Salt-N-Pepa (Next Plateau/London 898 392)
With so much of the media focusing on the way some hip-hop artists seem to celebrate guns and misogyny, it's easy to forget that most rap albums have nothing at all to do with sexism or violence. Thank goodness there's still Salt-N-Pepa to remind folks that there's more to this music than gangsta attitude. That's not to say "Very Necessary" comes across as mere pop-rap fluff; both "Step" and "Somebody's Gettin' on My Nerves" make it plain that these three ladies don't suffer fools gladly. Moreover, "Whatta Man" (which features the funky divas of En Vogue) and "Shoop" (which features a deliciously funky groove) evince as much interest in the opposite sex as any male group has ever shown -- and considerably more wit, to boot. But Salt-N-Pepa is also acutely aware of where such interest can lead, which is why they close out the album with one of the best AIDS-consciousness numbers on record.
EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES
k.d. lang (Sire 45433)
When is a k.d. lang album not a k.d. lang album? When the songs are meant to illuminate someone else's point of view -- as on the soundtrack album lang and co-writer Ben Mink composed for "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." Sure, the writing is a little more wide-ranging than lang's usual output, but what makes "Cowgirls" such fun isn't that it opens with a disco number (the delightful "Just Keep Me Moving") so much as the way that disco number seems of a piece with stuff like the retro-Western "In Perfect Dreams" or the torchy "Lifted By Love." Add in oddball mood pieces like "Kundalini Yoga Waltz" or the quasi-Bulgarian "Apogee," and "Cowgirls" is unlikely to give any listener the blues.
Teenage Fanclub (DGC 24533)
Old-school guitar bands believed that the most appropriate setting for a light, sweet melody is one featuring energetic vocals and a clean, cheerful guitar sound. Not the guys in Teenage Fanclub; they'd rather make noise than have pop hits. So even though the songs on "Thirteen" boast some of the most blissfully catchy melodies in alternative rock, that doesn't keep the 'Club from fleshing out each arrangement with sloppy guitars and slack singing. But rather than undercut the songwriting, this craftily casual approach actually adds to the band's appeal, allowing the close harmonies on "Escher" to sell the chorus without sounding too Byrd-like, and keeping the honeyed hooks in "Norman 3" from seeming too cloying.
Joshua Redman (Warner Bros. 45365)
There's nothing unusual about hearing a young jazz musician include a recent pop hit in his repertoire. It's rare, though, to hear one invest such a song with the kind of energy and insight usually reserved for jazz classics. Yet that's exactly what tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman does on "Wish." When he and guitarist Pat Metheny dig into Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," the result may sound like lite jazz at first, but by the second chorus, the tune has already been transformed. Even better, they pull the same trick with "Moose the Mooch," maintaining the general sense of this Charlie Parker chestnut while deftly opening new harmonic horizons. No wonder Redman has been hailed as one of the brightest new lights in jazz.