THE GREAT IRONY of Holly Near's career is that as radical and progressive as her politics are, her aesthetics are fundamentally conservative. Her best records have been collaborations with Trapezoid, Ronnie Gilbert, Inti-Illimani and John McCutcheon, who have pushed her to her musical limits. Left to her own devices, she tends to drift into the safest currents of the pop mainstream.

This has never been so obvious as on her new album, "Don't Hold Back," an undisguised attempt to break into pop radio. This is not a challenge to radio formats along the lines of Janet Jackson or Suzanne Vega; this is a record that Helen Reddy or Anne Murray could have made. All 10 songs are nonpolitical, upbeat love songs that traffic in the pop fantasy of true love and good sex without the complications of real life. This sentimentality is reinforced by the sweet jiggly melodies and fluffy, soothing arrangements.

The CD boom has meant a renewal of recording activity for many '60s folk artists. Odetta is the latest old folkie to benefit; her new concert album "Movin' It On" is her first record in a dozen years. Recorded last fall in Wisconsin with just her voice and acoustic guitar, many of Odetta's best-known folk songs have been rearranged into extended medleys. As always, Odetta's enormous voice is quite impressive, if sometimes too refined and formal for the blues and folk songs she sings.

Massachusetts' Rude Girls are not all that rude or daring -- either musically or lyrically. In fact, they are a rather likable all-female country-bluegrass quartet who happen to sing the occasional feminist lyric. Their debut album, "Rude Awakening," was produced by Takoma Park's Cathy Fink in nearby Fairfax, and it boasts some refreshing humor, consistently sparkling playing and some pretty harmony singing.

Only once does the record lapse into sledgehammer rhetoric; the quartet's feminist songs are much more effective when they use the table-turning humor of Lyn Hardy's "Cheatin' Songs" or their reworking of Jimmie Rodgers' "Peach Picking Time in Georgia" into "Chittlin' Cookin' Time in Cheatham County." Better yet are the strong melodic lines of Donna Hebert's fiddle on the band's original instrumentals. HOLLY NEAR --

"Don't Hold Back" (Redwood RR413).


"Movin' It On" (Rose Quartz).


"Rude Awakening" (Flying Fish FF 424).

Near, Odetta the Rude Girls and some 30 other acts appear at the fifth annual Sisterfire Festival at Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro Saturday and Sunday. The Rude Girls also play for the Glen Echo Park dance Friday and at the Birchmere Wednesday.