part 1 of 2
Far be it from us to contradict Frank Sinatra, but in many ways, it was not a very good year.

Commercial music stagnated to a large degree during the past twelve months. While a few new and exciting artists appeared on the national scene, the majority of freshman pop acts seemed more interested in mimicking old styles than in inaugurating fresh ones. Hence, a lot of the most engaging efforts over this span were turned in by performers who exist on the margins, where the pressure is lower and the rewards are more personal. Here's where the finest of them receive their just deserts.

As was the case in 1994, this year's roster of our favorite recordings is divided into seventeen categories, including an expanded section spotlighting superior boxed sets. The biggest change? The industrial heading has been put on hiatus in favor of a division that highlights ambient and electronic sounds, where some especially intriguing work is being done.

Of course, we didn't hear everything released between January 1 and December 31, and no doubt we missed some excellent discs. Those listed below, then, are the ones that we're particularly pleased to have found.

P.J. Harvey, To Bring You My Love
For once, the disc being touted by the nation's critics as the year's most exceptional actually deserves the praise. Harvey's platters to date have been uniformly enthralling, but Love betters its predecessors because of its broader reach, more intricate production and another notable advance in Polly Jean's artistry.

Tara Key, Ear and Echo
Like Harvey, Key (the voice of Antietam) is a fearless performer who's determined to make creative headway no matter the hazards. Unlike P.J., she's toiled in relative obscurity. Echo, a deceptively impromptu document that still manages to genre-jump with aplomb, argues persuasively for an end to this injustice.

Moonshake, The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow
Recorded last year in England but not released Stateside until last May, Follow nevertheless sounds absolutely of the moment. It's an adventurous blend of pop, jazz, hip-hop and unclassifiable avant-gardisms overseen by vocalist/chief brainiac Dave Callahan, an unsung hero on the modern music scene. This will get you shaking.

The Presidents of the United States of America, The Presidents of the United States of America

In a period when Silverchair (ugh) exemplifies the type of young combos gaining mass acceptance, a 21-gun salute is owed to the Presidents, a threesome that employs peculiar instruments and a distinctive way with a gag in the making of its jubilant, twisted pop. "Lump," "Kitty" and "Peaches" make your radio a much nicer place to visit.

Rocket From the Crypt, Scream, Dracula, Scream!
Instead of aping vintage punk, the Crypt kicks the sound toward the end of the millennium with a gleeful anarchy that makes it all seem novel again. As John Reis, the main man behind these San Diegans' aural assault, writes in the liner notes, "We hope you can relate to our desire to rock and roll. Punk is dead." Rocket, by contrast, is flying higher than ever.

Aphex Twin, ...I Care Because You Do
Richard James, the Twin in question, is an innovator, but an erratic one: In the past, his spacey compositions were as likely to drag as to delight. Care, fortunately, exudes the latter characteristic. James's success at uniting coy, minimalistic figures to leisurely drones and washes makes this headphone music for the latest generation.

The Black Dog, Spanners
These anonymous technicians operate on the accessible side of the electronic universe, sprinkling aberrant beats and blips over tuneful, relatively structured backing tracks. For the novice, a good introduction to the style. For the veteran, an eminently pleasant listening experience.

Eno/Wobble, Spinner
Brian Eno, the grand old man of ambience, and willing accomplice Jah Wobble can still make racket more mesmerizing than plenty of pretenders to the throne. More so than on the more heavily freighted Passengers project, Spinner finds Eno weaving together disparate electronic threads into a seamless tapestry that soothes, energizes and renews.

Mouse on Mars, Iaora Tahiti
Main Mice Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma aren't content to punch a few buttons on their respective machines and call the result art. Their preference? To take sampled sounds--voices, noises, whatever--and insert them into beguiling canvases that are moody yet somehow euphoric.

The Orb, Orbus Terrarum
Some observers feel that the uniqueness of Alex Paterson's recent work has ebbed, but that's not true; it seems familiar merely because it's so frequently simulated. Fortunately, Paterson continues to operate on a very high plane (pun intended), and his sense of humor, exhibited by his choice of sample intro on "Plateau," is a welcome respite in this often giggle-less genre.

Luther Allison, Blue Streak
Allison is an expatriate who's spent more time in France than America of late. But in performance, he comes across as a definitive Chicago shouter far more effective than his middling reputation implies. His guitar tone is stinging, his songwriting sturdy, and his passion bracing.

Carey Bell, Deep Down
As a singer and scribe, Bell is solid but unspectacular. When he pulls out his harmonica, however, he's a marvel--as much of a living treasure as James Cotton and Junior Wells. It's lucky, then, that Bell spends so much of Deep Down with his harp pressed to his lips. His playing carries the disc to another level.

Chris Cain, Somewhere Along the Way
Cain is a new-breed bluesman--the type of guy who doesn't feel uncomfortable donning a suit and tie. But he's also a brawny arranger with a supple guitar style, a strange, singular voice and an ability to instill his soloing with natural soulfulness.

CeDell Davis, The Best of CeDell Davis
(Fat Possum/Capricorn)

You learn everything you need to know about Davis from the titles of his songs: "My Dog Won't Stay Home," "Keep Your Mouth Closed, Baby," "Broke and Hungry." In short, Davis delves into the elemental nature of the blues without prettifying it. He believes that the blues don't need any gussying up--and he's absolutely right.

Junior Kimbrough, All Night Long
Blues archivist/journalist Robert Palmer was behind the boards for All Night Long, and he knew what he wanted: a spare, ominous backdrop against which Kimbrough could holler and lament. His singlemindedness helps infuse Night with a backwoods aura that's become all too rare.

BOXED SETS John Coltrane, The Heavyweight Champion, John Coltrane: The Complete Atlantic Recordings

Coltrane has been among the non-living for nearly three decades now, but his work for Atlantic continues to hold sway over jazz as we know it. The young lions may be able to ape his playing, but they can't match the spirit of Coltrane's dynamic tone.

Miles Davis, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, 1965
At first this seems like overkill: seven sets from the same engagement, featuring the same general repertoire and the same band. But the band is exceptional (Davis is joined by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), the song list stellar, and the improvisational skills that mark the performances anything but redundant.

Marvin Gaye, The Master, 1961-1984
With Stevie Wonder, Gaye was Motown's most idiosyncratic talent, and after dipping into these four discs, you'll be astounded at the breadth of his oeuvre. All the familiar favorites are on display, but what thrill most are the surprises, such as a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" (from the 1983 NBA All-Star game) that turns the nation's anthem into sensual makeout music.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Playback
When Petty first emerged from the Everglades, he came across more as imitator than inventor, but as the years have passed, he's proven himself to be a performer whose traditionalism is tempered by wit and rough-hewn savoir faire. This astute career overview sports three discs of hits and favorites supplemented by three more that feature early demos, live tracks and colorful bric-a-brac.

Various Artists, Blues, Boogie, & Bop: The 1940s Mercury Sessions
The packaging here is an effective come-on: The seven Sessions discs are enclosed within a plastic container shaped like a vintage radio. But even better than the cleverness of the art design is the music--effervescent intoxicants from Albert Ammons, Helen Humes, Jay McShann, Eddie Vinson, Roy Byrd and other practitioners of the sound that fomented rock and roll.

Various Artists, Def Jam Music Group 10th Year Anniversary
Flash back with us now to the days when hip-hop was still fresh and Def Jam was among the few places to find it. A thrilling covey of classics and obscurities by acts that first broke the ground (LL Cool J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys) and those that followed in their footsteps (Warren G, Method Man).

Various Artists, Hi Times: The Hi Records R&B Years
If the Hi imprint had given us no one other than Al Green, it would have been an important soul force. But in addition to Green's most glorious creations, Hi put out pieces by Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright and other estimable artists and became associated with a spare sound that can't be duplicated. Three discs full of love and happiness.

Various Artists, That's Entertainment! The Ultimate Anthology of MGM Musicals
This set's subtitle is no idle boast. The six platters collect the cream of the MGM archives, all carefully mastered to obtain maximum clarity of sound. Over ninety films (from An American in Paris to Ziegfeld Girl) are represented, making Entertainment! a movie buff's dream come true.

Various Artists, The Wizard of Oz: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Deluxe Edition

Another sensation from the MGM vaults, this soundtrack is the most complete edition of tunes from Oz yet assembled: It includes background orchestration and songs that didn't make the pic's final cut. Add to that a booklet chockablock with vintage photos and behind-the-scenes chatter and you've got something every bit as prizeworthy as ruby slippers.

The Velvet Underground, Peel Slowly and See
Sure, this music has been influential; perhaps only the Beatles spawned as many copycats as the Velvets. But the five CDs' worth of wonders that make up Peel Slowly succeed because their capacity to incite, persuade and motivate is as potent now as it was at the time of their late-Sixties birth.

The Band, Live at Watkins Glen
Recorded at a massive but practically forgotten 1973 festival in New York state, Live catches the Band as it really was; there's none of the self-consciousness that marked 1972's Rock of Ages and 1976's The Last Waltz. Relaxed and real, "Endless Highway," "Back to Memphis" and "Don't Ya Tell Henry" are a blast from the past.

The Hillmen, The Hillmen: Chris Hillman, Vern Gosdin, Rex Gosdin, Don Parmley
Before he was a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers or the Desert Rose Band, Chris Hillman was part of the Hillmen, which also featured future country star Vern Gosdin. But this gathering of recordings from the early Sixties isn't only of historical curiosity: These country and bluegrass dollops, later echoed by country rockers, brim with a California innocence that's now long gone.

Ennio Morricone, The Ennio Morricone Anthology: A Fistful of Film Music
Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns made a star of Clint Eastwood, but they wouldn't be nearly so memorable were it not for Morricone, whose creepy rock-hybrid scores create a mood just as effectively as does Leone's camera. A lot of Morricone's other soundtrack efforts are excerpted on Anthology as well, but his earliest accomplishments are the ones that will linger in your skull.

The Stanley Brothers, Angel Band: The Classic Mercury Recordings
Bluegrass neophytes who stopped exploring the style after discovering Bill Monroe are hereby advised to lend an ear to the Stanleys, Ralph and Carter--Virginia natives whose songs simultaneously elicit bottomless grief and tremendous endurance. Eighteen sparkling airs that never go sour.

The Treniers, They Rock! They Roll! They Swing! The Best of the Treniers
Insanity on a platter. The Treniers, fronted by a set of twins, worked in the Fifties, when their wild pre-rock and obsession with the horizontal mambo packed a considerable punch. But their outrageousness has an eternal quality about it, too. They emit enough energy to keep you going until the dawn's early light.

Various Artists, Afro Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru
It was a mistake for co-compiler David Byrne to include his sashay through the song "Maria Lando" here; Susana Baca's variation, which kicks off Black Peru, is infinitely more erotic and indelible. But this choice was Byrne's only misstep. The remainder of the album is a tantalizing joy--an invitation to dance, to embrace, to sing, to smile.

Various Artists, Dead Presidents: Music From the Motion Picture
The movie didn't last long, but its soundtrack holds up very well. A groovy flock of ditties from the Superfly era, Dead Presidents gathers Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, Barry White, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Dramatics, the O'Jays and, of course, Curtis Mayfield to remind us of the heights soul/R&B can reach.

Various Artists, Desperado: The Soundtrack
On the surface, this is just another souvenir from a cinematic stiff. But Desperado, like the companion disc to Pulp Fiction before it, isn't satisfied with merely separating ticket-buyers from more of their cash. The songs, by Los Lobos, Link Wray, the Latin Playboys, Carlos Santana and others, evoke an atmosphere of sultry menace enhanced by dialogue snippets that work whether you've seen the flick or not.

Various Artists, Harthouse--Axis of Vision
Trance/dance is a particularly fertile realm right now, and Harthouse rounds up two discs of prime specimens. You may not have heard of these artists--Marco Zaffarano, Spicelab, Curare, Progressive Attack, Cybordelics--but as illustrated by these ditties, they're hanging ten on the leading edge of electronic music.

Various Artists, The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead
As is obvious from its moniker, Roots is directed at mourning Deadheads. But a fondness for "Shakedown Street" isn't a requirement to relish this bevy of selections by mainly American artists. Any CD that features Marty Robbins, Charlie Patton, Buddy Holly and Joseph Spense has loads going for it.

Guy Clark, Dublin Blues
Clark has always earned well-deserved plaudits for his songwriting; on Dublin Blues, his tunes--like "Baby Took a Limo to Memphis" and "The Randall Knife"--sneak up on you when you least expect it. But he's also a striking, reliable singer with a knack for knowing just how much or how little ornamentation the pieces need.

Michael Fracasso,When I Lived in the Wild
Denver-based Bohemia Beat gets more mileage out of Jimmy LaFave, but Fracasso is just as nice a find; he's an Austin performer with a lilting tenor and an aptitude for penning vivid, chiming melodies. Just as impressive, he shades his vocals with a poignancy that's both haunting and deeply felt.

Jim Lauderdale, Every Second Counts
The type of artist perpetually doomed to be overlooked, Lauderdale nevertheless is a sharp, literate songwriter whose forays into rock enhance his twangy sensibilities. He's not doctrinaire, which hurts him financially, but "Always on the Outside," penned with Nick Lowe, shows that country is a bigger tent than most people assume.

Moonshine Willy, Pecadores
The signee of a small Chicago company, Moonshine Willy consists of five young people who see C&W as a potent form watered down by commercial considerations and the popularity of The Nashville Network. But Pecadores is not just a response to this sad situation; it's also a jaunty listen, replete with a Louvin Brothers cover and tart originals like "Lucy & Jack" and "Case of the Flu."

John Prine, Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings
Although he's long since transcended this label (and any other one you care to name), Prine writes songs that exhibit old-time country virtues: a love of narrative and characterization, and a wry viewpoint that can slip into sadness with the shortest notice. Lost Dogs isn't Prine's pre-eminent album, but it's another grade-A fling--and when you're talking about an artist of this quality, that's good enough.

The Bucketheads, All in the Mind
"The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)" sports an exclamation point for a reason: The track is an emphatic, and effective, call to dancers everywhere. The remainder of Mind isn't quite so irresistible, but the album as a whole shares with "The Bomb!" a love of thump that should go straight to your soles.

Goldie, Timeless
Thematic ambitions and dance music aren't usually seen as compatible, but Goldie melds them and makes them work. The title cut, split into three movements, is sweeping and voluptuous, while "Angel" merges the beats of techno, the patience of ambient music and a restlessness that pulls you in and doesn't let you go.

Little Axe, The Wolf That House Built
Recordings don't get much more outlandish than this one. The "Wolf" of the title is Howlin' Wolf, the blues icon, whose sampled presence gives this studio curio a heft that it wouldn't have managed on its own. Those bugged by cultural appropriation will find no shortage of things to dislike here, but the less doctrinaire among you should be fascinated by the results.

Moby, Everything Is Wrong
Rather than stick to the verities of techno--a genre that he in many ways conceived--Moby goes to extremes on Wrong. One moment the music is lush and extravagant, the next it's rigid and driving. Some of Moby's experiments blow up in his face, but what makes the album worth exploring is the artist's willingness to gamble. And when he wins, he wins big.

Danny Tenaglia, Hard & Soul
Tenaglia knows his way around a sound board: He's been among the most in-demand remixers for several years. But he has a more chipper approach than many of his contemporaries. He keeps four-on-the-floor beats pumping, but he decorates them with deft musical touches clever enough to invite listening on and off the dance floor.

end of part 1


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