Dwight Yoakam (Reprise 46051)
It used to be that the stylistic boundaries of country music were as well-defined (and hard to change) as the Nashville city limits. That's not the case with the current generation of country stars, though, and few have articulated that change as completely as Dwight Yoakam does on "Gone." It helps, of course, that he covers a lot of ground on the album, moving effortlessly from the Marty Robbins-style Mexican brass of "Sorry You Asked?" to the Sir Douglas stomp of "Gone (That'll Be Me)" to the Patsy Cline lament of "Heart of Stone." But it isn't just his all-encompassing grasp of country's past that makes Yoakam's performance so arresting; it's also the way he finds connections others have missed. "Nothing," for instance, is a perfect fusion of George Jones heartache and Al Green soul, connecting Nashville and Memphis in ways few Tennesseans could have imagined, while "This Much I Know" rocks with enough twang to suggest what might have happened had Bruce Springsteen come up as a country singer. In short, it speaks to the breadth and depth of contemporary country with such passion that it's hard to imagine the listener that wouldn't be swayed by its eloquence. Music from the Motion Picture (Capitol 32438)
Now and Then
Music from the Motion Picture (Columbia 67380)
Whose version of the '70s do you prefer -- the dark, funky sound that powers the soundtrack from "Dead Presidents," or the kitschy, catchy singles that fuel the "Now and Then" movie album? Although the films present two distinctly different ways of looking back at that decade, the contrast isn't quite as black and white as it might first appear. True, "Now and Then" does seem to glory in bubble-gum fluff like the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and the Monkees' "Daydream Believer," but it has its soulful side, too -- including Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," Freda Payne's "Band of Gold" and the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." But at bottom, what "Now and Then" sells is nostalgia, a giddy look back at songs oldsters remember from their youth, while "Dead Presidents" seems more concerned with reminding us of just how valid '70s soul hits remain today. Hearing James Brown's "The Payback," Sly & the Family Stone's "If You Want Me Around" or Isaac Hayes' "The Look of Love," it's easy to hear how those classic tracks have influenced contemporary artists Dr. Dre, DJ Pooh and Warren G -- and hard to ignore how fresh they still seem. Was '70s soul really that far ahead of its time?
Groove Theory (Epic 57421)
Don't let the name mislead you. Sure, the music Groove Theory makes is heavy on rhythm, with most tunes built from the bottom up and placing the emphasis on bass and drums. But the real appeal of "Groove Theory" isn't its insinuating grooves but the songs those grooves support. With Amel Larrieux's warm, husky voice leading the way, Groove Theory has no trouble making the most of its melodies, pumping up the pop content in "Time Flies" and the insinuating "Keep Tryin'," and even finding a hidden vein of funk in Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me." But as much as Larrieux may dominate the mix, she hardly carries the album on her own. In fact, it sometimes seems that the real genius behind Groove Theory is multi-instrumentalist Bryce P. Wilson. He's the one responsible for the hypnotic bass line behind "Tell Me," the carefully modulated drama driving "Ride" and the many layers of ear-catching hooks in "Baby Luv." Regardless of who deserves credit, though, these 14 tunes stand as proof that Groove Theory is not only valid, but an R&B; imperative.
Jon Secada (EMI Latin 35468)
If ever an artist seemed to defy pigeonholing, it's Jon Secada. With his debut album, he came across as a pop singer with Latin roots; then his second release emphasized the soulful side of his sound. Now, as he works the boards on Broadway in "Grease," his latest album, "Amor," presents him as a string-drenched Hispanic ballad singer. Which one is the real Secada? Who knows, and who cares? If what matters most is what comes through the speakers, then the only thing that really matters about "Amor" is how credible Secada sounds, and the answer is "very." Rather than go for the kind of catch-in-his-throat emoting that makes some balladeers so unbelievable, Secada opts for a blend of sweetness and restraint that, at its best, recalls the early work of Johnny Mathis. That's a particularly powerful ploy when dealing with ultra-dramatic tunes like "Castigo" ("Anguish"), but it's just as effective for dealing with the internal narrative of "Entre Cuatro Paredes" ("Between Four Walls"), or the lush grandeur of "Alma Con Alma" ("Soul to Soul"). Singing like this needs no translation.