And the Winners Are ...

Handing out the trophies for 1997's best albums.

REISSUES

John Coltrane
The Ultimate Blue Train
(Blue Note)

Blue Train, one of saxophonist Coltrane's underrated masterworks, has been given a stellar makeover. With the addition of two alternate takes, a supplementary monograph and intriguing material that can be viewed by computer users, this Train shuttles down the rails under a full head of steam.

Serge Gainsbourg
du jazz dans le ravin
coleur, cafe
comic strip
(Philips/Mercury)

Gainsbourg was among France's biggest stars during the Sixties, but only a few Americans partook of his musical savoir faire. This trio of discs helps make up for lost time. On du jazz, he presents vocal jazz that's as sophisticated as it gets; on coleur, he goes Latin with the likes of "mambo miam miam (mambo yummy)"; and on comic strip, he rocks in a very continental way. Cynics may regard this as camp, but it's actually the ultimate in Franco-cool.

Curtis Mayfield
Superfly: The 25th Anniversary Edition
(Rhino)

There's more to say about Superfly than can fit in this space: A separate article on it will appear in an early January issue of Westword. In the meantime, add it to your music library immediately--you'll be glad you did.

Van Morrison
Veedon Fleece
(Polydor)

Polydor recently put out a slew of Morrison's Seventies platters, nearly all of them superb; you wouldn't want to live without 1972's St. Dominic's Preview or 1974's It's Too Late to Stop Now. But the one I was the most glad to see back was Veedon Fleece, Morrison's stab at eclipsing Astral Weeks, one of the greatest albums ever. He doesn't accomplish that mission, but his struggle to do so is riveting.

Townes Van Zandt
Rear View Mirror
(Sugar Hill)

Van Zandt's recent death robbed country music of one of its most talented, most tragic personages. This live album, cut in 1993 and bequeathed four years later by Sugar Hill, brings the loss home. The original cover states that Van Zandt "continues to tour, playing a night or two in a town, then moving on to the next with just a glance at the rear view mirror." If only that were so.

ROCK/POP

Bis
New Transistor Heroes
(Grand Royal)

Despite their claims to the contrary, Manda Rin, John Disco and Sci-Fi Steven, aka Bis, don't have much of an agenda: As manifestos go, "Young people are swell" isn't likely to start a revolution. But their infectious melodies, ringing guitars, new-wave rhythms and general exuberance cut the legs out from under such complaints. Pure, undistilled fun.

The Devlins
Waiting
(RU/Universal)

Gorgeousness isn't easy to pull off--and if an artist shooting for it misses the mark, his failure can be excruciating. So credit Colin and Peter Devlin (supplemented by Sean Devitt) for creating tunes that take the work of weak-hitting combos like the Rembrandts into new musical and emotional territory.

The Delta 72
The Soul of a New Machine
(Touch and Go)

These four Philly white kids makes soulful rock that would be at home in both a nightclub and a garage. They worship black culture, but they do so without reducing themselves to mimics. Like the members of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, they give vintage rock a jolt of pure punk--and it's all the better for it.

Patti Smith
Peace and Noise
(Arista)

On Gone Again, her 1996 comeback album, Smith was so driven to create a masterpiece that listening to it was a bit of a chore. Because of its comparative humility, Peace and Noise has been less ballyhooed, but I prefer it. Smith has one of rock's most monumental voices, and this time around, her music gives her something to do with it.

The Verve
Urban Hymns
(Virgin)

Forget the controversy over the tune "Bittersweet Symphony," which is currently adding even more money to the bank accounts of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Bottom line, this is a stirring recording that more than stands on its own. The songs are moody but not difficult, hallucinogenic but incisive. If this is the future, I'm looking forward to it.

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