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Year-End Close-Out

We've got 1998's best albums in stock, but they're going fast.

Lauryn Hill
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
(Ruffhouse)

Miseducation includes more than its share of hip-hop, but the CD's soulful melodies have made it a format-crossing force. Hill's contributions to the Fugees were thrilling, but her lyrical command and musical intelligence come through more clearly than ever when she's not having to share the stage. She was already a star; now she's an artist.

Monica
The Boy Is Mine
(Arista)

In a year when teenage girls ruled the singles charts like powerhouses in training bras, Monica outdistanced her peers because of a voice with a womanly timbre and songs so unbelievably commercial that it prevented cooler heads from prevailing. "The Boy Is Mine," a hit duet with the far-less-inspiring Brandy, is better than it should have been; "The First Night," another smash, became a just-say-not-now anthem; and the rest of the record suggests that Monica has a shot at sticking around even after she's old enough to order a mixed drink.

Nicole
Make It Hot
(The Gold Mine Inc./Eastwest)

Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott is listed as the executive producer of Make It Hot, which appears on her Gold Mine imprint, and she definitely takes a hands-on approach to the project: On "The Time Is Now," the lead cut, she introduces the ostensible star of the show, and she guests on two other numbers. Elsewhere, Elliott uses Nicole's sweet, supple voice like a particularly bright color in her provocative palette. Seductive and irresistible.

REISSUES
Cheap Trick
Cheap Trick
In Color
Heaven Tonight
(Epic/Legacy)

Cheap Trick delivered these albums in quick succession; just two years separated the first from the third. At the time (the late Seventies), they were largely taken for granted by reviewers, but two decades later, they remain the yardstick by which great power pop must be measured. Supplementing the collections are a dozen extra tracks and spruced-up sound quality that brings the songs into even sharper focus.

Eric B. & Rakim
Paid in Full: The Platinum Edition
(Island)

Rakim, rapper supreme, and Eric B., ruler of the turntable, put out Paid in Full in 1987, but while the album turned on the hip-hop nation, it didn't break through on a mainstream level and eventually drifted into vinyl oblivion. Platinum brings it to the forefront again, pairing it with a bonus remix disc that was made from scratch.

The Kinks
Muswell Hillbillies
(Konk/Velvel)

Velvel is in the midst of reintroducing to the marketplace most of the Kinks' work from the Seventies and Eighties. Too bad that platters such as Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace get lost in their high concepts and more straightforward packages, like Give the People What They Want and State of Confusion, are merely workmanlike in comparison to the band's glorious Sixties masterpieces. Muswell Hillbillies, from 1971, isn't quite as indelible as Something Else and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, either, but it's close enough for government work--a terrific song cycle highlighted by the title track, "Alcohol" and "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues."

The Pretty Things
S.F. Sorrow
(Snapper Music)

One of the "lost" records of the first art-rock era, 1967's S.F. Sorrow may strike today's music lover as a ripoff of Tommy, but that's far from true: It was completed a year before the Who's opus, and Pete Townshend himself has publicly cited it as an inspiration. Indeed, the disc, which was recorded at Abbey Road studio during the same period as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, may very well be the first-ever rock opera--and quite a decent one at that. History passed it by, but the CD revolution has given it one last chance.

Ray Price
The Other Woman
(Koch)

Dating from 1965, The Other Woman is country at its most melodramatic. Price's voice is ripe and emotional, wringing every drop of pathos from songs such as the title cut, an awesomely sexist fantasia in which Price blames his cold-blooded bride for driving him into the arms of a rival ("Most of all, I feel wanted again," he wails). They don't make 'em like this anymore.

ROCK/POP
The High Llamas
Cold and Bouncy
(V2/Alpaca)

Sean O'Hagan, who worked with Fatima Mansions leader Cathal Coughlan in an Eighties band dubbed Microdisney, is a Van Dyke Parks for the Nineties--a performer whose synthesis of pop, lounge and electronic experimentation is extraordinarily lush and incontrovertibly idiosyncratic. The title of the album sums up the High Llamas nicely: It contains chilly but spellbinding instrumentals with vocal numbers of which Brian Wilson would approve.

Sean Lennon
Into the Sun
(Grand Royal)

Okay, he's a little bit nutty (you would be, too, if you'd lived his life), but his instincts are good. Instead of allowing himself to be packaged by major-label dolts like his half-brother, Julian, did, he signed with an imprint whose execs let him do his own thing and who didn't whine when he failed to deliver a guaranteed blockbuster. The lack of pressure should allow Lennon to build on Into the Sun, a modest dollop of whimsy that lingers like the sweetest of daydreams.

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