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On the Records

Looking back on it now, 2000 was kind of a letdown. Despite numerous predictions to the contrary, there weren't any widespread Y2K-related computer failures, a rare planetary alignment on May 5 didn't have any perceptible impact on Earth, and a rash of Internet-based music sites didn't dismantle the record industry as we know it. The latter, of course, is both good and bad news. While the big money music machine continued churning out teen pop and derivative radio pap (hey, something's gotta fill the space between car-stereo commercials), interesting artists of every style also managed to fight the tide of mediocrity and produce some fine recordings.

This year, like last, we invited Westword music writers to share thoughts on some of the year's most notable offerings. Considering the subjective nature of such an assignment, we asked them to think not in strict "Top Ten" terms, but to help us compile a thorough and thought-provoking guide to the year in music. Separated by categories of genre and medium -- Blues, Collections, Compilations, Country/ Roots, Electronic/Dance, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Miscellaneous, Pop, Punk/Hardcore, R&B, Rock/ Indie, World -- we've included listings from artists both familiar and obscure, national and local. Of course, by the time you're done reading this, it'll be time to start all over again. We predict more good music is on the way, along with, of course, a few minor catastrophes.

BLUES

R.L. Burnside

Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down

(Fat Possum)

Two years back, Burnside dropped Come On In, a disc that juxtaposed his blues primitivism with the modern studio anarchy of Alec Empire and Tom Rothrock in a manner that made purists howl. Heaven, too, has its contemporary intrusions, including scratching by somebody dubbed DJ Pete B. But this time around, the production touch is lighter, allowing Burnside's gutbucket laments to come through loud and clear. -- Michael Roberts

T-Model Ford

She Ain't None of Your'n

(Epitaph)

As torch-bearers of modern-day, real-deal blues go, this 76-year-old ex-con is an unlikely hero. But Ford's latest is the year's spookiest plateful of Mississippi mud, caveman blues as bloody as the delicacies he honors in "Chicken Head Man." Primal, untrained and overdriven, it's gristly stuff that satisfies. For a guy with only one testicle (the other one was crushed in his youth by an abusive father), Ford has more balls than Wilson and Spalding, Clapton and Cray. -- Marty Jones

Corey Harris and Henry Butler

Vü-Dü Menz

(Alligator)

The pairing of onetime Denverite Harris, the most talented of today's young acoustic bluesmen, and Butler, a New Orleans veteran who once rubbed shoulders with James Booker, could have been overly polite -- an example of dues-paying that seemed better on paper than on disc, as was the case with the Eric Clapton-B.B. King collaboration Riding With the King. But that's not the way it worked out, and thank goodness. Harris and Butler have at it without apparent regard to age or reputation, bringing out the best in each other. -- Roberts

Alvin Youngblood Hart

Start With the Soul

(Hannibal)

Instead of merely regurgitating blues cliches, as do far too many of his peers, Hart insists upon goading the style in search of inspiration. On Soul, he offers up a typically fine batch of compositions that he rips through without regard to classifications, using all the tools at his disposal, not the least of which are his vocals, his guitar and a broken Casio. Of such things is modern blues made. -- Roberts

Dr. John

Duke Elegant

(Blue Note)

This disc validates both Dr. John's ability and the durability of Duke Ellington's music. Giving classic Duke tunes a laid-back, funky New Orleans treatment sounds like both a simple concept and a recipe for disaster. Dr. John and his band avoid the pitfalls inherent in tackling such a project. They don't trivialize or condescend to the material, dumb down the rhythms or manhandle the melodies. Best, they heed the grace with which Ellington built improvisational segments into many of the tunes. Elegant indeed, and also lots of fun. -- Patrick Brown

Wilie King

Freedom Creek

(Rooster Blues)

There was a time when the blues addressed social concerns, but it seems like an eon ago; now, for the most part, artists working in the idiom tend to address personal politics, not the global kind. Praise be, then, for King, who uses blues of the most serrated sort to attack injustices of every ilk on trenchant tunes such as "Uncle Tom," "Clean Up the Ghetto," "The Sell-Out" and a song with an especially appropriate title: "Stand Up and Speak the Truth." -- Roberts

King Ernest

Blues Got Soul

(Fat Possum)

Everyone knows that misfortune and misery are prime ingredients of the blues, but too often, lasciviousness is left out of the recipe. King Ernest Baker, who died in March at the age of 61, remedied that by concentrating on the sexy, sleazy side of the music. He transformed the majority of these ten tunes into hip-grinding come-ons, whether their lyrics specifically touched upon such topics or not. -- Roberts

Paul Thorn

Ain't Love Strange

(Perpetual)

With a flair for Beck-style studio fun and Quentin Tarantino-esque characters, Thorn comes across as some street-corner preacher by day, bluesman by night. Strange's cuts run from the darkly humored swamp blues of "Burn Down the Trailer Park" to the bittersweet ache of "Where Was I?" The songs are rife with underbelly souls drunk on Ricki Lake and celebrity worship, Aqua Velva on their breath. -- JonesCOLLECTIONS

Louis Armstrong

The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings

(Columbia/Legacy)

The booklet that is part of the Hot Five/Seven package is more than lavish enough to stand on its own: A better photo anthology of the young Satchmo you will not unearth. But the real draw are the set's four CDs, which for the first time gather together all of the songs cut by Armstrong and his most illustrious assortment of colleagues. Music scholars can go on and on about the significance of these cuts, but perhaps their most important attribute is how great they still sound more than a half-century down the line. -- Roberts

Fontella Bass

Free

(Fuel 2000)

Bass doesn't have much of a claim on musical immortality. In fact, most people under thirty who hear her only top-ten hit, 1965's "Rescue Me," probably think it's by Aretha Franklin. But Bass was a compelling figure, and one not easily categorized; she's performed with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and even married the outfit's trumpeter, the late Lester Bowie. Free, which consists of music she produced during her early-'70s association with Paula Records, is simultaneously familiar and fresh -- seminal soul very few people ever heard. It's about time more of them did. -- Roberts

Johnny Cash

Love God Murder

(Columbia/American/Legacy)

Cash has received the boxed-set treatment several times already, but previous presentations have been more conventional than Love God Murder, three discs' worth of genuine Johnny that serve as a sort of psychological profile for this complex character. The songs are segregated thematically, with the first CD encompassing his romantic and/or lustful side, the second dedicated to his purebred Christianity, and the third exhibiting his most feral portraits of crime and madness. The one listeners like best is apt to say as much about them as it does about him. -- Roberts

Sam Cooke

The Man Who Invented Soul

(RCA)

Cooke was so suave and assured that he made his journey seem more effortless than it actually was. The Man Who Invented Soul, a four-disc box, focuses on his transition from gospel heartthrob to pop purveyor and, toward the end, social commentator. In addition, the last CD's in-concert segments, taped in Harlem, serve as reminders that this buttoned-down fella could burn down the house when the mood struck. -- Roberts

The Cult

The Singles 1984-1995

(Beggars Banquet)

Okay, so cutting a Diane Warren ditty, as the Cult did this year, doesn't guarantee a career renaissance. Fortunately, the Cult has a killer back catalogue, represented herein in its coliseum-crunching glory. From "Love Removal Machine" to lesser-known gems, this collection solidifies the legacy of one of rock's most distinctive dinosaurs. -- John Jesitus

Devo

Pioneers Who Got Scalped/The Anthology

(Rhino)

A fine collection from the band that redefined the American new wave's relationship to potatoes -- and saved a generation of misfits with spaceships and stars in their eyes from big hair and stadium rock. Devo's funny costumes and funnier-sounding music may have seemed confounding to some in the late '70s; did they really think there was a future in keyboard music? In retrospect, the band's tag-team wit and still-perfect pop seems nothing short of essential. -- Laura BondThe Flying Burrito Brothers

Hot Burritos!: Anthology 1969-1972

(A&M)

With the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons laid the groundwork for what would become the country-rock movement. Considering some of the drippy music that followed, this achievement was not without its downside, but it plainly wasn't his fault. The two-CD Anthology rightly focuses on the Parsons era, which was blessedly invigorating yet damnably brief. -- Roberts

Robbie Fulks

The Very Best of Robbie Fulks

(Bloodshot)

Old faves and unreleased treats from Fulks -- alternative country's crown jewel -- are combined here on one shining platter. It's a brain-tickling set of honky-tonk and rootsy rock that deals in subjects ranging from poison love and alcohol consumption to the narrow minds of Fulks's retro-minded listeners. If there was a Grammy category for Americana Pop, "Jean Arthur" would earn song of the year. -- Jones

Los Lobos

El Cancionero -- Más y Más

(Rhino)

Not only has the wolf survived, but it's put together an exceptionally fine boxed set: four CDs boasting 86 tracks that include classics, rarities, side projects and surprises from East L.A.'s legendary barrier-breaking quintet. Spanning 23 years, Más y Más chronicles the pack's astonishingly eclectic oeuvre, from roots music based in Mexican folklore to the off-kilter sonic territory of its Latin-tinged experiments. Utterly engaging from beginning to end, this collection is testament to the Lobos' enduring status as a bona fide American cultural institution. -- John La Briola

MC5

The Big Bang! The Best of the MC5

(Rhino)

More than knuckleheaded agitators, the MC5 left Utopia on hold -- and Detroit's White Panther Party flying its freak flag at half-mast. They also left dragster rock in the dust, securing permanent cabinet positions in the garage-rock corridors of honorable mention. Thank Rhino then, brothers and sisters, for scouring the best gear-headed moments from the band's truncated three-record career -- sifting through psychedelia sexualis and free jazz -- and packaging it all under the tidy, jam-kickin' umbrella of a big-ass Afro. -- La Briola

Sarge

Distant

(Mud)

Breaking up never sounded so sweet. A posthumous collection of rarities and live versions peppered with a handful of new studio songs, Distant provides a snapshot of the good and bad times for beloved Midwestern indie band Sarge. As a package, the album provides a poignant epilogue that's even bluer than the group's lonely songs themselves. -- Matt Schild

COMPILATIONS

Various Artists

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music

(Columbia/Legacy)

Glass-half-empty sorts have lotsa beefs with this five-CD boxed set, produced to accompany documentarian Ken Burns's attempt to encapsulate the history of jazz -- an impossible task by any measure. And they've got some good points, especially as concerns the stodgy selections chosen to exemplify the past twenty years or so in the genre's life span. But on the plus side of the equation, Ken Burns Jazz serves as a sweeping compendium of jazz greats, from King Oliver to Cassandra Wilson, who've been kept apart in the past because of record-company wrangling. It's not the whole story, but it's a good place to start. -- Roberts

Various Artists

Local Shakedown

Produced by the music-loving staff of KVCU/Radio AM 1190, the student-run station affiliated with the University of Colorado at Boulder, Local Shakedown is a fine romp through the Front Range landscape. Kicking off with a spoken word intro by former Boulderite Jello Biafra, the collection is populated by local punk, rock and pop artists, including the Apples and Slim Cessna's Auto Club. It's much more fun than your average shakedown, though no less invigorating. -- Bond

Various Artists

Lyricist Lounge 2

(Rawkus)

A laudable sequel to 1998's Lyricist Lounge Volume One, which paid tribute to the like-named hip-hop showcases first staged in 1991, Lyricist Lounge 2 is the place to find rappers harking back to the days when their choicest gigs were open-mike nights. Old-schoolers such as Kool G Rap rub shoulders with the likes of Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and Redman for performances that are a whole lot better than that of the average lounge act. -- Roberts

Various Artists

Soundtrack: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

(Mercury)

The tunes assembled for the forthcoming Coen Brothers film -- a twisted retelling of Homer's "The Odyssey" stamped with a title courtesy of Preston Sturges (O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the movie that the fictional director at the center of 1941's Sullivan's Travels dreamed of making) -- bode well for its quality. Archival material by the likes of the Stanley Brothers rubs up against modern recastings by a fabulous roots roster (Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, the Fairfield Four and more) under the tutelage of producer T-Bone Burnett. -- Roberts

Various Artists

The Powerpuff Girls: Heroes & Villains

(Rhino)

Because the Cartoon Network's favorite big-eyed do-gooders have always looked like the perky daughters of Roy Lichtenstein, it makes perfect sense that music inspired by them should be pop-oriented. But instead of taking the easy route and having some studio hack squeeze out hackneyed tie-ins, the folks at Rhino let loose a batch of today's top poppers, including Bis, Cornelius, Shonen Knife and Denver's Dressy Bessy and the Apples. The result is a disc that adults, teens and tots will be fighting each other over. -- Roberts

Various Artists

Transatlantic Sessions

(Ceili Music)

What do you get when you pair Celtic standard-bearers such as fiddler Aly Bain with country and folk luminaries including Nanci Griffith and Ricky Skaggs? This CD, an affecting series of acoustic performances highlighted by Radney Foster and Kim Richey's "Nobody Wins" and Maura O'Connell's haunting "Trouble in the Fields." -- Jesitus

Various Artists

Whistle Bait! 25 Rockabilly Rave-ups

Ain't I'm a Dog! 25 More Rockabilly Rave-ups

(Columbia/Epic/Legacy)

Rockabilly may seem quaint and nostalgic these days, but it wasn't always so: The style was initially the sort of affront to established mores that inspired worried parents to picket and ministers to pound their pulpits. These companion pieces round up a total of fifty ditties by big names (Carl Perkins, Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins) and comparatively obscure practitioners (Larry Collins, Werly Fairburn, Joe Maphis) that catch the music at its wildest, horniest and least dated. -- Roberts

COUNTRY/ROOTS

Domino Kings

Life & 20

(SlewFoot)

This Missouri trio's second disc is an all-you-can-eat buffet for lovers of all things twanged and 'billied. The Kings tumble through killer Buck Owens and Johnny Cash-style country, Johnny Rivers-ish rock and Texas blues, and all of it sounds mighty good. Guitarist Stevie Newman is one bad-ass string bender, equal parts Luther Perkins, Junior Brown and Deke Dickerson. Long live the Kings! -- Jones

Steve Earle

Transcendental Blues

(E-Squared, LLC/Artemis)

Artistically speaking, or in any other sense, Earle won't be fenced in. His music still retains ties to the rocking C&W with which he first made his name, but these days he's equally adept at folk, pop, psychedelia, bluegrass or an inimitable combination of all four. So forget the definitions, just as Earle has done. The only thing that matters is his talent -- and on Transcendental Blues, he displays plenty. -- Roberts

Merle Haggard

If I Could Only Fly

(Anti-)

Just because Haggard's latest is on a subsidiary of Epitaph doesn't mean he's suddenly gonna feel compelled to cover the Offspring; he's too crotchety, too set in his ways for that to happen. But by removing the commercial pressures that come along with recording for a major country label, the affiliation allows Merle to be Merle -- and that's a very good thing. If I Could Only Fly is the most casual, laid-back Haggard recording in recent memory, and also the most natural. The return of a master. -- RobertsClaire Lynch

Love Light

(Rounder)

Lynch has a down-home voice that calls to mind the young Dolly Parton, a knack for writing songs that are accessible without seeming either obvious or desperate, and an ability to locate the places where country and bluegrass intersect. With the help of an excellent, understated band supplemented at key moments by banjoist Alison Brown, she cuts to the bone without breaking the skin. -- Roberts

Open Road

Bluegrass Music

For area bluegrass fiends distressed by Colorado's growing army of pseudo-grassers, here's sweet relief: This local quintet plays haunting bluegrass in its purest form, in-your-face and unconcerned about the slightest nod to the present. The band's tasteful, earthy chops serve as the perfect support for leader Bradford Folk, a no-B.S. guy who sings like Ralph Stanley's rebellious son. -- JonesDallas Wayne

Big Thinkin'

(HMG)

Wayne -- an Ernest Tubb-style baritone with guitar chops just as deep -- pairs up with Robbie Fulks to create a stellar collection of neo-honky-tonk. The tunes stretch from dance-hall romps and tearjerkers to murder odes and a hilarious anti-Nashville cut, "If That's Country." This record most certainly is. -- Jones

Dwight Yoakam

dwightyoakamacoustic.net

(Warner Bros.)

With just a guitar and his Smoky Mountain voice, Mr. Tight Britches himself proves a point with this album: He's the best damn thing to happen to country over the past fifteen years. Twenty-five unplugged cuts show Yoakam to be a songwriter unmatched today in his chosen genre. This is a timeless disc that elevates country music to literary status. -- Jones

Dwight Yoakam

Tomorrow's Sounds Today

(Warner Bros.)

Yoakam's newest full-band release delivers more contemporary country goodness. Traditional weepers bump boots with barroom raveups; hybrid twang blends disparate forms into new roots-pop territory. Tomorrow offers thoroughly satisfying C&W from an artist who seems incapable of wrong moves. -- Jones

ELECTRONIC/DANCE

Cherry Bomb Club

Cherry Bomb Club

(Divine Shaker)

This irresistible bit of electro-grooving soul music comes courtesy of a group of locals who seem capable of shaking things up in stereo decks and dance clubs the world over: Vocalist Erica Brown bolsters the Club's sexiness quotient with every note, while Dave Moore masterminds a dizzying and clever pastiche of found sounds, soundtrack segments and aural oddities. Best of all, though, are the album's melodies -- catchy, sweet, beautiful and bouncy. An uplifting, booty-shaking, unusually fun offering. -- Bond

Groove Armada

Vertigo

(Jive Electro)

Knocking out the down-tempo "Whatever, Whenever" and the big-beat "I See You Baby," Groove Armada has proved itself an up-and-coming talent capable of Fat Boy Slim-sized sales. The standout here, however, is the melancholy "At the River," a somber ode to sand dunes and salty air that splice a Patti Page riff over sampled drums and horns. -- Kelly Lemieux

Madonna

Music

(Maverick/Warner Bros.)

With filtered vocals, booming beats and scratchin', Robo-Madonna wastes no time getting down to business on Music's title track. DJ/producer Mirwais adds a touch of Paris to this Zagat survey of Europe's avant-garde in the hip-hop-folk single "Don't Tell Me," the heavenly downer "Gone" and "Paradise (Not for Me)," an urban tune that contemplates identity, depression and lost youth. -- Lemieux

Timo Maas

Music for the Maases

(Kinetic)

If mainstreamers have heard of Maas, it's likely because this German DJ was recently touched by the hand of Madonna, who asked that he remix her single "Don't Tell Me." But he's actually worked for years under a potpourri of pseudonyms, Orinoko and Kinetic A.T.O.M. among them. Music for the Maases, a two-CD set that features efforts from throughout his career, is the place to get acquainted with his fiddlings, which shift easily from restful undulations to the heaviest beats a machine can make. -- RobertsMocean Worker

Aural & Hearty

(Palm)

New York's Adam Dorn, the main laborer behind Mocean Worker, has some famous pals, including U2's Bono, who stops by long enough to appear on "Air Suspension." But it's Dorn's playful senseful of humor, and not the company he keeps, that lifts Aural & Hearty above the pack. His willingness to act silly at regular intervals infuses his skillful mixology with a great deal more personality than most members of the drum-and-bass club can muster. -- Roberts

DJ Danny Tenaglia

Back to Mine

(Ultra)

Tenaglia's Back to Mine mix series broadens the pots-and-pan palette of the East Coast club experience. The suite brings together a collector's bouquet of down-tempo material such as CeCe Peniston's decade-old diva house ("Keep On Walkin'") and newer work, like the Gentle People's ambient "Emotion Heater (Vocal Mix)" and the DJ's own "Loft in Paradise" trance offering. -- Lemieux

Roni Size Reprazent

In the Mode

(Island)

Size can be guilty of putting virtuosity ahead of entertainment value, but when he strikes the proper balance, he's all but unstoppable. The compositional quality of his soundscapes on In the Mode is underlined by guest raps by Method Man, Rahzel and former Rage Against the Machine anger fount Zack de la Rocha. But the real attraction is Size, whose use of technology is relentlessly, thrillingly uncompromising. -- Roberts

Saint Etienne

Sound of Water

(Sub Pop)

Sound of Water is noodle-y and experimental thanks to co-production from To Rococo Rot and Sean O'Hagan. It features a nine-minute single, "How We Used to Live," a lot of quiet tracks, and a couple of beat-heavy numbers: "Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)" and "Boy Is Crying." A pair of headphones reveals the fine craftsmanship underneath this obscure and delicate offering. -- Lemieux

White Town

Peek and Poke

(Parasol)

The band that brought "Your Woman" to the dance floors in 1996 is back, once again tackling the breadth of pop music. Whether crafting searing guitar tracks or perky, almost Top 40 pop, Jyoti Mishra picks his way through a pop-cultural landscape with more shimmies and shakes than the average Britney Spears dance routine. -- Schild

HIP-HOP

Common

Like Water for Chocolate

(MCA)

The title of Common's previous CD, One Day It'll All Make Sense, was prophetic: His determined fusion of conscious rhymes and genre-stretching music didn't all come together on that disc, but it sure has on his latest. Like Water for Chocolate finds this Chicagoan with Denver roots producing sounds that are just as persuasive as his intelligent wordplay. -- Roberts

dead prez

lets get free

(Loud)

Organizing under red, green and black banners -- instead of gangbanger bandannas -- dead prez's stic.man and M-1 hurl Molotov cocktail rhymes at their targets. Not since the days of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back-era Public Enemy has a rap group so stridently bum-rushed listeners with its revolutionary politics. Providing one of the highlights of the okay player tour this year, dead prez's set featured female duo the jazzyfatnasties on background vocals. Given the band's message of community-building and self-empowerment, it seemed like a Black Panthers reunion, with a resurrected Huey and Bobby taking turns on the mike and Angela Davis and Elaine Brown singing together in unison. -- James Mayo

Deltron 3030

Deltron 3030

(75 Ark)

This superstar offering, which marries Del tha Funkee Homosapien's witty rhymes and Kid Koala's damn-near scientific mixology with the production genius of Dan the Automator, just might be the most complex bit of studio wizardry released all year. Hilarious, confounding and bumping, the Deltron trinity is proof there's a world going on in hip-hop's underground. -- Bond

Dilated Peoples

The Platform

(Capitol)

These Peoples, who've been shaking up the Los Angeles underground for years, are associated with the DJ subset of the rap thang. Yet The Platform isn't simply a forum for tone-arm gymnastics. The tracks are sturdy and well-structured, and the words are old-school without seeming out of date, allowing the scratching and sampling to serve as dietary supplements, not the whole meal. -- Roberts

Ghostface Killah

Supreme Clientele

(Epic/Razor Sharp)

Lackluster solo joints by Wu-Tang affiliates -- all of which sorely lacked RZA's production skills -- have sent the clan's stock plummeting in recent years. Now, as if the Wus' lives depended on it, RZA (aka the Abbott) returns on Supreme Clientele to help restore the family name. Back are the '60s and '70s soul samples and the obligatory David Axelrod cop and kung-fu movie excerpts, plus snippets from the Ironman cartoon. All of this reminds listeners of the essence of the Clan's sound. Add in Ghostface's neck-snapping-outta-the-chain free-associative and nonsensical wordplay (such as "Scooby snack Jurassic plastic gas booby trap," from "Nutmeg"), and you have an instant classic. -- Mayo

Guru's Jazzmatazz

Streetsoul

(Virgin)

At the beginning of Streetsoul, Keith Elam, aka Guru, hushes a generous round of applause with a couple of thank-yous -- an appropriate introduction to what is essentially a variety show, with Guru cast as the urbane host, and Les Nubians, Isaac Hayes, the Roots and many others serving as the classiest array of guest stars imaginable. The latest installment of the long-running Jazzmatazz cycle is the most relaxed -- and perhaps the most deeply enjoyable. -- Roberts

Jay-Z

The Dynasty Roc La Familia (2000- )

(Roc-A-Fella Records)

Right now, Jigga could run for mayor of NYC and win by a landslide. He'd run that city like he runs his business -- like a ghetto Blake Carrington. On his fifth album, Jay-Z brings the usual street tales ("Streets Is Talking," and the elegiac "This Can't Be Life," which interpolates the classic Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes "I Miss You"). But in contrast to last year's overrated Vol. 3 Life and Times of S. Carter, we get less floss and more funk courtesy of guests like the Neptunes, who rounded out a banner year by producing one of 2000's best singles, the Curtis Mayfield-ish "I Just Wanna Love U." -- Mayo

Jurassic 5

Quality Control

(Interscope Records)

The J5 come at you like a B-boy barbershop quartet in which each MC shines solo and in unison. With four MCs (Chali 2na, Zaakir, Akil and Marc 7) and two DJs (Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark), the J5 have been likened to old-school groups such as Cold Crush and Treacherous Three. In actuality, the vibe is more like Fat Albert circa the early '70s: The straight-up funky sounds and jazz breaks that Nu-Mark and Chemist create would work perfectly as the soundtrack to a hip-hop update of that cartoon classic. Hey, hey, hey! -- Mayo

OutKast

Stankonia

(LaFace/Arista)

The next time someone argues that rap isn't a musical medium, tell him to bite off a chunk of this. Dre and Big Boi, the yin and yang of this Southern-fried hip-hop contraption, fly their P-funk flag on this wildly entertaining mélange of screaming guitars, welcoming electronics, party grooves and words dedicated to keeping all of one's organs happy, the brain included. Even better than 1998's must-have Aquemini -- and that's really saying something. -- Roberts

Reflection Eternal/Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek

Reflection Eternal

(Rawkus)

On this album, Kweli and Hi-Tek represent the conscious side of rap. The lineage of the African diaspora resonates in their raps and beats, best illustrated in Kweli's rap take on the Nina Simone classic "Four Women." In the original, a narrator speaks of four women whose differences in skin color causes them to be subjected to various injustices. In Kweli's version, an anecdote about an encounter with a hundred-year-old woman is a vehicle for a quick lesson in African-American history. This powerful and thought-provoking duo takes listeners on a journey from the present to a future that remains heavily informed by the past. -- Mayo

Jill Scott

Who Is Jill Scott?/Words and Sounds Vol. 1

(Hidden Beach/Epic)

Finally, this Philadelphia wordsmith has her own chance to shine. Did you like the hook in the Roots' "You Got Me," which featured Erykah Badu in the video and on the record? Scott penned that one. Before she started making records, Scott had already made her name as a poet in Philly; on her solo debut, she proves she can sing as well as she can write. From the in-your-face, don't-mess-with-my-man-erisms of the hit single "Getting in the Way" to emotional songs like "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E flat)," Scott writes and sings about all the permutations of love without sounding trite or cliche. -- Mayo

Wu-Tang Clan

The W

(Loud)

The last Wu disc, 1997's Wu-Tang Forever, had that cranking-it-out feel to it, probably because RZA and the crew were cruising and figured that the public would buy pretty much anything they were selling. But three years later they sound like they have something to prove again. The W could have used some more Ol' Dirty Bastard -- a pox on the legal system! -- but Method Man, in particular, sounds scorching, most of the tracks are tight and powerful, and "Gravel Pit" even allows some wit to shine through all that sonic gloom. -- Roberts

JAZZ

Patricia Barber

Nightclub

(Premonition/Blue Note)

Chicago-based vocal revolutionist Patricia Barber turns now from jazz-inflected takes on pop anthems to standards such as "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Autumn Leaves" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily." That she claims each tune as her own in characteristic come-hither style is no surprise to the growing Barber cult. -- Bill Gallo

Bluiett

With Eyes Wide Open

(Justin Time)

Bluiett's latest is yet another delightful, multifaceted and simply gorgeous work from the baritone sax master. Bluiett's solo career has eclipsed both traditional-sounding bluesy numbers and more expansive avant-garde outings; at one point, he delved into African rhythms and sonorities, as evidenced by "Africa/Island Song" here. Elsewhere he honors "Monk & Wes," covers the great Don Pullen (twice), and gives the members of his quartet (especially guitarist Ed Cherry) the space they need. Score another victory for one of the most underrated horn players working today. -- Brown

James Carter

Layin' in the Cut

(Atlantic)

Rising jazzers can guarantee themselves respectful coverage by paying homage to their elders, and Carter's certainly played that game: This year he put out Chasin' the Gypsy, a nod to guitarist Django Reinhardt. But to his credit, he also unleashed Cut, an excursion into electrified jazz-funk with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, guitarist Jef Lee Johnson and others that's utterly unlike anything he's done in the past. Consider this one vote for taking a chance. -- Roberts

Hagans/Belden

Reanimation Live!

(Blue Note)

The lineup that trumpeter Tim Hagans and soprano saxophonist Bob Belden employed during their turn at the Montreal Jazz Festival, from which this recording is culled, was thoroughly up to date; it included a synthesizer player and a turntablist. But Reanimation is hardly a cheese-out intended to cloak a lack of chops with showy instrumentation. The two principals are canny soloists who use the accoutrements as a means to an end, not as the end itself. -- Roberts

Dave Holland Quintet

Prime Directive

(ECM)

An erudite sort who avoids blowing his own horn (which is appropriate, given that he plays bass), Holland suffers from a lack of attention aggravated by his own modesty. But the guy simply doesn't put out bad albums. Prime Directive, made with saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson, is another impeccable excursion, eminently listenable and slyly courageous. -- Roberts

Brad Mehldau

Places

(Warner Brothers)

This collection of solo and trio pieces by the intense, introspective pianist Brad Mehldau (each titled for the place where it was composed) reminds us of his aesthetic debts to Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, but we also hear what a beautifully nuanced and wholly original player Mehldau has become. -- Gallo

Greg Osby

The Invisible Hand

(Blue Note)

Energetic young alto saxophonist Greg Osby joins forces with a pair of masters -- guitarist Jim Hall and the ever-experimental pianist Andrew Hill -- to create a synergy as satisfying as it is unlikely. The Osby/Hall exchange on "Nature Boy" is a jazz improvisation primer that musicians and aficionados can study for decades. -- Gallo

Evan Parker/Cecil Taylor/Barry Guy/Tony Oxley

Nailed

(FMP)

Evan Parker's top billing on this exemplary free-jazz album is almost justified. Though in concept and execution, its clearly a Cecil Taylor album, Parker damn near steals the show every time he sends air through his horn. Given the relentless, thunderous, elemental power of Taylor's piano playing, that's no small feat. If you've never experienced undiluted Cecil Taylor, this is a good place to start. Once started, continue on to the two other albums recorded during the same week in 1990 as Nailed: Melancholy and the solo Double Holy House. Taken together, the trio of recordings displays every facet of Taylor's immense creativity. -- BrownOther Dimensions in Music

Other Dimensions in Music w/Matthew Shipp

(Aum Fidelity)

Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell Jr., William Parker and Rashid Bakr, supplemented by pianist Matthew Shipp, don't want words to color perceptions of their music: The seven songs on this disc are dubbed "1," "2," "3" and so on. This approach is illustrative of their style, which favors abstraction over precision, mystery over blatancy, and sound over silence. A chaotic universe of jazz that will reward those brave enough to visit it. -- Roberts

John Randall Pelosi

"Plus Ultra"

(Umbrella)

Saxophonist/guitarist Pelosi isn't an unconstrained free-jazzer: He does his share of soaring, but he generally remains in sight of terra firma. Still, the adventure hasn't been sucked out of him yet. In settings featuring a nice range of axes -- cellos, bass violas and more -- he pushes and prods at the music, and when he bumps up against boundaries, he pushes and prods some more. -- Roberts

MISCELLANEOUS

California Guitar Trio

Rocks the West

(Pepa Paldo/Discipline Records)

Bert Lams, Paul Richards and Hideyo Moriya cultivate classically arranged acoustic six-string wizardry from unlikely sources: Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and Freddy Mercury's "Bohemian Rhapsody," for starters. These brilliant live recordings capture the best moments from four separate shows, in venues that include vaudeville theaters and roadside taverns. The producers have even included Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (the thirty-fingered version) accompanied by the sound of grilling hamburgers. -- La Briola

Libraness

Yesterday and Tomorrow's Shells

(Tiger Style Records)

Maybe Ash Bowie woke up too many mornings with a skull-splitting headache and turned to the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth and the Beatles' "Revolution #9" for a lo-fi, fuzzed-out, schizophrenic hangover cure. A combination of all of the above is what the former guitarist of Polvo and Helium gives us here: the perfect Saturday-morning record to kill your ills, minus the menudo. -- Mike Engstrom

Marvin Pontiac

The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits

(Strange and Beautiful Music)

These faux "hits" are part of a goofy John Lurie project in which he plays the legendary Marvin Pontiac, a whacked-out blues/pop musician who ended up in a mental hospital before being killed in a bus accident. Backed by Lurie's own slick, funky, jazzy grooves and the finest players of New York's downtown scene, Lurie carries the concept out with finesse, singing about flies, rocks, pancakes, ghosts and other things that might concern the ineffable Pontiac. A joke, for sure, but a good one. -- Brown

Sarina simoom

Thread Bone Bare

Creating aural wallpaper for ethereal beings, the high-minded Denver newcomers in Sarina simoom chime their way through this soul-baring and atmospheric recording. With soaring vocals and the abandonment of traditional song structures, the band succeeds wildly in constructing its own quiet spectacle. -- Patrick Casey

Schema

Schema

(5RC)

Stereolab hasn't suffered a meltdown, but the act's recent releases have failed to provide the jolt its previous packages routinely did, suggesting that the band could benefit from some fresh input. Schema, a collaboration between Stereolab keyboardist Mary Hansen and the members of Hovercraft, just might do the trick. The act's self-titled bow is a fascinating slab of plastic that's equally indebted to ambient tones and white noise. Consider the experiment a success. -- Roberts

Spaccanapoli

Lost Souls

(Real World)

Spaccanapoli -- literally, "split Naples" -- embodies the operatic soul of street-theater gatherings by the city's most popular socialist workers' collective: the E Zezi, an institution of over 120 musically inclined automotive laborers who've gathered together since 1974 to decry the grinding workaday oppression of the heartless capitalistas. Through gypsy enchantment and authentic folk expression, this internationally renowned cultural troupe -- trimmed considerably to five touring members -- combines mandolin, violin, accordion, rattles, throbbing tammoras and ancient a cappella chants into impassioned protest songs; they also filter reggae, rap and jazz into a potent mix of harmonic revolution as explosive as Mt. Vesuvius. -- La BriolaPOP

Ashley Park

Town and Country

(Kindercore)

Terry Miles, the man behind Ashley Park, has memorized the Brian Wilson bible, but Town and Country isn't simply another recapitulation of Pet Sounds, as are way too many albums marketed to the college-radio audience. His songs are wonderfully warm and inviting, drenched in creamy keyboards and tumbling vibes that are the sonic equivalent of a nice hug on a cold day. -- Roberts

Dan Bryk

Lovers Leap

(Scratchie)

Bryk understands the pop verities (inescapable melodies, bouncy chord patterns), but he also knows that lyrics attuned to today, not yesterday, are what can make his hooks stick. Hence he introduces Lovers Leap with "Mark Turmell V2.0," in which he recounts how, as a teenager, he idolized a computer geek who was "the coolest programmer in the entire fucking world," and follows it with a dozen other singular oddities that go from funny to sad to weird at warp speed. Take a Leap; you won't regret it. -- Roberts

Elastica

The Menace

(Atlantic)

Five years and a label change later, who'd expect anything from these guys? And more to the point, who'd expect an even better record than their debut? Unlike the debut -- a fine slice of polished, shiny pop-punk tunes riddled with disaffected angst -- this one's raw, loud, loose and friendly, but with no loss of hook power. Embracing influences without a hint of apology, the band apes Wire and Trio and steals lyrics from the Fall, all the while proving itself fit company for those bands. Though the meanings haven't deepened much, the attitude has softened, the members warmed up: If Justine Frischmann's lyrics don't exactly sound happy on several cuts, her tone suggests otherwise. Welcome back. -- Brown

Pizzicato Five

The Fifth Release From Matador

(Matador)

This Japanese combo knows a thing or two about winning hearts. Thirty seconds into The Fifth Release From Matador (talk about your utilitarian handles), the Five are already on charm overload as a result of "A Perfect World," a saucy burst of ringing bells, sawing strings, Motown-meets-Tokyo drumming and genial chirping, and they hardly let up the rest of the way. Hearing this album without smiling is a virtual impossibility. -- Roberts

The Solipsistics

Jesus of the Apes

(Frigidisk)

Jeffrey Owen McGregor, whose use of the Solipsistics tag reflects his fondness for self-deprecation, has a bit of Elliot Smith in him: His melodies are frequently as sunny as his words are dark. But he gets away with it thanks to the do-a-lot-with-a-little production by the venerable Earle Mankey, arrangements that pull out the melodrama card when necessary, and a way with images that would likely win Ray Davies's approval. -- Roberts

Robbie Williams

Sing When You're Winning

(Capitol)

England may not stack up to the United States in certain departments -- like the dental sciences -- but its teen idols kick the crap out of our teen idols. Whereas female American pubescents are stuck with the pre-processed glamour hunks, gals in Great Britain are treated to Williams, who's cute but cheeky and has more than a dollop of talent. Hell, "Rock DJ" is infinitely more fun than anything on Black and Blue. Take that, Backstreet Boys. -- Roberts

PUNK/HARDCORE

Automatic 7

Beggar's Life

(Vagrant)

While the latest crop of punks is likely to associate the genre's "roots" with early-'90s Lagwagon, Automatic 7 tears into its sound with a fury that alludes to its grasp of the genre's entire life span. Furious, disenchanted and smart, with crunchy guitars and put-upon vocals, Automatic 7 shows punk isn't about to fade away. -- Schild

Discount

Crash Diagnostic

(New American Dream)

For all their shared affinities, punk and emo rarely overlap with the grace found on Discount's final album. Crash encompasses the pendulum swings of post-hardcore and the no-frills arrangements of traditional punk rock; it also features some gritty production that plays up the tension between its influences. Discount delivers both heartache and anger without toning down either extreme. -- Schild

Green Day

Warning

(Reprise)

Though the Berkeley trio may lean more toward mainstream pop than ever before with this Warning, it hasn't abandoned its punk enthusiasm. Stripped-down pop numbers feature mildly distorted guitars rather than punk ragers and refer more toward the band's Lookout! Records days than its previous major-label efforts. It's enough to prove that pop punk isn't just about distortion pedals and overworked amplifiers. -- Schild

Knee Jerk Reaction

Modern Pop Rockets

(Knot Known)

Pop punk isn't just a vehicle for scatological humor and egotistical self-aggrandizement, as this Fort Collins trio proves. Dark psychodramas play themselves out while warm, friendly power-pop/punk arrangements innocently hide the disillusionment that seethes just below the band's upbeat surface. -- Schild

Snapcase

Designs for Automotion

(Victory)

Revisiting the realm of hardcore isn't usually the kind of thing forward-thinking music fans find themselves doing, though Snapcase provides an excuse for progressives to indulge in the typically static style. With the band mixing cerebral emo-core dynamics with the rabid edge of hardcore, Designs cuts with a powerful precision that's as educated as it is feral. -- Schild

R&B

Erykah Badu

Mama's Gun

(Motown)

With Baduism, from 1997, Ms. Badu arrived on the scene as a fully grown artist -- or so we thought. With this offering, she displays more creative development than anyone could have hoped, proving herself capable of moving from diamond-hard funk ("Penitentiary Philosophy") to rapturous romance ("In Love With You," a duet with Stephen Marley) without losing her savoir faire or her hair wrap. Add "Green Eyes," a suite that actually rewards her considerable ambitions, and you've got what looks from this distance like an instant classic. Mama's Gun is loaded. -- Roberts

D'Angelo

Voodoo

(Virgin Records)

D'Angelo conjures up the spirits of Jimi, Marvin, Sly and Stevie to create one of the year's most heartfelt and sensual romps through carnalville. The son of a preacherman, D'Angelo treads the spiritual/sexual waters that his forebears Al Green and Prince know so well. Refusing to drown us on either side, D'Angelo offers a taste of the "Devil's Pie," fries it up in "Chicken Grease," gives it away like Roberta Flack in "Feel Like Making Love," then asks, like all good lovers do, "How Does it Feel" before heading back to the motherland ("Africa"). -- Mayo

Rachel Lampa

Live for You

(Word)

This Louisville teen's major-label debut must have sent a chill through Satan and his brimstone home. Lampa possesses the heaven-sent voice that Whitney, Mariah and Christina pray for, and she's smarter: Live is a Mensa-caliber collection of sweeping pop and pelvis-powered dance tunes. Christian music at its hippest, the album connects with shimmying sinners and churchgoing teens alike. Praise the Lord and crank up the volume. -- JonesLucy Pearl

Lucy Pearl

(Pookie/Beyond Music)

From the bong water of En Vogue, A Tribe Called Quest and Tony!/Toni!/Toné! bubbled Lucy Pearl, a groovy group that melds the vocal talents of Raphael Saadiq and the bodacious Dawn Robinson with Ali Shaheed Muhammad's rhythmic contributions. They've got little more than booty-shaking (and occasional in-law dissing) on their minds, but somehow, that's plenty. -- Jesitus

Slum Village

Fantastic, Vol. 2

(Barak/Goodvibe/Atomic Pop)

It takes a Slum Village to raise awareness that Motor City is once again a center of elevating soul music. The members of this Detroit group -- T3, Baatin Melchizedek and producer Jay-Dee (Q-Tip, Common, Erykah Badu) -- had to battle bootleggers and lackluster major-label support to get this disc out, and it's lucky they did: Fantastic's laid-back rhymes work well as a sonic accompaniment to the interstellar, jazz-inflected funk we've come to expect from Jay-Dee. From the irresistible bump of "Conant Gardens" and the quiet, slow Soul Train-funk of "Tell Me" to the headbanging "Raise It Up," these slummers work like a GM assembly line designed to deliver a custom-built pimpmobile. -- Mayo

REISSUES

Anthony Braxton

For Alto Saxophone

(Delmark)

Master deconstructionist Anthony Braxton's double record of solo saxophone improvisations was an expensive vinyl find prior to this year's reissue. Braxton's command of the alto is evident to anyone who's heard his discs, and his abilities and imagination come shining through on this free-jazz masterpiece. Many of his trademark techniques are already in effect on this early work, recorded in 1968: overflowing streams of multiphonic sound, breathy, amorphous "ballads," angular, deconstructed blues riffs. An essential free-jazz document, this is a catalogue of what can happen when an instrument is placed in the hands of a master. -- Brown

Fela Kuti

Shakara/London Scene

(MCA)

Kuti, the father of Afropop, is being rediscovered by a new generation thanks to the emergence of his son, Femi Kuti, who's one of the most jaw-dropping performers on the current scene, and the patronage of hip-hop's intelligentsia. This attention inspired MCA to amass The Best Best of Fela Kuti, a two-CD introduction to Fela. The company's worthiest decision by far, however, was to pair a full twenty vintage Kuti platters on ten separate CDs. The ultra-forceful Shakara/London Scene is only the tip of a very cool iceberg. -- Roberts

Jackie McLean

A Fickle Sonance

(Blue Note)

Blue Note's jazz library is richer than King Midas, as is ably demonstrated by its recent CD resurrections, put out under the supervision of imprint honcho Rudy Van Gelder. Jimmy Smith's The Sermon, Herbie Hancock's The Prisoner and Horace Silver's Six Pieces of Silver could all fill this slot ably, but A Fickle Sonance, from 1961, gets the nod by virtue of McLean, a saxophonist then at his most inventive. -- Roberts

Willie Nelson

Red Headed Stranger

(Columbia/Legacy)

Columbia's "American Milestones" series just keeps getting better and better. This year's batch includes the astounding Johnny Cash at San Quentin, treasures by George Jones, Johnny Horton and the Carter Family, and this, the album that made Nelson an icon. Red Headed Stranger has never been out of print, but neither has it been presented so lovingly, complete with spruced-up sound, four bonus tracks -- including, of all things, "Bach Minuet in G" -- and liner notes in which Willie reveals that the LP's concept came to him during a drive from Denver to Austin. -- Roberts

Hank Penny

Crazy Rhythm: The Standard Transcriptions

(Soundies/Bloodshot)

Colorado Springs resident Bill Cook owns what's arguably the planet's most astounding private collection of radio transcriptions -- recordings from the '30s to the '50s made expressly for radio play and not intended for public distribution. But last year, in conjunction with Bloodshot, he began making his choicest selections available, and Crazy Rhythm proves that his vault is overflowing with riches. Penny, a largely forgotten popularizer of Western swing, is heard to terrific advantage on thirty little slices of heaven. -- Roberts

Thinking Plague

Early Plague Years

(Cuneiform)

Among Denver's foremost contributors to the art-rock canon, the men and women of Thinking Plague revel in complications: Their songs are knotty, cerebrum-tickling contraptions that treat expectations like roadkill. Early Plague Years returns the act's formative works to the marketplace -- ...A Thinking Plague, from 1984, and 1986's Moonsongs -- in all their sometimes confounding but always intriguing glory. -- Roberts

ROCK/INDIE

At the Drive-In

Relationship of Command

(Grand Royal)

This El Paso foursome is starting to gather commercial momentum for its one-part-math-rock, one-part-D.C.-punk, one-part-absofuckinlutely frenzied live-show formula -- and for good reason: This followup to 1999's challenging Vaya finds the bandmembers becoming increasingly better songwriters and players, exchanging and developing ideas at the rate of a Gatling gun. This is frenetic stuff that kicks more ass than a donkey. -- Engstrom

Bonfire Madigan

Saddle the Bridge

(Kill Rock Stars)

While the idea of a chamber-music trio that consists of a cello, acoustic bass and drums applying punk-rock ethos to its music sounds incredibly clumsy, Bonfire Madigan makes it work. Terse and weighty, B-Mad's experimental twists can be a difficult listen at times. But it's a worthy challenge: Though its music is melded with the inherent beauty of classical instrumentation, the band consistently finds an intensity and identity any rocker can appreciate. -- Schild

Bright Eyes

Fevers and Mirrors

(Saddle Creek)

In the indie world, emotional singer-songwriters are as common as cheap guitars in a pawnshop. Somehow, though, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst infuses the self-styled poet role with a haunting and unforgettable vision. Though his band's low-key acoustic arrangements don't stray too far from the strummy-strummy mold, Oberst concentrates upon stark themes of mortality, self-loathing and isolation with a rare honesty and precision well beyond his twenty years. -- Schild

Calexico

Hot Rail

(Quarterstick/Touch & Go)

Joey Burns and John Convertino have finally outgrown the brave but sometimes listless tendencies of their parent band, Giant Sand, and solidified a unique and important identity of their own. On Hot Rail, the multicultural marks -- Mariachi-style horns, cowboy touches culled from a Technicolor spaghetti Western -- enhance rather than overshadow the Tucson-based pair's knack for songcraft. Alternately celebratory, somber and daunting, the album is as diverse as the desert that inspired it. -- Bond

Cat Power

The Covers Record

(Matador)

The works Chan Marshall chooses to cover here are as revealing as the breathless, emotive way in which she presents her sparse interpretations. Whether by classic artists such as Dylan and the Stones or lesser knowns like Smog, many of the songs share a common emotional denominator -- that is, a sense of longing, of the need for love, of loneliness and the desire for emotional/spiritual reckoning. The material may not be her own, but the effect -- almost ethereal, genuine, a little sad -- is wholly original. -- Bond

The Cure

Bloodflowers

(Elektra)

With the Cure's twelfth full-length studio release, Robert Smith chucks the put-on pop aspirations in favor of what the band does best: mope. Overwhelmingly desolate, dark and intricate arrangements meet the Cure's trademark flourishes in this rainy-day murk, recalling touches of Pornography and Disintegration. If, as rumor-mongers would love to tell you, this is the band's last effort, it's one unforgettable swan song. -- Schild

The Czars

Before...But Longer

(Bella Union)

While past releases have brought to mind a poor man's Dead Can Dance, the Czars have at last come into their own. Now wearing their folk-rock influences unashamedly on their sleeve, the band exhumes Simon and Garfunkel on vocal-powered tunes like "Dave's Dream" and help to make this disc one of the finest efforts out of Denver this year. -- Casey

The Delta 72

000

(Touch & Go)

000 is a Philly-rendered marshmallow homage to Booker T., the Small Faces and early Stones as filtered through Hammond organs and ravaged amps. Add a touch of dub/tropicalia, backing gospel singers, the integrated blessing of vintage Memphis soul and classic acid rock, and you've got one mean boilermaker, partner. The third -- and best -- album by these chord-slammin' converts to the Stax-Volt sound. -- La Briola

DeVotchKa

SuperMelodrama

(Dago Records)

Nick Urata's impassioned wail anchors the frenetic orgy of DeVotchKa's Old World sound -- something that combines hypnotically stringed gypsy-flavored rhythms with bouncy Slavic circus music. It's one hearty ethnic stew, by tuttle: neoclassical chamber roots rock that's as joyously energetic as it is cloaked in mystery. In fact, being so hard to categorize is what gives these Front Range Chicago transplants -- a local outfit deserving spotlight on a national stage -- such beguiling charm. -- La Briola

Enon

Believo!

(SeeThru Broadcasting)

From the ashes of Braniac comes this brainy debut, a whirring, buzzing, alternately obtuse and infectious record. Frontman (and former Braniac guitarist) John Schmersal definitely skirts the noise-monger title, though he seems more concerned with using white (and red and blue and green) noise as tools in a pop palette rather than a gimmick or a weapon. Fond of inverting melodies or experimenting with backward-sounding recording methods, Enon's playful spirit is evident. Believo's songs often sound as if they've been put through the washing machine, or left out in the sun just long enough to assume slightly out-of-kilter shapes. Fans of sideways sounds will find plenty to believe in here. -- Bond

The Forty Fives

Get It Together

(Artemis)

Using Einstein's wizardry, the Forty Fives have taken the infamous theory that energy equals mass times acceleration and squared it to a new level. Get It Together is a highly volatile mix of bluesy, Southern-style guitar riffs, organ burps and polished drumming. Taken in controlled doses, this release will give you more energy than speed, and it won't leave you chewing your lip. -- Engstrom

PJ Harvey

Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea

(Island)

The Music Critics Guild of America mandates that this record be included in any and all year-end/Top Ten-list thingies. And yes, that's partly because Harvey is a critics' darling who's bound to be praised no matter what she does. But it's also because this record -- sensual, powerful, self-assured and refined but still emotionally ravaging -- is that good, proof that the diminutive Polly Jean is still one big queen. -- Bond

Juliana Hatfield

Juliana's Pony: Total System Failure

(Zoë)

Hatfield is a confounding artist -- one who can veer from gutsy/nasty rock to the lame, flimsy kind in a second's flicker. This year, though, she kindly segregated her work, relegating the wispy stuff that had star-makers convinced that she was about to become a major crossover act to one disc, Beautiful Creature, while assembling her toughest, noisiest, most thrilling material to another, Juliana's Pony. Schizophrenia has never been so user-friendly. -- Roberts

Mark Kozelek

Rock 'N' Roll Singer

(Badman Recording)

Wrist-cutting mope folk meets high-voltage cock rock on this Red House Painter frontman's recent solo effort. The effect of hearing covers of Bon Scott-era AC/DC tunes beautifully bastardized into unrecognizable versions of themselves is both disturbing and divine. -- Casey

Laika

Good Looking Blues

(Beggars Banquet)

The cut-and-paste pastiche of electronic and organic sounds isn't anything at all revolutionary in 2000, but Laika's moody experimentalism is. Whether forcing a live bassist to strive vainly for the perfection of a loop or manipulating ambient background noises as if they were instruments themselves, the band turns electronic/organic conventions on their ears. With the groove of techno and the personability of rock, Laika succeeds in blurring the lines between traditional and electronic instrumentation. -- Schild

J Mascis + The Fog

More Light

(Ultimatum)

Jurassic J has done it again. Mascis stomps through eleven tracks like a guitar-wielding Sasquatch in a swamp. As always, sludge-ass guitar riffs dominate the release, but the overall tone seems more controlled and visceral than that of previous releases. It appears that with this solo project (despite its name), Mascis has found some internal musical chemistry he's been searching for since Dinosaur Jr became extinct. -- EngstromModest Mouse

The Moon and Antarctica

(Epic)

With a move to Epic, Modest Mouse may now be safely considered the big cheese of indie rock -- a title the band has more than earned with its major-label debut. The Moon and Antarctica is a sweeping symphony of vast guitar riffs and highly orchestrated compositions. From shrewd soundbites to colossal guitar solos, it takes listeners on a ride through a musical picture book narrated by singer/guitarist/smart aleck Isaac Brock. Emotional and intelligent, this album reaches the extremes implied by its title. -- Engstrom

Morphine

The Night

(Ryko/Dreamworks)

Not only did the late Mark Sandman take the guitar out of rock, he also left behind a body of strikingly gritty music -- two parts post-operative pain relief to one part rock-steady groove. Through customarily slinky bass lines and whiskey-soaked baritone, the dearly departed gloom merchant rounded off his final studio recording with some of the most mood-brightening opiates ever: slow-drip bedtime stories of hope, lust and the elusive afterlife. Add the seduction of saxophone and brush drumming, and you've got all the tasty elements of a jelly doughnut on Fat Tuesday. -- La Briola

Mudhoney

Here Comes Sickness

(BBC Worldwide Music)

Blame the Brits for being colonial thugs who still can't pronounce the word "aluminum," but toast the spiffing John Peel as a right proper archivist who understands the art of capturing live sets. These scruffy, loose and fuzz-blown tracks (a generous 21 in all!) celebrate grunge as it was when it still wore diapers -- that is, before the slick powers of commercialism tightened their grip on the Sub Pop explosion and made Seattle's angry underground too big for its own britches. -- La Briola

Nashville Pussy

High As Hell

(TVT)

While the Georgia-based quartet lost a cornerstone of its white-trash-and-sexpots aura when bassist Corey Parks moved on in September, this raunchy May release remains the year's definitive offering of redneck hardcore. Led by sulfur-throated singer/guitarist Blaine Cartwright on thermonuclear, offensive-minded ditties like "Struttin' Cock" and "Blowjob From a Rattlesnake," High as Hell suggests that Nashville Pussy might just weather the storm of losing Parks's enhanced six-foot frame and fire-breathing prowess. -- Eric Peterson

Lou Reed

Ecstasy

(Reprise)

To some, the idea of an over-fifty New Yorker telling not-so-young relationship tales that are weathered and shaped by smack and S&M might not be terribly appealing. But Reed fans know different. Those who have, like Reed, grown comfortably into the knowledge that love, though powerful, is not all you need will certainly appreciate his sharp eye for the subtle nuance, his dry wit and, most of all, his nakedly honest approach to songwriting. Musically, Reed's guitar, especially on the eighteen-minute wet, erotic epic "Like a Possum," ought to win anyone over. -- Brown

Rock*A*Teens

Sweet Bird of Youth

(Merge)

Chris Lopez's latest opus is scrappier, fuzzier, more dramatic and more desperate than his band's four previous outings, and that's saying something: This Georgia outfit has mastered the art of finding the melody in chaos, of somehow offending and engaging the senses with a kitchen-sink approach to songwriting that borders on theater. Reverb resonates throughout Bird, as does the shallow hum of vintage organs and Lopez's pleading vocals. This is Teen steam at its finest, and its most troubling. -- BondSea of Green

Northern Lights

(The Music Cartel)

Like many genre descriptors, "stoner rock" implies a newness of form that generally doesn't actually exist. That's certainly the case with Sea of Green, which basically offers up a blend of psychedelia and hard rock that's not far removed from what Monster Magnet, for instance, has been dishing out for years. But this 26-minute EP makes up in head-nodding riffs, indelible melodies and flat-out spaciness what it lacks in originality. These Lights are on. -- Roberts

Shellac

1000 Hurts

(Touch & Go)

And you thought you were pissed off when your love affair ended. 1000 Hurts is the most brutally honest expression of a relationship's postmortem psychosis to come along in ages. Backed by drummer Todd Trainer's punishing rhythms, Steve Albini's guitar riffs are sharp enough to fillet the heart he probably wishes he didn't have. Thankfully, Shellac was able to channel its emotions into 1000 Hurts; otherwise, we might be reading about a crime of passion. -- Engstrom

Silkworm

Lifestyle

(Touch & Go)

Where most bands walk, Silkworm struts. Relying on a simplistic songwriting formula and spare instrumentation, the Seattle-by-way-of-Montana trio has crafted the sexiest pop-rock record of the season. Coupled with Andy Cohen's unadorned vocals, the dense melodicism of fat, lilting guitar riffs and self-propelled drumbeats makes a fine, natural-sounding and seductive rock-and-roll record. In 2000, it's refreshing to find an album that wasn't molested by its producer. -- Engstrom

Patti Smith

Gung Ho

(Arista)

This release demonstrates the natural maturation of Smith's poetry whle perpetuating her three-decades-long status as an important and enigmatic punk icon. Featuring accompaniment by Lenny Kaye on guitar, the album recalls the mellow side of Smith's oeuvre, though her trademark vibrato wail is still as expressive and impassioned as ever. Still gung ho after all these years, this former goddess of the New York undergound has plenty left to say. -- Bond

16 Horsepower

Secret South

(Razor & Tie)

Inspirationally speaking, this engine sometimes runs on fumes as David Eugene Edwards's posse once again plods its well-worn trail of shit-kickin' gospel hick rock. But tired as it may be, this horse is still a beautiful beast. "Burning Bush" contains the most gorgeous harmony Edwards has yet to warble -- just one development that continues to make 16 HP not just this city's best band, but one of Uncle Sam's, as well. -- Casey

Sleater-Kinney

All Hands on the Bad One

(Kill Rock Stars)

Though the bottom of the riot-grrrl movement may have fallen out half a decade ago, its ideals aren't lost to time. Sleater-Kinney attacks everything from the obvious targets (the phallo-centricism and corporatism in the music industry) to the mature (America's voyeuristic media culture and personal struggles with idealism) with the charm and wit that previously catapulted the band to prominence in the underground. All Hands finds the band still raw and to the point, offering a bit more musical depth in its sea of tinny guitars and edgy drums. -- Schild

The Smashing Pumpkins

MACHINA/the machines of God

(Virgin)

Even in their death throes, Corgan and company prove that they are still dangerous artistically, if not commercially. The pissed-off Catholic musings of "The Everlasting Gaze" complement nicely the grown-up goth sensibilities that power more expansive cuts such as the delightfully dour "Glass and the Ghost Children." Billy, we hardly knew ye. -- Jesitus

John Vanderslice

Mass Suicide Occult Figurines

(Barsuk Records/Tiny Telephone)

Upon the release of his debut solo album, John Vanderslice created a media hoax that Microsoft had purportedly filed lawsuits against him (in addition to tapping his phone lines and causing his server to crash) for the album's abrasive "Bill Gates Must Die," a cheerless pop ditty whose narrator blames the planet's wealthiest resident for his Internet porn addiction. With sly humor and sincerity, the San Francisco-based prankster and ex-frontman for MK Ultra proves himself an eclectic indie pop singer -- one whose simple piano melodies, distorted guitars and ambient backgrounds could charm the conspiracy theorist in anyone. -- La Briola

Vue

Vue

(Sub Pop)

It's nothing short of a cliche to hear rockers praise the likes of the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, but it's another thing altogether to hear them actually play anything that's descended gracefully from those influential artists. On this self-titled release, however, Vue attacks its groove-laden rock and roll with the same vigorous love of smoky decadence and sexy flourish as its predecessors. -- Schild

Weakerthans

Left and Leaving

(Sub City)

While punk and emo bands best address the anger and confusion of adolescence and early adulthood, the Weakerthans let the confused indie kid grow up. Now poised and collected, the band shows faint traces of both rage and sadness, though its pop strives more toward resolving personal crises of identity than chronicling the inequities of the world. Fiercely individualistic, the Weakerthans prove that punks never grow old -- they just turn inward. -- Schild

Ween

White Pepper

(Elektra)

From the neo-tropical paean and beachfront bingeing of "Bananas and Blow" to the hook-laden (and amazingly irony-free) balladry of "Stay Forever," White Pepper -- a Beatles homage that takes more cues from the Fab Four's post-Let It Be careers than their pre-Yoko heyday -- is Ween's best album this side of Pure Guava. Their chops honed by countless three-hour sets, Gene, Dean, and company serve up syrupy helpings of addictive pop and psychedelia, with the punk rocker "Stroker Ace" thrown in for good measure. -- Peterson

Tommy Womack

Stubborn

(Sideburn)

One of Nashville's many outta-the-mainstream treasures, Womack delivers a chewy slab of rock and roll aided by a crew of heroes that includes Dan Baird, Jason Ringenberg and the reliable George Bradfute. Womack's tunes crackle with superb sarcasm and cliche-free lyrics, a perfect match for the ragged, Stones-y vibe that graces this exceptional disc. Craving adult power chords for your drive time? Stick this in your auto CD and rock on. -- Jones

Yo La Tengo

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out

(Matador)

For several years now, this Hoboken-based trio has been cranking out excellent albums that fluctuate between Velvets-y guitar drones and Nuggets-styled garage rock. This psychedelic collection of mostly mellow ruminations that focuses on the ups and downs of a long-term relationship is something of a departure. Aleatoric explosions are down to one (the Sonic Youth soundalike "Cherry Chapstick), and the creaks, clatters and echoes that dominate from the background of such tripped-out tracks as "Everyday," "Saturday" and "Night Falls in Hoboken" signal a more introspective ride. Though one may long for the usual helping of guitar antics, Yo La Tengo has more than made up in aura what it has subtracted in thrust and drive. -- Brown

WORLD

King Sunny Ade

Seven Degrees North

(Mesa)

Sunny's best American-released record since he left Island in the mid-'80s is yet another joyous excursion into the heavily percussive juju music over which he reigns. Many songs are exaltations to God, while some, like "Congratulations (Happy Birthday), concern themselves with more mundane secular matters. All of the tunes are infused with Ade's overriding sense of optimism and faith, as well as the lilting tropicalismo of much of the music made seven degrees from the Equator. Perfect for escaping the winter blahs into the gorgeous, sun-drenched spot in your mind. -- Brown

Susana Baca

Echo of Shadows

(Luaka Bop)

The music of Baca, from Peru, is hypnotic and intoxicating, with the sounds of smoothly strummed guitars, lightly thumped hand drums and her own penetrating singing swirling around a listener like sweet smoke. On Echo, Western musicians such as guitarist Marc Ribot and Luaka Bop owner David Bryne make contributions, but they never overshadow Baca, an artist who has more than earned her time in the spotlight. -- Roberts

Beenie Man

Art and Life

(Virgin)

With his debut for Virgin, reggae/dancehall star Beenie Man broke through to an even larger stateside audience. The Neptunes-produced "Girls Dem Sugar" featured Mya's soft melodic touch and helped get the Kingston-bred artist major airplay. Beenie Man is a self-proclaimed "word garden," and on Art and Life, he cultivates a wide cross-section of plants and flowers: the hardcore "Haters and Fools"; the Latin-tinged "Tumble (La Caida)" (which features the legendary Arturo Sandoval); the celebratory "Jamaica Way" (with Kelis). This artist, born Moses Davis, clearly has his roots planted on solid hallowed ground. -- Mayo

Da Lata

Songs From the Tin

(Palm)

A hybrid in every sense of the word, Da Lata matches Brazilian vocalist Liliana Chachian with two Britishers, DJ Patrick Forge and the Brazil-obsessed Chris Franck. Songs From the Tin, incubated over the better part of a decade, is neither uncut folk music nor dance fodder, but rather a clever amalgamation of each, with some artsy atmospherics thrown in for good measure. Multiculturalism at its finest. -- RobertsNiamh Parsons

In My Prime

(Green Linnet)

Some reviewers have classified this CD as new-age, but that's not quite right: It's gentle, sure, but with a solid core of intelligence and emotion that promotes closer inspection rather than discouraging it. Parsons has a voice that feels shaped by the centuries, and that's ideal for these mostly traditional Celtic airs, which she rearranges for maximum poignancy. Her Prime is timeless. -- Roberts

Plena Libre

Más Libre

(Rykodisc)

"Plena" is a rhythm native to Puerto Rico, and on Más Libre, this ensemble, led by bassist/songwriter Gary Nuñez, sets it free. The music is delightfully eccentric, full of clever instrumental touches, like the accordion that unexpectedly graces "La Plena Bien Sabrosa." But the most important factors about the music are these: It's jazzy, it's energetic, and it grooves like mad. -- Roberts

Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos

Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining!)

(Atlantic)

Usually projects like these are diverting one-offs, destined to destroy their specialness on any followup by trying to recreate a moment that'll never exist again (see any Tom Tom Club album after the first for proof). But Ribot's never really had any kind of steady band to be diverted from and, as a result, he's put even more energy into the follow-up than he did in the delightful debut. Ribot's willing to play around with tradition, both Cuban and his own, and inject it with his sense of humor and style. A Cubanized guitar showcase by one of the best rock/jazz/blues guitarists out there, this beats its predecessor by a hair. -- Brown

Oumou Sangare

Ko Sira

(World Circuit/Nonesuch)

Recorded in 1993 but only reaching the U.S. this year, Ko Sira is popular African music at its most searing. Sangare, from the nation of Mali, is a rarity in a society in which the repression of women is imbedded deeply within the culture: She's strong, outspoken, and bold enough to challenge the patriarchy. Better yet, she accompanies her wise lyrics (English translations are provided) with music that's preternaturally magnetic. -- Roberts


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