Michael Jackson (Epic single 78000)
Although there has been a lot of talk about the publicity campaign being cranked up around Michael Jackson's upcoming album, "HIStory," far less has been said about the music released thus far. That's surprising, given how completely "Scream," Jackson's duet with his sister Janet, goes against expectations. Unlike the singles off his last two albums, which tried either to sound sweet or seem funky, "Scream" comes off angry and impassioned, from the gratingly distorted bass lick that kicks off the single to Michael's burst of profanity at the end. It's a bit of a shock, but an effective one, recalling the danger and intensity of his work on "Thriller." Too bad the single is rounded out with the self-pitying "Childhood," a song that tries a little too hard to evoke the pathos and tenderness of "Ben." Although there are some touching lines in the lyric, the performance is so calculating and overplayed that it recalls Liza Minnelli at her most cloying.
SEX & VIOLINS
Rednex (Battery 46000)
Everybody knows that techno and bluegrass are kissing cousins, right? Wrong. In fact, it's the utter incongruity of the blend that makes the Swedish novelty act Rednex so appealing. The sound of "Sex & Violins" is as tasteful and cartoonish as the cover (which shows the five Rednex floating in an antique chamber pot), playing on the cliches of mountain music the way "The Beverly Hillbillies" played on the image of hillbillies themselves. "Cotton-Eye Joe" is the piece de resistance, a track so infernally catchy that you almost don't notice how screamingly funny it is. But it's hard to imagine any listener taking this stuff seriously -- particularly after hearing the thick Swedish accents in the chorus to "Hittin' the Hay" or the sound effects scattered through "Shooter." And apart from the unexpectedly Abba-esque ballad "Wish You Were Here," the group stays in character so convincingly you'd almost think there really are hillbillies in Scandinavia.
Dokken (Columbia 67075)
One of the most common misconceptions about metal bands is that they're essentially static and unchanging. So a lot of casual fans might think that a new Dokken album would sound pretty much like an old one -- that is, stuck in 1987. Not so. "Dysfunctional" so completely updates the Dokken sound you'd almost think it was a new band. Of course, there aren't too many guitarists who can shred notes the way George Lynch does, and his playing on "Inside Looking Out" or the bluesy, dramatic "Too High to Fly" is nothing short of stunning. But the band's big secret isn't Lynch or even frontman Don Dokken; it's bassist Jeff Pilson and drummer Mick Brown, whose lithe, uncluttered playing provides enough velocity to make the music seem heavy without getting weighed down in old-style metal sludge. As such, "Dysfunctional" offers the best of the band's past while still managing to seem part of the present. Quite a trick.
Marvin Gaye (Motown 314 530 492)
Why, after releasing a four-CD Marvin Gaye boxed set in 1990, would Motown decide to assemble another four-CD set? Because this time, the label was determined to get it right. Unlike "The Marvin Gaye Collection," which rounded off a perfunctory collection of hits with a none-too-interesting assortment of rarities, "The Master" takes a measured tour through Gaye's career. The big hits are here, but so, too, is noteworthy, less familiar fare, such as Gaye's version of "Yesterday" and tracks from the underrated "Here, My Dear" album. Add in the fact that it traces Gaye's career from "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" clear through such later work as "Sexual Healing," and "The Master" should be a part of any soul fan's collection.