By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
In presenting our roster of the year's outstanding recordings, we've made some changes since last year. The art-rock category has been dropped, the boxed-set classification has been doubled to accommodate an avalanche of new arrivals, and the dance section has been altered to allow the inclusion of ambient releases that didn't fit anywhere else. As usual, you could argue that a number of the discs lauded below shouldn't have been placed in certain pigeonholes--and you'd probably be right. But our goal is to highlight as much good stuff as possible. With a hefty ninety titles to peruse, there's plenty of that to go around.
Antietam, rope-a-dope (Homestead). A trio led by the fascinating Tara Key, Antietam makes husky, captivating music that pays little mind to fashion. Songs like "Hands Down" and "Graveyard" are built to last.
Halo Bit, Gravity (Is the Force That Always Drags You Down) (SpinArt). There's no middleman between you and the homemade pop, rock and who knows what else made by this Alex Kemp-led act. Heavenly, catchy and direct.
Meat Puppets, Too High to Die (London). Most bands shoot their creative wads early and deteriorate thereafter. So praise be to the Puppets, whose High is a return to form and a deserved commercial breakthrough.
Soul Coughing, Ruby Vroom (Slash/Warner Bros.). Soul Coughing comes from the same artistic place as Morphine and G. Love and Special Sauce, but its hybrid of jazz, rap and esoterica still provides a bracing jolt.
Ween, Chocolate and Cheese (Elektra). The Ween brothers' previous work was too clever for its own good. Their latest, complete with an Ohio Players-esque cover, is just clever enough. As entertaining as it is weird.
Buddy Guy, Slippin' In (Silvertone). For his latest, Guy dispensed with the special guest stars and crossover repertoire to concentrate on what he does best--play the blues with more feeling than any other man alive. This wails.
Michael Hill's Blues Mob, Bloodlines (Alligator). Hill has found a way to goose up the venerable genre without gutting it entirely. His occasional rock and metal leanings owe their effectiveness to blues power.
Keb' Mo', Keb' Mo' (OKeh/Epic). One of the year's subtlest blues CDs is also one of the best. A songwriter of uncommon skill, Mo' also delivers--we're not kidding--Robert Johnson covers that manage to sound fresh.
James Blood Ulmer, Blues Preacher (DIW/Columbia). Ulmer's playing draws from many traditions, including the blues. By staying within blues boundaries this time, he gains in listenability what he loses in freedom.
Lavelle White, Miss Lavelle (Antone's). Big and burly she's not, but Miss Lavelle is as capable of busting a song wide open as anyone this side of Son Seals. On these twelve songs, her soul comes shining through.
BOXED SETS Louis Armstrong, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934 (Columbia). Armstrong was a cuddly, personable fellow, but he was also a musical revolutionary. Much of the century's best music started here.
The Band, Across the Great Divide (Capitol). An astutely programmed package. Disc one encapsulates the Band's first three must-haves, disc two charts the act's decline and disc three unearths groovy rarities.
Bill Monroe, The Music of Bill Monroe, From 1936 to 1994 (MCA). Monroe's music has influenced four generations of performers, yet it's seldom heard today. These four discs offer a wonderful remedy for that travesty.
Bud Powell, The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (Blue Note). It's too bad that Powell's tragic life gets more attention than his music, because his work remains glorious. Happy bop, sad bop, essential bop.
The Temptations, Emperors of Soul (Motown). Frequently overlooked by music historians, the Temps created indelible hits during two distinct periods of development. From "My Girl" to "Cloud Nine," it's all here.
Various Artists, BLACKBOX--Wax Trax! Records: The First 13 Years (Wax Trax!/ TVT). Wax Trax! has often seemed as concerned with art design as music. This look back effectively exhibits the label's successes and excesses.
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box (Rhino). An exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled study of the music heard on one of rock and roll's quirkiest street corners. Forgotten acts make unforgettable sounds.
Various Artists, From the Vaults: Decca Country Classics, 1934-1973 (MCA). A terrific sampler put out by a leading label in the C&W field. The pure stuff, performed by everyone from the Carter Family to Loretta Lynn.
Various Artists, Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story, 1959-1965 (Abcko). A revelation. Those who think Cooke was only a pop star will be astounded at his writing and production acumen--and by the classic gospel rock he oversaw.
Various Artists, The Sun Records Collection (RCA/Rhino). Three CDs' worth of the rock and roll that made America great. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl, Roy and the rest sound as good today as they did when these songs were cut.