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Far be it from us to contradict Frank Sinatra, but in many ways, it was not a very good year.

Commercial music stagnated to a large degree during the past twelve months. While a few new and exciting artists appeared on the national scene, the majority of freshman pop acts seemed more interested in mimicking old styles than in inaugurating fresh ones. Hence, a lot of the most engaging efforts over this span were turned in by performers who exist on the margins, where the pressure is lower and the rewards are more personal. Here's where the finest of them receive their just deserts.

As was the case in 1994, this year's roster of our favorite recordings is divided into seventeen categories, including an expanded section spotlighting superior boxed sets. The biggest change? The industrial heading has been put on hiatus in favor of a division that highlights ambient and electronic sounds, where some especially intriguing work is being done.

Of course, we didn't hear everything released between January 1 and December 31, and no doubt we missed some excellent discs. Those listed below, then, are the ones that we're particularly pleased to have found.

P.J. Harvey, To Bring You My Love
For once, the disc being touted by the nation's critics as the year's most exceptional actually deserves the praise. Harvey's platters to date have been uniformly enthralling, but Love betters its predecessors because of its broader reach, more intricate production and another notable advance in Polly Jean's artistry.

Tara Key, Ear and Echo
Like Harvey, Key (the voice of Antietam) is a fearless performer who's determined to make creative headway no matter the hazards. Unlike P.J., she's toiled in relative obscurity. Echo, a deceptively impromptu document that still manages to genre-jump with aplomb, argues persuasively for an end to this injustice.

Moonshake, The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow
Recorded last year in England but not released Stateside until last May, Follow nevertheless sounds absolutely of the moment. It's an adventurous blend of pop, jazz, hip-hop and unclassifiable avant-gardisms overseen by vocalist/chief brainiac Dave Callahan, an unsung hero on the modern music scene. This will get you shaking.

The Presidents of the United States of America, The Presidents of the United States of America

In a period when Silverchair (ugh) exemplifies the type of young combos gaining mass acceptance, a 21-gun salute is owed to the Presidents, a threesome that employs peculiar instruments and a distinctive way with a gag in the making of its jubilant, twisted pop. "Lump," "Kitty" and "Peaches" make your radio a much nicer place to visit.

Rocket From the Crypt, Scream, Dracula, Scream!
Instead of aping vintage punk, the Crypt kicks the sound toward the end of the millennium with a gleeful anarchy that makes it all seem novel again. As John Reis, the main man behind these San Diegans' aural assault, writes in the liner notes, "We hope you can relate to our desire to rock and roll. Punk is dead." Rocket, by contrast, is flying higher than ever.

Aphex Twin, ...I Care Because You Do
Richard James, the Twin in question, is an innovator, but an erratic one: In the past, his spacey compositions were as likely to drag as to delight. Care, fortunately, exudes the latter characteristic. James's success at uniting coy, minimalistic figures to leisurely drones and washes makes this headphone music for the latest generation.

The Black Dog, Spanners
These anonymous technicians operate on the accessible side of the electronic universe, sprinkling aberrant beats and blips over tuneful, relatively structured backing tracks. For the novice, a good introduction to the style. For the veteran, an eminently pleasant listening experience.

Eno/Wobble, Spinner
Brian Eno, the grand old man of ambience, and willing accomplice Jah Wobble can still make racket more mesmerizing than plenty of pretenders to the throne. More so than on the more heavily freighted Passengers project, Spinner finds Eno weaving together disparate electronic threads into a seamless tapestry that soothes, energizes and renews.

Mouse on Mars, Iaora Tahiti
Main Mice Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma aren't content to punch a few buttons on their respective machines and call the result art. Their preference? To take sampled sounds--voices, noises, whatever--and insert them into beguiling canvases that are moody yet somehow euphoric.

The Orb, Orbus Terrarum
Some observers feel that the uniqueness of Alex Paterson's recent work has ebbed, but that's not true; it seems familiar merely because it's so frequently simulated. Fortunately, Paterson continues to operate on a very high plane (pun intended), and his sense of humor, exhibited by his choice of sample intro on "Plateau," is a welcome respite in this often giggle-less genre.

Luther Allison, Blue Streak
Allison is an expatriate who's spent more time in France than America of late. But in performance, he comes across as a definitive Chicago shouter far more effective than his middling reputation implies. His guitar tone is stinging, his songwriting sturdy, and his passion bracing.

Carey Bell, Deep Down
As a singer and scribe, Bell is solid but unspectacular. When he pulls out his harmonica, however, he's a marvel--as much of a living treasure as James Cotton and Junior Wells. It's lucky, then, that Bell spends so much of Deep Down with his harp pressed to his lips. His playing carries the disc to another level.

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