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Judgment Day

Corey Harris
Greens From the Garden




1999 may not have produced the one great record that will forever define the last year of the century, but it did manage to offer a substantial slew of good-to-great ones in every genre. And with all of the major-label conglomerations and roster-slimming seen in the past twelve months, we have to wonder how much great music never even saw the light of the CD press. So while sadly limited to the world of existent recordings, we asked a group of Westword music writers to share some thoughts on their favorite releases of the year, with a heavy emphasis on the word "favorite." In a year where so many artists from so many different genres made so many records, endeavoring to produce one list of the ten best seemed about as worthwhile an activity as polishing a turd. How do you pick one best between the futuristic eclecticism of, say, Cibo Matto and the rootsy brilliance of the Latin Playboys? And if the current American musical landscape could be defined in terms of human physiology, it has surely succumbed to a happy case of sonic schizophrenia -- with hip-hop and R&B continuing to make deep inroads into the stereos and heads of former rock loyalists, rock artists attempting to kick some flava into their own sound, and pop artists embellishing themes of the past with technology of the future. The cross-genre culture jamming certainly makes for some exciting and complex recordings -- but as far as our task here is concerned, it also complicates things. So consider the following a list of friendly suggestions, an incomplete but diverse glance at highlights from an eclectic year in music.

BLUES

Ruth Brown
A Good Day for the Blues
(Bullseye)

Back in the '50s, when Brown (nicknamed "Miss Rhythm") was at her popularity zenith, Atlantic Records was known as "the House that Ruth built." She's a septuagenarian now, and her tone is rougher and less precise than it was. But she makes up for that with passion and savvy, and this disc's live-in-the-studio production brings out the sass in her. -- Michael Roberts

Corey Harris
Greens From the Garden
(Alligator)

A onetime Denverite, Harris remains the most intriguing young bluesman out there -- capable of merging a love for the genre's traditions with a contemporaneity of thought and approach that's unparalleled. For proof, check out "Basehead," a raucous workout that rips into the crack lifestyle without once engaging in finger-wagging. -- Roberts

Houndog
Houndog
(Legacy/Columbia)

Ex-Canned Heat member Mike Halby dominates this rough-hewn project with all the baritone of a hung-over grizzly bear. A gritty partnership with core Los Lobos member David Hidalgo results in a trippy Delta mudslide down Howlin' Wolf's back forty. Pure, undistilled and gut-driven, Houndog choogles along masterfully. -- John La Briola

Paul Jones
Pucker Up Buttercup
(Fat Possum)

Jones isn't one to prettify the blues: The ingredients that make up his songs include the drum playing of a guy named Pickle, Jones's coarse, throaty vocals, his serrated guitar, and that's about it. His songwriting is undisciplined -- "Goin' Back Home" seems to start in the middle and end at the beginning -- but the music's wildness and unpredictability is precisely why it works. -- Roberts

Big Bill Morganfield
Rising Son
(Blind Pig)

Yeah, you guessed it: Big Bill is the offspring of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. But like Shemekia Copeland, another spawn of blues royalty, the younger Morganfield has something to offer -- namely, a vocal approach that owes as much to Screamin' Jay Hawkins as it does to his papa. The more unhinged he gets, the better he sounds. -- Roberts

Asie Payton
Worried
(Fat Possum)

The two recording sessions Payton conducted for Fat Possum earlier this decade produced what were originally seen as demos. But when Payton died in 1997, label heads decided the tracks needed to be heard. Good call. Payton's work, whether it's remixed or unadulterated, is lighter and more soulful than most of the stuff on this imprint, but every bit as genuine. -- Roberts

COLLECTIONS

Barry Adamson
The Murky World of Barry Adamson
(Mute)

Adamson, who first came to the public's attention as a member of Magazine and Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, writes soundtrack music for movies that exist (like David Lynch's Lost Highway), as well as flicks of his own imagining. Murky rounds up twelve of his finest quasi-noir excursions, including his fabulous take on "The Man With the Golden Arm" and "007, A Fantasy Bond Theme," which relocates the infamous secret agent to a very different milieu. -- Roberts

The Clash
From Here to Eternity
(Columbia)

Pub-rock perfection captured brilliantly in explosive arena settings, this live throwback seems to support an ultra-hyped ad campaign that once described the Clash to America: "The Only Band That Matters." Where other punk rockers rarely conceived of a world beyond clubland London, the Clash took on the entire world, attacking everything from record-company politics to U.S. foreign policy. Absorbing every musical style from rockabilly and reggae to rap and disco, theirs wasn't so much an angry sound as a philosophy -- one that no other punk outfit has ever come within spitting distance of. -- La Briola

Louis Jordan
The Anthology, 1938-1953: Let the Good Times Roll
(MCA/Decca)

By this point, the neo-swing thing has all but perished from overexposure, and thank goodness. But the songs on this pair of discs from Jordan, whose pioneering jump blues inspired many of the trend's best moments, haven't aged a second in the half-century or more since he put them on wax. "What's the Use of Gettin' Sober," "(You Dyed Your Hair) Chartreuse" and the rest prove that there's no expiration date on craziness. -- Roberts

Gang Starr
Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr
(Empire/Noo Trybe/Virgin)

Guru and DJ Premier are true hip-hop survivors, outlasting many of their '80s contemporaries by virtue of jazzy-but-street-ready beats, high lyrical consciousness and consistent intelligence. In bringing together two CDs' worth of their finest throw-downs, Full Clip documents their considerable achievements while demonstrating that they aren't close to being used up yet. -- Roberts

Mahavishnu Orchestra
The Lost Trident Sessions
(Legacy)

Mahavishnu fans have long suspected the existence of this recording, which was cut in 1973 during an extremely creative period for the Orchestra -- one that produced both The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. But the quality of the playing, particularly by guitarist/group leader John McLaughlin, who came to fame under Miles Davis's tutelage, makes this far more than curio for completists, and serves as a reminder that once upon a time, jazz fusion actually had a reason for being. -- Roberts

Melvin Van Peebles
The Melvin Van Peebles Collection
(Stax)

The father of actor-director Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles is a key figure in the development of blaxploitation: His masterwork, 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, is a messy but mind-blowing low-budget epic that went much further than either Shaft or Superfly dared; it was rated X upon its release. Van Peebles's fevered score for Sweetback, performed by, among others, Earth, Wind and Fire, makes up the first half of this two-disc time capsule; CD two resurrects Don't Play Us Cheap, the rousing soundtrack to an obscure Van Peebles musical. -- Roberts

Stevie Wonder
At the Close of a Century
(Motown/Universal)

A four-CD set that chronicles Wonder's transformation from blind-boy genius to Motown hit-maker to an expressive artist of every genre from R&B to pop, jazz, blues, funk and even rock. Forget those blowsy-wowsy attempts to muster emotionalism about the close of this here century -- even without sentimental considerations of what Wonder has meant to popular music over the nearly forty years of his career, this is a collection that almost effortlessly conjures each and every one of those things called feelings, from love sickness to pure groove-induced bliss. It's all there: the soulful ivory-tickling of pre-adolescent Stevie on "Fingertips Pts. 1 & 2," the heartstring pull of "You are the Sunshine of My Life," the spare, gotcha glide of "You and I," the almost clinical infectiousness of "Sir Duke" and "Isn't She Lovely." There's the hell-yeah-hallelujah samba of "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" and the roving indignation of "Living for the City." These are American songs that, as aptly put by scribe Tim Ritz in the companion booklet, "are such a part of our musical lives we can't remember a time without them." You will be overjoyed. -- Laura Bond

COMPILATIONS

Various Artists
Armageddon
(Renegade Hardware)

After much anticipation, Hardware finally dropped the bomb, and the LP actually lived up to the hype. A stormer from beginning to end, featuring the likes of Konflict and Ed Rush and Optical's excellent remix of the Usual Suspects classic "Killer Bees." An absolutely essential collection of drum-and-bass tunes from the harder side. -- Timothy Pittz

Various Artists
From Spirituals to Swing
(Vanguard)

In a season of boxed sets too gargantuan for anyone other than Donald Trump to afford, here's a modestly priced package with real historical import: a three-CD overview of a historic December 24, 1939, concert staged by talent scout John Hammond. Many of the era's most incredible jazz and blues acts participate, among them the Count Basie Orchestra (highlighted by trumpeter Lester Young), Sidney Bechet, Big Joe Turner and Big Bill Broonzy. Twentieth-century music doesn't get much more seminal -- or more captivating. -- Roberts

Various Artists
The Funky Precedent
(Loose Groove)

A benefit for music-education programs in two California schools, this groovy, rambunctious combination platter offers some of the most creative and musical talent in the West Coast hip-hop underground -- acts like Aceyalone, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples and Divine Styler, who have everything to do with artful sampling and emceeing, and nothing to do with macho thuggery or the commercial puff jamming the airwaves. Faithful and studied nods to the old school days of R&B, funk, rap and even jazz run through the release, but Precedent is very much a thing of the future, one that should indeed set a precedent. -- Bond

Various Artists
Rawkus Presents Soundbombing II
(Rawkus)

Mixed by J-Rocc and Babu of the World Famous Beat Junkies, this compilation returns hip-hop to its basic elements: deejaying and emceeing. The album showcases Rawkus artists such as Pharoahe Monch, Mos Def and better-known majo-label upstarts like Eminem, as well as perennial guest stars Common and Sadat X, who team up on the blazing first single, "1999." -- James Mayo

Various Artists
Rebels & Outlaws: Music From the Wild Side of Life
(Capitol)

In his liner notes, Hank Williams biographer Colin Escott warns, "Prepare for the shock of the old," and his words are well-chosen. This single-disc anthology shines a light on some of the most casually radical country music of the century, from Faron Young's "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young" and Johnny Paycheck's "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill" to the Louvin Brothers' murderous "Knoxville Girl" and Spade Cooley's ham-fisted "You Clobbered Me." This is bruising stuff. -- Roberts

Various Artists
The RZA Hits
(Razor Sharp/Epic)

RZA may talk a lot of shit, but he's a studio wizard par excellence, bringing out the irascible, dangerous best in some of hip-hop's most visceral emcees. Hits features radical work by the Wu-Tang Clan, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and more, and tosses in a hilarious quasi-commercial -- "Wu Wear, the Garment Renaissance" -- at no additional charge. It ain't what you want, baby. It's what you need. -- Roberts

Various Artists
Short Music for Short People
(Fat Wreck Chords)

Talk about not wearing out your welcome. This witty disc features 101 punk bands, including Chixdiggit, Nerf Herder, Samiam and the Dwarves, playing songs that clock in at around thirty seconds. The result is surprisingly enjoyable, with hooks aplenty and no long, indulgent passages: The Living End includes a guitar solo on "Ready" that has a potential for wankiness, but the tune's length (33 seconds) prevents it from boring even professional video-game addicts. Short attention spans rule. -- Roberts

Various Artists
Sing America
(Warner Bros.)

A compilation of songs about the good ol' U.S. of A. to benefit the Save America's Treasures foundation, featuring performances by Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. It's sure to please the patriots and ferret out the Reds among us. -- Jenny Shank

Various Artists
Suck It and See
(Palm Pictures)

One of the odder projects in recent memory, Suck It and See gathers a slew of provocateurs (mixologist/U2 collaborator Howie B. is the best-known contributor) for a two-CD excursion into audio pornography. Alternately sensual and domineering grooves combine with orgasmic samples (there's more moaning and groaning here than in the average brothel) to create a "Love to Love You, Baby" for the late-'90s intellectual set. They deserve to get laid, too, right? -- Roberts

Various Artists
Violator -- The Album
(UNI/Island)

An all-star cast of tried-and-true rap artists that haven't lost their skills in the limelight. Flipmode squad, Q-Tip, Noreaga and LL Cool J light it up on a frenetic who's who that features hot guest verses by relative unknowns Sonya Blade and Ja Rule. -- Kalisha Brown

Various Artists
The World Of Drum 'N Bass
(Formation)

Compiled by the UK's DJ SS, the intent of this compilation was to showcase the talents of drum-and-bass producers on a global scale, from Norway to Canada. It was an ambitious project that may have fallen short of the epic achievement SS may have wished it to be, but it's still an admirable collection of songs and talent. Bad Company's "Iraq" is clearly the standout. Devastating. -- Pittz

COUNTRY

Fred Eaglesmith
50-Odd Dollars
(Razor and Tie)

Dark and desperate characters inhabit singer/songwriter Fred Eaglesmith's world, and with equal parts heartache and menace, the listener is left somewhere on the outskirts of a lonely motel room in dust-blown nowhere. Evocative ballads with whiskey-soaked wisdom, these intricate, soulful tracks incorporate steel pedals, washboards, baritone guitars, clattering percussion and a smattering of warm and beautiful Hammond organs. The result? A haunting soundtrack for an American road trip. -- La Briola

Robbie Fulks
The Very Best of Robbie Fulks
(Bloodshot)

A brilliant disc of just-outside-the-lines country. Brainy, pointed, cliche-crunching C&W that laughs, cries, bleeds and thrills. Fulks is alt-country in the flesh. -- Marty Jones

Road Kings
Road Kings
(Surfdog)

The freshest roots rock of the year, an invigorating surprise that somehow whips rockabilly, Howlin' Wolf blues and early Van Halen into a leather-clad whole. Frontman/guitar-slinger Jesse Dayton is the 1999 rookie of the year. -- Jones

Rainville
Collecting Empties
(Treble Maker)

This local trio dropped out of the sky with a collection of sharp, intelligent herringbone-and-bathtub-gin tunes. One heck of a debut, impressive as much for its empty spaces as its muted Heartland crunch. Denver's next major-label act. -- Jones

The Souvenirs
King of Heartache
(Will)

These string-tied Seattle boys arrive from nowhere with a slab of pop twang that at its peaks rivals the elevated country of Dwight Yoakam. Here's your new country, Nashville. -- Jones

Sally Timms
Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos
(Bloodshot)

Former Mekons vocalist Timms isn't exactly a prime candidate to produce the most expressive and evocative country record -- for starters, she's from Leeds, England. Yet Laments indicates that Timms understands country's cold, cold heart well enough to flirt with tradition and bring an entirely individual sound to the campfire. Her version of Guy Lawrence's "Dreaming Cowboy" sounds like the spirit of some disembodied cowpoke chiming in from the beyond, and when, on a calm reading of Johnny Cash's tune she warns a lover that he'll "Cry, Cry, Cry" when she leaves, we believe he will. Because at that point, we're positively smitten. -- Bond

ELECTRONIC/DANCE

Art of Noise
The Seduction of Claude Debussy
(ZTT)

A surprisingly good play by these tongue-in-cheek techno forefathers who are best remembered (when they are remembered at all) for their "Close (to the Edit)" video, in which they destroyed expensive instruments alongside an overly made-up young girl and her dachshund. Sixteen years later, they've produced this sometimes pretentious, often amusing tribute to Debussy. Their pretensions are usually undercut with humor, which was how it worked back in their glory days, and musically, they've gotten better, or at least more sophisticated. Their pretty ambience, drum-and-bass and hip-hop lite flow better now, and they've finally figured out how to integrate other vocalists without getting lost in the process. Good show. -- Patrick Brown

Basement Jaxx
Remedy
(Astralwerks)

It seemed to be all surface at first -- loud, hard, fast and disposable, like most good house and techno is. Yet even with daily plays, this album has turned out to be much more durable and enjoyable than expected. Whether it will make the long haul toward classic status remains to be seen, but it's proved catchy, tuneful, danceable and fun enough to last at least six months. Remedy may well turn out to be a definitive statement on the current scene after all. -- P. Brown

Chemical Brothers
Surrender
(Astralwerks)

On Surrender, the Chemical Brothers eased up on rap samples to employ more original vocals and produced an album that is not what people may have come to expect from them. The songs here are more gentle and lean toward the trip-hop and trance types of electronica rather than the booming big beats that earned the Brothers their early success. -- Shank

John Digweed
Bedrock
(Ultra)

House and techno are still a DJ's mediums, despite popular inroads on the radio by the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Moby, et al. Doing his thing from his resident DJ spot at London's Bedrock club, Digweed -- who, with partner DJ Sasha, is half of one of the world's leading DJ teams -- offers something for those of us who don't stay up past 3 a.m. very often and can't make it to Trafalgar Square regularly. And what, exactly, is his thing? Funky, heavily percussive, spaced-out and stretched-out tension-and-release dynamics? Electro for all occasions, from doing dishes to kinky sex to sweaty gym workouts? All of the above and more. Find your own context for an extended groove and give it up. -- P. Brown

Everything but the Girl
Temperamental
(Atlantic)

Ben Watt and Tracy Thorn continued to mine the UK's underground dance scene with this followup to 1996's excellent Walking Wounded. A well-rounded collection of house, drum-and-bass and trip-hop, with Thorn's vocals melting and blending perfectly with each style. Best crossover LP of the year. Maybe the decade. -- Pittz

Moby
Play
(V2)

Many songs here are hooked by archival gospel and blues shouts, and within them, Moby has finally found the perfect framework for his curiously moody dance songs. But he's never put together an album this consistent. From the opening chant of the great "Honey" on down to the mellower closing cuts, Play flows like a great album should -- with peaks and valleys and songs that run into one another. Modern white-boy blues at its finest. -- P. Brown

Nine Inch Nails
The Fragile
(Interscope)

An over-one-hundred-minute-long mesmerizing ride into the electronica underworld, The Fragile is at times dourly soothing, then suddenly jarring, with blasts of industrial crunch. -- Shank

Omni Trio
Byte Size Life
(Moving Shadow)

After taking some time off, drum-and-bass pioneers Omni Trio resurfaced with this soon-to-be-classic collection of intelligent down-tempo funk jams. Aimed at the head rather than the dance floor, this is the perfect LP to listen to while kicking back with your headphones on. -- Pittz

Technical Itch
Diagnostics
(Moving Shadow)

The only LP, drum-and-bass or otherwise, to really exceed the expectations of electronic-dance experts this year. After releasing Diagnostics, the previously underrated Technical Itch had DJs and dance-floor denizens singing its praises the world over. The 303-acid-laden "Reborn" was the standout track and became a set staple among many drum-and-bass DJs. -- Pittz

Underworld
Beaucoup Fish
(BMG/V2)

Murky techno to read Irvine Welsh by. The lethal combination of schizophrenic lyrics and irresistible beats sound like the subconscious of a nihilistic raver. Anticipated as a followup to the band's seminal "Born Slippy," the lads in Underworld show there's plenty more where that tune came from. -- K. Brown

HIP-HOP/RAP

Mary J. Blige
Mary
(MCA)

The first lady of hip-hop-flavored soul spins tales of navigating the minefields of love for the young urban sophisticate. Standout tracks include the Lauryn Hill-penned and -produced first single, "All That I Can Say," a scorching duet with Aretha Franklin called "Don't Waste Your Time," and the female/male joust "Not Lookin'," recorded with ex-paramour K-Ci Hailey. -- Mayo

Mos Def
Black on Both Sides
(Rawkus Records)

A healthy dose of consciousness-raising rhymes and reason in a year dominated by flossy MCs lost in a blunt-filled haze of coochie and crystal. Read the track "Rock and Roll" as a rebuttal to the limpy biscuits who reign the rock world through their kleptomaniacal tendency to pilfer black musical forms. -- Mayo

Dr. Dre
The Chronic 2001
(Aftermath)

The long-awaited followup to 1992's The Chronic still establishes Dre's preeminence as one of the top producers in the biz. Wisely, Dre doesn't merely replicate his trademark "G" funk sound; he stretches out and crafts a more cinematic sound that uses eerie synthesized strings behind slower-paced staccato beats. Rap-wise, Dre sounds downright defensive and angry at those who claim he has fallen off since the release of his solo debut classic. Unfortunately, probably realizing that the anti-gangsterism of his last single, "Been There Done That," did not move units, Dre felt the need to still prove his street cred by occasionally including some tired cartoonish lyrical content. -- Mayo

Mobb Deep
Murda Muzik
(Loud Records)

Thug music that manages somehow to sound both chilling and elegiac. Once again, Havoc and Prodigy represent the best and worst of Queensbridge with their street-grime rhymes. -- Mayo

Eightball & M.J.G
In Our Lifetime
(Suave House)

A solid disc from an underrated Memphis-based space-age pimpin' rap duo that have yet to attain the major success of some of their other Southern peers. The laid-back soul and blues licks that spice these tracks show these guys upholding the tradition of a city known for its contributions to the blues. -- Mayo

Juvenile
400 Degreez
(Cash Money)

Technically, this was a December 1998 release, but it wasn't until 1999 that radio and video stations started to warm up to these Cash Money Millionaires. Coming straight outta the New Orleans housing projects, Juvenile and the artists associated with this label make a derivative of bounce music accessible to the masses. If you have any questions about the essence of bounce, all you have to do is listen to "Back That Azz Up" and view the video: It's all about the booty. -- Mayo

Nas
Nastradamus
(Columbia)

Nas provides more social commentary (plus a spoken word by poetess Jessica Care Moore on "The Outcome") this time around and less of the Goodfellas/Italian Mafia-influenced drivel that threatened to derail his career with his subpar supergroup the Firm (with AZ and Foxy Brown). Worth the price for "Project Windows" alone, a track that features the stirring background vocals of Mr. Big himself, Ron Isley. -- Mayo

Prince Paul
A Prince Among Thieves
(Tommy Boy)

As the producer of mind-expanding extravaganzas by De La Soul, Prince Paul earned a reputation for musical collage and conceptual inventiveness. Both of these qualities are on display on this CD, the world's first hip-hopera, in which a cadre of famous people (Chris Rock, Kool Keith, Big Daddy Kane, Kid Creole) help Paul tell a funky morality tale about the betrayal of a prototypical rapper. Like So...How's Your Girl?, another triumphant Prince Paul project credited to Handsome Boy Modeling School, A Prince Among Thieves brings hip-hop to a higher, and smarter, level. -- Roberts

The Roots
Things Fall Apart
(MCA)

Not quite the financially lucrative breakthrough album the Roots hoped, Things Fall Apart is nevertheless one that solidifies their deserved reputation as one of the best rap groups going. It contains the single of the year, "You Got Me," featuring Erykah Badu, an uncredited rap by fellow Philly native Eve, and some awesome snare and drum work by ?uestlove. -- Mayo

Tricky
Juxtapose
(Island)

Yet another shift in tone from the former trip-hop king as Tricky cops to a full album (albeit a short one) of hip-hop as straight up as he knows how to make it, which is not terribly straight at all. He brings in DJ Muggs and Grease to steady his hand on several cuts, yet still ends up sounding like no one but himself. As was the case with his previous records, the commercial-minded stuff is the easiest to swallow, but not necessarily the best music; those honors go to the down-and-dirty "I Like the Girls," which nearly goes by too fast to follow, and "Hot Like a Sauna," inexplicably included as two not-too-different versions. The title's instructive to understanding the music, too. -- P. Brown

Speech
Hoopla
(TVT Records)

An Arrested Development album for detractors, this is an easygoing and likable collection of Speech's cross of hip-hop, rap and modern Southern soul. Rarely sententious or boastful anymore, he evokes just enough of the good life to let his fans know it's there. He mildly evokes Marvin Gaye here and there to nice effect, and one tune mentions staying home on weeknights without making a public-service announcement out of it. And dammit, even if Speech was inspired to belt out Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" on Hoopla -- perhaps feeling pretty righteous after winning an MTV award -- that's one song it's okay to be righteous about. -- John Young

MISCELLANEOUS

Robert Ashley
Your Money, My Life, Goodbye
(Lovely Music, Ltd.)

Another of Ashley's strange, calming, large-scale ideas of an opera, Your Money is a spoken-word project that's over before you know it. Few composers seem as committed to concentrating their experiments into the focus of a diode ray, here represented by an ultra-steady electronic pulse that builds and recedes. Fewer still are as taken with the soothing sound of chatting overheard from the next room, murmuring a tale of a con woman and the worldwide banking system that provided her with victims. She stole from the rich, sez they, and gave to the...still not clear on that. -- Young

Air
Premiers Symptomes
(Astralwerks)

Despite their label affiliation, Jean Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, the two Frenchmen who together form Air, aren't electronica specialists. Rather, they formulate quiet, refined but eminently melodic chill-out music that should bring out the sophisticate in everyone. Premiers Symptomes, which assembles tracks made between 1995 and 1997, seldom takes center stage ("Californie" is an exception), but it has an almost magical way of making the background seem absolutely lovely. -- Roberts

Ralph Carney
I Like You (a Lot)
(Akron Cracker/Birdman)

Carney, a onetime Tom Waits collaborator, treats his most recent album like a giant playpen filled with instruments; he wanders from one to the other, making gorgeous (or weird) sounds until the next mood strikes him. His eccentric amalgam of jazz, pop, carnival music and God knows what else is thoroughly unpolished, but it's every bit as lively as Carney's imagination. -- Roberts

Cibo Matto
Stereo Type A
(Warner Bros.)

True to the Cibo Matto tradition of eclecticism, Stereo Type A is a refreshing, innovative blend of funk, hip-hop, electronica, Latin rhythms, jazzy wah-wah trumpets and Japanese pop sensibility. -- Shank

Johnny Dowd
Pictures From Life's Other Side
(Koch)

The songs penned by Dowd are closer to roots rock than anything else, but what he does to them defies categorization. Hell, it may even be illegal. Musically, at least, the man has a homicidal streak a mile wide, juicing yarns of love found, love lost and love tortured with so much frantic passion that they continually threaten to burst at the seams. Heartfelt, nasty and adamantly real. -- Roberts

The Firesign Theatre
Boom Dot Bust
(Rhino)

The boosters of Billville -- "the town that nature forgot to hate" -- welcome you to their "heathing fields of numbing hemp," where Heartland sprawl is just a shady deal away. As back-room official Mayor P'nisnose uses tornado season to obliterate paper trails and entrepreneurs like Dr. Guillermo Infermo push exercise machines called Devilmasters, Coach Swatt and a cast of zanies from Elmertown root-root-root for the NoNeckers -- all just in time for the Fourth of Julie 2001. Written, performed and produced by the subversive '60s-era comedy troupe of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor, socially unconscious lampoonery is back with a hilarious vengeance. And for any schnook too tired of "beating off the rat race with a mouse," the only thing better is a warm plate of grandma's groat clusters. -- La Briola

Michael Gordon
Weather
(Nonesuch)

Composer Gordon has come up with a fascinating classical hybrid: alternately melodic and dissonant pieces (performed by Ensemble Resonanz, a "vertical" string section) that shift and change as frequently as the title phenomenon. The four works on display show off modernist tendencies, but they're more accessible than the creations of notable minimalists such as Steve Reich. They have the heft of traditional orchestrations, minus the cliches. -- Roberts

Dixie Hummingbirds
Music in the Air -- The 70th Anniversary All-Star Tribute
(House of Blues)

This is gospel music of an ancient variety -- the words are blunt and even browbeating, but the simple tunes re-create old song patterns with energy. The Dixie Hummingbirds possess that ancient brand of confidence, commitment and shamelessness that make the message powerful. Guest singer Stevie Wonder fronts "Have a Talk With God," Paul Simon remakes "Love Me Like a Rock" with the Hummingbirds in the foreground, and the backup band kicks. -- Young

Latin Playboys
Dose
(Atlantic)

The ever-prolific David Hidalgo and Louis Pérez from Los Lobos venture into delightfully warped soundscapes and narcotic experimentalism on their second album, dabbling in both the sour and the sweet. A brilliant roots-based side project with a startling share of ghosts in the machinery -- or what sound like psychedelic shortwave broadcasts through a barrio boombox. Hidalgo's voice, one of the most soulful to ever draw breath, accompanies producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake on this voodoo-laced leap into the unknown. -- La Briola

Muse
Showbiz
(Maverick)

A blustery effort with theatrics worthy of Queen or the Who. Muse may be just an up-and-coming band, but its bandmembers have already got the rock-star posture down pat, with multilayered instrumentals, gothic undertones and the flat-out tortured belting of vocalist Matthew Bellamy. -- Shank

Hugh Ragin
An Afternoon in Harlem
(Justin Time)

Trumpeter Hugh Ragin's newest solo offering was written in the New York City borough famous for jazz and doomed manchildren. One reviewer was so taken with the theme and its execution, however, that he described it as exploring "the impressionistic African-American heritage of [Ragin's] current Harlem home." Thankfully for his Colorado-based students and listeners, Ragin actually lives in Aurora. But Harlem is indeed an accomplished expression of jazz modernity with heavy roots in the blues. Local biases aside, it's one the year's finest jazz recordings, with nods to everyone from Sun Ra to Anthony Braxton to Harriet Tubman. From free-bop to tonal composition to collective improv and beyond, it benefits from Ragin's formidable abilities and interests. -- Thomas Peake

Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos
(Atlantic)

Best known for his distinct, angular guitar-playing on several Tom Waits and Lounge Lizards albums, Marc Ribot dives headfirst into a '40s-era brand of Cuban music known as son -- a genre popularized by the Latin island's Arsenio Rodrguez. With monster chops and deadpan humor, Ribot takes the songs (all but one penned by Rodrguez) into decidedly avant-garde territories, and with the instrumental backing from his "prosthetic" counterparts, reinvents the Cuban standard into something at once oddly familiar but soothingly foreign. -- La Briola

POP/ROCK

Fiona Apple
When the Pawn Hits
(Sony/Epic)

Love to hate Her Waifness or not, she's only getting better. Fiona Apple's bluesy drawl delivers confidently textured songs that Alanis could never write, Jewel could never sing, and no one else could ever command. -- K. Brown

Beck
Midnite Vultures
(Geffen)

If Prince's 1999 really did grease our collective gears for a one-night stand in the party kingdom, then on Beck's turn-of-the-century blowout, the rollover date never spread her legs so hilariously. Polished chaos with all of the style splicing you've come to expect, Vultures is a giddy, undisputed marvel of digitized free association from a guy who, despite not seeming to give a tinker's cuss about packaging his critters, succeeds musically every dang time. -- La Briola

Electric Summer
Love Me Destroyer
(
Soda Jerk Records)

This is the first punk record guaranteed to make locals weep. Not from the over-the-ledge mayhem of this paint-peeling wonder, but because of the fact that this charming Japanese foursome is now back in its homeland after a tenure in Denver. A crash course for anyone wondering what unbridled joy sounds like when pushed through a Marshall amp. -- Jones

The Folk Implosion
One Part Lullaby
(Interscope)

An album full of languid lo-fi goodies, at once optimistic and jaded, with understated vocals and guitar riffs layered over synth sounds. -- Shank

Arto Lindsay
Prize
(Righteous Babe)

Solid and catchy, Prize is even better than last year's excellent Noon Chill. Possibly because the mood is less somber and reflective, but probably because singer/songwriter/guitarists like Lindsay do well to have a regular working band to focus their energies. This album continues his fruitful collaboration with Melvin Gibbs (bass and more), Andres Levin (keyboards and more) and Davi Moraes (guitars and more) while adding a regular drummer, Skoota Warner, to steady things and provide additional continuity. Lindsay also wins this Prize because he's playing a lot of his much-missed guitar and finding a way to integrate it into the proceedings better than he ever has. Another triumph from one of the best unknowns in the pop business. -- P. Brown

Pet Shop Boys
Nightlife
(Parlophone/Sire)

Yes, there are a few duds here, all co-produced by Craig Armstrong. But the highs are worth it, and even the duds have some sharp lyrics, as is always the case with the Boys. And the highs, most co-produced by Rollo, are the band's clubbiest ever, even up against 1993's Very's smooth, dancy surfaces. "Closer to Heaven" is in the grand tradition of the Pet Shop Boys' clever ambiguity and melancholy disguised as fluffy pop fare, and "New York City Boy" is pure, catchy fluff in the Village People tradition, complete with male backing vocals en masse. -- P. Brown

Shades of Al Davis
The Midwest Peace Talks, Vols. 1, 2
(Mallard Pointe)

The Oakland Raiders' greasy goombah provides the namesake for this talented Chicago-based three-piece, but don't expect anything sinister from their homespun debut of sweetly rendered pop gems. Harmonies reign supreme as the sunny and innocent days of eighth-grade summer unravel -- right down to the Kool-Aid stands and halter tops. Shadesters Steve Lindstrom, Mike Ritt and Alan Spindle delve into shimmering, jangly pop craft like a starving man clutches food: that is, ecstatically. -- La Briola

Cecil Taylor
Melancholy
(FMP)

Just released, this superbly recorded live eleven-piece session from 1990 is among Taylor's finest works. Eight horns, plus bass, drums and Taylor's relentlessly thundering and skittish piano provide the mutable ebb and flow of three extended pieces that follow paths that should be semi-familiar to fans. To those who haven't heard this sort of thing before, it might sound like nothing else on the planet. Remarkable moments abound, and bassist Barry Guy is a brilliant fit to Taylor's music. Melancholy is a great addition for the already converted and a good starting point for those who have yet to experience Taylor's brilliance. -- P. Brown

Those Bastard Souls
Debt & Departure
(V2)

Originally a side project for Dave Shouse of the Grifters, this release finds the Souls developing as a bona fide band, with members of Red Red Meat and the late Dambuilders filling out the sound and Shouse's vision. And it's a sweeping vision: Debt is at times a piece of melodic theater, with Shouse's emotive lyrics and delivery swelling within the piano and violin touches of the tunes; other times it's equally loyal to the crunch of power pop and Diamond Dogs-era Bowie. Sometimes grand, other times pleasingly simple and salient, this is a record that draws strength from its own diversity and winds up a challenging whole. -- Bond

R&B/SOUL

Jazzyfatnastees
The Once and Future
(MCA)

Mercedes Martinez and Tracey Moore, the two Jazzyfatnastees, are fine songwriters whose looks at love and relationships skirt stereotypes as a matter of course, and their vocals are subtle and stirring. Just as important, they've recruited a fabulous band -- hip-hop groundbreakers the Roots -- to breathe life into their already lively compositions. The Once and Future, indeed: If there's any justice, this pair will be around for a long, long time. -- Roberts

M People
Testify
(Epic)

For much of the '90s, British acts inspired by American soul often did more justice to the genre than their stateside counterparts. M People, who hail from Manchester, are a case in point, pitting the throaty vocals of Heather Small against danceable, club-friendly salvos. Testify is a de facto greatest-hits collection that keeps the fun pumping for nearly eighty booty-shaking minutes. -- Roberts

Rahsaan Patterson
Love in Stereo
(MCA)

The divas of soul have outstripped their male counterparts of late, but Patterson, a successful producer and songwriter who debuted behind the microphone two years ago, more than holds his own. He exhibits some of the lover-man-with-brains characteristics associated with Maxwell on his smooch tracks, gets old-school funky on "Sure Boy" and "The Day," and on "Humor," he makes a smile seem as sexy as sexy can be. -- Roberts

Angie Stone
Black Diamond
(Arista)

From her retro Afro to the built-to-last arrangements she favors, Stone, a colleague of neo-soulster D'Angelo, is a woman with one foot in the good old days and another in the future. She doesn't go in for histrionics, preferring instead to employ rhythm-and-blues verities like a fabulous voice, great phrasing and an unimpeachable sense of timing to make her songs stick. And stick they do. -- Roberts

TLC
FanMail
(La Face)

Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes are skilled and appealing rap vocalists, but the true stars of FanMail are the producers who frame their talents, not them. Simply put, this album is the most cleverly and cannily packaged platter of the year, a machine-tooled slab of super-product whose beeps, blips and buzzes are as addictive as nicotine. Take another drag; you'll be glad you did. -- Roberts

REISSUES

Johnny Cash
At Folsom Prison
(Columbia/Legacy)

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," the star of the show says at the beginning of this album. As if such a statement were necessary: In 1968, when this live recording was captured for posterity, Cash was already an icon, and the passage of decades has only enhanced his status. Remastered to perfection and peppered with bonus tracks, At Folsom Prison is the jewel of Columbia/Legacy's country reissue program, and it's a fabulous encapsulation of American music at its peak. -- Roberts

John Fahey
The Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites
(Takoma)

Guitarist Fahey laid down these tracks under the influence of medicinal quantities of whiskey and marijuana in 1964, but that date means little: They could have been rendered in 964 and they'd be just as elemental. The folk tones Fahey employs are available to all, but he's the rare guitarist capable of infusing notes with his own personality through the simple act of playing them. His work is dark, mysterious and eternal. -- Roberts

Aretha Franklin
Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings
(Atlantic/Rhino)

Originally released in 1972, Grace culled fourteen tracks from two performances at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, a pair of evenings that found Franklin backed by the Reverend James Cleveland, Ken Lupper and the impressive Southern California Community Choir. This newly remastered version offers 29 of those tracks, allowing listeners to catch an auditory glimpse of both the crowd anticipation, Cleveland's proselytizing, and raw, visceral musical moments absent from the original. But the real joy is hearing more of Franklin in such a state of, well, grace -- belting traditional spirituals, duets with Cleveland and a hair-raising "You've Got a Friend" with such elastic, ecstatic power that even the most ardent atheists might find themselves uttering an "Amen!" or two. Divine. -- Bond

Lee Hazelwood
Trouble Is a Lonesome Town
(Smells Like Records)

Hazelwood's claim to fame is his partnership with Nancy Sinatra during her "These Boots Were Made for Walking" phase. But he's a cult figure because of recordings like Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, a stunningly idiosyncratic 1963 evocation of a fictional community peopled by the likes of "Ugly Brown." Smells Like Records, Sonic Youth's imprint, is resurrecting most of Hazelwood's material, and a lot of it (like 1971's twisted, depressive Requiem for an Almost Lady) has to be heard to be believed. But Trouble is truly one of a kind. -- Roberts

Meat Puppets
Up on the Sun
(Rykodisc)

The pride of Arizona, the Puppets -- Curt and Cris Kirkwood and Derrick Bostrom -- gave us some of the most individual indie music of the '80s, and Rykodisc is repaying them for their toil via deluxe reissues of virtually their entire catalogue. Up on the Sun, a wonderfully baked and hazy disc originally issued by SST in 1985, is a deserved favorite, but don't stop there. -- Roberts

Dusty Springfield
Dusty in Memphis
(Rhino)

Springfield's comparatively recent death adds a poignancy to the songs on Dusty in Memphis, a 1969 album that she was unable to top, or even equal, in the nearly thirty years left to her after its completion. The Rhino edition puts her efforts in stark relief by mating the eleven impeccable Memphis ditties with fourteen others (most of them previously unreleased) culled from sessions held over the course of the next several years. -- Roberts

WORLD

Badawi
The Heretic of Ether
(Asphodel)

A Palestinian-born Israeli now living in New York City, Raz Mesinai, the master percussionist behind Badawi, is part of the illbient scene associated with DJ Spooky. Ether, however, breaks many of the rules of the style -- it features no samples, for example -- while telling about the death and resurrection of a gypsy dubbed Gashka Gavor. Middle Eastern exoticism meets trippy head music, then goes out dancing. -- Roberts

Afel Bocoum
Alkibar
(World Circuit/Nonesuch)

He may be a protégé of guitarist Ali Farka Toure (whose 1999 effort Niafunké is very fine indeed), but Malian guitarist/vocalist Bocoum is hardly a new kid on the Afrobeat block; the extensive liner notes date his breakthrough performance to 1972. As befits a veteran performer, his new disc is a sonic synthesis that includes folk passages, rocking solos and the call-and-response vocals that call to mind the late, great Fela Anikulapo Kuti. -- Roberts

Vinicius Cantuária
Tucumã
(Verve)

On Tucumã, Cantuária is given the star treatment; guests include Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, Nana Vasconcelos, Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson and Sean Lennon. But the main man more than holds his own, offering up blindingly romantic variations on Brazilian jazz and popular forms using his gentle guitar technique and a voice capable of melting even the iciest heart. -- Roberts

Boukman Eksperyans
Live at Red Rocks
(Tuff Gong)

When Boukman Eksperyans met the best Colorado has to offer -- Red Rocks, KGNU's "Postman" Roger Gillies as DJ, a perceptive and appreciative audience -- this live disc was destined to be among the year's world music highlights. Sure enough, the August 1998 concert captures the Haitian 12-piece at their best. Their controversial political music, which is grounded in spirited African and Caribbean drumming and sharp call-and-response harmonies, got Boukman kicked out of Haiti for Carnival last year. But this album shows why they'll always be welcome in the Rockies. -- Josh Green

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
Spanish Dance Troupe
(Mantra)

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci is from Wales, and two of the four bandmembers are named Euros. The band's music is supremely bizarre, but nevertheless tuneful. Each song takes an entirely different musical approach, from lovely, gentle Welsh ballads to the creepy "Hair Like Monkey Teeth Like Dog," in which the performers maniacally chant the title over menacing piano music. Lead singer Euros Childs barks the chorus of the off-kilter "Poodle Rockin'," while many songs feature merry background trumpeting. Spanish Dance Troupe never bores. -- Shank

Habib Koite and Bamada
Ma Ya
(Putamayo Music)

Koite, a softly urgent chanter/singer, charges himself with the task of downloading the many varieties of Mali's rhythms onto this album and translating tunes from the banjo-like ngoni and hand percussion to the fretboard of his acoustic guitar. Bamada doesn't always help -- the band's Westernized guitars, bass and drums are a few touches short of the suppleness of classic African pop or folk, often hitting offbeats as clunky as wheels hitting the road before being perfectly rounded. But the sense of purpose in Koite's words and in that cleanly plucked guitar testify to the charms of a vanishing Malian culture. Now that's shouldering a cultural burden. -- Young

Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate
Kulanjan
(Hannibal)

A partnership that finds the gooey vocals and front-porch-in-the-Delta guitar work of Mahal paired with Diabate's mastery of the Malian kora. The result is a lush recording that alternately plays with Malian traditionals and embellishes standard blues themes. A record as suited for quiet meditations as it is for careful studies of the ways in which two cultural styles can intersect so gracefully. Sweeter than a honeybee. -- Bond

Os Mutantes
Everything Is Possible
(Luaka Bop)

This long-overdue compilation of the defunct Mutantes places the pioneering Brazilian rock band in the first tier of '60s acid-munching innovators. With disorienting beauty, the densely populated tracks combine congas, ethereal harmonies, groovy organs and just the right tinge of "not your stepping stone" guitar 'tude. Smooth, driving, retro gems sung in lilting Portuguese, this batch of songs could make any lava lamp owner's heart melt with joy. -- La Briola

Puya
Fundamental
(MCA)

The Puerto Rican rap-metal band Puya doesn't actually outrock Rage Against the Machine. But rapper/singer Sergio Cubelo roars where Zach de la Rocha rants, and sings where de la Rocha rants, too. Puya has another secret weapon: a blaring, one-of-a-kind hybrid of Latin funk blended into four kick-ass metal raps -- horns, congas, guitars, and drums trying to crowbar their way into your two little ears all at once. -- Young

Sister Carol
Isis: The Original Womb-Man
(Tuff Gong)

In addition to being at the forefront of reggae's dwindling number of relevant roots stars, "Mother Culture" further distinguished herself this year with reggae's first feminist album. Preaching reggae's traditional message of empowerment to women was a development that was long overdue; delivering that message with vital, rapid-fire toasting and an unmatched feel for cadence and delivery ensured it would appeal to everyone. -- Green

Barbarito Torres
Havana Café
(Harbour Bridge/Havana Caliente/Atlantic)

The unanticipated success of the Buena Vista Social Club precipitated a boom in the stateside availability of recordings by Cuban musicians -- and since the sounds they make are among the planet's most vital, who's complaining? This salvo from Torres, a wizard on the acoustic guitar and laúd (a kind of lute), is among the most consistently engaging recent releases of its type, but Compay Segundo's Calle Salud, on Nonesuch, and a slew of other offerings will reward the adventurous as well. -- Roberts

Wimme Gierran Hedningarna
Karelia Visa
(NorthSide)

The star of the show is Sami Wimme Saari, a native of Finland who combines an indigenous vocal style called yoik with electronic instrumentation and rock instincts. The result suggests Peter Gabriel gone Nordic: fresh, strange and enchanting. Another NorthSide release with Finnish roots -- Hedningarna's Karelia Visa -- is a more traditional but still compelling look at the music of this region, and is also highly recommended. -- Roberts

World Saxophone Quartet
M'Bizo
(Justin Time)

On M'Bizo, the U.S.-based World Saxaphone Quartet meets South African vocalists and percussionists to honor the late South African bassist Johnny "M'Bizo" Dyani via a musical suite and two other pieces. The lead piece, "Snanapo," sets up a percussive base over which the quartet engages in brief solos and lots of polyphonic group blowing. The end piece features chanting by the Americans and allows each of them to solo on their horns as well. But the real treasure is the suite itself -- a slow, gospel-tinged number with chanting, clapping, and declamatory statements by the horns. A thing of beauty surpassing most records this year. -- P. Brown

IF WE HAD TO PICK JUST ONE

The Flaming Lips
The Soft Bulletin
(Warner Bros.)

Pucker up for the Lips' most essential kiss to date, an astounding, meticulously crafted masterpiece that just might give you hope for the human race. From a fourteen-year marriage yielding more than a dozen wonderfully weird kids, the prolific acid-minstrels of Oklahoma have sired their most gifted prodigy to date: a career-defining love child that not only splits the technical bull's-eye of musical ingenuity, but ushers in a much-needed jolt of optimism, however flamboyant, in this culture of sleepwalking cynicism.

Led by singer/songwriter Wayne Coyne, these lush, ethereal, soothing and beautiful tracks combine multilayered soundscapes with a cinematic sweep that can both astonish and restore what's left of the human spirit. Utilizing harps, gongs, synthesized gadgetry, choir-like vocal harmonizing, and plenty of loud drumming, Bulletin finds the Lips playing with the notion of limitless musical possibilities. "Race for the Prize," a tweaked but upbeat soul concoction, pits two scientists in heated battle "for the good of all mankind," even if it kills them; the lilting arrangements beg a velvety narrator on the scale of Barry White, but Coyne's withered voice, nearly worn to a shadow, conjures the tone of Neil Young instead, melancholic while keeping his chin up.

Gone are the squalling chunk and stun guitars of projects past, the psychotic barrage of 1989's Telepathic Surgery, the pop chicanery of 1993's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart; this time the prog-Romeos (Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins round out the brilliant trio) are preoccupied with love, so much love -- right down to love's very molecular components. Before bleeding into a mood that floats blissfully away on a cloud, "What Is the Light?" suggests (through an untested hypothesis) that the chemical produced in our brains that enables us to experience the sensation of being in love is the same chemical that caused the Big Bang, the birth of the accelerating universe. "Buggin'," the work's most radio-friendly track, reels ripe and bursts with a delirious joyfulness that again confirms the summertime buzz -- you guessed it -- love. And most endearingly, "The Spiderbite Song" declares "Love is the greatest thing a heart can know" with such lump-throated lunacy, you'll want to throw yourself open-armed into the nearest black widow's nest.

With ever-increasing millennial jitters, primal fuses growing shorter and enough bad vibes and weaponry to glut hell, a night on the roof contemplating Superman, the cosmos and our very own hearts might do all of us some good. -- La Briola


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