OUT OF TIME
R.E.M. (Warner Bros. 26527)
Once a band makes it to the big time, it usually loses its sense of adventure. Not R.E.M., however; if anything, the group seems more willing than ever to take chances. With "Out of Time," the band tinkers with its instrumentation and toys with a variety of pop styles. Yet no matter how far afield these go, R.E.M. never loses its identity or sense of direction, whether it's dabbling in old-time country with "Half a World Away" or flirting with funk in "Radio Song." Which is why, from the mournful urgency of "Losing My Religion" to the twangy melodicism of "Near Wild Heaven," the album sounds as strong as anything in the band's catalog.
I WASN'T BORN YESTERDAY
Safire (Mercury 846 651)
There is no doubt that Safire is the reigning queen of Latin hip-hop. Nor is there any wonder why, since her voice is an ideal blend of power and pathos; few singers are as adept at caressing a melody while simultaneously boosting the beat. "I Wasn't Born Yesterday" is the Puerto Rican diva's current shot ++ at mainstream pop, and it's a good one -- "Made Up My Mind" is tuneful and feisty in the style of early Madonna, while "I Never Heard" is breathless and beat-intensive. And though Safire's balladry is a bit overstated and melodramatic, it seems unlikely that will stand in the way of her success.
Motorhead (WTG 46858)
It's not easy to think of Motorhead as being a subtle bandWith its songbook stuck in perpetual overdrive and its amplifiers cranked to 11, this band makes typical heavy metal excess seem almost tame. Even so, there's a surprising amount of wit and nuance lurking beneath the surface of "1916," a subversive intelligence capable of all sorts of mischief. It's one thing to invoke the Clive Barker-ish demons of "Nightmare/The Dreamtime," quite another to turn metal macho into a joke as broad as "I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care)." But where Motorhead really shows its class is with the title tune, a sobering meditation on war that's both understated and effective.
Thomas Mapfumo (Mango 162 539 900)
Normally, when a critic describes music as being "revolutionary," the term is meant metaphorically. Not so with Thomas Mapfumo, the Zimbabwean pop star whose music has literally been a soundtrack for social revolution in his country. Of course, his specific messages are lost on those who don't speak Shona, but that is hardly an impediment to the enjoyment of "Chamunorwa." Its gentle melodies and lithe, burbling rhythms require no translation -- intriguingly infectious, they're enough to win over almost any listener.