The Prize Patrol

The biggest musical winners from 1996.

Strange Cargo
Hinterland
(Discovery)

England-based William Orbit has expanded his scope. Instead of sticking with the tools of the electronic trade, he's cruised into collaborative realms, sprinkling the tunes credited to Strange Cargo with the voices of numerous associates. But what makes Hinterland so indelible is Orbit's sumptuous melodic sense, which serves him well whether his pieces percolate vigorously or drift like a sailboat on a windless day.

Underworld
Second Toughest in the Infants
(Wax Trax!/TVT)

Underworld is an electronic-music rarity--a band that's actually a band. Vocalist Karl Hyde and accomplices Rick Smith and Darren Emerson at times recall New Order in their melding of the synthetic and the more overtly rock-and-roll (e.g., they use guitars). But these guys are hardly impressionists. No, Underworld is a crossover in the making--a combo capable of bringing new converts to an emerging revolution.

BLUES

R.L. Burnside
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey
(Matador)

Recorded on a single afternoon last February, this train crash of a record blends the gruff charisma of Burnside with the smart-alecky techniques favored by the very pale Jon Spencer and his equally translucent Blues Explosion. The combination shouldn't work, but it usually does. The off-the-cuff exuberance of the participants lights an inferno under Burnside, who responds with some of his hottest performances.

W.C. Clark
Texas Soul
(Black Top)

Clark lives in the land where the blues and rhythm and blues bleed into one. His guitar leads scorch and sting like those of the bluesiest riffers, but his light tenor, which alternately recalls Al Green's and Sam Moore's, moves with a sturdy delicacy that would have fit in well at Stax circa the Sixties. Thanks to Clark, the songs on Texas, be they originals or chestnuts, sport a singularly zesty flavor.

Floyd Dixon
Wake Up and Live!
(Alligator)

In the main, Wake Up is dominated by good-time jump blues of the sort that gained popularity during the post-war Forties. Likewise, the material (much of it from pianist/vocalist Dixon's own prolific pen) has some wrinkles in it: You've heard "Hey, Bartender" before, and so have I. But the infectious enthusiasm exhibited by Dixon and a sterling crew of helpers is too dynamic to overlook.

Hoosegow: Queen Esther and Elliott Sharp
Mighty
(Homestead)

An experimental blues album? In 1996? You bet. The psychic link between Sharp and the Queen is almost mystical: He seems to know just what guitar lick will perfectly accent her words and voice. The spare arrangements perfectly suit compositions that touch upon classic blues subject matter in a completely timeless manner. One of 1996's most moving platters. Period.

John Mooney
Against the Wall
(House of Blues)

Yeah, white guys should be able to sing the blues--as long as they do so in a bona fide fashion. That's no problem for Mooney, whose scratchy, wavery, mercurial singing keeps you off guard from "Sacred Ground" (the first song) to "Somebody Been Missing Somebody (2 Long)" (the last). His nasty guitar commentaries and propensity for raw production values only add to the album's impact.

BOXED SETS

Cheap Trick
Sex/America
(Epic/Legacy)

Some folks might consider this selection a guilty pleasure, but not yours truly. During a truly awful period in the history of American music (the late Seventies), Cheap Trick was a shining beacon of hope--and it provided lots of laughs, too. Sex/America supplements melodic hookfests from the quartet's top offerings (In Color and Heaven Tonight) with unreleased items and judiciously chosen latter-day work.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans
The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings
(Columbia)

Davis, a spontaneous, volatile jazz genius, and Evans, a somewhat professorial tinkerer, made for a strange but effective team. Their dissimilarities were offset by a shared love of conceptualism that makes grandiose opuses such as Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain (both heard here in expanded versions) unique in the annals of popular music. Rich, beautiful, soaring.

Galaxie 500
Galaxie 500
(Rykodisc)

For a trio that toiled in obscurity during most of its existence, Galaxie 500 has certainly proven to be influential: Everything that's happened in the lo-fi movement over the past five years is prefigured in these four discs, which pair previously released but out-of-print gems with worthy obscurities. For aficionados, a blessing; for novices, much more.

Dexter Gordon
The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions
(Blue Note)

Everything that Joshua Redman is "creating" today, Gordon was playing more than thirty years ago. This bountiful six-CD treasure trove assembles sessions staged between 1961 and 1965 by a floating squad that at times included Bud Powell and Billy Higgins. Gordon, though, is the undisputed star of Complete. Although he wasn't a Coltrane-like instigator, he made consistently brawny, satisfyingly jazzy art. Dig in.

Merle Haggard
Down Every Road: 1962-1994
(Capitol)

If Haggard hasn't been the orneriest entertainer in country music during the previous forty years, it hasn't been for a lack of trying. But beneath his craggy populism is a poet whose tunes are much more complex than they seem at first blush. He's a man who never learned to keep his mouth shut when he had something to say--and it's this very quality that will keep you returning to Road.

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