The Prize Patrol

The biggest musical winners from 1996.

French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson
Live, Love, Larf & Loaf
(Shanachie)

Fans who know Richard Thompson only from his days in Fairport Convention, with Linda Thompson or on his own will be caught off-guard by his collaboration with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and John French, who hail from such combos as Henry Cow. "Wings a la Mode," "Drowned Dog Black Night" and "Bird in God's Garden" don't entirely dismiss themselves from rock and folk schools, but they refuse to conform to their rules.

Hampton Grease Band
Music to Eat
(Shotput./Columbia/Legacy)

At one time the second-least-successful release ever on Columbia Records (behind, reportedly, a yoga album), Music to Eat has become a collector's item because it's equal parts hippie-jamming, Zappa/ Beefheart freakouts and plain old insanity. A monster. Those of you who want to further explore the strange psyche of bandleader Col. Bruce Hampton should also search out Strange Voices: A History, 1977-1987, on Landslide.

The O'Jays
Back Stabbers
(Epic/Legacy)

Back Stabbers is more than the record that pushed Philadelphia International Records and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to prominence; it's also an R&B masterwork that hasn't dated one second in over twenty years. "Love Train" is still a bit soppy, but the title cut is brilliant, and "992 Arguments" and "Listen to the Clock on the Wall" aren't far behind.

Merle Travis
Folks Songs of the Hills
(Capitol)

"Sixteen Tons" will be forever associated with Tennessee Ernie Ford, but it was written by Travis, who began popularizing American mythology in music over a half-century ago. This album (which combines the original Folk Songs, released on 78 in 1947, and 1957's Back Home) captures the tunes in all their clarity and reveals Travis to be a storyteller for all time.

ROCK/POP

Bill Kirchen
Have Love, Will Travel
(Black Top)

Don't know a thing about Kirchen, but it's clear from Have Love that he's a man who's done a lot of living. Instead of channeling the pleasures and pains from his past into navel-gazing, however, he does as thousands of rockers have done before him: He rears back and bays at the moon. His singing and playing is Fifties basic, but it's so jocular that it just may restore your faith in music again.

Los Lobos
Colossal Head
(Warner Bros.)

Musicians who do things their own way are often punished for their independence. Such is the case with Los Lobos, which has been receiving less and less support from Warner Bros. with each passing long-player. But don't let corporate neglect dissuade you from experiencing Colossal Head, in which the performers (aided by studio pros Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake) ready their rock and blues for the 21st century.

Sam Phillips
Omnipop (It's Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop)
(Virgin)

In 1988, Sam Phillips, a former contemporary-Christian artist who gave in to her mainstream ambitions, delivered The Indescribable Wow, a practically perfect pop album that she's been trying to match ever since. With Omnipop--produced (as usual) by her significant other, T Bone Burnett--she's finally done it. Great melodies, trippy sounds and Phillips's observational haiku. To borrow a phrase: Wow.

Red House Painters
Songs for a Blue Guitar
(Supreme)

Yes, Mark Kozelek and his Red House Painters come out of their shells to some degree on Blue Guitar. But this is no party disc. Kozelek uses the most rudimentary implements at his disposal to give voice to his fears and disappointments--and inexplicably, the result is simultaneously sulky and life-affirming. Anyone who can make something fascinating out of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" is a force to be reckoned with.

Super Furry Animals
Fuzzy Logic
(Epic)

Oasis has the market covered on one type of post-Beatles pop--the straightforward John Lennon-making-nice rock technique. Fortunately, that leaves a lot of room for Super Furry Animals. The players are into ornate production; the disc's liner lists cello, flute, recorder and balalaika. But this is no grim-faced patience-tester: Fuzzy Logic is loony and spirited, with no boring aftertaste. May I be able to say that more often in 1997.

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