1 Relish Album of the Year Joan Osborne (Blue Gorilla/Mercury) With Osborne, many easy comparisons come to mind: Sheryl Crow with soul, Bonnie Raitt with longing in more than just her heart. Yet none of those analogies do justice to this Kentucky-born hip-shaker’s remarkable debut. First, there is the voice: rich with a brick-oven smokiness, powerful yet never show-offy, a deeply spiritual and sexual instrument that can leap from an after-glow purr to a head-thrown-back wail. The music that accompanies her is just as stick-to-the-ribs earthy, dipped in roadhouse soul, folkish hymns, barroom rock, and blues, without sounding like House of Blues nostalgia. The only things shaky about Relish are the junkies, prostitutes, suicidal depressives, and sinners who populate Osborne’s songs. But one listen to her comforting, uplifting voice and you know they’ll eventually be okay too.
2 Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness Smashing Pumpkins (Virgin) Like that shy grade-schooler who never worked well with others, Pumpkins auteur Billy Corgan has always been out of step with his slacker-rock peers—more ambitious, more driven, more pretentious. Here, he pushes those traits to the limit, using two discs to ponder commitment, self-hatred, his childhood, and romantic redemption. Yet what could have easily been an indulgent therapy session set to grunge guitars is instead a heady musical feast—primal-scream metal, unplugged balladry, even long, trippy pieces that recall the heyday of progressive rock. To Corgan, making music isn’t just a job, it’s an adventure—one that finds him, and us, rediscovering the thrill of rock at its most audacious and liberating.
3 Everything Is Wrong Moby (Elektra) If you think techno has hit a dead end, you’re right—and thanks to this stunner, you’re also wrong. To producer and born-again Christian Moby, techno’s computerized pulse can be adapted to any genre, be it punk, dancehall, diva-driven club music, or Enya-style celestial musings. And he proceeds to do just that on a gorgeous, impeccable sonic landscape. The new spirituality comes to pop, but sweating is still allowed.
4 Gangsta’s Paradise Coolio (Tommy Boy) Everyone’s favorite Los Angeles braider uses his second album to wax positive about the ghetto, preaching respect for women and nonviolence. And instead of stark gangsta beats, his producers opt for cushiony grooves (many based on soul and R&B hits) that elevate Coolio’s voice and messages to a higher plane.
5 To Bring You My Love PJ Harvey (Island) When she barks ”You wanna hear my long snake moan,” it’s clear Harvey’s not inviting you on a stroll through the zoo. With her fourth album, she finally gets a dramatic yet uncluttered production worthy of her songs, her fresh-razor-edged voice, and her subject matter: sex as catharsis, sex as frustration, sex period.
6 …And Out Come The Wolves Rancid (Epitaph) Sure, they sound like the Clash, but these second-generation L.A. punks share a more important element with their predecessors. Rancid recall a time when punk was less about safety pins than it was about bristling, blow-the-roof-off anthems. And unlike Green Day, it’s hard to imagine them as Saturday-morning cartoon characters.