Tubthumper (Republic/Universal 53099)
Although it would be perfectly accurate to describe Chumbawamba's music as socialist agit-pop, it would also be misleading. True, the group's album is full of leftist social commentary, from the pointedly political lyrics to the sly, sarcastic soundbites sprinkled between tracks. But the phrase "socialist agit-pop" sounds preachy, dreary and annoying, whereas "Tubthumper" is catchy, approachable and fun. A giddy mix of rock and funk, songwriting and sampling, Chumbawamba's music is full of pop smarts, from the cheery, chant-along chorus of the title tune to the crunchy power chords that kick along the verse to "Amnesia." At its best, it's as seductive as anything the Spice Girls have recorded. But where the Spice Girls only play at revolution with their "girl power" slogans, Chumbawamba takes on serious issues. "The Good Ship Lifestyle," for instance, slyly shows how consumerism creates selfishness in average citizens, while "One By One" TC bitterly suggests that the British labor movement has been sold out by its socially grasping leadership. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Chumbawamba's hook-intensive material makes those ideas seem downright catchy.
To Make Me Who I Am (A&M 314 530 784)
Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Ronald Isley recently found a whole new audience by working with hip young acts like R. Kelly, and now, Aaron Neville is trying a similar approach with "To Make Me Who I Am." Neville's tart, tremulous falsetto is perfectly suited to the sweet, sinuous melodies favored by slow-jam fans, and most of these tracks take full advantage of that -- although often in entirely different ways. "Just to Be With You" is all ardor and interplay, as Neville's fervent phrases wind around the equally impassioned vocals of Yakira, while "Sweet Amelia" evokes the sweet sadness of romantic nostalgia through its lazy groove and high, breathy harmonies. Neville even updates his old sound, grounding "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" -- done as a duet with Linda Ronstadt -- in the gently percolating rhythms of funk. Still, there's a difference between learning new tricks and acting like a pup, and to his credit, Neville never tries to act anything less than his age. Maybe that's why the album's best track is also its most endearingly conventional -- the big, Babyface-produced ballad, "Say What's In My Heart."
The Book of Secrets (Warner Bros. 46719)
Most people take the phrase "world music" to mean anything outside the Anglo-American pop vocabulary. What it really means is music that is international in its scope and respects no borders in its search for new sounds. Music, in other words, like what Loreena McKennitt makes on "The Book of Secrets." Drawing from her roots in Celtic music, McKennitt fills the album with harps and fiddles, pipes and pennywhistles, and plenty of sweet, sad ballads, but that's not all it has. "Marco Polo" owes its hauntingly Eastern flavor to a sonic stew spiced with shawm, oud and tabla, while "The Highwayman" takes its ominous aura from the tension between the lumbering, jazzy gait of the rhythm section, and the brittle arabesques of bouzouki and mandola that caper around McKennitt's memorably melancholy vocal. Then there's the tender, devotional "Dante's Prayer," which opens with a goosebump-beautiful bit of Russian Orthodox choral music, then tops it with a heartbreaking melody of McKennitt's own. Taken together, these eight songs become a world unto themselves -- one adventurous listeners could spend eons exploring.
Sunday Morning to Saturday Night (Rising Tide 53047)
What makes a recording great often comes down to the relationship between the singer and the song. There has to be something about the song that seems special, and the singer has to deliver it in a way that makes it hard to imagine anyone else singing that chorus. Songwriters seldom have trouble with the first part of that equation, but the second part is often beyond them. Not Matraca Berg, though. Even though she doesn't have pipes like some of the people she's written for, that hardly keeps "Sunday Morning to Saturday Night" from shining. Like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Berg makes her point by bringing a strong sense of character to the songs. Hearing her work the chorus to "That Train Don't Run" makes it easy to understand the longing and regret at the center of the song, just as her unadorned delivery in "Back When We Were Beautiful" brings the wistful beauty of its lyric to life. That's not to say Berg doesn't belt occasionally -- she whoops it up through the title tune, and even gets a bit gritty "Here You Come Raining On Me" -- just that what makes this album worth hearing isn't her strength as a singer. Rather, it's the way she makes us feel these songs, so that they matter more than a mere melody would.