Last week I wrote about the "attack of the big names" record companies releasing lots of best ofs and live recordings of big name artists who don't have new moneymaking studio discs to toss into the Christmas ring. Well, this week, I've a handful of new entries to that list:

Epic unveils The Very Best of Meatloaf, a two disc set that includes his classic hits "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" and "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth," along side his recent "comeback" hits "Life Is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back" and "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)." Epic also gives us a live album from Pearl Jam. Live on Two Legs includes Pearl Jam's "Corduroy," "Go," "Better Man," "Even Flow," and "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter in a Small Town." And there's a salve for Oasis fans who thirst for a new studio disc. The Masterplan on Epic is a collection of hard-to-find Oasis B-Sides from 1995-1997.

Atlantic offers another live Rush album, which is really a nice package for fans in addition to the two CDs of material recorded largely on the band's last tour (15 songs taken from a June 14, 1997 show at Tinley Park's own World Music Theatre), there is a third disc recorded on the band's 1978 tour at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. There is also a fun interactive computer "light show" program called "Clusterworks" for CD-ROM users which allows the user to trigger kaleidoscopes of colored dots with his or her mouse (there are also on-screen controls to set the speed and curvature of those dotted sprays of light). The first CD (which includes a handful of unlisted bonus tracks) includes old Rush favorites "Limelight," "The Trees," "Closer To The Heart," and "2112" tucked alongside the band's more recent material. The second disc includes "Roll the Bones," "The Spirit of Radio," "Tom Sawyer," and "YYZ," and the third disc, from 1978, includes strenuous workouts from Geddy Lee on "Farewell to Kings," "Fly By Night," "Working Man," and "Cinderella Man."

Also new from Atlantic are a greatest hits set from Skid Row and a live concert from Michael Crawford. 40 Seasons - The Best of Skid Row includes the hard rock band's hits "Youth Gone Wild," "18 and Life," "I Remember You," and "Monkey Business" as well as a couple of previously unreleased demos and live tracks. Crawford's In Concert includes "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Music of the Night," "On Eagle's Wings" and more, taken from his PBS-televised concert.

It's been awhile since anything has been heard from Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, but Virgin has pulled together The OMD Singles, an 18-track collection of the '80s English alternative synch kings best. It also will stand, according to group co-founder Andy McCluskey, who has carried the OMD banner alone in the '90s, as their last release. McCluskey says "after 20 years, it feels like the right time to bring down the curtain. This collection is the perfect way to end it." Included are '80s college chart favorites "Electricity," "Enola Gay," "Tesla Girls," "Souvenir," "Maid of New Orleans," "Locomotion," and their later big U.S. hits, "So In Love," "If You Leave," "(Forever) Live and Die" and "Dreaming." Strangely missing, however, is their 1985 hit "Secret" (one of only five of their singles that charted in the U.S. top 100.)

American Records has released the long-anticipated (by South Park fans, anyway) TV soundtrack Chef Aid: The South Park Album. Included are Primus's "South Park Theme" and "Mephisto and Kevin" along with a bevy of songs from the special "Chef Aid" episode, including Elton John's rockin' "Wake Up Wendy," Rancid's "Brad Logan," Ozzie Osbourne's "Nowhere to Run," and Joe Strummer's "It's A Rockin' World." Chef (Isaac Hayes) does a full version of his "Chocolate Salty Balls" and duets with Meatloaf on "Tonight is Right for Love" (sung for Meredith Baxter Birney) and Cartman spends five minutes murdering Styx's "Come Sail Away."


Short Takes:

Better Than Ezra
How Does Your Garden Grow?

Who would've guessed that Better Than Ezra was more than one-hit alternative rock wonders after its 1995 hit "Good" and subsequent radio indifference to its second LP? Well, its third CD proves, track after track, that this is a band that knows how to write inventive rock and use the studio to best effect. The weirdly tweaked yet soothing vocal textures of the dreamscape opening track, the jazzy funk rock of "Je ne m'en Souviens pas," is a victory of left-field pop, and the U2 influence of "One More Murder" is welcome but not overpowering. Mostly this is a straight-up rock record, with some good bass funk stretches (the hip swayin' "Like It Like That") and warn background vocals on songs like the gorgeous "At the Stars" and "Allison Foley" that bring to mind fellow middle of the road hitmakers Gin Blossoms, Hoodoo Gurus and Del Amitri. Singer-songwriter Kevin Griffin's vocals are instantly magnetic, and the band ably backs him up with riff after evocative riff.


Neil Diamond  
The Movie Album: As Time Goes By

There's something chokingly unctuous about Diamond's musical crucifixion of these 20 movie themes. It's painful to hear him over-emote the key words of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," and the Titanic theme "My Heart Will Go On" (Celine has nothing to worry about here). Recorded with an orchestra apparently arranged especially for elevators, this is a tepid, treacly collection that is insulting to any of Diamond's fans who loved him for his inventive, rockin' late '60s, early '70s output. In addition to the above-mentioned songs, this two-CD set also includes somnambulant renditions of "As Time Goes By," "Secret Love," "Unchained Melody," and a strangely minor-key dirge translation of "Puttin' On the Ritz."

For elevators and shopping mall Musak systems only.


Dee Carstensen  
The Map
(Blue Thumb/GRP)

Dee Carstensen's The Map is one of this year's best country/pop/jazz hybrid albums. The opener, "Be My Man," could have been a hit Sheryl Crow song; it's a touch twangy, a trifle earthy and a lot of bouncy fun. "Pandora's Box" melds piano, violin, guitars and Carstensen's subtle harp playing in a more contemplative mode that echoes Beth Nielsen Chapman's best work. The title track leaves Carstensen's light, evocative voice free to float high, bringing to mind strains of Rickie Lee Jones. The Map also includes backup help from solo artists Jonatha Brooke and Holly Palmer and follows two prior albums that found her paired up with members of the Dire Straits camp. She's obviously got fans in the music industry, now if only radio would play her instantly entrancing songs, she'd no doubt rise fast in the public eye. She'll bring her sometimes hooky, often thoughtful muse to play in Hinsdale (at the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale) on December 4.


First In Line

Light, lilting girl pop from a new Scandinavian singer follows the tradition of The Tuesdays, The Bangles and Lisa Loeb in its combination of poppy chiming guitar choruses and spurts of simple singer-songwriter quietness. This is easy listening pop with a good beat (and the occasional organ solo!) There's absolutely no excuse for the first track and single, "First In Line" not going to No. 1 on VH-1.