1 THE BRITISH REINVASION
[POP of the YEAR] Maybe it was the hollowness of so much American alternative rock and rap; maybe it was something in the tea. But for the first time since Boy George sprang for eyeliner and a dress, the British pop scene came astonishingly alive in the past year. England’s newest hitmakers, led by Oasis and Pulp, are schooled in U.K. rock history, yet there’s nothing quaint about the sardonic fop rock of Pulp’s Different Class or the brawny song-craft of Oasis’ late-1995 (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Carousing dandies like Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Oasis’ Liam Gallagher also know that rock stars should be larger than life; their Union Jerk high jinks were refreshing after years of fame-shy American alt-rockers. The British Reinvasion didn’t end there, either, as proven by trip-hop, drums-and-bass, jungle, or whatever term the British press coined this week for all those heady, space-age samba club beats. The intoxicating soundtrack to Trainspotting features snippets of these styles. But for a larger serving of the music that will be heard in cars crossing that bridge to the 21st century, dive into the work of DJ-mixers like L.T.J. Bukem, Tricky, and Underworld, whose Second Toughest in the Infants fused throbbing techno with heavenly pop and contemplative singing. Together, this consortium of musicians and remixers has created music whose very chaos — gorgeous synthesizer washes atop sandpaper-scratch rhythms — evokes the everyday clatter that surrounds us. London’s calling, and once again, we’re more than happy to take the call.
2 WALKING WOUNDED
Everything But the Girl (Atlantic, album) An idea so simple, it’s amazing no one thought of it before: adapt the burbling beats of the new U.K. pop to melodies with Bacharachesque elegance. It worked on these new-wave-cabaret veterans’ 1995 hit remix of ”Missing,” and the experiment continues on this under-your-skin masterpiece. In the songs of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, the pangs and pains of teen-style infatuation linger long after they should: Thorn’s forlorn voice is like a prolonged sigh. Percolating around her, the trip-hop beats deepen the melancholy; they’re like the cautious beating of a lovesick heart. EBTG not only uncovered a new genre — dance music for the head — but discovered themselves as well.
3 ”CALIFORNIA LOVE”
2Pac (Featuring Dr. Dre) (Death Row/Interscope, single) Rap’s late lost soul and its most formidable producer proclaim the death and rebirth of gangsta. With its techno-reggae sway and slurping voice-box hook, this throw-down takes gangsta funk to a new level. No ”bitches” here, either: The song’s depiction of the West Coast as one big party is a player’s form of civic pride. If possible, buy the British import — the sample of Joe Cocker’s ”Woman to Woman” (not cleared for the U.S.) is, along with that Nissan ad using Van Halen’s version of ”You Really Got Me,” the year’s most inventive recycling of classic rock.
4 NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI R.E.M. (Warner Bros., album) They’re elder statesmen with multi-million-dollar record deals, but that doesn’t mean R.E.M. have fossilized. A throwback to the days when albums were sprawling, let’s-try-this mixes of mood and styles, the record swings from noise-fueled grinders to new twists on the band’s autumn-leaves folk rock. And every so often, Michael Stipe abandons his usual ellipticism to reveal an actual hurt, angry human, which gives the music the extra emotional kick it needs.
Richard Thompson (Capitol, album) In the ever-pungent songs of this guitar hero and raconteur, the mating game can be dark, comical, or both simultaneously. On this rich double disc, Thompson succumbs to the ”razor dance” of romantic friction; in lighter moments, he sneaks into his lover’s room to size up photos of her exes. The Celtic metal is jagged and scarred, the deserted-moor ballads filled with sharp narrative detail. A testament to longevity and creativity, Thompson is now officially the British Neil Young.
6 ”C’MON N’ RIDE IT (THE TRAIN)”
Quad City DJ’s (Big Beat/Atlantic, single) That enticing command, that pumping piano, that locomotive whoo-whoo! hook, that comical double entendre — summer (or any time of year) was intended for an irresistible groove like this, courtesy of the producers of ”Whoot, There It Is.” The corresponding dance is nearly as dumb as the Macarena, but that’s no reason not to get on board.
7 SHERYL CROW
Sheryl Crow (A&M, album) Crow deglamorized herself for her second album, but she thankfully didn’t raze the pool-hall funkiness or studio craft of its predecessor. Playing streetwise urchin one moment, concerned liberal the next, Crow remains an enigma, albeit a tuneful one. The variety of sounds and roles could simply mean she’s using music to find her identity — which, when you think of it, is what many of us do every day. 8 ”MOTHER MOTHER”
Tracy Bonham (Island, video) Remember when a stunning music video could flesh out an undistinguished song? On record, ”Mother Mother” is a mocking letter home, wailed in post-Alanis screamer-songwriter fashion. It’s the video, directed by Jake Scott, that brings Bonham’s sentiments brilliantly to life. On a TV in her family living room, Bonham lip-synchs her sarcastic ”everything’s fine” lyrics. Oblivious to her daughter on the tube, Mom (played by Bonham’s actual mother) cleans and dusts. Photographed in one continuous take, the video is a model of simplicity and execution, and personifies rock’s role as the voice of yet another disaffected generation. Call it video punk-rock.
9 STORE IN A COOL PLACE
Able Tasmans (Flying Nun, album) Before they disbanded, these merry New Zealand alterna-bohemians recorded this stunner: interlocking male-female harmonies wedded to winsome love songs and rocky melodies that conjure stormy, lonely evenings. A left-field surprise that reminds you that stirring music can come anytime, from any place.
The Tony Rich Project (LaFace/Arista, album) Although the explosion of smooth-groove R&B singers is heartening, too many are interested in re-creating the past rather than shaping the future. Rich has no such problem. His debut is as seductively melodic as old-school soul (”Nobody Knows” is the ”Tracks of My Tears” of the ’90s). Yet, from its taut syncopations to its Babyface-with-muscle harmonies, it gently argues that sensitive-guy R&B needn’t be stuck in the ’70s.
BEST COUNTRY ALBUMS
I FEEL ALRIGHT
Steve Earle (Warner Bros.) Country’s baddest boy rebounds from jail and heroin addiction with a rocking album that owes much to his semi-acoustic Guitar Town sound. Whether he’s playing it tender (the almost sentimental ”Valentine’s Day”) or tough (”Billy and Bonnie”), Earle keeps his usual bravado in check, although he still has a flipped finger at the ready.
BLUE CLEAR SKY
George Strait (MCA) On this perfect modern country album, Strait proves that he feels equally at home on both sides of the rural/ urban divide, finding as much inspiration in the music of Frank Sinatra as in that of Hank Williams. A wooden Indian in concert, Strait is still the master of complex country emotion on record.
THE WAY I SHOULD
Iris DeMent (Warner Bros.) Iris DeMent’s third album takes a giant leap, leaving her trademark personal meditations for angry songs about social issues. A broader musical framework also fleshes out her country-folk hybrid. This record is essentially a tribute to Merle Haggard, whom DeMent has credited for spurring her political consciousness, and who collaborated on The Way I Should’s most transcendent ballad, ”This Kind of Happy.” — Alanna Nash
BEST JAZZ ALBUMS
SOUND MUSEUM HIDDEN MAN, SOUND MUSEUM THREE WOMEN
Ornette Coleman (Harmolodic/Verve) Forget the high concept: two simultaneously released albums of the same band performing the same 13 compositions. Ignore the history: This is Coleman’s first work with a conventional piano-based quartet in some 35 years. These companion albums are matching sets of brilliant, maturely playful music. Perhaps Coleman, like the scientific eggheads he emulates, has always been right: You don’t need to understand chaos theory to appreciate its result — boundlessly varying, natural beauty.
Cedar Walton (Astor Place) In a milieu in which riffs and decades-old chord patterns qualify as compositions, Walton has slowly built a body of fully developed works with the sophistication and intricacy of chamber music. Don’t blame him if he remains best known as a pianist; few musicians play anyone’s music with Walton’s insight and sensitivity.
THE BLUES CHRONICLES: TALES OF LIFE
Gary Bartz (Atlantic) A masterly exploration of the blues, its rich variety of forms, and its mercurial history, by 1996’s Saxophonist Most Worthy of a Major Rediscovery. With a hypnotic guest turn by vocalist Jon Hendricks. — David Hajdu
1 FALLING INTO YOU
Celine Dion (550 Music/Epic) A nuance-impaired French Canadian belting American power ballads with the occasional washed-out reggae twist. This can’t be why the term world music was invented.
2 EVIL EMPIRE
Rage Against the Machine (Epic) Screaming that war is bad and corporations worse — and other over-obvious truths of life in the ’90s — Zack De La Rocha makes you yearn for the comparative subtleties of Peter, Paul, and Mary. At least they lectured us with hummable melodies. All Rage have is their tired rap-metal, which is no longer, ahem, revolutionary.
3 LIVE FROM THE FALL
Blues Traveler (A&M) They could have built on the improved chops and writing of their previous albums, but noooo. These two bloated concert discs, stuffed with interminable harmonica and guitar solos, feel longer than all the dates on the H.O.R.D.E. tour combined. — DB
BEST RUNNER-UP ALBUMS Beck, ODELAY; Patti Smith, GONE AGAIN; Genius/GZA, LIQUID SWORDS; Dirty Three, HORSE STORIES; Suzanne Vega, NINE OBJECTS OF DESIRE; Cassandra Wilson, NEW MOON DAUGHTER
MOST PROMISING NEWCOMERS Fiona Apple, LeAnn Rimes, Hayden, Sleater-Kinney, Foxy Brown, Gillian Welch, the Cardigans
BEST CHURCH-THEMED ALBUM TITLE GET OFF THE CROSS…WE NEED THE WOOD FOR THE FIRE, Firewater
WORST CHURCH-THEMED ALBUM TITLE TINY MUSIC…SONGS FROM THE VATICAN GIFT SHOP, Stone Temple Pilots
BEST REASONS TO KEEP THE RADIO ON Nada Surf, ”POPULAR”; Organized Noize featuring Queen Latifah, ”SET IT OFF”; Cowboy Junkies, ”A COMMON DISASTER”
BEST REASON TO TURN IT OFF Deep Blue Something, ”BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S”
BEST ALBUM TITLE THAT COULD DOUBLE AS A WES CRAVEN MOVIE CHANT III: THE RETURN, the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos
BEST USE OF THE GODFATHER LOGO ON AN ALBUM COVER Fugees’ THE SCORE and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s THA DOGGFATHER (tie)
WORST POSSIBLE SCENARIO FOR NEXT SMASHING PUMPKINS ALBUM A 10-CD boxed set of Billy Corgan’s answering-machine greetings
BEST SAMPLE B.B. King’s ”HOW BLUE CAN YOU GET,” in Primitive Radio Gods’ ”Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand”
BEST CD PACKAGING Lenticular covers — for that 3-D effect — on Whitney Houston’s THE PREACHER’S WIFE, Deana Carter’s DID I SHAVE MY LEGS FOR THIS?, Tool’s AENIMA, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s BRAIN SALAD SURGERY reissue
WORST-PACKAGED CD The 12-page booklet in the Dave Matthews Band’s CRASH, advertising everything from Matthews mouse pads to ”toboggan hats”
BEST LYRIC ”I wish I was a lesbian/I’d like to be a dyke/I’d hang with k.d. lang/Mel Gibson, take a hike!” — Loudon Wainwright III, ”IWIWAL”
WORST EXCUSE TO RECYCLE OVERPLAYED BEACH BOYS SONGS JENNY MCCARTHY’S SURFIN’ SAFARI
BEST SONG TITLE ”GRATEFUL WHEN YOU’RE DEAD,” Kula Shaker
BEST COUNTRY SONG TITLE ”TUCSON TOO SOON,” Tracy Byrd
WORST SONG TITLE ”IN THE SPRINGTIME OF HIS VOODOO,” Tori Amos