In a development that would make Newt Gingrich proud, pop music has downsized itself during the last few years. From homemade, lo-fi underground rock to the subdued R&B grooves of producer Dallas Austin, the music has become subtler not to mention more human than it's been in years. If that sounds like an overstatement, then one need only listen to Janet Jackson's Design of a Decade 1986/1996, Michael Bolton's Greatest Hits 1985-1995, and C+C Music Factory's Ultimate, three new packages tha dramatically demonstrate how we reached a point where playing ''unplugged'' is considered progress.
In the same way that movies became big-budget, cumbersome blockbusters during the past decade, so it had been with pop. Starting with, say, the Flashdance soundtrack and power ballads, and continuing through the confections of Paula Abdul and New Kids on the Block, '80s neon-sign pop brazenly declared itself with air-inflated synthesizers and choruses that made sure you wouldn't forget them for months. Technology began to overwhelm song craft; love songs became pumped-up anthems of conquest or submissive tortured-soul anguish. The music sounded like a videogame accompaniment, perhaps to pull us away from competing diversions like videogames and music videos.
Design of a Decade 1986/1996 the title tells (threatens?) us that A&M will be marketing this major release for at least a year instantly transports you back to the late '80s. Working with producers and collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson reinvented both pop and herself during those 10 years. With its rigid Robo-drummer beats and homogenized blend of computers and vocal harmonies, the music was shocking in its airtight quality. Nearly 10 years and some plastic surgery down the line, those same qualities make hits like ''Miss You Much'' and ''Nasty'' sound suffocating, tinny, and more contradictory than ever: It's even odder now to hear Jackson declaring her young-adult independence while her feathery voice fights to be heard above the melodic din.
At the same time, Design makes a satisfying case for Jackson as the first new-jill swinger. Hearing ''What Have You Done for Me Lately'' or even a bouncier piece like ''Escapade'' again makes you realize what so many R&B acts, men and women alike, owe to Jackson and Jam and Lewis. Even if her teenage voice was flimsier than brother Randy's entire career, and even if at times she appeared to be a producer's plaything, her attitude feisty and take-charge, especially when tackling the vagaries of romance did help elevate the role of women in pop.
Design is fairly seamless, yet its biggest flaw lies in its title. Due to contractual obligations, the album consists almost entirely of songs from Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 and includes only one (''That's the Way Love Goes'') of the five top 10 hits from her 1993 smorgasbord janet. The collection does include two de rigueur new songs, both of which indicate that Jackson, Jam, and Lewis are adapting to the scaled-down musical times. ''Runaway'' is an innocuous trifle that avoids the strenuous overproduction of much of janet., while the plush sheets-music ballad ''Twenty Foreplay'' is over-the-top only in its lyrics: ''Tell me do you want the blindfold/Tell me what you like,'' she coos to her boyfriend. The new songs show how much more confident a singer Jackson has become, even if the latter number finds her still working overtime to show us she's an honest-to-God grown-up.
Speaking of striving too hard, Michael Bolton served an important purpose of his own during his heyday. Straining to confess his unrequited passion to the point where it seems he might burst a blood vessel in his throat, the manly Bolton represented the way some women probably want men to communicate, instead of the way they do like monosyllabic blobs. Bolton was the General Hospital-era Tony Geary of rock.
There's nothing wrong with a man wanting to scream out ''How can we be lovers if we can't be friends?'' or ''How am I supposed to live without you?'' Employing such a theory to explain Bolton's popularity doesn't make it any easier to endure Greatest Hits' 17 musical seizures, though. (Conspicuously absent, by the way, is ''Love Is a Wonderful Thing,'' for which he was sued successfully for plagiarism by the Isley Brothers.) The music huffs and puffs even when it doesn't have to, and Bolton's nuance-impaired groaning remains an acquired taste. In typical overdone Bolton fashion, the album includes five new songs. The best one is his version of the head-of-the-crass power ballad ''I Found Someone,'' the hit he wrote in 1985 for Cher who, in the definition of a backhanded compliment, did the song greater justice.
Starting with '80s hits by the likes of Seduction, producers David Cole and Robert Clivillas took mechanical pop to the dance floor, scoring a handful of hits with their own loose-knit ensemble, C+C Music Factory. In keeping with the nonstop vibe of club music, Ultimate features their hits and almost hits, but each in an extended mix different from the radio edits. Some tracks are reduced to instrumental percussive breakdowns, and the ''deep house mix'' of ''Things That Make You Go Hmmm'' turns the song into one extended tribal beat.
For any other act, remixing old hits can be a disastrous move, but here it works beautifully. The approach lends the album a rare unified feel for a hits package, which in turn bolsters both their strongest songs (1992's ''A Deeper Love,'' their melodic masterpiece) and their weakest (last year's semi-comeback hit ''Do You Wanna Get Funky''). The death of David Cole earlier this year (of complications from spinal meningitis) signals the end of the ensemble, but even before that unfortunate loss, C+C's era already appeared to be waning. After the unrelenting pop of the past decade, perhaps we all simply needed a break. Ultimate: A-