The Carnival (Ruffhouse/Columbia 67974)
There was a time when rap producers prided themselves on working with rhythm beds so intricate and original that only the canniest of insiders could name the sources. These days, though, rap hits are so obvious in their use of source material that they may as well be cover versions. But that isn't always a bad thing, as Wyclef Jean of the Fugees shows in his solo debut, "The Carnival." Wyclef has no compunctions about incorporating other people's songs into his own work, sometimes overtly (as with his ingenious appropriation of "Guantanamera"), sometimes covertly (as in "Sang Fezi," which slyly skims from "House of the Rising Sun"). But regardless of how much or how little he takes from his sources, Wyclef always manages to make his take on the music seem utterly original. Some of that has to do with the radical way in which he re-imagines the music, filtering the original melodies through a variety of hip-hop and Caribbean influences, and mixing live performance with samples and scratching. Mostly, though, it's because Wyclef sees his borrowings not as a crutch but a canvas, a backdrop for his own artistic vision. So even when the hook is as familiar as the BeeGees sample beneath "We Trying to Stay Alive," you're never left with the sense that you've heard this all before.
The Fat of the Land (Maverick/Warner Bros. 46606)
After the British techno band Prodigy became the object of a fierce and fevered bidding war among American record companies, industry pundits immediately began to snicker that there was no way the group could possibly live up to its hype. That, though, was well before anyone had actually heard "The Fat of the Land," an album which not only proves that Prodigy is a band worth fighting over, but makes it clear that "electronica" is not just another word for disco. Sure, the steady pulse of dance music is at the heart of all these tracks, but the edgy aggression of punk rock is also there, particularly in the abrasive cadences of "Firestarter" and "Smack My Bitch Up." Punk isn't the only unlikely element in the mix, though; there's a decided hip-hop cast to the sound of "Diesel Power," and even something of a new age flavor to the trippy sound treatments of "Climbatize" -- at least before it heads into its "Baba O'Riley" sequence. But that willingness to push beyond the usual boundaries of electronic is precisely why Prodigy seems so, well, prodigious. Even if they aren't the Next Big Thing, there's no doubting this band is going to be big.
Straight On Till Morning (A&M 31454 0750)
However much Blues Traveler might owe its live reputation to its facility as a jam band, the group's studio output is squarely based on songs. So even though "Straight On Till Morning" is chockablock with snarling guitar breaks and quicksilver harmonica solos, what ultimately stands out are the songs that frame those bits of free-flowing virtuosity. Fortunately, the band -- particularly singer/harmonicat John Popper -- has quite a flair for melody. Granted, there's enough boogie here to let the band get by on groove 20 percent of the time, but that's actually a relatively tiny chunk of the album (although "Carolina Blues" and its ilk are probably killer in concert). Yet surprisingly enough, the album's strong suit is sentimentality. It isn't just that Popper has weakness for big drippy ballads like the bittersweet "Canadian Rose" or the string-soaked "Yours"; even mid-tempo tunes like "The Gunfighter" or the Latin-tinged "Felicia" exude a melancholy that blunts the rhythm section's relentless energy. Could it be that all those solos are meant to camouflage the fact that these four are just softies at heart?
Men In Black
The Album (Columbia 68169)