Pop trends combust spontaneously, or so the hype has it, but pop moods coalesce over time. The mood haunting this season's key albums first emerged on three unlikely hits from 1991: R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Michael Jackson's "In the Closet"-songs so tattered in their faith they treat the pop process itself as potentially corrosive. Fall releases find acts mulling over an even more bitter uncertainty. If Campaign '92 has brought a breath of optimism, you can't hear it by these albums. What you hear instead, from Peter Gabriel to R.E.M., is the sound of dread. Not that fun and funk don't creep into the mix.

"Automatic for the People," the new album by the adventurous folk-rock band _B_R.E.M.,_b_ is a crushed response to crushing times. For the past decade, even on "Losing My Religion," R.E.M. has distinguished itself for its ability to believe, if not in something as corny as rock and roll, then in the even cornier redemptive power of art. "Automatic for the People" feels dour, like earnestness drained of belief. "Try Not to Breathe" is one song title; "Everybody Hurts" is another. "Hey, kids, rock and roll/Nobody tells you where to go," sings a battered Michael Stipe, as if just making the effort to sing the lines constituted some kind of capitulation to rock venality. The album reeks of death. "Listen here my sister and my brother / What would you care if you lost the other?" Stipe asks, a question so tough even faith can't answer it. The band's inertia is haunting, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. R.E.M. has earned its skepticism, but foolhardy enthusiasm usually makes better rock and roll. Better art, too.

A willful enigma with too much talent and too little sense of what to do with it, _B_Prince_b_ has lately been both impressive and disappointing. He's given even the loyal cause for doubt. But believers, take heart: his new album, "Paisley Park," is the opus of Ellingtonian funk we've been waiting for. Prince the minimalist changed the shape of popular music in the mid-'80s and quickly became a bore; "Paisley Park" introduces Prince the maximalist. The album is a soap opera about a seduction, but let's allow him this one harmless indulgence. The real action is in the incredibly malleable music, which modulates effortlessly from funk to swing to rap to balladry without the listener even noticing. "Paisley Park" splashes ideas around like water; by the end of the album, you're soaked with them.

fans like him, all 10 million or so of them, because he dares "to express his feelings ... and his vulnerability"-whereas their husbands just want to watch the ball game. We know this because Bolton said so in The New York Times. On "Timeless (The Classics)," he applies his sensitivity and those jet-engine lungs to 10 unsuspecting soul and pop standards, from Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" to "White Christmas." Finding excuses for interpretive flourishes everywhere, Bolton makes these songs inarguably his own. Take that as both credit and caveat.

a somewhat folkie, somewhat pretentious band from upstate New York, salve their scratched souls with pastoral reverie on "Our Time in Eden," an album of beautiful loss. In the past the Maniacs have settled for singer Natalie Merchant's prim self-righteousness; here they go for rapture. "Never before and never since, I promise, will the whole world be warm as this," she sings, supported throughout by banjo, sitar, accordion, a string quartet and, for two songs, James Brown's horn section. Merchant remains the world's least expressive singer, but her reeling blur suits the theme just fine: her syllables, unmodulated, fly by like leaves. Of course, everyone knows our time in Eden didn't last. Even in rapture, the music reminds us that decay never sleeps.

new "Harvest Moon" arrives as a sequel to his 1972 classic "Harvest." That's a tough act to follow-too tough for this modest, often touching acoustic album, featuring the backup musicians from the original. Even allowing for the genteel affectation of old songs like "A Man Needs a Maid" or the dubious faith of the hit "Heart of Gold," it's still unfair to measure these new songs against the piercing directness of "Old Man" and "The Needle and the Damage Done." Instead we get portraits of friends adrift, an ode to a dead dog, a reminiscence about wandering the road from Hank to Hendrix but not beyond, and an ode to natural beauty and pre-digital sound that could make you want to sabotage a CD plant. And this unguarded wisdom, about the pain of faded love: "The same thing that makes you live can kill you in the end." No one really needs to hear that, perhaps, but the ragged glory of this quiet album is that Young makes you feel it.

A regular on New York's resilient coffeehouse circuit, the folk singer _B_Shawn Colvin_b_ emerged in 1989 with a debut album of eye-opening clarity. In a reedy voice that was all intimation, she sang fragile songs of love and courage that threatened to snap if she bent them too far. Three years later, she's back with "Fat City," a shimmering new album of tempests in an especially likable teapot. "Please, no more therapy," she sings at the outset, as if to laugh off her absence, but throughout these 11 tightly personal songs--except the lone cover, Warren Zevon's "Tenderness on the Block"-she repeatedly seeks and offers protection. Colvin's natural voice is a pure, flutelike breath. She has the winning habit of squeaking a little when she goes for the big effect, then retreating. And she has the even more winning habit of doing this a lot.

took six years to make "Us"; it sounds like it took that lo g t wreckage of his fallen house off his hide. "Us," the follow-up to 1986's "So," exhumes fragments of world music (Scottish bagpipes here, Middle Eastern instrumentation there, a hint of his hit "Sledgehammer" just when you need it) along with pieces of a broken life. Since "So," Gabriel's marriage has broken up and his relationship with the actress Rosanna Arquette has fizzled. As the title suggests, "Us" is about relationships, and it all feels self-consciously too late, the deal done and Gabriel left to chew on the things he might have said. "Come talk to me," he begs in the album's opener, a plea that rings sadly with the recriminations of its own tardiness. The global dexterity of "Us" suggests that we're all connected; the solitude of these hermetic songs suggests that we all die alone.

JOHN LELAND

The _B_Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra_b_ is a band with a mission-to convince Americans that jazz is fine art and should be treated as such. In an acclaimed, 28-city tour this fall, it made that case through the widely varied music of Duke Ellington, arguably America's greatest composer. "We're about establishing value, the canonization of this music," says Rob Gibson, director of Lincoln Center's two-year-old program of concerts, films and seminars that now includes the 16-piece band. That may sound like heavy baggage, but it never weighs down this slick, soulful big band. Wynton Marsalis, the best-known member, is only one of the renowned soloists. Ellington's music hasn't sounded so good since he died in 1974. Now everyone can hear the news: "Portraits by Ellington" is just out, the first in a series of live recordings from Lincoln Center.

says it's "just a straight-ahead trio record." But there's never anything ordinary about this hugely talented young pianist. "World Music" is his fourth release, and he's only 21. His technical gifts are astonishing, but what impresses is the power and emotional richness of his playing. His solos are jampacked with ideas, his thick voicings full of the unexpected. Although he experiments with chimelike, droning effects, the title is something of a misnomer-Keezer is a two-handed player in the tradition of Phineas Newborn, McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson, masters he freely credits as influences. Here he interprets such standards as Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" and Harold Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon," tunes by Thad Jones, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams, as well as three of his own compositions. He can hold his own with the best.