The Prize Patrol

The biggest musical winners from 1996.

Emmylou Harris
(Reprise Archives)

Over the years, Harris has been characterized as a great singer but a sketchy solo performer--an unfair knock that's entirely discredited by these three CDs. She comes across as a bright craftswoman with a knack for finding sublime material, a willingness to change direction in order to foster artistic growth, and a respect for country traditions that adds tang to each note she croons.

Curtis Mayfield
People Get Ready!: The Curtis Mayfield Story

Mayfield was an inestimably important figure in the soul movements of the Sixties and Seventies--but when the hits stopped coming, he fell out of the public eye. A tragic 1990 accident left him paralyzed, but it also reminded observers about his unparalleled skills as a singer, writer and producer. At three CDs, People Get Ready is too short. But this flaw aside, it provides an intelligent overview of the man's finest work.

Pere Ubu
Datapanik in the Year Zero

The liner notes that accompany these five discs are among the weakest ever for a major-label box: They seem to have been assembled in ten minutes while the printer impatiently drummed his fingers on the author's desk. But the music made by this aesthetically triumphant cult act is unimpeachable. Ubu leader David Thomas still has plenty of good music left in him; this is the good music he's made so far.

Various Artists
Cowabunga!: The Surf Box

Surf music is all about minimalism--the swinging drama that can be produced using little more than drums, bass and an echoey guitar turned up loud. Cowabunga! lovingly programs hours of the stuff, including early masterworks, mid-period smashes, late-Sixties curios and Nineties forays that demonstrate just how much vitality remains in this musical back alley.

Various Artists
Mean Old World: The Blues From 1940 to 1994
Various Artists
Blues Classics

Although these top-drawer compilations are sold separately, they actually feel like companions. The first draws upon the Smithsonian's collection of recordings: Everyone from Leadbelly to Corey Harris is represented. Classics, meanwhile, dips into the archives of nine separate labels in order to spotlight artists famous (Muddy Waters) and little-known (Cow Cow Davenport, Peetie Wheatstraw). Strong, built to last.


Costello & Nieve
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York
(Warner Bros.)

Ticket buyers who suffered through Elvis Costello's self-indulgent appearance at the Paramount Theatre this year will likely be stunned by this five-EP set of songs cut live during performances in the cities enumerated above. Costello's still a bit too gabby, but when it comes time to sing, he does so with relish, thoroughly reworking much of his vast library with the able assistance of longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve.

Martin Denny
The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny

Stop the presses: Someone has put out a devout, wide-ranging and not-all-that-campy tribute to Denny, the godfather of exotica. Predictably, "Quiet Village" (which reached Billboard's Top 5 in 1959) kicks off this two-CD package and serves as a blueprint for the lush, cheesy, tenaciously individual mini-scores that follow. A swell introduction to another, finer world.

Across the Omniverse

Quietly, often almost invisibly, Either/ Orchestra has made a mountain of fine sounds that originate in the kingdom of jazz but wind up all over the map. So prolific are its members that most of Omniverse is made up of unissued ditties cut during the past decade. But that doesn't mean these leftovers are less savory than the original courses. Far from it: The two CDs are as strong as any that the Orchestra has made.

Rudy Ray Moore
Greatest Hits
(The Right Stuff)

Although many of you Caucasians out there have never heard of Moore, he's been a seminal figure in African-American pop culture for over a generation. But don't listen to this underground-movie star and tale spinner par excellence because his routines anticipated the work of both Richard Pryor and Ice-T. No, listen to him because tracks like "Dolemite" are funny as hell.

Frank Zappa
The Lost Episodes

Rykodisc's obsessive reissuing of the Zappa oeuvre continues to turn up valuable curiosities. The Lost Episodes jams together Zappanalia from a more-than-twenty-year period, much of it revelatory. For instance, "Lost In a Whirlpool" (from the late Fifties) catches Frank and Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, making mayhem that amusingly predicts their respective futures. A nice supplement to your Zappa library.


Various Artists
The ABC's of Soul, Volume 1-3

The ABC imprint didn't exactly challenge Motown for R&B preeminence. Instead, it quietly produced a series of cultivated but often forgotten favorites. Volume 1 (covering the years 1961-1969) is highlighted by the Impressions and Ike & Tina Turner; Volume 2 (1969-1974) brings us Rufus, Bobby Bland and the Dixie Hummingbirds; Volume 3 (1975-1979) brings with it the Dramatics and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

Various Artists
Grace of My Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

These songs, culled from an erratic but unjustly ignored film by director Allison Anders, capture the Brill Building years and their aftermath so well that they work as well as many of their models. "God Give Me Strength," co-written by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, is the best thing here, but Shawn Colvin and two artists with Denver connections (Jill Sobule and Boyd Rice) make effective contributions.

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