Big names get into the groove for holidays

"Music ... makes the people ... come together," Madonna sings on the title track of her latest CD. Star power certainly helps, too. Madonna, U2, Neil Young, Sade, and Ricky Martin have all released new albums this year. If that doesn't make you want to run to your local record store or log on to your favorite music site, there's also Louis Armstrong, Caribbean music, and a variety of other artists. Did someone say stocking stuffers?

Coldplay - Parachutes

(Nettwerk): As yet largely unknown in the US, this British band recently stormed their home shores with the hit single "Yellow" from this chart-topping album. Vocalist Chris Martin has a voice with a gorgeous range that evokes memories of Jeff Buckley, and the band's individual record collections probably include Radiohead, The Smiths, and Pink Floyd. There's not a lot of levity in songs like "Don't Panic," "Spies," and "Trouble," (the latter featuring a truly sublime piano refrain), but the melodies reveal a promising future in the business of tunesmithery for these young lads. By Stephen Humphries

Los Lobos: El Cancionero - Mas Y Mas: A History of the Band from East L.A.

(Rhino Records): This four-disc box set showcases the career of the most accomplished Mexican-American rock band of all time through 86 expertly cherry-picked selections. They range from pristinely folkloric to the stridently rocking. What emerges is the group's extraordinary awareness of the core principles of rock: a constant fidelity to a massive guitar sound interwoven with a big beat that never quits. By Norman Weinstein

Electric Light Orchestra - Flashback box set; Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble - S.R.V. box set; Louis Armstrong - The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings

(Sony Legacy): Instead of bringing us something new, Sony is using the latest technology to rescue the best of the old. For children and adults, Sony Legacy offers a series of the century's landmark recordings from the past 100 years. The choices are eclectic, ranging from Electric Light Orchestra to Stevie Ray Vaughn, but the "Louis Armstrong" set is one of the year's best. Sony has dubbed this the "Rosetta Stone of Jazz," the ultimate Louis Armstrong collection. The four-CD assemblage of Armstrong's seminal studio sessions between November 1925 and March 1929 is a labor of love that reminds listeners, in the inimitable words of Duke Ellington, that technology, just like jazz "don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing." By Gloria Goodale

Madonna - Music

(Maverick): Madonna gets into the groove once again and proves that she is still the reigning queen of pop. She continues to reinvent herself with every CD and always comes out a winner. On the cover of "Music," Mama Madonna sports a cowgirl hat and a western-style shirt, but the songs have nothing to do with country. Working with producer William Orbit and French newcomer DJ and producer Mirwais, Madonna masterfully twists together funk, electro beats, and fast-tempo songs ("Impressive Instant," "Runaway Lover"). Yet she also shines on the slower-paced songs such as "Don't Tell Me," which has a powerful beat against skillful guitar playing, and the mellow "What It Feels Like for a Girl." Two decades, two kids, and 12 albums later, Madonna still rocks. By Lisa Leigh Parney

Neil Young - Road Rock: Friends & Relatives

(Warner Bros.): Neil Young opens "Road Rock," his live "Music in Head" tour chronicle, by boldly reaffirming his guitar-playing genius with an 18-minute "Cowgirl in the Sand." And that's before the sneaky funk of "Walk On"; Donald "Duck" Dunn's snaky bass on "Tonight's the Night"; sister Astrid's blowsy "Motorcycle Mama"; the epic "Words"; an acoustic, gently wistful "Peace of Mind"; and the previously unreleased "Fool for Your Love." With off-key backing vocals, that's the weakest cut, but Young's imperfect deliveries (and his own wavery voice) remain part of his charm. An also flawed, but still powerful, "All Along the Watchtower" (featuring Chrissie Hynde) makes a fine finale. By Lynne Margolis

Radiohead - Kid A (Capitol): If you prefer listening to conventional music, stop reading here. After two genuinely brilliant albums, "The Bends," and "OK Computer," expectations for Radiohead's "Kid A" were so overwhelming that the band had writer's block. Fortunately they responded to this challenge by pursuing avant-garde experimentation, which has paid off. Fans of David Bowie's ambient "Low" album will embrace the electronic soundscapes of "Kid A," while the guitar-driven "Optimistic" and minimalist orchestral stylings of "How to Disappear Completely" will delight traditional fans. Though the seeds of good songs are too often shaped into stubbornly obtuse arrangements, repeat listenings allow the album's beauty to gradually reveal itself. A tip: Listen to it with the lights off. By Stephen Humphries Ricky Martin - Sound Loaded (Columbia): Get ready to swing, tango, and just move. The follow-up to Martin's 1999 album, "Ricky Martin," which sold 20 million copies worldwide, is filled with danceable, high-energy tunes. The sugary lyrics and catchy rhythms easily transport listeners to a tropical island. "She Bangs" (the first single), "Saint Tropez," and "If You Ever Saw Her," are surefire hits that will get the blood pumping. The slower tunes, such as "Come to Me," and "The Touch," aren't as fun, though. They tend to sound one-dimensional and flat. Martin's better at singing tunes that contain a strong dance beat. But his fans will rejoice and listeners will get the most bang for their buck because it contains 15 songs. It's a party in your car or house. Listen solo or with friends. By Lisa Leigh Parney Sade - Lovers Rock

(Epic): Sade's first new release in years, "Lovers Rock," doesn't quite share the allure of her previous successes. Her sleek voice is as lovely as ever; what's missing is the warmth. This disc sounds like it was made with a little too much digital enhancement - which can squeeze the life out of an artist's work. At the least, it can steal the soul. Sade's smooth-jazz melodies are fine, and her lyrics are thoughtful. It's just that one longs to hear the richness of "The Sweetest Taboo" or "Smooth Operator." By Lynne Margolis

Various Artists: Hot Caribbean Hits

(Victory World): Lively pop music from Trinidad and Tobago has rarely caught the attention of mainstream listeners in the United States as thoroughly as music from Cuba and Jamaica. But this winning collection may change that. Trinidad and Tobago's music consists of far more than generically bland calypso tunes: The dozen artists featured on this rousing collection add reggae, soul, and rock flavors to calypso. Particularly attractive is Sharlene, an 18-year-old with a voice that promises to make her the Aretha of the Caribbean. By Norman Weinstein

U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind

(Interscope): "Pop" - the title of U2's previous album - would have been more appropriate for this CD. On "All That You Can't Leave Behind," the Irishmen eschew the dark moods and wonderful sonic experimentation of their '90s output in favor of commercially accessible tunes kissed with a sunny optimism and the organic sounds of "The Unforgettable Fire" and "The Joshua Tree." The middle of the album sags a little, and Bono's lyrics are often overly simplistic (though the self-conscious irony of yore is thankfully absent). It's an enjoyable album, though, especially when the band's rhythm section and Edge's guitar combine to deliver a Muhammad Ali punch on the catchy "Elevation," the soaring "Kite," and the stunning Lou Reed-tinged "New York." By Stephen Humphries

The Wallflowers - Breach

(Interscope): The subject of Jakob Dylan's quest for recognition on his own terms is officially moot. With "Breach," he proves his band's "Bringing Down the Horse" success was no fluke. This time, Dylan reveals the psychic toll of being the Son of Bob ("Hand Me Down"), but he also addresses universal issues: love, disillusionment, self-doubt - and the fears that accompany each. His imagery ("Some Flowers Bloom Dead," "Mourning Train," "Murder 101") occasionally seems harsh, but these are radio-friendly pop tunes delivered with charm and a slight edge (particularly on "Sleepwalker"), and a voice that's both world-weary and engaging - and way beyond the rasp he could have inherited. By Lynne Margolis

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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