The Prize Patrol

The biggest musical winners from 1996.

Various Artists
Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver
(Upstart)

A great idea that brings out the best in a who's who of country veterans (like Buck Owens), relative newcomers (Marty Stuart) and rockers with country backgrounds (Bottle Rockets). There's quite a distance between, say, "Truckstop Girl," a Lowell George miniature rendered by Kelly Willis, and "Nitro Express," by Red Simpson and Junior Brown. But somehow the load never shifts. Deluxe, indeed.

Various Artists
The Roots of Rap
(Yazoo)

The notion of amassing early folk, blues and gospel ditties that sport many of the sonic elements utilized by today's hip-hoppers sounds deadly, like an unwatchable PBS special transferred to your home stereo. But Roots is more than a musicologist's delight. While studying songs such as Blind Willie Johnson's "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down" can be intriguing, listening to them is better.

Various Artists
Ultra-Lounge, Volumes 1-12
(Capitol)

Anyone whose appetite has been whetted by The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny, lauded above, will likely find the Ultra-Lounge series to be a veritable bounty of goodness. The tongue-in-cheek art design that dominates the covers and liner notes is a bit noxious, but the music makes up for it. For starters, try Space Capades (Volume 3) and Bachelor Pad Royale (Volume 4). They'll make you greedy for more.

COUNTRY

The Buckets
The Buckets
(Slow River Records)

If you judge your country by the authenticity of the people making it, then you'll hate the Buckets, whose players assume typically wacky monikers (Earl Butter, Wanderlean Taters, Bea Donna Potts). But set aside your preconceptions and you're apt to feel more than kindly toward "I'm Drunk," "I Wrote This Song," "Postmarked, Virginia" and the rest of this warm and sloppy batch of C&W variations.

Steve Earle
I Feel Alright
(Warner Bros.)

After fighting through heroin addiction, jail and a tabloid's worth of personal problems, Earle would have been forgiven had this record seemed subpar by comparison with Guitar Town and its successors. But Alright is much more than all right; it's a deeply personal but never maudlin return from a man who won't be going to his grave until he's good and ready.

Lyle Lovett
The Road to Ensenada
(Curb/MCA)

It's not easy to transcend genre, but Lovett has done it: He may be holding a cowboy hat on the front of Ensenada, but he's as much pop, blues, folk and jazz as he is country. In other words, he draws equally from just about every division of music made in these United States and then makes it his own. He's also as stellar a songwriter as anyone currently among the living. Julia, you made a big mistake.

Willie Nelson
Spirit
(Island)

Just when you figured it was past time to consign Nelson to the nostalgia file, here comes Spirit, in which he demonstrates that he can still beget outstanding music when he puts his mind to it. He refuses to clutter up the mix with superfluous instrumentation or concessions to country radio--a brave strategy that allows him to cut to the bones of a ravishing array of tracks that are as deep as they are pure.

Don Walser
Texas Top Hand
(Watermelon)

In a day and age when most country singers sound like pop musicians who know a steel-guitar player, Walser is the real deal. He comes by his honky-tonk honestly: When he yodels, he does so not because it's commercial, but because he must. His version of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" won't cause you to forget the Sons of the Pioneers forever, but it'll banish them for the length of the song.

DANCE

L.T.J. Bukem
Logical Progression
(FFRR)

Bukem, a remixer of unquestioned ability and international repute, deserves to have his name above the title of this self-described "futuristic drum and bass" assortment. Using as his canvas raveups by the likes of Funky Technicians, Peshay, Chameleon and himself, Bukem swirls together relentlessly magnetic rhythms that will keep your heart, and other parts of your anatomy, pumping.

DJ Shadow
Endtroducing...
(Mo Wax/FFRR)

A superb achievement. DJ Shadow is nothing if not respectful of those who came before him: The notes on Endtroducing... pay tribute to an army of honorees, including "James Brown and his countless disciples" for "inventing modern music." Shadow uses this bottomless store of knowledge in the construction of numbers that transcend their vinyl origins to become modern art of a very high caliber.

Electric Skychurch
Together
(Moonshine Music)

James Lumb, David DeLaski, Alex Spurkel and Roxanne Morganstern are Electric Skychurch, but exactly what each of them does is a mystery; beyond a vocal credit for Morganstern, Together contains no other information. So suffice it to say that whoever did the sampling, programming and arranging here has done it very well. Burps, blips and bleeps that will get your backfield in motion.

Loop Guru
Amrita...all these and the japanese soup warriors
(World Domination)

Here's a curveball. Salman Gita and Jamuud have been working together for a decade, and during that time they've perfected a mode in which they combine ambient washes, prominent drum beats and samples from a wide range of global sources. At times, Amrita recalls the work of Deep Forest, but it's much more varied and generally more provocative. It may not belong here, but it certainly belongs somewhere on this list.

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