Various Artists
Def Jam Music Group Inc. 10th Year Anniversary
Def Jam

In the middle of the '80s, Def Jam records opened shop to mine the potential of a rap market that most industry giants lacked the foresight to see. Ten years on, Def Jam is a label with plenty to crow about. Co-founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin deftly maintained rap's street credibility while, at the same time, unleashing its commercial potential by targeting the suburbs; they deserve much of the credit for orchestrating rap and hip-hop's passage from the sidewalks to the corporate suites. Now it's time for the self-satisfied to revel a little.

Def Jam Music Group Inc. 10th Year Anniversary collects 57 of the label's most significant releases (commercially and otherwise) into a handsomely packaged four-CD box set. Wisely, a majority of 10th Year Anniversary focuses on Def Jam's cornerstone acts, a stable of singers that includes hip-hop's first sex symbol, LL Cool J; beer-swilling color-barrier-busters the Beastie Boys; rap's first and greatest militant iconoclasts, Public Enemy; and wily, storytelling jester Slick Rick. The strongest of these artists' tracks -- LL Cool J's "I'm the Type of Guy," the Beasties' "Hold It Now, Hit It," PE's "Rebel Without a Pause" and "Don't Believe the Hype" and EPMD's "Gold Digger," to name a few -- still sound as timeless in their urgency and originality as rock and roll's early classics.

The collection's dozen or so remaining tracks pick up after Def Jam's late '80s/early '90s slump -- a time when Rubin left to form Def American and Simmons spread his influence to television, film and fashion. Unlike the trailblazing early days, the later cuts indicate a Def Jam losing some of its bite, not to mention its prescience: Onyx is New York's tardy answer to West Coast rap-core; Method Man squeezes solo options from Wu-Tang's success; and Domino and Montell Jordan attempt the most obvious of R&B crossovers.

While a chronological approach would have added cohesion, 10th Year Anniversary's random-order arrangement allows for some interesting juxtapositions. Following PE's "Fight the Power" with the Beasties' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" is a minor stroke of sequenced genius. All in all, the set offers more great moments than not-so-great ones. Even more significantly, its overwhelming strengths prove that rap and hip-hop have not only survived, they've grown bigger than anyone dreamed. Hmm, sounds like what the critics were saying about rock back in the late '60s.

-- Roni Sarig

Various Artists
Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits

Here's how this sort of thing happens: some creatively bankrupt little label, in search of an easy buck, corrals a stable of present-day half-hit wonders (their individual sales crippled by their inability to write a memorable song) and turns them loose on the back catalog of an undeniably great songwriter. The hope is that maybe, just maybe, the hip band's sound and the legend's reputation will alchemize into a freak hit.

Since even blind hogs find acorns now and then, there is a smattering of acceptable material here. Alex Chilton turns in a swank, dissolute read of "Downtown," and Dave Alvin can't be faulted for a deferential "Ol' 55." But what really stands out here are the butcher jobs. Archers of Loaf do an ugly mimic/mock of "Big Joe and Phantom 309," and Jeffrey Lee Pierce turns "Pasties and a G-String" into a Beck knockoff, something that, however intriguing an idea it may be, fails to find realization here. Tim Buckley turns "Martha" into an exercise of his own vibrato histrionics, and the Violent Femmes embarrass themselves with hammy overkill on "Step Right Up." Magnapop's smarmy arrogance with "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" brings a tear of vengeful anger to my eye. No kidding. Pale Saints? Frente!? Drugstore? Tindersticks? These bands haven't earned these songs.

It's astonishing that this is being passed off as a tribute to the genius of Waits. If you buy that, I'd like to sell you a can of my crap. You'll like it, I'm an artist.

-- Brad Tyer

Lloyd Cole
Love Story

You can't fault an artist for moving on. It's a band leader's right -- perhaps even his duty -- when he feels things are beginning to sour. Taking that to heart, we won't begrudge Lloyd Cole his decision to disassemble the Commotions, one of last decade's smartest British pop bands -- even though his last few solo efforts have strayed further and further from the facile songwriting that had once made Cole so cherished. Now we have Love Story, and who would have guessed that the thrice-removed Cole would produce some of his best music since, yep, his work with the Commotions?

With Love Story, Cole has settled back into doing what he does best: writing in the neo-beat lyrical style he cultivated as a young post-graduate. Though his writing now is tempered with the graceful maturity that marriage and a child inevitably bring, back are his proper nouns, pop culture references and clever quotes, plus a subtle beauty in even the most basic lines. The music is happy and sad, whimsical and doleful -- never tired and often touching. Perhaps with Love Story, Cole is admitting to his own wrongheadedness for having tried something new. Or maybe he's reconciling a brilliant past with an as yet undefined future.

-- Roni Sarig

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Roni Sarig
Brad Tyer