And the Winners Are ...

Handing out the trophies for 1997's best albums.

BLUES

Corey Harris
Fish Ain't Bitin'
(Alligator)

The Denver-bred Harris avoids the sophomore jinx by expanding his repertoire (he's penned more originals) and adding instrumentation to a few tracks (two trombones and a tuba give "High Fever Blues" and others a touch of New Orleans). But his bread and butter is still acoustic blues, and he plays it with a devotion that few can match.

Jelly Roll Kings
Off Yonder Wall
(Fat Possum/Capricorn)

The late scribe and blues aficionado Robert Palmer produced this rough-hewn roadhouse raveup. Guitarist/vocalist Big Jack Johnson, drummer Sam Carr and keyboardist/harpist/ vocalist Frank Frost, whose fondness for whiskey provides the theme for "Frank Frost Blues," don't prettify their blues; they crank them out as pungently as possible.

Candye Kane
Diva La Grande
(Antone's/Discovery)

There's a lot of good-time blues albums out there, but few provide as good a time as this one. Kane is an oversized personality--the first song, "You Need a Great Big Woman," wasn't chosen at random--who projects tremendous self-confidence and humor, and co-producer Dave Alvin comes up with music that fits her personality.

Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang
Can't Stop Now
(Delmark)

Shaw gets a greasy sound out of his saxophone that is truer to the blues than a thousand virtuosic but empty licks. And while his vocals initially seem crude, he gets plenty of mileage out of them, particularly on "Greedy Man," an in-your-face anthem that incorporates everything that's important about the Chicago blues.

13
13, Featuring Lester Butler
(Hightone)

This quintet is reminiscent of the J. Geils Band in the very early days--a band dominated by blues-steeped Caucasians crazy 'bout that rockin' boogie. Butler's harp honks mightily, Alex Shultz's guitar shrieks at the appropriate moments, and the rhythm section plows ahead like a tractor running on jet fuel. For 13, too much is just enough.

BOXED SETS

Ray Charles
Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection
(Rhino)

Not everything Charles has made during his long career has been significant; his catalogue from the late Sixties to today is spotty. (Witness the two Beatles covers that kick off the fourth of these five discs.) But his Fifties/early-Sixties work was so extraordinary that it makes this an essential Collection.

Al Green
Anthology
(The Right Stuff/Hi)

The sound quality on these four CDs is not up to the standards of the packaging, and the programming leaves something to be desired. But despite such shortcomings, Anthology succeeds for the simplest of reasons: Green's artistry. The recordings by the Seventies' number-one soul man haven't dated yet, and odds are good they never will.

Charles Mingus
Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1956-1961
(Rhino/Atlantic)

Mingus is one of the towering personalities in twentieth-century American music, and Passions does him justice. The endeavor encompasses five discs of craggy, complex, endlessly fascinating jazz from Mingus and an incredible cast of contributors (most notably Eric Dolphy), an interview disc and a separate book that's actually worth reading.

Steve Reich
Works: 1965-1995
(Nonesuch)

Purists may object to Reich's decision to rerecord many of his classic pieces for this ten-CD retrospective rather than stick with the original versions. But his compositional approach, which set the stage for the minimalists who came after him, ensures that the integrity of the music is protected. And what beautiful music it is.

Sonny Rollins
The Complete Sonny Rollins RCA Victor Recordings
(BMG Classics)

Critics have tended to overlook Rollins's early-Sixties efforts for RCA in favor of his undeniably brilliant Fifties sides because they knock over fewer barriers. But Complete is far from disposable. Its six discs paint a picture of an established master consolidating his position even as he delves further into his art.

Peter Tosh
Honorary Citizen
(Legacy/Columbia)

Tosh lived in the shadow of Bob Marley, and he's far from alone in this regard. But these three CDs show that Tosh was a formidable musician in his own right. On hand are vital Jamaican singles, a potent live opus and a well-considered roundup of album cuts that leave you wondering what heights he would have scaled had his life not been cut short.

Various Artists
Anthology of American Folk Music
(Smithsonian Folkways)

The indigenous music of this country is too varied to fully capture on six discs, but American Folk Music comes closer to doing so than anyone could have expected. Editor Harry Smith and his crew have done an amazing job of choosing songs that epitomize a thousand others--and the discourses and appreciations that come with them are an added bonus.

Various Artists
Cuba: I Am Time
(Blue Jackel)

A thoroughly enchanting overview of a kinetic musical hotbed. In just four discs, I Am Time introduces listeners to an assortment of Cuban folk styles, concluding with a Cuban jazz album that sports turns by players obscure (Los Terry, Orland Valle "Maraca") and well-known (Chico O'Farrill, Gonzalo Rubalcaba).

Various Artists
Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul
(Rhino)

The extravagant packaging of Beg, which comes in a carrying case complete with a latch and handle and includes a pack of trading cards, is so excessive that it threatens to overshadow the music itself. But once you finally get these six CDs into your player, the songs take over.

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