Knockin' Back 40

If you're looking for a globular essay that will pretend to offer a big-picture window on the year in music circa 1996, you've got the wrong byline. As usual, what follows are my Top 20 CDs in anal-retentive order of preference, followed by 20 honorable mentions, listed alphabetically.

1. FugeesThe Score (Ruffhouse) They're soulful enough to break your heart, angry enough to sometimes want to break your neck, and smart enough not to compromise. Permanently erases the line between hip hop and R&B.

2. The WallflowersBringing Down the Horse (Interscope) The year's most perfectly burnished pop-rock, marinated and roasted the old-fashioned way by Bob Dylan's son's band. Here's a toast to Jakob's resiliency, through the inevitable bullshit he endured as birthright.

3. 2PacAll Eyez On Me (Death Row) What could be more riveting than a man with a martyr wish about to come true? How about galvanized mixes that christen a new genre of gangsta pop? Siphon off a quart of hate and delete a hundred or so bitch references and it's the disc of the year.

4. Ornette ColemanSound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women (Harmolodic/Verve) Ornette's harmolodic style is perhaps the most African-American music ever, with rhythmic weaves of churning beats that the blood knows literally by heart, folded into intuitive harmonies and spontaneous phrasing that never fails to surprise.

5. Greg Brown Further In (Red House) What a bonus that the nation's finest folk composer is aging with grace and integrity; anthems of maturity should all be this measured, joyful, and wise. And the music rustles and shines like a spring day in the woods.

6. BabyfaceThe Day (Epic) He loves and respects women more than any musical Casanova I've ever heard. And nobody--not Jacko, the Glyph, Hootie, nor Kenny G-Wiz--has made more influentially popular music in the '90s.

7. DJ Shadow Endtroducing... (Mo'Wax/ffrr) Let the masseuses play their New Age pap. This is a rolfer's soundtrack; technofied hip hop that stutters, lisps, hollars and hums--and incinerates Beck's Odelay on contact.

8. Dana Bryant Wishing From the Top (Warner Bros.) Like a gene splice of Angela Bassett and Ntozake Shange, these spoken-word performances are rap-sung through a dozen colors of sass, from protectively vulnerable to proudly Amazonian, with hip-sway sensuality and courageous truth-telling.

9. ProngRude Awakening (Epic) The singer sounds shit-faced on tap beer, and the guitar, bass, and drums are blunt instruments trying to break your cranium so persistently that somehow the thrash turns funky. The lyrics are fear and self-loathing at the psycho amusement park. The year's best heavy metal.

10. New Jungle Orchestra Music From the Danish Jungle (DCCD) For more than a decade, Pierre Dorge's NJO has been one of the most joyously inventive big bands in jazz, blending the cerebral playfulness of composers like Henry Threadgill and Carla Bley with the more "traditional" chromatic harmonies of Ellington and Mingus.

11. Junko OnishiPiano Quintet Suite (Blue Note) Like Mingus, Onishi composes grand, sweeping music that ferrets for details, recruits feisty stylists to push the envelope, and spearheads her ensemble with headstrong but empathetic piano passages.

12. De La Soul, Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy) The loosey-goosey beats and easygoing flow make it feel like a daisy chain reprise. But check the black (hole) humor and you'll know that Pos and his crew are representing downsized outsiders everywhere.

13. Kevin Mahogany(Warner Bros.) His cavernous voice always contained distinctive, Sensurround acoustics. But like Cassandra Wilson, Mahogany has gotten a creative surge providing jazz textures to obscure pop and blues tunes, resulting in the most sprightly interpretations and confident singing of his career.

14. Vernon Reid Mistaken Identity (550 Music) The living colors on this wildly eclectic (and hence commercially disastrous) masterwork include ululating ragas and Irish jigs, a punkish paean to Kurt Cobain and all manner of hip hop, jazz, and skits and interludes. A sci-fi soundtrack for the 21st century.

15. Lyle Lovett The Road to Ensenada (MCA) Even as ultrawry guys go, Lovett's a delightful anomaly, simultaneously channeling the spirits of Bob Wills, Porter Wagoner, and the star of Eraserhead, deftly satirizing Austin, Texas, Nashville, and Hollywood en route to his most personal collection of tunes yet.

16. Manny Oquendo & Libre On the Move! (Milestone) Intoxicating salsa with Latin jazz ruffles, this octet twines vocals, percussion, and four fat trombones into hip-twisting riffs brimming with bounce and brassiness.

17. Sheryl Crow Sheryl Crow (A&M) Save your backlash for Celine or Alanis and listen to these ambitious tunes: Crow used her stardom to grow her art, without harming her commercial viability. And then she told Wal-Mart to fuck off.

18. Beau Jocque & The Zydeco Hi-Rollers Gonna Take You Downtown (Rounder) "Caveman" Pierre is rubbing the washboard; Beau Jocque's got the squeezebox, and a voice with the kind of subterranean plumbing that makes him zydeco's answer to Malathini and Howlin' Wolf. Along with the other Hi-Rollers, they'll dance you right into the swamp.

19. Republica, Republica (RCA) Bubble-gum Britannica that updates the Go-Go's with saucy lyrics and blocky riffs. I'd call it a guilty pleasure but my passion for it is innocent. Really.

20. Keith Murray, Enigma (Jive) Murray lives up to his boast of being "the beautifullest vocabulist," by rhyming combos like "premisis" and "nemesis," and slinging more vivid wordplay than any rapper since the heyday of Big Daddy Kane. Erick Sermon's old-school mixes wisely don't get in his way.

Honorable Mentions:

Albita, dicen que..., Crescent Moon/Epic.

Bahamadia, Kollage, Chrysalis/EMI.

Toni Braxton, Secrets, LaFace.

Crumb, Romance Is a Slowdance, Qwest.

Steve Earle, I Feel Alright, Warner Brothers.

Garbage, Garbage, Almo.

Goodie Mob, Soul Food, LaFace.

Keb' Mo', Just Like You, Okeh.

Love Nut, Bastards of Melody, Interscope.

Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens, Stoki Stoki, Shanachie.

MC Lyte, Bad as I Wanna Be, EastWest.

Morcheeba, Who Can You Trust?, Discovery.

Nas, It Was Written, Columbia.

Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Peace Beyond Passion, Maverick/Reprise.

Poe, Hello, Atlantic.

Amparo Sandino, Punto de Partida, EW/World.

Patti Smith, Gone Again, Arista.

Society Of Soul, Brainchild, LaFace.

Tony Toni Toné, House of Music, Mercury.

Tool, Aeima, Zoo.

INDEPENDENT LABEL CONTACTS: Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, MN., 55104, 1-800-695-4687... Tommy Boy Music, Inc., 902 Broadway, New York, N.Y., 10020... Milestone Records c/o Fantasy, Inc., Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA.,94710... Rounder Records Corp., One Camp St., Cambridge, MA. 02140... Shanachie Entertainment, 13 Laight St.,
6th Floor, New York, N.Y., 10013, www.shanachie.com... Discovery Records, 2034 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA., 90411.

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