Year-End Close-Out

We've got 1998's best albums in stock, but they're going fast.

Transistor Blast: The Best of the BBC Sessions

Andy Partridge, XTC's main man, is renowned for his dislike of live performances--an opinion that, rightly or wrongly, has been interpreted as stage fright. But the two gigs commemorated by Transistor show that the only thing scary about XTC on stage during its early days was how impressive the band sounded. Add two more discs of BBC studio recordings and you've got a first-rate look at one of pop's most underrated acts.

Johnny Hartman
The Johnny Hartman Collection, 1947-1972

A smooth-toned romancer in the Nat "King" Cole mode, Hartman never shied away from bop as did many of his less adventurous contemporaries: Among the performers who backed him were Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Collection contains two CDs of prime Hartman--effortlessly voluptuous songs perfect for rainy nights with the mate of your dreams.

Ted Hawkins
The Ted Hawkins Suffer No More

When Hawkins died, he left behind a cache of marvelous music, but much of it was out of print or otherwise unavailable. Suffer No More partially amends this situation by linking ditties from several hard-to-find Eighties and Nineties LPs with three cuts from his final valedictory, 1994's The Next Hundred Years. This CD should keep boosters going until the fine day when the entire Hawkins catalogue is reissued.

Van Morrison
The Philosopher's Stone

The notes to this two-CD keepsake are disappointingly sparse, but the music's not. Stone shines up thirty unreleased Morrison recordings laid down between 1971 and 1988, and although the early material is preferable to his more recent works, the quality throughout is top-notch. Discards that are vastly superior to the choicest stuff issued by many of Morrison's counterparts.

Aluminum Tunes
(Drag City)

Between 1995 and 1997, Stereolab was on a hot streak; practically everything the band recorded sounded exciting and audacious. This impression is confirmed by Aluminum Tunes, a double album that assembles hard-to-find remixes, B-sides and oddities from the period. It's an unanticipated present from a group that's already wrapped more than its share.

Barry White
Boss Soul: The Genius of Barry White

This king-sized performer didn't start out as the love god he became. Boss Soul is a snapshot of White during the mid-Sixties, when he made his living as a producer and songwriter for Bronco Records. Several songs growled by the big man himself (including the snappy "I Don't Need It") are joined by White-penned compositions as done by Johnny Wyatt, Felice Taylor and Viola Wills, three willing but forgotten R&B wannabes. "Genius" it's not, but the disc is a tuneful look at a very, um, well-rounded artist.

Various Artists
George & Ira Gershwin: Standards & Gems
Gershwin Standard Time: The George Gershwin Centennial Tribute
S'Wonderful: The Great Gershwin Decca Songbook

These recordings were released this year to capitalize on the 100th anniversary of Gershwin's death, but the mercenary intent behind them doesn't make them any less worthy. Standards is the iffiest of the discs, but a song list that avoids the obvious and a couple of nice turns by John Pizzarelli give it a reason for being. The other discs are from-the-vault affairs in which Judy Garland, Al Jolson, Lena Horne, Ray Charles and more take advantage of Gershwin's superlative craftsmanship.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Brazil
(World Music Network)

A spinoff from the successful series of international travel books, The Rough Guide to Brazil is a welcome single-disc primer to Brazilian music. Stars such as Ivan Lins are joined by Guinga, Rosa Passos, Papete and others whose music opens a window onto a culture that percolates to distinctive rhythms.

Various Artists
Sci-Fi's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1-4

This set comes complete with a stamp of approval from the Sci-Fi Channel, and no wonder. The four Hits contain over 130 themes from science-fiction films, live-action TV series and even cartoons: Fanatics who've been searching high and low for the title tunes from Atom Ant, X-Men and The Tick can rest their weary heads. Answering-machine fodder for the next millennium.

Various Artists
Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats: The First Fifteen Years, 1981-1996, Vol. 1-4
(Tommy Boy)

Tommy Boy was one of the first labels to recognize hip-hop as a viable genre, not just a way of keeping the guests at rent parties happy. Greatest Beats gathers fifteen years of the company's peak products, from "Planet Rock," by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, to Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," with stops along the way to check out De La Soul, Naughty by Nature, Queen Latifah and the like. The liner notes are lacking, but fledgling producers will be pleased to discover that each CD in the series comes loaded with a MixMan program that will allow them to remix a rap milestone on their own personal computer.

Various Artists
AVaya Rumba!: Fiery Rhythms From the Heart of Catalonia
(Music Collection International)

As writer John Armstrong points out inside this disc's jacket, Catalan gypsy music, from which sprang the Spanish rumba, is ideal for "dancing, drinking, loving and fighting to." The hot-blooded extravaganzas on AVaya Rumba!, by Antonio Gonzales, Rumba Tres and even Los Del Rio (who gave us "The Macarena"), bare out this boast. Listen to it with someone you love--or despise.

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