Design of a Decade: 1986-1996
Janet Jackson (A&M; 31454 0399)
Ever found yourself looking into a familiar face and suddenly see it differently? That's the unexpected effect generated by the wall-to-wall Janet Jackson hits on "Design of a Decade: 1986-1996." We all know these songs, from the growling, bass-driven groove of "Control" to the synth-spiked exoticism of her current hit, "Runaway." Heard individually, as songs on the radio or clips on MTV, they seem slick, catchy, charismatic, a perfect reflection of Jackson's own well-polished persona. Line them up 16 in a row, however, and a different quality emerges. Sure, they still sound great, but as you march along with Jackson's hit parade, what distinguishes each track isn't the singing, however protean and professional it may be, but the production. Whether it's the metal-edged roar of "Black Cat," the cyberfunk stomp of "Rhythm Nation," or the light-industrial crunch of "Nasty," the hand of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis stands out above the singing. They're the real architects behind Jackson's "Design"; without them, it's doubtful she could have built such an impressive career.
Greatest Hits 1985-1995
Michael Bolton (Columbia 67300)
As much as rock critics want to jump on Michael Bolton for his overwrought remakes of soul classics, the truth is that such work amounts to just a small percentage of his work. In fact, only three of the 17 songs on his "Greatest Hits 1985-1995" are R&B; covers, and anybody who'd write him off strictly on the basis of those songs simply isn't listening. That's not to forgive Bolton his excesses; after all, his herniated rip through "When a Man Loves a Woman" seems precisely the sort of thing programmable CD players were designed to avoid. But it is about time the man got credit for his strengths. Few singers handle heartbreak melodrama as well as Bolton does, filling the likes of "Missing You Now" or "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" with enough passion and hurt to make their lyrics hit home, and making even the overstatement of "I Found Someone" seem credible. But Bolton also knows how to use understatement to his advantage, and performances like "A Love So Beautiful" show his mild side to such advantage that even the most critical listeners will find themselves wishing he used that side of his voice more often.
Forgiven, Not Forgotten
The Corrs (Atlantic 92612)
Even though Irish folk music is one of the deepest strains in American popular music, informing more than centuries of ballads and laments, modern listeners tend to relegate fiddle and tin whistle to the realm of jigs and reels. Here's hoping the Corrs help change that. Although this Irish quartet has strong roots in traditional Irish music, they have no trouble incorporating those elements into a thoroughly modern pop sound, and it's that blend of old and new, classic and contemporary, that makes "Forgiven, Not Forgotten" so memorable. Give the Corrs a melody as melancholy as the title tune, and they manage to cut straight to its (broken) heart -- even as they keep the song's insinuating groove front-and-center. There's plenty more pop sense to this album, too, from the vibrant harmonies and reggae-inflected pulse of "The Right Time" to the buoyant, funk-fueled crunch of "Someday." Best of all, all that fits quite comfortably with old-school instrumentals like "The Minstrel Boy" and "Carraroe Jig." Listen, and you're sure not to forget.
A Positive Life (Waveform 85104)
Because it takes such a lean, atmospheric approach to dance music, ambient dub is a deceptively simple discipline. But as A Positive Life makes plain with "Synasthetic," it takes talent to know when, exactly, less becomes more. APL's best tracks display an almost instinctive grasp of the principle, slowly layering textures so the music seems to grow organically, using sound effects to enhance the groove, and always maintaining a sense of melody in the music. True, "Synasthetic" doesn't always deliver on that end -- "The Calling" never quite gathers enough momentum to make its arrangement work, while "Lighten Up" seems mired in sci-fi theme cliches -- but the album's best tracks, like "Warehouse 5am" or "The Calling," create the kind of aural atmosphere that makes movement seem an almost irresistible urge.