Jazzed-up music reference -- A look at Microsoft's ''Music Central 96,'' ''RockNRom,'' and other digital guides

By Ty Burr
Updated March 08, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Jazzed-up music reference

At a time when the audience for pop has shattered into countless niche markets, a solid music guide is increasingly more than a reference tool: It can be an education. The problem with most guides, though, is space. How can an all-inclusive resource present the panoply of post-Elvis pop without causing information overload or a herniated disk?

You’d think that new media would offer a solution, with their almost unlimited capacity and potential for sonic add-ons. But it depends on which new media you have in mind. A pair of CD-ROMs pile on the stats, while two websites offer more streamlined, intuitive — better — ways of getting to the bottom of the beat.

The Microsoft Music Central 96 disc initially looks like another Bill Gates winner: One disc lets you access info about roughly 60,000 albums, listen to music clips, view videos, even download new reviews every week through the Microsoft Network. But where the company’s Cinemania repackaged reviews from Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, and Roger Ebert, Music Central features criticism from Q, a British magazine that started in the mid-’80s. So you get write-ups of Joni Mitchell’s more recent work but not her ’70s classics. The disc’s 49 video clips are a mixed bag: Nothing wrong with Elvis in ’56, or Marley in ’77, but why feature footage of Clapton in which he doesn’t even play a guitar solo? And too much info is incomplete or sloppily presented: The records Frank Zappa made with his first band fall under three headings — ”Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention”; ”Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention”; and (my favorite) ”Of Invention, Frank Zappa and Mothers.”

Microsoft has made a credible start, though. Another CD-ROM music guide, RockNRom, flails about haplessly from the get-go. Produced by film director Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock), RocknRom has no idea what audience it’s after. The overwhelming database of ”500 million facts” and high price tag point this at the library and professional music markets, while the packaging, instruction manual, and casually written reviews (from Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul) seem aimed at the average music fan. But I doubt any fan — no matter how big his trust fund — would stand for bios that read like stat sheets, a difficult interface, and a thoroughly loony ”Concept Analysis” widget that quantifies Neil Young’s most distinctive songwriting ideas as ”Perforation, Tenacity, Allocution, Condiment.” Condiment?!

Better you should head out to the Web. While there are gazillions of sites devoted to specific artists, not many aspire to be encyclopedic guides in the same sense as the above discs. One that does, with an innovative sense of community, is Firefly (http://www.ffly.com), a site at which subscribers rate records (the service is free, but you have to set up an account and password). Moreover, you can build a personal music-preference profile that suggests other records you might enjoy, or compare notes with fellow music lovers. There are no sound clips, and the chat rooms hit a sour note — you have to press the reload button every time you want to see the latest comments — but Firefly will probably improve with its scheduled March upgrade. It’s like a bunch of happy strangers passing around a music guide and turning each other on to new sounds.

The record reviews and bios in Firefly, taken from the hefty paperback The All-Music Guide, are so well written that you may be tempted to surf over to The All-Music Guide‘s own website (http://thenewage.com). Still under construction, it’s already the most complete multimedia music reference. The search engine is clunky, but the reviews are cogent and fair-minded, and a link to the CDnow! online record store makes impulse buys dangerously easy. Best, each artist is hot-linked to related and influential performers, so you can skip along the surface of pop history like a pebble across a lake. I wandered from British cult band the Blue Nile to avant-rocker John Cale to ambient pioneer Brian Eno to U2 to R.E.M. to country-rock founder Gram Parsons to roots-rock singer Maria McKee to Dusty Springfield to Aretha Franklin and all the way back to R&B powerhouse Big Maybelle. It would be great if the site featured sound clips, too, but why carp? The Guide delivers on the promise of every reference tool: It makes you delirious with knowledge. Microsoft Music Central 96: B- RocknRom: D Firefly: B+ The All-Music Guide: A