A stocking chock full of musical goodies

Tis the season of music overload. It's that time of year when record stores stock their shelves with a windfall of new albums and boxed sets. Sony takes on 100 years of music, the Grammy set features 40 years of musical gems, and longtime pop musicians Sting, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie deliver winning albums.

Tori Amos - To Venus and Back (Atlantic): What was supposed to be a B-sides record ended up being a double album. And it's thoroughly enjoyable. One of the two CDs is Amos's first live recording, which is culled from last year's tour, "The Choirgirl Hotel." It features popular songs that work well in concert like "Cornflake Girl" and "Little Earthquakes." The other CD is an exceptional studio effort that she recorded for the first time with her road band. Amos once again shows off her musical gifts: Her big melodic range, complex lyrics, and amazing piano playing never disappoint. By Lisa Leigh Parney

Marc Anthony - Marc Anthony (Columbia): Here's a singer who has twice sold out Madison Square Garden and sold more records than any other salsa singer. But in his first album sung in English, the Latin beat somehow got lost in translation. Listeners expecting to hear up-tempo hits like the salsa-tinged "I Need to Know" and "That's Okay" will be sorely disappointed. Most of the tracks are sappy, watered-down love songs and boring ballads. By Lisa Leigh Parney

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David Bowie - Hours... (Virgin): Another fine addition to Bowie's body of work, in which he has more than atoned for losing his focus during the '80s. Bowie's gorgeous voice positively soars on the impassioned "If I'm Dreaming My Life" and the brooding soundscape of "The Dreamers." Meanwhile, longtime guitarist and co-writer Reeves Gabrels remains an effective foil with nonlinear lead lines on the plaintive "Survive" and "What's Really Happening?" The production is unusually lo-fi, and the rhythm section is oddly muted, but repeated listenings reveal lovely subtle textures. By Stephen Humphries

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Looking Forward (Reprise): Ouch. It hurts to say "Looking Forward" is filled with laughably bad lyrics, cloyingly overdone harmonies, anemic production, and almost no relevance - despite the fact that this memorable quartet has tried so hard. Only Neil Young saves this disc from being unlistenable. Though he lifts from his own "Heart of Gold" on "Slowpoke," Young's vocals and plaintive harmonica are better than all the tired harmonies combined, and only his lyrics are truly moving. He should have saved his contributions, including the title tune, for himself. They're wasted among the rest of this tripe. By Lynne Margolis

Dave Matthews Band - Listener Supported (BMG): The Dave Matthews Band's acoustic tapestry continues to delight on its latest two-CD live-album release. It showcases more recent material, and the older favorites never sound the same thanks to the band's instinctual knack for great instrumental improvisation. The highlights are the mix of male and female harmonies on "True Reflections" and "#36," while guest keyboard player Butch Taylor adds some sprightly ivory runs to "Two Step." The mood is evocative of Little Feat, and Bob Dylan is twice represented by stirring covers of "All Along the Watchtower" and "Long Black Veil." By Stephen Humphries

Melissa Etheridge - Breakdown (Island): If Etheridge is living in domestic bliss, it's hard to tell here. She sounds mighty miserable on most of these tunes. "Breakdown," "Angels Would Fall," and "Stronger Than Me" are just three of the grief-filled, lovelorn, or breakup-type songs, though "Angels" is a strong cut. Others are overproduced. But when Eth-eridge reins herself in, as on "How Would I Know," her delivery gains depth. It all works out in the end: "My Lover" and "Sleep" are make-no-mistake odes to her partner. The latter gives this introspective disc a nice finish. By Lynne Margolis

Eurythmics - Peace (Arista): Annie Lennox is clearly the muse to erstwhile songwriting partner Dave Stewart, for he produces his best pop melodies in years on this, their first album in a decade. The opening track "17 Again" concludes with Lennox singing their old hit "Sweet Dreams" over the main melody. It's a great moment. "Lifted" swoops beautifully and "Power to the Meek" bubbles with mirthful energy, while Lennox's frankly astonishing vocal performances and Stewart's guitar just about manage to temper the overly lush production sheen. By Stephen Humphries

Paul McCartney - Run Devil Run (Capitol): The Beatles were among the first to put rock into rockabilly, and with this album, McCartney gets back to where he once belonged. "Honey Hush," "All Shook Up," and other nuggets, plus three new originals, also reveal this widower is able to have fun again. Even the sad ballads, such as "Lonesome Town" and the plaintive "No Other Baby," convey his emotions without getting syrupy. On the rockers, McCartney lets loose, hitting his trademark falsetto wails with ease and proving that some of our heroes are never too old to rock 'n' roll. By Lynne Margolis

Metallica - Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony (Elektra): The inclusion of a symphony orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen in this live double CD career retrospective might suggest Metallica-lite. But the classical players actually add extra horsepower to Metallica's formidable 747 jumbo-jet-engine presence, as string sections and horns chase Kirk Hammett's neoclassical fretboard runs. The thoughtful arrangements allow lovely deft textures and colors to emerge, most notably on "Outlaw Torn," a vibrant "Until It Sleeps," and a particularly majesterial "One." Two new songs, "No Leaf Clover" and "Human," are fine, too. This relatively novice listener was impressed. By Stephen Humphries

Alanis Morissette - MTV Unplugged (Maverick): Not merely content with her reputation for being the queen of angst, Morissette elects to deliver an effective cover version of the Police's "King of Pain" without any sense of irony - despite singing a whole song about it ("Ironic"). No signs of levity here, but the acoustic textures add some jauntiness to "You Learn," while "Joining You" and "Princes Familiar" are strong tunes buoyed by the undulating cadences of her distinctive voice. Some of the more recent songs are amorphous at times, but the closing "Uninvited" packs a punch with its Led Zeppelin-esque Eastern stylings. By Stephen Humphries

Pet Shop Boys - Nightlife (Sire): The Pet Shop Boys' literate brand of technopop has always deftly combined style and substance, with clever lyrics, catchy melodies, and dance-friendly beats. For "Nightlife," the group's sixth album, the Pet Shop Boys continue to present club-worthy numbers, including mini-epics such as "For Your Own Good" and "Closer to Heaven," and the feel- good "New York City Boy," as well as the poignant songs "Boy Strange" and "In Denial." "Happiness Is an Option" (which employs the spoken-word "rap" style that singer Neil Tennant used on "West End Girls," the group's 1986 No. 1 hit) and the coolly hip-swaying "Vampires" rank among the Pet Shop Boys' finest. By Yoshi Kato

Sting - Brand New Day (A&M): Sting shows off his gift for melody on his soothing seventh solo album. Inspired by time spent in Paris, his well-crafted songs range from country and pop to world music and French-language rap. The CD opens with a beautiful love song, "A Thousand Years," and continues with more impressive tracks like "Desert Rose," on which he duets with famed French- Algerian vocalist Cheb Mami, and the pick-me-up song "Brand New Day," featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica. As always, Sting surrounds himself with ultra- talented musicians and comes out on top. By Lisa Leigh Parney

Stone Temple Pilots - No. 4 (Atlantic): Like their grunge contemporaries Nirvana and Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots are schizophrenic: churning grunge one moment, and all sensitive and acoustic the next. On "No. 4," the former is represented by "MC 5" and the surging opening track, "Down." The latter comes in the form of the gorgeous Doors-like "Atlanta" and the vocal harmonies of "Church on Tuesday." This is a solid, if unspectacular, album. It is melodically stronger than its predecessor, "Tiny Music," but it lacks its experimentation, which provided its best moments. By Stephen Humphries

The Ultimate Grammy Box - Various artists (Sony/Legacy): This box of gems distills 40 years of Grammy Award-winners and Recording Academy Hall of Fame members onto four discs. Some indelible hits (and non-hits) are here, from a diverse roster that reaches from Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and Vladimir Horowitz to Gladys Knight, Bruce Springsteen, and Willie Nelson. And therein lies the problem: As great as it is hearing these 73 tunes, the juxtaposition is sometimes jarring. Michael Bolton next to Woody Guthrie - that's just not right. Still, with a little reprogramming on the CD player, the set could be wonderful. By Lynne Margolis

COUNTRY

Brooks & Dunn - Tight Rope (Arista): The new CD provides the vintage country- chrome sound these redneck rockers invented with their well-known hits "Boot Scootin' Boogie" and "My Maria." Rarely venturing from their patented countrified rock sound, all but one song delivers a solid string of music worth cryin' in your milk, or scootin' a boot to. The sore thumb on the CD, John Waite's "Missing You" sticks out like an Easter egg under a Christmas tree. Just as wearing a snorkel in the bathtub doesn't count as deep-sea diving, singing a pop song while wearing a cowboy hat doesn't make it country. But the other 12 songs will make fans of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn joyous. By Skip Thurman

Dixie Chicks - Fly (Monument): The well-received "Fly" continues the cowboy- booted girl-power message. Their unmistakable energy surges through cut after cut, with plenty of wattage for the cowboy or cowgirl listener. The release cements the place of Chicks Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and her sister Martie Seidel as country-music icons. From the first song, "Ready to Run," to "Cowboy Take Me Away," the Chicks create an expansive, can-do landscape where everyone at the square dance gets a spin, and wrongdoers get their comeuppance. By Skip Thurman

Alan Jackson - Under the Influence (Arista/Nashville): When it comes to vintage country, Jackson outdoes himself. This collection is full of songs of country giants past and present including Johnny Paycheck, Hank Williams Jr., and Merle Haggard. "Revenoor Man," sung first by George Jones, is given a wink and a romp by Jackson. Then Jackson goes fabulously retro on "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," made famous in the '70s by the legendary Tom T. Hall. By Skip Thurman

American Milestones Series (Sony): For the extra-special country fan on your list, consider this remastered five-CD set from Sony featuring classics that transcend the genre. Included in the package is Willie Nelson's "Stardust," Johnny Cash's live performance of "At Folsom Prison," Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," Merle Haggard's "Big City," and Marty Robbins's "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs." By Skip Thurman

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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