And the Winners Are ...

Handing out the trophies for 1997's best albums.

Wayne Hancock
That's What Daddy Wants
(Ark 21)

Hancock is obsessed with the time a few decades back when country and rock and roll were so similar that few could tell the difference between them--and fewer still cared about such distinctions. That's What Daddy Wants cheerfully refuses to acknowledge anything that's happened in C&W since about 1962, which is precisely why it works.

Robert Earl Keen
Picnic
(Arista Austin)

The knock on Keen has always been that he's more memorable as a songwriter than he is as a performer, and that's probably true: His singing is not as flavorful as one might wish. But in this instance, the pen is mightier than the vocal cord. Keen deals with age-old country topics--love, loss, life--with a profundity that is nothing less than precious.

Old 97's
Too Far to Care
(Elektra)

In the wake of the rapturous press that's greeted Uncle Tupelo and its spinoffs, the majors have gone on a No Depression shopping spree, sometimes to negligible effect. The Old 97's are an exception--four sloppy, bar-friendly guys who write marvelous songs and put them over with the sort of enthusiasm that demands applause.

DANCE

Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole
(Astralwerks)

The critical backlash against the Brothers was predictable: When something gets too popular, certain members of the music-journalism fraternity can't keep their knees from jerking. But if you listen objectively, you'll realize that Dig Your Own Hole deserves its success. It's dynamic and danceable--and that's enough.

Carl Cox
F.A.C.T. 2
(Worldwide Ultimatum/Moonshine)

Cox gets star billing here, but he's actually only one of more than a dozen performers on hand: Also heard from on this two-CD set are Josh Wink, DJ Skull, Cap Project, Fat Boy Slim and more, more, more. They combine to make F.A.C.T. 2 an up-to-the-minute encapsulation of the latest in post-house music.

Empirion
Advanced Technology
(...Wanted/XL Recordings)

Although the Advanced Technology liner lists beats per minute alongside each ditty, even those that scoot along at the highest rate don't seem to be in a hurry. The palette is relatively monochromatic, emphasizing propulsion over atmosphere. But what it lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in sheer punch.

JB3
Close Grind
(NovaMute)

Joey Beltram is one of the grand old DJs of electronic dance music, and Close Grind demonstrates why. His skill at manufacturing beats that immediately cause your feet to start twitching is unparalleled, but he's also able to infuse his works with a listenability that's noticeable even when you're sitting on your behind.

Spring Heel Jack
Busy Curious Thirsty
(Island)

"Drum and bass" has become one of the more overused phrases in dance culture--so much so that even people outside the loop are probably familiar with it. To discover its essence, look no further than Spring Heel Jack, whose latest is as commendable an example of the form as I've yet heard. Evocative, skittish and repetitive without being redundant.

FOLK/SINGER-SONGWRITERS

Ani DiFranco
Living in Clip
(Righteous Babe)

Most of the artists involved with the Lilith Fair are smack dab in the middle of Nowheresville when it comes to musical innovation, but not DiFranco, who is more interested in expressing herself than in imitating Joni Mitchell circa 1972. This two-CD live package catches her at her fervent, emotional peak.

Tony Furtado
Roll My Blues Away
(Rounder)

Now a resident of Boulder, Furtado is a whirling dervish of the banjo--but that doesn't mean he can't pluck the daylights out of other stringed instruments, too. Roll finds him splitting time between his main ax and a slide guitar, and he demonstrates equal facility on both. As charming as it is unique.

Lorena McKennitt
The Book of Secrets
(Warner Bros.)

With Kate Bush in one of her periodic quiet stretches, McKennitt is the next best thing. Not that she sounds anything like Bush: Her methodology is more ethereal, more delicate. But her mysterious, otherworldly fairy tales, rendered in timeless fashion and blessed by her voice, evoke the same sense of drama.

Abra Moore
Strangest Places
(Arista Austin/Bohemia Beat)

Moore, whose album was initially issued by Denver's Bohemia Beat imprint before being picked up by Arista, is the rarest of birds--a singer-songwriter whose songs draw from rock, country and folk but are beholden to none of them. Her numbers are intelligent and spritely, and her singing is versatile enough to go wherever her mood takes her.

R.B. Morris
Take That Ride
(Oh Boy)

It's fitting that Take That Ride appears on Oh Boy, John Prine's label, because Morris projects the same Dylan-as-a-young-wiseacre vibe that his boss once did. With the help of a crack band led by guitarist Kenny Vaughan, Morris puts some juice into the troubador doctrine by dint of his brains and his nerve.

HARD ROCK

Baboon
Secret Robot Control
(Wind-Up)

It took a few years, but most people have finally realized that metal and punk work different sides of the same street. As for Baboon, it careens from one extreme to the other. Mike Rudnick's guitar howls and roars thrillingly, and singer Andrew Huffstetler matches him outburst for outburst.

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