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And the Winners Are ...

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FOLK/SINGER-SONGWRITERS

Ani DiFranco
Living in Clip
(Righteous Babe)

Most of the artists involved with the Lilith Fair are smack dab in the middle of Nowheresville when it comes to musical innovation, but not DiFranco, who is more interested in expressing herself than in imitating Joni Mitchell circa 1972. This two-CD live package catches her at her fervent, emotional peak.

Tony Furtado
Roll My Blues Away
(Rounder)

Now a resident of Boulder, Furtado is a whirling dervish of the banjo--but that doesn't mean he can't pluck the daylights out of other stringed instruments, too. Roll finds him splitting time between his main ax and a slide guitar, and he demonstrates equal facility on both. As charming as it is unique.

Lorena McKennitt
The Book of Secrets
(Warner Bros.)

With Kate Bush in one of her periodic quiet stretches, McKennitt is the next best thing. Not that she sounds anything like Bush: Her methodology is more ethereal, more delicate. But her mysterious, otherworldly fairy tales, rendered in timeless fashion and blessed by her voice, evoke the same sense of drama.

Abra Moore
Strangest Places
(Arista Austin/Bohemia Beat)

Moore, whose album was initially issued by Denver's Bohemia Beat imprint before being picked up by Arista, is the rarest of birds--a singer-songwriter whose songs draw from rock, country and folk but are beholden to none of them. Her numbers are intelligent and spritely, and her singing is versatile enough to go wherever her mood takes her.

R.B. Morris
Take That Ride
(Oh Boy)

It's fitting that Take That Ride appears on Oh Boy, John Prine's label, because Morris projects the same Dylan-as-a-young-wiseacre vibe that his boss once did. With the help of a crack band led by guitarist Kenny Vaughan, Morris puts some juice into the troubador doctrine by dint of his brains and his nerve.

HARD ROCK

Baboon
Secret Robot Control
(Wind-Up)

It took a few years, but most people have finally realized that metal and punk work different sides of the same street. As for Baboon, it careens from one extreme to the other. Mike Rudnick's guitar howls and roars thrillingly, and singer Andrew Huffstetler matches him outburst for outburst.

Helmet
Aftertaste
(Interscope)

Page Hamilton's singing is more prominent on Aftertaste than on previous Helmet barrages, which is not necessarily desirable: It makes the band seem more normal, somehow. But listen long enough and you'll find that the foursome has not mellowed with age. Smart, but not at the expense of intensity.

L7
The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum
(Slash/Reprise)

The prediction contained within this CD's moniker didn't come true: Its sales were numbered in the thousands, not the millions. But that's hardly the fault of Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner and Dee Plakas, who sliced through band tension to make their loudest, catchiest long-player yet.

The Newlydeads
The Newlydeads
(Mutiny)

The tag team of Taime Downe and Kyle K come up with a metal/industrial marriage that isn't far removed from the world according to Marilyn Manson. But The Newlydeads has a glam edge that Marilyn has returned to the closet, as well as superior songs. If you need a dose of evil, belly up to the bar.

Shipping News
Save Everything
(Quarterstick)

Music doesn't have to be fast to be heavy. Shipping News, a conglomeration of feedback-loving rebels from the hills of Kentucky, seldom pushes its tempos beyond a lope, but the force of its bass-guitar-drums foundation is felt nonetheless. If you've heard the News, you know there's good rockin' tonight.

HIP-HOP

DJ Cam
Mad Blunted Jazz
(Shadow)

Cam takes the DJ Shadow approach, utilizing the tools of hip-hop to create vivid soundscapes that push at the envelope's edge instead of staying comfortably inside it. A live disc from 1995 that's also part of this package is just as convincing, because it underlines the point that hip-hop is as much an attitude as it is a specific type of music. Note: Two other Shadow releases--Choked Up, by Sharpshooters, and Zig Zag Zen, by Le Gooster--come from the same creative place as Mad Blunted Jazz and are almost as strong.

Dr. Octagon
Dr. Octagonecologyst
(Dreamworks)

Kool Keith was too crazy to be marketed by the David Geffen machine: He flaked on more high-profile gigs this year than anyone since Sly Stone. But before he flaked out entirely, he completed this sensationally screwy artifact, a rap excursion into sci-fi and scatology that suggests George Clinton in his acid-munching prime.

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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