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Here is what the Beatles wrought: sing-along songs with dreamy lyrics, heart-swelling harmonies and chiming guitars. Pop boosters may gripe about some of the programming, especially on the Nineties segment, but hairs needn't be split. Overall, the discs are so sunny and appealing that disliking them is impossible.

Various Artists
Pink Flamingos: Original Soundtrack
(Hip-O)

You don't have to be a fan of director John Waters's notorious low-budget shocker to prize its soundtrack, issued to commemorate the film's 25th anniversary. If nothing else, Waters has gathered an outstanding bunch of oldies, including hits that were ("Surfin' Bird," by the Trashmen, "The Girl Can't Help It," by Little Richard) and hits that should have been ("The Swag," by Link Wray & His Ray Men, "Chicken Grabber," by Nite Hawks).

Various Artists
Southern Journey, Vol. 1-6
(Rounder)

We know as much as we do about America's musical heritage thanks to Alan Lomax, who was dedicated to recording the songs of just plain folks before they faded away. These six CDs are merely the first salvo in a full-scale campaign to bring Lomax's archaeology back into print. A history lesson you'll enjoy taking.

COUNTRY
Steve Earle
El Corazon
(Warner Bros.)

Earle didn't need drink and drugs to feed his muse; sobriety hasn't hurt him in the slightest. His music is more deeply felt than ever before, and his lyrics are audacious whether he's singing about current events or his beloved. If there was a finer album issued in 1997, I wasn't fortunate enough to hear it.

Robbie Fulks
South Mouth
(Bloodshot)

It's easy to tell the difference between insurgent country and the kind that hails from Nashville: One sounds a lot more like the genuine item than the other. Fulks errs on the side of authenticity; his songs operate by the rules of the genre set down by the hillbillies of yore, and God bless him for it. I'm sure Hank did it this way.

Wayne Hancock
That's What Daddy Wants
(Ark 21)

Hancock is obsessed with the time a few decades back when country and rock and roll were so similar that few could tell the difference between them--and fewer still cared about such distinctions. That's What Daddy Wants cheerfully refuses to acknowledge anything that's happened in C&W since about 1962, which is precisely why it works.

Robert Earl Keen
Picnic
(Arista Austin)

The knock on Keen has always been that he's more memorable as a songwriter than he is as a performer, and that's probably true: His singing is not as flavorful as one might wish. But in this instance, the pen is mightier than the vocal cord. Keen deals with age-old country topics--love, loss, life--with a profundity that is nothing less than precious.

Old 97's
Too Far to Care
(Elektra)

In the wake of the rapturous press that's greeted Uncle Tupelo and its spinoffs, the majors have gone on a No Depression shopping spree, sometimes to negligible effect. The Old 97's are an exception--four sloppy, bar-friendly guys who write marvelous songs and put them over with the sort of enthusiasm that demands applause.

DANCE

Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole
(Astralwerks)

The critical backlash against the Brothers was predictable: When something gets too popular, certain members of the music-journalism fraternity can't keep their knees from jerking. But if you listen objectively, you'll realize that Dig Your Own Hole deserves its success. It's dynamic and danceable--and that's enough.

Carl Cox
F.A.C.T. 2
(Worldwide Ultimatum/Moonshine)

Cox gets star billing here, but he's actually only one of more than a dozen performers on hand: Also heard from on this two-CD set are Josh Wink, DJ Skull, Cap Project, Fat Boy Slim and more, more, more. They combine to make F.A.C.T. 2 an up-to-the-minute encapsulation of the latest in post-house music.

Empirion
Advanced Technology
(...Wanted/XL Recordings)

Although the Advanced Technology liner lists beats per minute alongside each ditty, even those that scoot along at the highest rate don't seem to be in a hurry. The palette is relatively monochromatic, emphasizing propulsion over atmosphere. But what it lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in sheer punch.

JB3
Close Grind
(NovaMute)

Joey Beltram is one of the grand old DJs of electronic dance music, and Close Grind demonstrates why. His skill at manufacturing beats that immediately cause your feet to start twitching is unparalleled, but he's also able to infuse his works with a listenability that's noticeable even when you're sitting on your behind.

Spring Heel Jack
Busy Curious Thirsty
(Island)

"Drum and bass" has become one of the more overused phrases in dance culture--so much so that even people outside the loop are probably familiar with it. To discover its essence, look no further than Spring Heel Jack, whose latest is as commendable an example of the form as I've yet heard. Evocative, skittish and repetitive without being redundant.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts