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There are more than a few movie directors - Scorsese, Demme, Tarantino - who can wield a pop soundtrack with panache and aural acumen, but they mostly rely on tried and tested pop "classics" with built-in frames of reference. Using contemporary music involves greater risk since nothing is pre-defined; fashioning a timeless soundtrack classic from contemporary music, as Michael Mann has done here, takes guts and taste.

Mann was responsible for a quantum leap in film music when he commissioned Tangerine Dream to write and perform the score to his film Thief, whose introductory 10-minute safe-cracking scene was elevated to a tense, wordless perfection by their contribution. Tension is Mann's forte - this album seethes with internal trauma, as contemporary fringe artists from Einsturzende Neubauten to Eno offer interpretations of the movie's moods.

Much of the album's success is due to Elliot Goldenthal's score, brought to life with great passion and subtlety by The Kronos Quartet, though equally important is Norwegian chamber-jazz guitarist Terje Rypdal, whose nervy phrases are like needles under your fingernails. Rypdal's "Mystery Man" is a moment of sublime angst among more ponderous contributions from Neubauten, Lisa Gerrard and Moby, but there's not a wasted moment here, which proves that the modern soundtrack need not pander to populist taste to be strikingly effective.

Jas Mann, who to all intents and purposes is Babylon Zoo, has had greatness of sorts thrust upon him, if greatness resides in stardom. Even in the world of pop, it is hard to think of another act that has risen so precipitously, and, as the jibe goes, so without trace. But how could it be otherwise, when until about a week ago, the only discernible trace of Babylon Zoo was an electronically treated voice on a jeans advert?

Unlike most jeans adverts, however, the music turned out to have an unusually exotic face, and an even more exotic background - part Asian, part Native American. Mann, or his management, is cannily playing this for all it is worth, presenting him, post-Bjork, as a similarly cute but unusual doll figure. It is, however, debatable how deep the eccentricity goes, judging by the music on The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes, which is re-heated techno-glam guitar-rock somewhere between Ziggy Stardust and Jesus Jones.

To a young fan, Mann's songs, with loose references to aliens, sexuality, corruption and religion, might appear the very acme of questing modernity, but what this album brings home is just how mundane the notionally exotic can be.

Baptist Hospital has qualities often ascribed to Aztec Camera albums - haunting melodies, intelligent lyrics - but also suffers some of their shortcomings, such as selling good songs short with too underwrought a delivery.

This is most noticeable on "Last Cigarette" and "Greedy", the songs co- written by Hewerdine with King L's Gary Clark. In places, one suspects that producer John Wood, best known for his work with Nick Drake and John Martyn, is perhaps too sympathetic to the intricacies of Hewerdine's songs when a firmer hand might have been more profitable.

The songs are admirably-crafted explorations of human weakness, in which fragile hopes are propped up with cigarettes and drugs, and the solace offered by religion comes only at a price. "If there is no laughter in heaven, I don't want to go," sings Hewerdine in the title track, but judging by Baptist Hospital, it's a case of deprivation, not addiction.

Producer Kevin Killen has built a reputation on his skill at gauging settings for sophisticated singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello, and on Paula Cole's debut album, he applies his usual empathic touch to a precociously gifted talent. She's the kind of songwriter who can view footwear as an index of the emotional landscape.

Cole is a dark-garbed outsider still wounded by the slings and arrows of American teenage life. The detailing of her emotional ructions suggests the influence of Joni Mitchell, and occasionally leads her into dubious territory. But there is plenty of evidence here of her abilities, particularly on "Chiaroscuro", where the string arrangement and human beatbox-style vocal percussion create an aural analogue of the song's inter-racial relationship.