Stevie Wonder (Motown 314 530 238)
It's easy to have great expectations for Stevie Wonder's "Conversation Peace." It's Wonder's first real album since the disappointing "Characters" arrived eight years ago (most Wonder fans rank 1991's "Jungle Fever" soundtrack alongside such froth as "The Woman in Red"); and its songs are clearly meant as message, offering a vision of love and faith as antidote NTC to the violence and nihilism that taints so much of modern life. Yet as much as there is to admire in Wonder's ambition and intentions, the songs lack the spark and dazzle of his classic work. That's not to say there aren't potential hits here, as both the loping, reggae-inflected "Take the Time Out" and slow, tuneful "For Your Love" deliver the same high-octane melodicism as Wonder's greatest work. Taken as a whole, though, "Conversation Peace" is less great music than the work of a great musician -- always enjoyable, but not as moving as it might have been.
MADE IN ENGLAND
Elton John (Rocket 314 526 185)
If there seems to be an air of nostalgia wafting through Elton John's "Made in England," it's for good reason. Not only is this the first release on John's revitalized Rocket Records, but it finds the pianist and singer working once again with long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. But the greatest resemblance has to do with the album's mood, which comes astonishingly close to recapturing the ambitious sweep of such albums as "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Of course, it remains to be seen whether the kind of magic that made that album such a '70s standard still holds today, but it's unlikely that listeners from that era will find much to complain about in "Made In England." From the Stones-fueled kick of "Pain" to the irrepressible uplift of the title tune, the best songs here carry on in the grand tradition of John's early work. And what fan could object to that?
ME AGAINST THE WORLD
2 Pac (Interscope 92399)
In an interview in the current issue of Vibe, Tupac Shakur derides his "Thug Life" persona as an act that was simply taken too far. But then, there has always been an element of role-playing in his rapping, and that's as true of "Me Against the World" as any of his albums. Despite the stabs at soul-searching in "So Many Tears" and "It Ain't Easy," what comes across in those tracks has more to do with adding depth to his character, 2 Pac the Tough-Luck Thug, than anything resembling real regret. Granted, this is a rap album and not a confessional, and there's no denying the craft that has gone into these raps -- from the deeply layered vocals on "Temptations" to the slow, soulful grind of the title tune. But just as actions speak louder than words, what the real-life Tupac Shakur is going through makes it hard to accept the rhetorical posturing presented here as entertainment any sense of the term.
ENCOMIUM: A TRIBUTE TO LED ZEPPELIN
Various Artists (Atlantic 82731)
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but really, there's nothing terribly complimentary about the note-perfect Led Zeppelin covers compiled in "Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin." From 4 Non Blonde's bar-band regurgitation of "Misty Mountain Hop" to Cracker's shamelessly adulatory run through "Good Times Bad Times," what comes through in these performances is how little most of these alterna-rockers can add to the Led Zep legacy. The only real difference between Stone Temple Pilots' "Dancing Days" and the original is that Zep used all electric guitars, and STP bring in an acoustic or two -- big deal. And while it's nice to see Helmet and Jesus Lizard vocalist David Yow upend the macho cliches of "Custard Pie," the instrumentals stick so close to the original that their rendition ends up sounding like a cover band with a bad singer. In fact, apart from Sheryl Crow's jovial romp through "D'Yer Mak'er" and the slow-and-scary Robert Plant/Tori Amos duet on "Down By the Seaside," "Encomium" seems to reinforce the adage: If it ain't broke, don't cover it.