The Prize Patrol

The biggest musical winners from 1996.

Me'Shell Ndegeocello
Peace Beyond Passion
(Maverick/Reprise)

Commercially speaking, Peace sank like a stone. But from the standpoint of merit, it was a breakthrough --one that found Ndegeocello fulfilling more promise than anyone had a right to expect. The music has a sweep and rhythmic majesty that's electrifying, while her lyrics unflinchingly explore issues personal and political. A woman whose music rightfully should be coming out of a lot more radios.

RAP

Busta Rhymes
The Coming
(Elektra)

Busta's not the most profound rap philosopher you'll ever come across, nor is he doing something so musically mind-blowing that he'll become a hip-hop legend. What makes him striking is his personality, which is so wild, playful and flat-out fun that he transcends his limitations. Get on his wavelength and you'll soon discover that The Coming is the quickest way to a smile on CD this year.

The Fugees
The Score
(Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Bottom line, The Score is the biggest-selling hip-hop album of the year--bigger than anything by Ice Cube, Snoop, Tupac, etc. But if you think this success means that it's watered-down, you're incorrect. It's not as "hard" or as "street" as gangstas might wish: It won't scare you white folks out there. But its fluent vocals, tempting backing tracks and solid rhymes mark this Score as a winner.

Mobb Deep
Hell on Earth
(RCA/Loud)

Hell isn't exactly your one-stop wisdom shop: In the midst of narrating tales of crime and punishment like "Man Down," Prodigy, Havoc and their guest stars (Nas, Method Man, Raekwon and Big Noyd) spew the usual tired cliches in the usual ways. So why is this album here? Because it sounds better than just about any hip-hop offering I've heard lately. I can't get it off my CD player, so I've decided to stop trying.

The Roots
Illadelph Halflife
(DGC)

Can hip-hop become a "live" music--one in which instrumental ability is as important as it is in rock and roll or funk? The answer to this query is Illadelph Halflife. Through-out the album, the Brother ?uestion and his fellow Roots create sounds from scratch that are every bit as persuasive as any they could have borrowed. Add their obvious knowledge of the form and you've got more than 78 minutes of joy.

A Tribe Called Quest
Beats, Rhymes and Life
(Jive)

Q-Tip, Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammed are still hip-hop champs because they've never worried about changing times. Ignoring the trends, they've refined their jazz-flavored hip-hop, freshening its beats and deepening its messages. And by staying true to their vision, they've survived to see many of their peers coming around to their way of thinking. Tribe takes the high road; hopefully, others will, too.

REGGAE/WORLDBEAT

Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects
Shabeesation
(Rykodisc)

This is less an album than an exercise in global detente. Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects is a Moroccan band whose recordings on Shabeesation bear the fingerprints of Patrick Jabbar El Shaheed, Bill Laswell, Umar Bin Hassan and P-Funk's Bernie Worrell. Such fiddlings might have had a ruinous effect, but for reasons that go beyond understanding, they open up the music to Western ears without gutting it.

Boukan Ginen
Rev An Nou
(Xenophile)

Direct from Haiti, whose native rara music is some of the Caribbean's most danceable, Boukan Ginen is radical without being strident. In other words, it's good for you, but you won't mind. Boukan Ginen's cries for freedom and justice are chanted Afro-beat style, and its effervescent rhythms are punctuated by frequent guitar interjections from the supremely adept Vladimy Jean-Felix.

Mad Professor
Evolution of Dub
(Ras)

Subtitled Black Liberation Dub, Chapter 3, Evolution finds the Mad Professor--who's got to be on anyone's register of top production innovators right now--sprinkling his thrillingly multifarious dub sounds with political themes that ebb and flow like an insistent wind. The Professor is extremely prolific (see the item below), but Evolution shows that his output hasn't been diluted in the process.

Lee "Scratch" Perry
Who Put the Voodoo 'pon Reggae?
(Ras)

Another Mad Professor project, this album finds the Prof matching wits with Perry, a legendary producer from an earlier dub era. The pair have teamed previously, and to good effect--check out Super Ape Inna Jungle and Experryments at the Grass Roots of Dub if you doubt it. But these ten aural journeys are so loose and nutty that they make Voodoo the perfect place to begin.

Prince Alla
Only Love Can Conquer: 1976-1979
(Blood & Fire)

Only the most unreconstructed reggae heads are familiar with Prince Alla, whose music never enjoyed international success. But Only Love, made up of recordings primarily financed by the smallish Freedom Sounds imprint, finds Alla creating roots reggae that's both inviting and profound. His sweet lilt on "Sun Is Shining" is alone worth the price of admission.

REISSUES

Rosie Flores
A Honky Tonky Reprise
(Rounder)

The main body of this disc was released as Rosie Flores in 1987, when Nashville decided to try marketing honest-to-goodness country (as opposed to the more successful phony kind) under the "new traditionalists" banner. The platter never went anywhere, and Flores later took the indie route. But the songs--augmented by six bonus tracks--are so splendid that they make you wonder why k.d. lang wound up being so much bigger.

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