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And the Winners Are ...

Handing out the trophies for 1997's best albums.

Readers angry at me for giving negative reviews to their favorite bands regularly accuse me of not liking anything. This charge is amusing in part because each year since 1991, I have assembled a massive roster of recordings that I do like--the largest, most wide-ranging list of its kind that I've seen. Anyone who can read the following and make such a claim likely has undergone a few too many shock-therapy treatments.

Of course, finding good stuff hasn't been easy of late; as practically everyone agrees, 1997 hasn't been a banner year for the music industry financially or creatively. With the collapse of grunge, the imaginative stasis that's afflicting hip-hop, the glut of electronica cash-ins and the absence of compelling new movements, the scene is mired in one of the most dismal down cycles in recent memory. Let's pray that it has hit bottom.

The more than 100 offerings listed below helped pull me through the tough times; they're reminders that stellar work can always be found as long as you're willing to dig for it. I've chosen first-rate discs in seventeen different categories, including an expanded section for boxed sets and "Folk/Singer-Songwriters," perhaps my clumsiest designation yet. As usual, some of the selections don't fit all that snugly in their assigned pigeonholes. My focus wasn't on strict definitions but on celebrating as many estimable CDs as possible. As for the pick of the local crop, it's set to be extolled in our January 1 edition.

If one of your faves doesn't appear below, it may be because I didn't hear it: On occasion, things slip through the cracks. But I've done my damnedest to pay tribute to as many different kinds of music as I could--and to prove that (to paraphrase Sally Field) I like music--I really like it.

ALTERNATIVE

Built to Spill
Perfect From Now On
(Warner Bros.)

The guitar hero is a discredited archetype; in the Nineties the term is practically synonymous with self-indulgence. But Doug Martsch rescues the notion by mating impressionistic soloing with songs that more than earn their keep. Add heartfelt vocals and ingenuous lyrics, and you've got an irrefutable treasure.

The Geraldine Fibbers
Butch
(Virgin)

It's not unusual for iffy albums to be dubbed tours de force; this actually is one. Carla Bozulich imbues as impressive a batch of songs as she's ever written with all the zeal and anger she can muster--and that's plenty. Too real for the radio, Butch is beautiful and ugly and unforgettable.

Sleater-Kinney
Dig Me Out
(Kill Rock Stars)

Everything about Dig Me Out is yesterday's news, with one exception: its quality. Carrie Brownstein and her sonic sisters use the rudiments of played-out genres to beget an album so robust it makes guitar rock, alternative branch, seem full of possibilities again. Would that there had been more albums like it this year.

Spiritualized
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
(Arista/Dedicated)

Jason Spaceman specializes in drug rock--but unlike most of his brethren, who regularly confuse jamming with aimlessness, his trips are worth taking. The twelve tracks here are less idiosyncratic than previous Spiritualized efforts, but they're just as dizzyingly satisfying. Take two songs and call me in the morning.

Mike Watt
Contemplating the Engine Room
(Columbia)

Watt, of Minutemen and fIREHOSE fame, has put together a ridiculously ambitious project: an autobiographical concept piece that attempts to link the military experiences of his father with memories of American punk's glory days. There's no decent reason why it should work, but somehow it does--and wonderfully well.

AMBIENT/ELECTRONIC

Aphex Twin
Richard D. James Album
(Sire/Warp)

Other electronica acts have garnered more mainstream press, but James, the self-styled Twin, doesn't seem to care: He's more interested in coaxing curious noises out of his staggering array of machines than in becoming the flavor of the week. His latest finds him engrossed by his own inventions--and the feeling is contagious.

Death in Vegas
Dead Elvis
(Time Bomb)

Richard Fearless is well named: He takes his Death in Vegas project into every sonic dark alley he can find, but he always comes out unscathed. On "Opium Shuffle," "Amber," "Rematerialised" and the rest, he layers the music with samples that add immeasurably to the slightly seedy mood--and quite often, he hits the jackpot.

Malacoda
Cascade
(World Domination)

With the assistance of producer Ian Caple, Malacoda crafts tracks that move deliberately, but never at the expense of momentum. Synthesized snippets shift in and out of the mix amid percussion that's clever without seeming overly busy. Typical is the title cut, which keeps the frivolity flowing for nearly ten groovy minutes.

Shizuo vs. Shizor
Shizuo vs. Shizor
(Grand Royal/Digital Hardcore)

You could call this dance music if you were so inclined: The beats are fast and furious, and there are a lot of them. In truth, though, it is a willfully abrasive electronic assault that cannot be ignored. Some people are apt to be disturbed by it, but to me, it's the most consequential release to date by the Atari Teenage Riot-owned Digital Hardcore imprint.

Various Artists
Hyper Civilizado: Arto Lindsay Remixes
(Gramavision)

Lindsay's album Mundo Civilizado has been turned upside down by a spectacular cast of turntable jockeys led by the estimable DJ Spooky, whose "Mundo Civilizado Inversion Mix" is a wonder of imaginative studio tinkering. It's the rare remix album that surpasses the original.

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.

John Zorn
The Parachute Years: 1977-1980
(Tzadik)

Zorn has never pretended to make music for everyone: He is determined to explore the realm of sounds in a way that interests him, and if others want to listen in, they can. The Parachute Years provides the perfect opportunity to do so via seven CDs overflowing with the freest of free jazz and accompanied by oddball notes and doodlings by Zorn himself.

COLLECTIONS

King Crimson
Epitaph
(Discipline Global Mobile)

Art rock is easy to ridicule, but it can be enthralling when it's done well--and Epitaph is. These two CDs of live material from 1969 aren't jam-packed with surprises: The three versions of "21st Century Schizoid Man" differ in length by less than thirty seconds. But Robert Fripp and the other musicians are in optimum condition, frequently transcending the studio versions from In the Court of the Crimson King.

Magic Sam
The Magic Sam Legacy
(Delmark)

The late Magic Sam didn't make as much music as blues lovers would have liked, but much of what he left behind is sublime. Legacy showcases thirteen previously unreleased songs made with lineups elevated by the striking tenor work of the aforementioned Eddie Shaw. It's magic indeed.

Lee Perry
Upsetter in Dub
(Heartbeat)

Arkology, a Perry boxed set on Island, has not wanted for attention this year. But Upsetter is actually a worthier effort--more than an hour of prime dub culled mainly from B-sides that haven't been widely heard since the Seventies. A perilous journey on the Black Ark with an inspired madman at the wheel.

The Residents
Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses
(Rykodisc)

Operating on the most frayed fringes of the entertainment industry, the eyeball-headed Residents have been around for a quarter-century--and they're still weirder than hell. The two-disc Masses, which draws intelligently from the combo's startlingly scattershot oeuvre, is an ideal way to get to know them.

Charlie Rich
Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich
(Epic/Legacy)

Rich was several different performers: a country singer, a jazz man, a rock-and-roller, a rebel (after presenting a Country Music Association award to John Denver in 1975, Rich burned the envelope it came in). These Charlies and more are trotted out over the course of Essential, a bargain-priced two-CD overview that does the Silver Fox proud.

COMPILATIONS

Various Artists
Chess Blues Classics: 1947-1956
Chess Blues Classics: 1957-1967
(MCA/Chess)

The Chess vault is crammed to the ceiling with must-have blues. But for people who want to get a taste of its abundance before sitting down to a full meal, Chess Blues Classics provides a way to do it. Once you hear a little Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and Little Walter, you'll be hungry for more.

Various Artists
Kurtis Blow Presents the History of Rap, Vol. 1-3
(Rhino)

Blow, whose song "The Breaks" helped bring hip-hop into the light, doesn't have his name on these albums for show: He produced History and wrote ebullient essays about the music on them. The first volume touches on rap precursors such as James Brown and the Isley Brothers; the second takes you back to the old school with Grand Master Flash and the Treacherous Three; and the third traces the Eighties with the help of Whodini, Run DMC and UTFO. The Nineties are next, Kurtis.

Various Artists
Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '70s
Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '80s
Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '90s
(Rhino)

Here is what the Beatles wrought: sing-along songs with dreamy lyrics, heart-swelling harmonies and chiming guitars. Pop boosters may gripe about some of the programming, especially on the Nineties segment, but hairs needn't be split. Overall, the discs are so sunny and appealing that disliking them is impossible.

Various Artists
Pink Flamingos: Original Soundtrack
(Hip-O)

You don't have to be a fan of director John Waters's notorious low-budget shocker to prize its soundtrack, issued to commemorate the film's 25th anniversary. If nothing else, Waters has gathered an outstanding bunch of oldies, including hits that were ("Surfin' Bird," by the Trashmen, "The Girl Can't Help It," by Little Richard) and hits that should have been ("The Swag," by Link Wray & His Ray Men, "Chicken Grabber," by Nite Hawks).

Various Artists
Southern Journey, Vol. 1-6
(Rounder)

We know as much as we do about America's musical heritage thanks to Alan Lomax, who was dedicated to recording the songs of just plain folks before they faded away. These six CDs are merely the first salvo in a full-scale campaign to bring Lomax's archaeology back into print. A history lesson you'll enjoy taking.

COUNTRY
Steve Earle
El Corazon
(Warner Bros.)

Earle didn't need drink and drugs to feed his muse; sobriety hasn't hurt him in the slightest. His music is more deeply felt than ever before, and his lyrics are audacious whether he's singing about current events or his beloved. If there was a finer album issued in 1997, I wasn't fortunate enough to hear it.

Robbie Fulks
South Mouth
(Bloodshot)

It's easy to tell the difference between insurgent country and the kind that hails from Nashville: One sounds a lot more like the genuine item than the other. Fulks errs on the side of authenticity; his songs operate by the rules of the genre set down by the hillbillies of yore, and God bless him for it. I'm sure Hank did it this way.

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.

Helmet
Aftertaste
(Interscope)

Page Hamilton's singing is more prominent on Aftertaste than on previous Helmet barrages, which is not necessarily desirable: It makes the band seem more normal, somehow. But listen long enough and you'll find that the foursome has not mellowed with age. Smart, but not at the expense of intensity.

L7
The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum
(Slash/Reprise)

The prediction contained within this CD's moniker didn't come true: Its sales were numbered in the thousands, not the millions. But that's hardly the fault of Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner and Dee Plakas, who sliced through band tension to make their loudest, catchiest long-player yet.

The Newlydeads
The Newlydeads
(Mutiny)

The tag team of Taime Downe and Kyle K come up with a metal/industrial marriage that isn't far removed from the world according to Marilyn Manson. But The Newlydeads has a glam edge that Marilyn has returned to the closet, as well as superior songs. If you need a dose of evil, belly up to the bar.

Shipping News
Save Everything
(Quarterstick)

Music doesn't have to be fast to be heavy. Shipping News, a conglomeration of feedback-loving rebels from the hills of Kentucky, seldom pushes its tempos beyond a lope, but the force of its bass-guitar-drums foundation is felt nonetheless. If you've heard the News, you know there's good rockin' tonight.

HIP-HOP

DJ Cam
Mad Blunted Jazz
(Shadow)

Cam takes the DJ Shadow approach, utilizing the tools of hip-hop to create vivid soundscapes that push at the envelope's edge instead of staying comfortably inside it. A live disc from 1995 that's also part of this package is just as convincing, because it underlines the point that hip-hop is as much an attitude as it is a specific type of music. Note: Two other Shadow releases--Choked Up, by Sharpshooters, and Zig Zag Zen, by Le Gooster--come from the same creative place as Mad Blunted Jazz and are almost as strong.

Dr. Octagon
Dr. Octagonecologyst
(Dreamworks)

Kool Keith was too crazy to be marketed by the David Geffen machine: He flaked on more high-profile gigs this year than anyone since Sly Stone. But before he flaked out entirely, he completed this sensationally screwy artifact, a rap excursion into sci-fi and scatology that suggests George Clinton in his acid-munching prime.

KRS-One
I Got Next
(Jive)

Hip-hoppers get older faster than participants in virtually any other brand of music. But on I Got Next, KRS-One sounds as fresh and fiery as ever. The album starts indulgently but gains muscle as it goes along as a result of hard-edged production and KRS-One's ability to deliver knowledge in a manner that's always stimulating.

Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot
Supa Dupa Fly
(The Gold Mind Inc./EastWest)

Elliot, who's a songwriter, producer and arranger as well as a frontwoman, conjures up ultra-commercial rap that doesn't make you feel guilty for savoring it. Supa Dupa Fly has too many cameos (Lil' Kim, Da Brat, Timbaland and Aaliyah are only a few of the guest stars), but Elliot makes her presence felt anyhow. Take that, Puff Daddy.

Mike Ladd
Easy Listening 4 Armageddon
(Mercury/Scratchie)

The joke in the title here is pretty much the only one on the album. Ladd is a very serious fellow whose highly political raps are reminiscent of the dark rumblings once associated with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Musically, it's reserved but ominous, which only makes Ladd's lyrical warnings all the more persuasive.

JAZZ

Drums and Tuba
Box Fetish
(T.E.C. Tones)

Leave your preconceptions at the door. The combination of Brian Wolff's double B-flat tuba, Neal McKeeby's guitar and Tony Nozero's drums is unexpectedly raw--a fusion of elements that rocks, swings or hollers with equal aplomb. Box Fetish is spare, unstudied and full of ideas that explode in fusillades of blessed racket.

Grismore/Scea Group
Of What
(Accurate)

Guitarist Grismore and tenor saxophonist Scea are little known among citizens of the jazz community. However, the dozen songs on which they and the other members of their quintet perform are infinitely more invigorating than the noodlings of many bigger names. The pieces are uncluttered but involving, modest but pleasantly dense.

Roscoe Mitchell
Sound Songs
(Delmark)

In the notes that come with Sound Songs, writer John Litweiler describes Mitchell, a veteran of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as a "naked soloist," and he's not exaggerating: Mitchell makes every squeak and skronk on these two discs. It's a not a stunt, but rather a mammoth accomplishment by a Promethean player.

David Murray
Fo Deuk Revue
(Justin Time"

Murray is too old to be a young lion, but he acts more like one than do many musicians twenty years his junior. Fo Deuk Revue searches for the common ground shared by jazz, worldbeat, rap and rhythm and blues, and more often than not, it finds it. Murray's willingness to explore is only one of the reasons his music continues to matter.

Henry Threadgill & Make a Move
Where's Your Cup?
(Columbia)

Every recording saxophonist/flutist Threadgill makes seems to end up on one of my year-end lists, and why not? He is arguably the most consistent, trailblazing, forward-looking artist in jazz today. Backed by an eccentric ensemble that includes electric guitar, accordion and harmonium, Threadgill soars again.

MISCELLANEOUS

Cornershop
When I Was Born for the 7th Time
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

Tjinder Singh is a musical Mixmaster: He blends rock, pop, electronica and traditional Indian sounds into a concoction that's smooth yet exhilarating. In a live setting, Cornershop has yet to find its feet, but in the studio, Singh has few peers. 7th Time is eloquent, natural and completely captivating.

Cottonmouth, Texas
Anti-Social Butterfly
(Virgin)

Butterfly is a spoken-word epic that uses modern rhythms and an undeniable restlessness to shatter the guidelines that have for so long governed poetry in performance. In a sense, Jeffrey Liles and the Decadent Dub Team are throwbacks to the beatnik era, but their accute viewpoints and dry sensibilities are utterly modern.

Lutefisk
Burn in Hell Fuckers
(Bong Load Custom Records)

In a world where most of us humans walk the straight and narrow, the lovable lugs of Lutefisk adore anarchy Yber alles. Pop, punk, art rock, psychedelia and God knows what else is skewered throughout, but Burn is not a novelty. Rather, it's proof that dangerous music can be the most entertaining kind.

Stereolab
Dots and Loops
(Elektra)

Last year's Emperor Tomato Ketchup was Stereolab's peak moment, and Dots and Loops can't top it. But in its hip, subtle way, the act's newest full-length worms its way into your brain, then lingers in the most gratifying way conceivable. Equally engaging for your heart and your head.

Jim White
Wrong-Eyed Jesus!
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

Not quite country, not quite rock, Wrong-Eyed Jesus! is a dollop of musical folk art from a singer-songwriter whose eccentricities allow him to see clearly an America that most others miss. As he travels from "Book of Angels" to "The Road That Leads to Heaven," White tells tall, creepy tales that exude an offhand authority.

R&B/SOUL

Erykah Badu
Baduism
(Universal)

Badu has such an individualistic look that some people can't see past her headwrap to the artist within. That's a pity, because she is one of the true sensations of 1997, a performer who has a slinky way with a song, a beguiling vision, and a set of pipes for the ages. The antidote to the Whitney and Mariah blues.

God's Property
God's Property, From Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation
(B-Rite Music)

The blandness of the contemporary-Christian genre in general only makes God's Property seem like that much more of an achievement by comparison. Franklin's use of hip-hop and soul elements is so canny that both fellow disciples and unrepentant sinners will enjoy walking with him on the road to heaven.

The Holmes Brothers
Promised Land
(Rounder)

It's no insult to say that Promised Land sounds as if it could have been made during the Sixties. Like the vintage shouters who no doubt inspired them, Sherman and Wendell Holmes, along with Popsy Dixon, get to the meat of every song with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of unadulterated soul power.

Kyle Jason
Generations
(Columbia)

Jason has a sure knowledge of rhythm and blues and funk; his collaborations with Bootsy Collins offer confirmation of that. But instead of pouring this wisdom into smooch songs, as do many of his colleagues, he's whipped up a musical suite that takes the pulse of the city without collapsing under the usual stereotypes.

Mark Morrison
Return of the Mack
(Atlantic)

There's plenty of posturing on Return of the Mack, but Morrison pulls it off. Since he's a man who obviously thinks with his pelvis, he concentrates on seduction, and his one-dimensionality pays dividends: "Let's Get Down," "Moan and Groan" and "Horny" could probably inspire even Tipper Gore to make a booty call.

REGGAE/WORLDBEAT

Susana Baca
Susana Baca
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

Recorded in Peru, Baca's songs are very much a product of South America. But her poetic lyrics travel well: The opener, whose title translates to "Pretentious Black Girl," embodies the tricky balance she strikes between the cosmopolitan and the eternal.

Vinicius Cantuaria
Sol Na Cara
(Gramavision)

Brazilian music can be extremely raucous or it can be as tender as a mother's kiss. Cantuaria takes the latter tack, wrapping sambas and the like in pristine guitar strums. His gentle vocalizing is so spellbindingly voluptuous that you don't need the English translations the CD jacket provides to understand what he means.

Susu Bilibi
Dziwo Nefa
(CrossCurrents Music)

This group hails from the West African nation of Togo, but its sound exhibits enough European influence to make it immediately accessible to virtually anyone. The sextet specializes in sunny melodies, bottomless harmonies and percussion that will shoo away every dark spirit in your life.

Alfredo Rodriguez
Cuba Linda
(Hannibal/Root Jazz)

The vigorous musical traits that echo through the aforementioned I Am Time box can also be found in smaller packages--like, for instance, this brassy rouser. Rodriguez is a Cuban exile who returned to his homeland for the first time in many years to make Cuba Linda, and his joy at doing so can be heard in every note.

Michael Rose
Dance Wicked
(Heartbeat)

Rose has had difficulty making music on his own that's as indelible as his work with Black Uhuru, but he's been getting closer over the past several years. Dance Wicked is a big step in the right direction; it recalls his Black Uhuru days without aping them. A companion disc, Dub Wicked, pairs up nicely with it.

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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