David Bowie (Virgin 40711)
Because the artistic reputation of David Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" -- the three albums he recorded with producer Brian Eno in the late '70s -- has grown so over the years, it's easy to forget how difficult and uncommercial they seemed at the time. So it's entirely possible that "Outside," Bowie's current collaboration with Eno, will eventually seem just as brilliant. Until then, however, the album is likely to be slow going for all but the most adventurous listeners. It isn't just that Bowie's bandmates -- particularly pianist Mike Garson and guitarist Reeves Gabrels -- seem to take "Outside" less as an album title than a statement of aesthetics; Bowie, too, does little to make the music pop-friendly. That's not always a bad thing, as his strained, slightly disjointed delivery adds to the angst and unreality of songs like "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town" and the clanking, desperate "Hallo Spaceboy." But such moments are few and far between on this disc, and it's hard to imagine that too many listeners will want to exert the effort required in figuring out how the spoken-word "segues" tie into the album's alleged theme. There's a difference, after all, between being artistic and merely being obscure.
Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories (Geffen 24734)
Nothing fuels anticipation like early success, and after the start Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories got with "Stay," their chart-topping single from the "Reality Bites" soundtrack, it seems safe to say that a lot of listeners will be expecting greatness from the group's first full album, "Tails." To Loeb's credit, the album comes incredibly close to meeting those expectations. True, it's not like every song is another "Stay," or even that each succeeds on its own terms; some tunes, like the raucous, overwrought "Taffy," definitely seem to have more reach than grasp. But between the easy, conversational cadence of Loeb's melodies and the depth and urgency of her light, girlish voice, it's easy to be swept up in the emotional energies at play in "Hurricane" and "Garden of Delights." And when the balance between words and music becomes as evocative as it is in "When All the Stars Are Falling," it seems clear that "Stay" was not just a lucky accident.
Emmylou Harris (Elektra/Asylum 61854)
When Emmylou Harris first began to work at a fusion between rock and country music, way back when she was singing with Gram Parsons, her greatest strength was the high, lonesome purity of her voice. Who would have imagined, then, that her current attempt at cross-pollination would succeed not through her way with melody but because of what she does with the beat? But it's precisely the propulsive energy of Harris' singing that makes "Wrecking Ball" pack such a wallop. It helps, of course, that Harris is working with producer Daniel Lanois, who replaces the arid twang of Nashville and Texas with a dark, swampy sound that evokes Memphis, Mobile and New Orleans. Still, as much as his studiocraft creates a mood for the music, it's Harris' delivery that ultimately makes the difference, turning the restless rhythms of Appalachian balladry into a bluesy chant for "Deeper Well" and lending an airy urgency to "Where Will I Be" that makes its soaring, bluegrass-schooled melody seem like something out of U2. Add in the wan beauty of her duet with Neil Young on the title tune, and "Wrecking Ball" stands as one of the most remarkable recordings of Harris' career.
AC/DC (EastWest 61780)
Some things never change -- and are the better for it. Take AC/DC, for example. Although it's true that Angus Young is getting a little old to be duck-walking around in his schoolboy shorts, and that Brian Johnson is a little long in the tooth to be howling like a 17-year-old in heat, there's something reassuring about the boogie braggadocio of the AC/DC formula. Particularly when it's presented with as much care as it is on "Ballbreaker." Produced by Rick Rubin, who seems to be making a second career of revitalizing flagging veterans, the album boasts a lean, mean sound that manages to pack all the punch of oldies like "Highway to Hell" while still seeming crisp and current. But it's Young who really delivers the goods, filling tunes like "Hard as a Rock" and "Hail Caesar" with the kind of visceral riffage that bypasses the conscious mind so effectively that your body will be swaying in time long before your brain realizes what's going on. And though songs like "Cover You In Oil" is not going to win the band any friends in the feminist community, the irrepressible charm of the groove is almost enough to make the piggishness of the lyrics forgivable.