Jim Farber
August 06, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Would you trust the company that slings your cup of joe to school you in the music of Zimbabwe? Or believe that the maker of smart end tables has the chops to DJ your next soiree?

An increasing number of Americans clearly do. Over the past few years, businesses that yearn to seem cool — Starbucks, Pottery Barn, Eddie Bauer, Sunglass Hut, and the like — have been moonlighting as record labels, putting out their own multi-artist song compilations tailored to an array of sensibilities and moods. They’ve enjoyed enough success to justify a flood of these things.

So why, beyond raw profit, do the companies bother making them? Our heady information age increasingly demands that competitive retailers do more than hawk products. They’ve also got to sell ”lifestyles.” The albums add luster to the franchises, presenting them as multipurpose tastemakers. God knows there’s an escalating need for such guidance in music. The huge numbers of boomers baffled by the crush of alien names in record stores crave advice — especially in the genres stressed on these LPs. Celebrated jazz artists, ethnically significant world musicians, and underappreciated songwriters take up the bulk of the albums; the rest milk pop nostalgia. The tonier discs play especially well with thirty- and fortysomethings who know they’ve spent too many years in an aesthetic adolescence, providing them with a crash course in music for grown-ups. The trend reflects something cynical, too. Fewer listeners these days expect a single artist’s work to rivet their interest, which helps account for the soundtrack and K-tel-style collections that currently eat up approximately 17 percent of the Billboard 200. As various-artists sets go, these boutique albums span the range from lazy to illuminating. Here’s how the latest rate.

PUTUMAYO Putumayo Presents Africa
The store may have started off peddling South American clothing, but its label’s 40 albums trot the globe. The newest collects 11 African artists, stressing acoustic pieces briskly played. A buoyant melody by Afia Mala stands out on one track. Other highlights include the Soul Brothers’ jumpy mpaqanga beats and Oliver Mtukudzi’s erotically gruff vocals. Remember that last guy. Mtukudzi stands as the Otis Redding of Zimbabwe. No wonder Putumayo just issued a whole album by him (Tuku Music) that matches his howling voice to music as cooling as the breeze. Both: B+

STARBUCKS Mile Marker 383
You couldn’t ask for a finer primer on alternative country than this. First, the set lures you in with artists you’ve probably heard of but may not know well: Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch. Then it introduces you to like-minded singers you’ll wonder how you ever lived without: Robbie Fulks, Josh Rouse, Robert Earl Keene. Buy a full album by any one of them, and you won’t regret it. A

POTTERY BARN Summer in the City
Only the most overexposed seasonal anthems got the green light. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ”Summer in the City,” Sly’s ”Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry’s ”In the Summertime,” etc. It’s enough to make you crave the dead of winter. C

OLD NAVY Get Up and Dance
You’d have to be triple-jointed to dance to both the Monkees’ chirpy ”Daydream Believer” and A-Ha’s unsteady ”Take on Me.” In between, this would-be party collection tosses in the usual disco suspects, creating an unimaginative exercise in boomer bait. C

Going loco for Latin music didn’t begin with Ricky Martin. Americans have periodically embraced south-of-the-border sounds, from artists like Desi Arnaz in the ’50s to Gloria Estefan in the ’80s. This set revives some of the ’50s’ best-known Latin lilts by Arnaz, Celia Cruz, Pérez Prado, and Charlie Palmieri. Like the best compilations, this one has taste you can trust. B+

You May Like