Each year, I receive an average of between 2,000 and 3,000 CDs or cassettes, and I listen to each of them--for a while, anyway. (I use what I call the Three-Song Rule: If a disc hasn't made a strong impression on me one way or the other by the third tune, it usually goes into the giveaway bin.) Of the original total, I keep approximately 800 recordings per annum, jotting down their titles on a tattered legal pad before schlepping them home. Then, in early December, I pour over my notes in order to determine which long-players should get extra recognition. Many of these choices are easy (I asterisk outstanding efforts on a weekly basis), but others are more difficult. Truth to tell, I can hardly remember some of them--and there are times after relistening to such pieces that I find myself wondering why the hell I liked them so much in the first place. Finally, I place the albums that made the final cut into categories designed to accommodate as many works as possible. Logic plays a part in this task, but to quote Leonard Nimoy, I am not Spock. If there's a choice between wedging a good CD into a moderately inappropriate grouping or leaving it out entirely, I tend to wedge.
I'm sure I've missed some fine records along the way--no one can listen to everything--but my goal is to introduce you and yours to an eclectic array of sounds that are definitely worth hearing. So listen up.
Growing up is hard under any circumstances, but the Boys have managed to do so without growing old in the process. To call Hello Nasty mature would be to overstate the matter: They haven't lost their fondness for screwy references, loony juxtapositions, and shouting through their noses. However, they've found a way to balance such obsessions with good-humored eclecticism that's riskier than it seems at first blush.
The Halo Benders
The Rebels Not In
Doug Martsch, of Built to Spill fame, and Calvin Johnson, who's led Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System, have diverse styles: Martsch sings in a high-pitched, eternally adolescent voice and plays a mean guitar, while Johnson is distinguished by a deadpan bark whose one tone fits all. But because neither is above checking his ego at the door, The Rebels Not In brings out the best in both of them.
Is This Desire?
Bittersweet, heartbreaking, but oddly beautiful, Is This Desire? confirms that Harvey is among the preeminent performers in music today. The disc is neither an uncompromising scorcher like Dry nor a canny revamp such as To Bring You My Love, but an intermingling of the styles that allows her to move in any direction she chooses. Her every step has been mesmerizing thus far, and she shows no sign of stumbling.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
In describing this album, most reviewers will be tempted to spell "stupid" with two "o"'s: Spencer's over-the-top channeling of Elvis, Mick, Lou, and God knows who else is almost cosmically goofy. Still, anyone who isn't offended by the notion of an alterna-disc that's actually entertaining should be able to get behind this trio's bold embrace of the riotous and the ridiculous. Orange, from 1994, is still the Explosion's highest achievement, but Acme is everything Wile E. Coyote could have wanted--and more.
Challenge for a Civilized Society
(Kill Rock Stars)
Musically speaking, the songs of Justin Trosper, Vern Rumsey, and Sara Lund aren't all that different from the ones being performed by any of a thousand indie-rock outfits at this very minute. But the numbers on Challenge for a Civilized Society are generally better than the rest because the musicians steer clear of stereotypes, refuse to settle for the most obvious solutions, and play more from their hearts than from their heads.
Come On In
At times, producer Tom Rothrock and remixer Alec Empire seem to see Burnside less as a blues giant than as a sample of a blues giant: Their crazy programming tends to intrude on the craziness of Burnside himself. But in the end, ol' R.L. is able to shrug off the contributions of these youngsters and make himself heard. And he sounds fine.
Clark's tenor can climb a song's ladder in a microsecond, hitting exalted highs that are beyond the reach of most blues vocalists. He plays the Texas blues, but he's no roadhouse rouser. Instead, he livens up a sometimes dusty rhythm section with sultry saxophones and guitar licks that keep on ticking.
Turn the Heat Up
Yes, that last name is familiar: Shemekia is the daughter of the late Johnny Clyde Copeland. But this nineteen-year-old didn't land a record deal solely on the basis of her parentage. She's got a killer voice, and when she lets it out of its cage, no one is safe. She's at the mercy of her material on Turn the Heat Up, and given its spottiness, that's a pity. But when she lets it rip, even a mediocre
tune can sound superb.
Jones's voice is better than serviceable: He handles all manner of songs with confidence. But what allows Staying Power to stick around is his guitar playing. His notes stream out in a continuous flow that's juicy enough to quench the fiercest thirst. His instrumental acumen makes everything old seem new again.
Joe Louis Walker
Preacher and the President
Following along the path previously trod by Robert Cray, Walker gives his blues an infusion of soul that's sly and slinky. His lyrics are insightful and diverting, his voice doesn't strain for effect, and his guitar solos pour down like silver. Folks with an appetite for gut-bucket stuff won't be satisfied, but less-picky consumers could do far worse than to vote for Preacher and the President.
During the dog days of the '70s and '80s, Gosdin stood in opposition to the Alabamas of the world by singing the truest country songs he could write or find. Nashville's short memory has forced him to take the independent label route, but on The Voice, produced by Barry Beckett, he still sounds sublime. It's great to hear him again.
"Dance the Night Away," this album's first song, starts out with a blast of horns and a Tex-Mex melody that's a warning to expect the unexpected. The rest of the recording delivers on this promise, nervily bounding from style to style. Trampoline doesn't play by the rules, and thank goodness.
Had commercial C&W not degenerated so severely, there would have been no need to invent the term "insurgent country" to describe the music of this frisky Chicago band and its Bloodshot brethren. But since it has, be grateful that groups like this one are keeping the spirit of the genre's founders burning so brightly.
By putting himself in the hands of Daniel Lanois, a producer not known for keeping his distance, Nelson left himself open to complaints from longtime fans who want him to keep making the same record until he's in the grave. Fortunately, he ignored such entreaties. Lanois's swampy settings on Teatro are prominent, but they allow enthusiasts to gain a new perspective on an artist who most probably figured had surprised them for the last time.
A Long Way Home
Dismiss this California cowboy and fledgling actor at your peril. A Long Way Home figuratively finds Yoakam back in Bakersfield with a passel of grade-A compositions that fit his high, lonesome pipes like a pair of those shrink-wrapped leather pants he loves to wear. The disc avoids the pitfalls that claim most '90s hat-wearers by embracing country classicism--and by reveling in twanginess rather than apologizing for it.
The secret weapon of the Korn "Family Values" tour, Punk-Roc is a turntable wildman who's more interesting in blowing people away than in tantalizing them with discreet charm. While a few of the morsels on Chicken Eye don't quite roar out of the speakers, the primest cuts are relentless beatmonsters with a passion for blood. Everybody loves a Punk-Roc party, cuz a Punk-Roc party don't stop.
Dimitri From Paris
Sacrebleu is lounge music with machine-driven beats, cosmopolitan flair, and a cheeky attitude that stops just this side of novelty. Songs such as "Reveries" move at a lazy gait that may foil dancers, but wallflowers will revel in the atmosphere, which twins sophistication and silliness. The perfect soundtrack for the modern Francophile.
When he's under the DJ Spooky umbrella, Paul Miller (who subtitles himself "That Subliminal Kid") isn't bound by the physical laws that govern musical mortals. Riddim Warfare uses hip-hop, DJ stunt work, and classical constructs to break through genre boundaries that lesser artists have been unable to crack. It's not often that an album actually nudges the art of music forward. This one does.
Mix Master Mike
One of the Invisibl Skratch Picklz, Mike popped up on the mainstream radar screen this year via his participation in the Beastie Boys' summertime jaunt, but he's too adept on the wheels of steel to be typecast as a supporting player. Anti-Theft Device is a thrilling melange that sounds like pop culture run amuck: Selected snippets run the gamut from Dr. Evil to Grandmaster Flash. If there's a better turntablist on the scene than Mix Master Mike, let him speak now or hold his peace.
Josh Wink is a dance-world celeb in part because he's able to innovate in an extremely accessible way. He's as adept at subtlety of the sort that accents "Back in Tha' Day" as he is with the edgier moods of "Black Bomb (Jerry in the Bag)," which turns on the guest effusiveness of Trent Reznor. Here Hear is both a fine introduction for scene novices and a veritable banquet for vets.
Fun for the Whole Family
David de Laski, a.k.a. the Lord, is a man who knows his way around a sampler, but what separates him from other knob twisters are his good ideas--like his decision to borrow the dulcet tones of Ken Nordine for "Faces in the Night" and "Fibberty Jib," and his insertion of a clip from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex . . . But Were Afraid to Ask into "Sweet Little Hats." These efforts and others are cool, witty, and alluring.
Ray of Light
The key to successful trend-hopping is to choose a style that's compatible, not contradictory. Madonna's dalliance with electronica, represented here by co-producer William Orbit, follows this formula to perfection. Orbit's sounds lend gravity to her more serious offerings, even as they add bracing beats to dance-floor rave-ups that are more effective than any she's conceived this decade.
Trip-hop pioneers Robert del Naja, Grant Marshall, and Andrew Vowles have been at this game longer than practically anyone, but they continue to sound ahead of their time. Mezzanine is a cogent cluster of tenebrous grooves, otherworldly noises, and bewitching vocals from a cast that includes onetime Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser.
Like the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, the latest from Propellerheads is so unbelievably catchy that it can produce feelings of guilt and suspicion among true electro-believers. I mean, dance music isn't supposed to have this many hooks, is it? But in the end, resistance is futile. The disc functions equally well as pop music and booty motivator.
This little-known Tokyo combo swaddles pop drones in electronic quilts that are warm and comforting. Happy, the first disc here, is a bit more upbeat than Trance Mellow, its well-named companion, but the differences are relative. Sugar Plant whips up aural environments that perform a new-age purpose without succumbing to the genre's trademark banality.
When Monster Magnet lead singer Dave Wyndorf swears that he wasn't joking when he made this record, he's joking--well, kind of. The good times that were had while taking this Powertrip can be heard in every throaty scream, pummeling power chord, and instrumental freak-out on the disc. The metal is heavy, but the musicians' hearts are light.
Rocket From the Crypt
These San Diegans have never hidden their fondness for old-time rock and roll, so the spunky horns and quasi-rockabilly gestures that turn up on RFTC don't come as a shock. But the Rocket-men have never played with more potency and zeal, and each and every song makes it into orbit with fuel to spare.
Season to Risk
Men Are Monkeys
Men Are Monkeys definitely isn't overproduced. In fact, it's barely produced at all--but its serrated sound has everything to do with its effectiveness. Big riffs and brittle drums collide in an occasionally atonal thunderstorm of righteous racket courtesy of a yet-to-be-discovered quartet from Kansas City, Missouri.
Diabolus in Musica
In some ways, the years have caught up with Slayer: Thanks to the legions of imitators it's spawned, the band no longer sounds as indescribably hellish as it once did. But experience has benefited the players, who have learned how to channel their rage into brutally efficient salvos that will leave death-metal aficionados feeling shaken and stirred.
With each passing year, Rob Zombie becomes more of a cartoon--and since he was mighty cartoony in the first place, that's really saying something. Still, Zombie remains a Halloweener for the ages, and he's sharp enough to dress up his bottomless bellowing with industrial-strength pounders that are more treat than trick.
A Book of Human Language
E.M. Hayes Jr., formerly an enrollee in Freestyle Fellowship, is barely on the hip-hop map these days, and that's distressing, because A Book of Human Language is a brilliant piece of work. Jazzy beats a la Native Tongues serve as the backdrop for rap erudition for the ages. This is one Book that will have you riveted until the final chapter.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Conscious hip-hop seemed on the road to extinction a few years back, but young, gifted artists such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli are proving that the movement still has a lot of life in it. Without seeming either preachy or didactic, they offer a convincing argument that what's being said in rap songs matters as much as the sounds that surround them.
Moment of Truth
Guru and DJ Premier make up one of the preeminent partnerships in hip-hop history; the former is blessed with an eloquent flow and a love of knowledge he's not afraid to share, the latter is a pioneering mixologist who's able to stay current without seeming to paddle upstream. Moment of Truth may not be their most towering triumph, but it's yet another smart, solid LP from one Gang that belongs together.
Southern hip-hop doesn't begin and end with the Master P brigade; Dre and Big Boi, known jointly as OutKast, also assemble songs whose beats have Georgia and its neighbors on their minds. But what lifts Aquemini to another level is the twosome's ability to merge the forbidden-fruit aspect of hardcore rap with words of wisdom. The disc brings the old and new schools together under the same roof.
RZA as Bobby Digital
Being prolific can have its drawbacks--just ask Prince. But even though RZA's production blueprint no longer seems as fresh as it once did, due to the innumerable recordings he's overseen, it works well on Bobby Digital, an elaborate blaxploitation epic whose fantastic elements take the edge off the misogyny and anti-intellectualism that mark many of the rhymes.
In Carterian Fashion
Unlike so many young men with horns, Carter actually sounds his age: He doesn't reject tradition, but neither does he seem in thrall to it. Here, he uses the Hammond organ (played alternately by Henry Butler and Craig Taborn) as a way to get some R&B nastiness into his oeuvre. The down-and-dirty moments provide just the right contrast to those sequences in which he concentrates on blowing down the house.
Percussionist Roy Haynes has been around for quite a while, and his formidable sticks are the reason. But what makes Praise even more deserving of same is the vamping of Haynes's brass section--tenor man David Sanchez, alto/soprano expert Kenny Garrett, and flugelhornist/cornetist Graham Haynes. They don't venture out onto too many limbs, but they make the usual jazz vocabulary sing.
Other Dimensions in Music
At least a modicum of structure is evident in all the tracks here, but trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., saxophonist Daniel Carter, bassist William Parker, and drummer Rashid Bakr don't let it get in their way. Rather, they use it as a launching pad for freeform blasts that explode on contact. "Tears for the Boy Wonder," dedicated to "Winston Marsalis," is a discerningly snide bit of skronk, while "For the Glass Tear/After Evening's Orange" heaps invention upon invention for 33 dynamic minutes.
Salim Washington & RBA
Love in Exile
Saxophonist/flutist Washington is a deft instrumentalist and a benevolent bandleader who gives his versatile associates more than their share of moments in the sun, and wisely so: Contributions from players such as pianist Joe Bonner and bassist Artie Moore add immeasurably to the scope of the disc. When it's working, the music is like a deep pool perfect for cliff diving. Jump in.
The Gerald Wilson Orchestra
Theme for Monterey
Wilson, who's been jazzing it up since the '40s, wrote the suite that forms the backbone of this CD as a tribute to the Monterey Jazz Festival on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, and it's a splendid piece--a swinging recapitulation of jazz's orchestral era. His arrangements of "Summertime" and "Anthropology" are equally sweeping: Once a listener takes this musical voyage, he may never want to return.
Keep the Faith
Plenty of baggage could have been loaded upon this disc: It's the first Evans album since the death of the Notorious B.I.G., who was once her husband, and was overseen by Sean "Puffy" Combs, the entrepreneur responsible for turning Biggie-mourning into a growth industry. But Puff Daddy's sole cameo (on "All Night Long") is relatively unobtrusive, and the material concerning loss is softened by the presence of creamy love-and-hope songs that Evans caresses with savvy and subtlety. A Faith worth keeping.
A Rose Is Still a Rose
A diva who's earned the designation (unlike several of the women she sang with on a prima-donna-heavy VH1 special), Franklin has spent most of the '80s and '90s making the most of second-rate tunes. Rose, by contrast, boasts a handful of noteworthy songs (particularly the Lauryn Hill title cut) and production that puts the Queen of Soul in settings that are simultaneously up-to-date and appropriate to a performer of her stature.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Miseducation includes more than its share of hip-hop, but the CD's soulful melodies have made it a format-crossing force. Hill's contributions to the Fugees were thrilling, but her lyrical command and musical intelligence comes through more clearly than ever when she's not having to share the stage. She was already a star; now she's an artist.
The Boy Is Mine
In a year when teenage girls ruled the singles charts like powerhouses in training bras, Monica outdistanced her peers because of a voice with a womanly timbre and material so unbelievably commercial that it prevented cooler heads from prevailing. "The Boy Is Mine," a hit duet with the far less inspiring Brandy, is better than it should have been. "The First Night," another smash, became a just-say-not-now anthem, and the rest of the record suggests that Monica has a shot at sticking around, even after she's old enough to order a mixed drink.
Make it Hot
(The Gold Mine Inc./Eastwest)
Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott is listed as the executive producer of Make it Hot, which appears on her Gold Mine imprint, and she definitely takes a hands-on approach to the project: On "The Time Is Now," the lead cut, she introduces the ostensible star of the show, and she guests on two other numbers. Elsewhere, she uses Nicole's sweet, supple voice like a particularly bright color in her provocative palette. Seductive and irresistible.
The High Llamas
Cold and Bouncy
Sean O'Hagan, who worked with Fatima Mansions leader Cathal Coughlan in an '80s band dubbed Microdisney, is a Van Dyke Parks for the '90s--a performer whose synthesis of pop, lounge, and electronic experimentation is extraordinarily lush and incontrovertibly idiosyncratic. The title of the album sums up the High Llamas nicely: It contains chilly but spellbinding instrumentals with vocal numbers which Brian Wilson would approve.
Into the Sun
Okay, he's a little bit nutty (you would be too, if you'd lived his life), but his instincts are good. Instead of allowing himself to be packaged by major-label dolts, as did his half-brother Julian, he signed with an imprint whose execs let him do his own thing, and who didn't whine when he failed to deliver a guaranteed blockbuster. The lack of pressure should allow Lennon to build on Into the Sun, a modest dollop of whimsy that lingers like the sweetest of daydreams.
Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Produced by the Apples' Robert Schneider and featuring an array of Elephant 6 all-stars, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a little miracle of an album. Singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum has managed to get all of his quirks into an exceptional batch of songs that he delivers with the sort of sincerity that can't be faked. If I was forced to narrow down this list to just one disc, this would be the one I'd pick.
Fixating on Smith's mopiness is easy to do; smiling is not something he seems to do all that often. But XO can't be dismissed as a litany of complaints from someone lucky enough to be on Steven Spielberg's payroll. Although the songwriter's tales read well on the page, they take flight when they're combined with the off-kilter pop that's another of Smith's specialties.
"The Cad," the instrumental that opens this blast of pure pop for now people, is a crazy carnival of sounds that serves as a harbinger of things to come. The other tunes sport overpowering melodies that have been dipped in treble for maximum penetration and lyrics that know when to go pre-verbal. A smart band knows when to ditch the rhymes in favor of la-la-las and na-na-nas--and Ray Wonder is a smart band.
Words and Music
Although Kelly, an Aussie by birth, has been generating literate songs that operate in the zone between rock and folk for two decades, the modesty and understatement that make his lyrics so rewarding have acted as a barrier reef to greater popularity. But he hasn't let this injustice still his voice. The title cut here is a wonderful tribute to the power of song, and that creative energy is plenty evident in the other tunes as well. A talent worth discovering after all these years.
The Northeast Kingdom
Once a member of the Blood Oranges, an acclaimed but sadly underheard indie act, Knight is a performer of uncommon grace whose compositions are deeply rooted in the soil. The Northeast Kingdom is filled with flowers that grow, bloom, and die in an annual pageant whose radiance and sadness is echoed by her gorgeous melodies and clear-eyed fatalism. A recording that will sound wonderful for many seasons to come.
Step Inside This House
Because Lovett is practically unparalleled as a tunesmith, the release of House, a two-disc set filled with compositions by others, initially seems incongruous. But Lovett has become such a strong stylist that he's able to put a personal stamp on tunes written by a distinguished group of strummers headed by Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Walter Hyatt, Vince Bell, and Robert Earl Keen. A man with taste this impeccable should be able to show it off every once in a while.
Hell Among the Yearlings
Welch doesn't have the pedigree of a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, but the comeliness of her music more than compensates for any perceived lineage shortcomings. She hangs her songs on imagery with a timeless feel, then renders it with a purity that pierces the heart. Producer T Bone Burnett mainly stays out of the way, allowing Welch to rise or fall on the strength of her material and her insinuating voice. And rise she does.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Previous efforts by Williams have been estimable, but they hardly prepared listeners for the quality of her latest album. Car Wheels had a troubled production history; it skipped from Steve Earle to Springsteen associate Roy Bittan before Williams was finally satisfied with it. But all that matters in the end are lyrics that are poetic without once trying to be, music that melds country and rock into a uniquely American amalgamation, and singing that's as real as real can be. Roll on.
(Barbarity/Barraka el Farnatshi)
Recorded in Casablanca and featuring a mix of Western and Arabic instruments, Berberism is an endlessly beguiling dip into a forward-looking scene that gets precious little exposure in these parts. What's more, the CD is nearly matched in quality by several other recent releases on the Barbarity imprint: Also highly recommended are Amira Saqati's Al Bharr, Sapho's Digital Sheikha, and Mara & Jalal's Immigri.
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
Angola's Bastos isn't an Afro-beat warrior: His songs are quiet laments and love songs that can be almost impossibly stunning. Producer Arto Lindsay shapes the tunes with care while keeping the spotlight squarely on Bastos, whose voice alternates between a sandpaper croon and a delicate lilt that's like an express ticket to heaven.
Politics and music sometimes make odd bedfellows, but not when Boukman Eksperyans brings them together. This Haitian ensemble makes the occasional misstep, most notably on "Sevelen (No More Excuses for the War)," which uses the schlock landmark "Sukiyaki" as its musical frame. But for the most part, Revolution is rhythmically captivating and spiritually unimpeachable. Unlike someone else we know.
A Cuban outfit that's been around for more than two decades, Sierra Maestra wants only to make dancers sway, spin, and smile, and with their latest, they manage to do just that. The music is bright, the vocalists (there are five of them) are a torrid lot, and the rhythms make sitting still while listening an extremely difficult proposition. Sheer joy on disc.
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
Ze is a veteran performer from Brazil who David Byrne brought to light shortly after founding Luaka Bop--and for this, the no-longer Talking Head should be showered with admiration. On his new album, Ze comes across like a South American Captain Beefheart, assembling a one-of-a-kind sound from apparently incongruous elements. There's nothing wrong with Fabrication Defect: It works on its own terms--as do all the best albums from 1998.