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Music: Records of our time

Music | Some top-selling music proves we are what we listen to

Issue: "Clinton: Under seige," Feb. 6, 1998

Not every album that sold well in 1997 repays close listening or tells us anything important about ourselves. But some big sellers tell us more. The following is a rundown of four that do. Chumbawamba: Tubthumper (Republic/ Universal). Those who take the politics of these card-carrying British anarchists lightly need only peruse their Web site to see that they mean business (so to speak). Yet anarchy has nothing to do with this album's appeal to the capitalist masses. Vocal harmonies, bright horns, and rousing choruses that can be interpreted in many ways or not at all are its real strengths. And although the reference in "Scapegoat" to truth as a " luxury you can't afford to buy" betrays a materialistic bias, its refrain of "There's always someone else for you to blame" implies a healthy impatience with the politics of victimhood. Fleetwood Mac: The Dance (Reprise). In a divorce-mad culture, showbiz reunions function as symbols of hope first and vehicles of entertainment second. That four of Fleetwood Mac's five members were once actual couples only underscores this live album's emotional appeal. But emotion only goes so far. This keeps selling because of the music, most of which consists of 20-year-old hits faithfully played and sung by a middle-aged supergroup with both chops and something to prove. What that something is, however, is anyone's guess. "Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow ... yesterday's gone" provided Bill Clinton with a campaign slogan, but as the exit line on an album devoted to 20-year-old hits, it's a tellingly ironic comment on the seductiveness of nostalgia. The Rolling Stones: Bridges to Babylon (Virgin). Neither treasure nor trash, this latest offering from the World's Oldest Rock-and-Roll Band is enjoyable for four reasons: Keith Richards's three catchy changes of pace, and Mick Jagger's "Saint of Me," in which he ponders Christ, John the Baptist, Paul, Augustine, martyrdom, and miracles before concluding that "you'll never make a saint of me." Whether it's a taunt or a lamentation remains unclear. WOW 1998: The Year's 30 Top Christian Artists and Songs (Sparrow). That there aren't 30 CCM performances worth anthologizing in a given year is true but irrelevant: There aren't 30 performances in any genre worth anthologizing in a given year. In fact, those predisposed to see the glass as half-full might well cite the presence here of Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Newsboys, Jars of Clay, dc Talk, and Jaci Velasquez as proof of CCM's vitality. The problem is that because these performers devote increasingly larger amounts of time to their mainstream constituencies, they're not especially representative of CCM per se. Avalon, 4Him, Carman, et al. are, and like most of their WOW brethren they're more concerned with selling mystery than conveying it. That this album has sold well confirms the accuracy--not the worthiness--of their aim.

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