THIS IS ME
Randy Travis (Warner Bros. 45501)
Compared to such guys as Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson, Randy Travis seems like an old-timer on the country music scene, and some listeners may have begun to think of his music as tame and predictable. Boy, are they in for a surprise. Even though "This Is Me" is full of the sort of stuff Travis is famous for -- straight-forward singing, low-key sentimentality and a wickedly wry sense of humor -- somehow he manages to make it all seem fresh and new. Granted, some of the credit belongs with the songs, particularly "The Box," an impressively cliche-free song about fatherly love, and the dryly funny "Small Y'All." But it's the way Travis handles that material that makes the most difference, and that's as true of up-tempo tunes ("Honky Tonk Side of Town") as slow, sweet songs ("Whisper My Name").
Nas (Columbia 57684)
As crowded as the rap world has gotten in recent years, it takes tremendous talent and originality to make the cognoscenti sit up and take notice. But as "Illmatic" makes plain, Nas has all that and more. Even if you discount the input from Nas' heavy-hitting producers -- a group that includes Pete Rock, Q-Tip, DJ Premier and the Large Professor --it's hard to ignore the intelligence of his rhymes and the freshness of his flow. From the dreamy, jazzy pulse of "Who's World Is This" to the loping, kalimba-spiked "One Love," Nas raps in loose, rolling cadences that seem conversational even as he twists his words into unexpected rhythms and rhymes. Even better, no matter how casual they may seem, there's always serious thought behind his wordplay.
TWENTY FIRST CENTURY JESUS
Messiah (White LBLS/American 45168)
Because techno is meant more for club play than listening at home, techno albums are generally just thrown together, stringing a bunch of singles together with no thought of how they fit together. Maybe that's why the coming of Messiah seems so praiseworthy. Even though many of the tracks on "Twenty First Century Jesus" were originally released as singles, they fit together so seamlessly you'd think they were all composed as a concept album. Of course, that may just reflect the apocalyptic bent of Messiah's lyrics, which more than live up to the message implied in such titles as "Destroyer" and "There Is No Law." Not to worry, though -- if Messiah's breathless beats and laugh-a-minute samples are any indication, the end of the world ought to be a blast.
Green Day (Reprise 45529)
Sometimes it seems that the real reason rock 'n' roll will never die is that there are always bands willing to go out and dig up the corpse. Take Green Day and its new album, "Dookie." Although there are plenty of adjectives that could describe the band's lean-and-tuneful sound, originality isn't one of them, since bands like the Buzzcocks, the Undertones and the Jam perfected that kind of punk years before the guys in Green Day learned how to play. While that doesn't necessarily diminish the fun of sing-along bashers like "Long View," "She" and "Coming Clean," it's hard to imagine anyone over the age of 28 hearing this stuff without getting a profound sense of having heard it all before.
THE FALL OF US ALL
Steve Tibbetts (ECM 1527)
Most pop music squanders its rhythmic energy, hoping only to entrance the listener through simple repetition. As a result, it might take a few listens to appreciate the full power of an album such as "The Fall of Us All." Even though the music here is profoundly percussive, Steve Tibbetts and his band go beyond the obvious regularity of the beat to emphasize its ebb and flow. Moreover, because the music draws from Indian, Arabic and Javanese elements in addition to the more familiar African and American elements, the listener can enjoy a wider range of rhythmic intensity without feeling battered by the beat. But the best thing about "The Fall of Us All" is the astonishing fluidity of Tibbetts' guitar work, which can be as percussive as a tabla pattern or as liquid and lyrical as a Hendrix solo.
THE BILLIE HOLIDAY SONGBOOK
Terence Blanchard (Columbia 57793)
It's easy to pay tribute to a great performer: All you need is a flattering imitation, and most listeners are happy. Offering an original spin on a legendary sound is nowhere near as easy, but that's what Terence Blanchard largely achieves with "The Billie Holiday Songbook." Where a lesser musician might have opted simply to add tasteful obbligati from behind a Holiday sound-alike, Blanchard not only uses a relatively un-imitative singer (the satin-voiced Jeanie Bryson), but chooses to treat most of the tunes as instrumentals. But because his playing is as lean and emotionally direct as Holiday's singing was, the album maintains its sense of homage even when there are no words to sing along with.