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Year-End Close-Out

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

Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
(Merge)

Produced by the Apples' Robert Schneider and featuring an array of Elephant 6 all-stars, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a little miracle of an album. Singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum has managed to get all of his quirks into an exceptional batch of songs that he delivers with the sort of sincerity that can't be faked. If I was forced to narrow down this list to just one disc, this would be the one I'd pick.

Elliott Smith
XO
(Dreamworks)

Fixating on Smith's mopiness is easy to do, since smiling is not something he seems to do all that often. But XO can't be dismissed as a litany of complaints from someone lucky enough to be on Steven Spielberg's payroll. Although the songwriter's tales read well on the page, they take flight when they're combined with the off-kilter pop that's another of Smith's specialties.

Ray Wonder
Good Music
(Huggermugger)

"The Cad," the instrumental that opens this blast of pure pop for now people, is a crazy carnival of sounds that serves as a harbinger of things to come. The other tunes sport overpowering melodies that have been dipped in treble for maximum penetration and lyrics that know when to go pre-verbal. A smart band knows when to ditch the rhymes in favor of la-la-las and na-na-nas--and Ray Wonder is a smart band.

SINGER-SONGWRITERS
Paul Kelly
Words and Music
(Vanguard)

Although Kelly, an Aussie by birth, has been generating literate songs that operate in the zone between rock and folk for two decades, the modesty and understatement that make his lyrics so rewarding have acted as a barrier reef to greater popularity. But he hasn't let this injustice still his voice. The title cut here is a wonderful tribute to the power of song, and that creative energy is plenty evident in the other tunes as well. A talent worth discovering after all these years.

Cheri Knight
The Northeast Kingdom
(E Squared)

Once a member of the Blood Oranges, an acclaimed but sadly underheard indie act, Knight is a performer of uncommon grace whose compositions are deeply rooted in the soil. The Northeast Kingdom is filled with flowers that grow, bloom and die in an annual pageant whose radiance and sadness is echoed by her gorgeous melodies and clear-eyed fatalism. A recording that will sound wonderful for many seasons to come.

Lyle Lovett
Step Inside This House
(Curb/MCA)

Because Lovett is practically unparalleled as a tunesmith, the release of House, a two-disc set filled with compositions by others, initially seems incongruous. But Lovett has become such a strong stylist that he's able to put a personal stamp on tunes written by a distinguished group of strummers headed by Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Walter Hyatt, Vince Bell and Robert Earl Keen. A man with taste this impeccable should be able to show it off every once in a while.

Gillian Welch
Hell Among the Yearlings
(Almo Sounds)

Welch doesn't have the pedigree of a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, but the comeliness of her music more than compensates for any perceived lineage shortcomings. She hangs her songs on imagery with a timeless feel, then renders it with a purity that pierces the heart. Producer T Bone Burnett mainly stays out of the way, allowing Welch to rise or fall on the strength of her material and her insinuating voice. And rise she does.

Lucinda Williams
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
(Mercury)

Previous efforts by Williams have been estimable, but they hardly prepared listeners for the quality of her latest album. Car Wheels had a troubled production history; it skipped from Steve Earle to Springsteen associate Roy Bittan before Williams was finally satisfied with it. But all that matters in the end are lyrics that are poetic without once trying to be, music that melds country and rock into a uniquely American amalgamation, and singing that's as real as real can be. Roll on.

WORLD MUSIC
Argan
Berberism
(Barbarity/Barraka el Farnatshi)

Recorded in Casablanca and featuring a mix of Western and Arabic instruments, Berberism is an endlessly beguiling dip into a forward-looking scene that gets precious little exposure in these parts. What's more, the CD is nearly matched in quality by several other recent releases on the Barbarity imprint: Also highly recommended are Amira Saqati's Al Bharr, Sapho's Digital Sheikha and Mara & Jalal's Immigri. Learn more about them on the Internet by typing in www.maroc.net/barraka.

Waldemar Bastos
Pretalutz [Blacklight]
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

Angola's Bastos isn't an Afro-beat warrior: His songs are quiet laments and love songs that can be almost impossibly stunning. Producer Arto Lindsay shapes the tunes with care while keeping the spotlight squarely on Bastos, whose voice alternates between a sandpaper croon and a delicate lilt that's like an express ticket to heaven.

Boukman Eksperyans
Revolution
(Tuff Gong)

Politics and music sometimes make odd bedfellows, but not when Boukman Eksperyans brings them together. This Haitian ensemble makes the occasional misstep, most notably on "Sevelen (No More Excuses for the War)," which uses the shlock landmark "Sukiyaki" as its musical frame. But for the most part, Revolution is rhythmically captivating and spiritually unimpeachable. Unlike someone else we know.

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