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The Prize Patrol

The biggest musical winners from 1996.

Alex Reece
So Far
(Quango)

Reece isn't allergic to pop; "Feel the Sunshine," So Far's opener, takes guest vocalist Deborah Anderson to some very Bjsrky zones. But the reason Reece's music works as well on headphones as it does on the dance floor is its flexibility. He'll venture into ambience, dabble with jazzy fragments, embrace melodies or visit the jungle if it sounds good to him. Which is why it will sound good to you.

FOLK/BLUEGRASS

E.C. Ball With Orna Ball
E.C. Ball With Orna Ball
(Rounder)

The late E.C., who hailed from Rugby, Virginia, was a folk artist in terms of both inclination and methodology; his music was unembroidered because the basic elements from which it was forged were all that he needed. Along with his wife, Orna, he weaves through 25 songs of praise and enlightenment that are as divine as their untainted love for the Lord in heaven above.

Sam Bush
Glamour & Grits
(Sugar Hill)

Man, can Bush play the mandolin; he's such a virtuoso that he's all but redefined the instrument. However, Glamour is more than a showcase for his flying fingers. Bush handles vocals on half of these dozen efforts with a relaxed, unshowy ease that's subtly convincing. But it's when words are placed in the backseat that he truly shines. A first-rate showcase for a first-rate talent.

Ani DiFranco
Dilate
(Righteous Babe)

DiFranco has always been an admirable person: Her rambunctious independence should serve as an inspiration to performers everywhere. But even as she's made a business empire of her own, she's grown as an artist--and for my money, Dilate represents a new peak. Rather than viewing folk as a straitjacket, DiFranco boldly goes where she hasn't gone before, and her musical eclecticism pays huge dividends.

Judith Edelman
Perfect World
(Compass)

Edelman's jaunty yet pristine enunciation finds its perfect mate in the supportive cast gathered by the vocalist and her producer, Bil VornDick. Jerry Douglas, Clive Gregson and Alison Brown make superlative contributions to Edelman compositions like "Why'd You Wait So Long" and "Not Far to Fall" that display an emphatic vigor even when the protagonists are at their lowest.

Gillian Welch
Revival
(Almo Sounds)

In some quarters, Welch has been portrayed as a folk-singer wannabe--the equivalent of a SoCal sorority girl trying to pretend she's from Appalachia. But forget Welch's origins: One listen to Revival should convince those who haven't already convinced themselves to the contrary that she's in touch with the verities that distinguish folk at its finest.

HARD ROCK/METAL/INDUSTRIAL

Biohazard
Mata Leao
(Warner Bros.)

While Rage Against the Machine gets most of the press, Biohazard continues to develop a rap-metal juggernaut that's as smart as it is brutal. Billy Graziadei, Evan Seinfeld and Danny Schuler get studio assistance from producer-to-the-stars Dave Jerden, but if compromises resulted, they're not evident. Loud rhythms, passionate words and three players who know each other inside out. Better music through chemistry.

Godflesh
Songs of Love and Hate
(Earache)

In certain death-metal circles, the heathens of Godflesh are regarded as sellouts because their songs now have accessible structures and a somewhat less extreme coating of noise. But to this observer, the changes haven't rendered Godflesh flaccid; the musicians have sharpened the unit's focus even as they've widened its scope. In other words, Godflesh is getting more dangerous--and in this field, that's a positive development.

KMFDM
Xtort
(Wax Trax!)

These veterans of the industrial wars are still fighting the good fight long after many of their onetime contemporaries have taken government jobs. Supplemented by a large cadre of helpers (including Nicole Blackman, around whom the Golden Palominos' Dead Inside revolves), the boys use dance beats, fuzzy guitars, ecstatic choruses and an apparently inexhaustible store of intensity to rock the house again.

Slayer
Undisputed Attitude
(American)

These guys have never wanted for the personal characteristic ballyhooed in this full-length's title, but they've often fallen short when it comes to good material. This time, though, that's not a problem. An amalgamation of originals and covers from TSOL, Minor Threat and others, Attitude underlines a relationship between punk and metal that was always there, had anyone cared to look.

Society Burning
Entropy Lingua
(Re-construction/Cargo)

This three-piece, made up of Dave Creadeau, Boom Christopher Paige and Tracey, is one of which Trent Reznor would approve: Its merger of brackish synthesizers, feedback-drenched guitars and heavily treated vocals attains a proper balance between melody and cacophony. These cuts, remixed by a slew of luminaries from the industrial underground, travel at twice the speed of anger.

JAZZ

Dave Holland Quartet
Dream of the Elders
(ECM)

Holland, who came of age in several of Miles Davis's lineups, has been making gorgeous albums for years yet has received little acclaim for doing so. His latest has slipped past many observers as well, and that's too bad, because it finds the double-bassist at the height of his composing and performing powers. Kudos to Cassandra Wilson, whose intonations are heard on "Equality," a track that perfectly caps this very pleasant Dream.

Branford Marsalis Trio
The Dark Keys
(Columbia)

When the Marsalis brothers first came on the scene, Branford was regarded as the one least likely to change the world, and understandably so: Anyone willing to play with Sting seemed a bit suspect. But now that he's escaped from the plush prison that was his gig on The Tonight Show, he's letting it all hang out. The Dark Keys is a potent explosion of jazz energy--and Branford's best long-player ever.

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