Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Priority 53959)
Hip-hop movie music isn't exactly unusual these days, now that the "Above the Rim" album has inspired similar soundtracks for films such as "Street Fighter" and "New Jersey Drive." But so far, the only effort that has scored the way "Above the Rim" did is the Ice Cube-produced "Friday." Although it's tempting to credit the album's all-star line-up for much of that success -- in addition to Cube, it includes performances by Dr. Dre, Scarface and Cypress Hill, to name a few -- the key has less to do with the players than with what they play. Like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube has an abiding affection for classic funk, and "Friday" pays full respect to the era, not only fleshing out the album with vintage fare like Rick James' "Mary Jane" or Rose Royce's "I Wanna Get Next to You" but including new tracks like the Isley Brothers' "Tryin' to See Another Day" or "'You Got Me Wide Open" by P-Funk alums Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell. Better still, the rap tracks reflect a similar sense of soul, and that keeps the groove going from Dre's driving, hypnotic "Keep Their Heads Ringin'" straight through to 2 Live Crew's breathlessly bawdy "Hoochie Mama."
Elvis Costello (Warner Bros. 45903)
Elvis Costello has never been one to stifle his private passions, even when they lead to albums as unfortunate as the curdled country of "Almost Blue" and the awkward art songs of "The Juliet Letters." So it really isn't hard to understand why he'd charge ahead with a project as self- indulgent as "Kojak Variety." As he writes in the liner notes, the album offers "some of my favorite songs performed by some of my favorite musicians," a crew that includes guitarists Marc Ribot and James Burton, keyboardist Larry Knechtel and drummers Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner. It's admirable in its way that Costello doesn't care whether the average listener knows many of the 15 tunes collected here (what, you don't remember Zoot Money's "Please Stay"?), and the amount of playing space he gives his sidemen provides the album with some astonishing solos. But let's be honest -- singing has never been Costello's strong suit, and hearing him attempt works by Little Richard and Screamin' Jay Hawkins only emphasizes his vocal failings.
Tricky (Island 314 524 089)
What is it about Bristol? First this British backwater gives us the arresting extravagance of Massive Attack, then the sultry, angst-ridden pulse of Portishead. Now comes Tricky -- actually rapper/producer Tricky and singer Martine -- whose debut album, "Maxinquaye," may be the biggest hit of the bunch. Tricky's tracks don't settle for the strict functionality of dance music; by drawing freely from dub, hip-hop and rock, the album delivers the textural detail and lyrical depth of alternarock without sacrificing the rhythmic momentum of club music. But it's the duo's daring that makes the album so mesmerizing. That the two move so easily from the dreamy ennui of "Pumpkin" to the violent urgency of "Brand New You're Retro" speak volumes about their sense of craft. But the way they remake Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" without losing either its power or paranoia testifies to their utter originality. Tricky? Genius would be more like it.
STEAL AWAY: SPIRITUALS, HYMNS AND FOLK SONGS
Charlie Haden/Hank Jones (Verve 314 527 249)
vTC With so much emphasis on flash and fire in jazz these days, it's a pleasant surprise to find an album where the players are content to shine quietly. "Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs" doesn't offer much in the way of dazzle; bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Hank Jones show no interest in stretching boundaries or breaking taboos with these tunes. Yet their respectful readings of classics such as "Wade in the Water" and "Go Down, Moses" possess a power and profundity that's too often missing in improvised music these days. Haden's rich tone and inspired phrasing demands a certain virtuosity -- it's astonishing to think that he can bring such a singing tone to "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" without resorting to a bow -- but it's technical prowess of an unassuming sort, one that never gets in the way of the music. But it's the obvious devotion of Haden and Jones to the spirit of these songs that makes these performances so uplifting. Would that all jazz were so inspirational.