Monaco: Music For Pleasure (Polydor, CD/LP/tape). After the fall of New Order, who would have bet on Mrs Merton's houseband making a better record than Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr? Not me. But here we are, a year after Electronic's disappointing Raise The Pressure, and Monaco have hit the jackpot, come up trumps, and any other Monte Carloan cliche you fancy. The band consists of Peter "Hooky" Hook, 41, your archetypal Eighties Mancunian pop star, and his 26-year-old protege, David "Pottsy" Potts, your archetypal Nineties MPS. Appropriately, they have made a record whose appeal should span the generations. Conspicuously lacking in filler material, Music For Pleasure takes in - besides the two hit singles - disco, acoustic ballads ("Blue"), creeping trip hop ("Billy Bones"), a grandiose, synth- swathed, nine-minute house anthem ("Junk"), one song ("Buzz Gum"), which veers between "Sergeant Pepper" and Katrina and the Waves' recent Eurovision winner, and the best "hidden" final track ever. And if that sounds too much like an opportunistic compilation album, the whole thing is united by some credibly embittered lyrics, and the unique, upfront bass-twanging of New Order. It's hard to think of a more consummate cross-over between the cultures of indie rock, clubbing and pre-teen-pleasing pop. Nicholas Barber


Various Artists: Random (Beggars Banquet, 2XCD). A double album of Gary Numan covers sounds less like a vital pop document than the suggested wake-up call at a Jack Straw young offenders' punishment camp. But this unlikely act of homage actually turns out to be far more fun than many a drearily reverential tribute to more socially acceptable artistes. Some of the combinations on the contributors' list have an authentically nightmarish quality to them - Holocaust conceptualists Towering Inferno with guest vocalist Eddi Reader, Jesus Jones doing "We Are So Fragile" (if only!) - but take a deep breath and dive in and the rewards are bountiful. From The Orb's gleefully dubbed-up "Jo The Waiter" to Damon Albarn's amusingly Anthony Newley-esque "We Have A Technical" via the chiming low rent majesty of The Magnetic Fields' "I Die You Die", this record is full of entertaining surprises. Ben Thompson


Various Artists: Kerouac - Kicks Joy Darkness (Rykodisc, CD). The name of Jack Kerouac has attained almost Numan- esque levels of unfashionability in recent years, but the advent of this unusually listenable literary concept album suggests that for the most celebrated mother's boy in American letters, the tide may be on the turn. Producers Jim Sampas and Lee Renaldo have done a fine job of work here - corralling a formidable array of actors (Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon), rock luminaries (Joe Strummer, Michael Stipe, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Aerosmith's Steven "Liv's dad" Tyler), and literary lions (William Burroughs Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S Thompson), without allowing the magnitude of the individual egos involved to distract attention from the purpose of the project as a whole. The end result is a triumph for fast living and liberated syntax. BT


Handel: Samson. Thomas Randle, Lynda Russell, Lynne Dawson, Michael George, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Collins Classics, 2XCD). Samson was the grandest of Handel's oratorios, big with drama and designed to counterbalance the contemplative abstraction of Messiah; and it might seem odd to modern ears that he gave the title role to a tenor rather than a heavier, more solid voice. But the 18th-century had its own mind about the allocation of voice-type to character. Generally it thought high (as did Saint-Saens when he put Samson on to the legitimate opera stage 120 years later). And since a tenor it is, you'd be hard-pressed to find a darker, stronger-sounding example to fit a period-performance context than Thomas Randle, who is in every sense the star of this superb recording. Less beautiful but more affirmative than Anthony Rolfe Johnson on Harnoncourt's Erato alternative, he exceeds all expectation. As do Catherine Wyn-Rogers, proving herself more alluring than a countertenor as Micah, and Lynne Dawson, who may be the seconda donna here but gets the plum of "Let the Bright Seraphim". Harry Christophers conducts with meaningful (which is to say sensitive) vigour. Michael White


Bill Frisell: Nashville (Nonesuch CD). The celebrated guitarist's Quartet was just about the best record of 1996, so a move into country and western might surprise some folks. Actually it's nearer to bluegrass, and full of pure, beautiful music that fairly rings out of the speakers. The backing comes from musicians associated with Lyle Lovett and Alison Krauss and though Frisell mostly sticks to his trusty custom-made electric guitar, he sounds all of a piece with mandolin, dobro and stand-up bass. Great back-porch music. Phil Johnson

Everette Harp: What's Going On (Blue Note, CD). Shopping-mall muzak reworking of Marvin Gaye's classic album by soulful saxophinist Harp, which, while it's an effort that in no way surpasses the original, still manages to insinuate itself into your affections by virtue of the sax keeping close to the phrasing of Gaye's voice and reminding you of just how great his songs were. Bizarrely, the sleeve features photographs by artist Andy Goldsworthy. PJ

Sonny Rollins: Alfie (Impulse, CD/LP). Re-release for one of the great Sixties albums, composed by Rollins for himself and an 11-piece band, arranged by Oliver Nelson and produced by Rudy Van Gelder. It's not, as far as I know, the real soundtrack to the movie, but rather a 1966 New Jersey-gloss on the original themes. Whatever, it's marvellous stuff and Rollins's take on the title-theme has deservedly become an icon of the era, like Herbie Hancock's score for Antonioni's Blow Up. PJ