burnished horns.

Unfortunately, the three tracks in routine cabaret style by Hadda Brooks are notable mainly for their bemusingly disparate piano and guitar parts, and Isaac Hayes has to go and ruin everything right at the end by bringing Jesus into the picture. The saving grace, as always, is Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby", which contains the finest line of any Christmas song: "I haven't had a drink this morning, but I'm all lit up like a Christmas tree". Despite Charles's assurance, it's as warm and toasty as a 10-year- old malt on a snowy morn.