Year of the Vulture

A Record Year: Our 13 favorite albums for 1997.

THE CAST OF BERGVILLE STORIES
BERGVILLE STORIES
(Sony International)

Bugger technology. This record only has voices: 12 of them, all male, coming together in short songs rooted in gorgeous, four- and five-part harmonies that work together with the inspired integrity of people building themselves a school. The style is mbube--think Ladysmith Black Mambazo--and many listeners may be reminded of gospel. Yet, where gospel derives its intensity from an earthy rhythmic pulse, these melodic songs soar at an elevation that comes when disparate sonic possibilities get together and make love. (Dolan)

RICHARD BUCKNER
DEVOTION + DOUBT
(MCA)

As far as that dubious genre known as alt-country goes, it was a year long on the pretty-good (at least after a shot or two of Maker's Mark) but short on the great. The exception was this aching exercise in 'artbreak courtesy of a San Francisco yokel who versifies more like Frank O'Hara than Hank Williams, and crafts tunes more like Nick Drake than Garth Brooks (whom he actually managed to beat in the Best Country Artist category in Rolling Stone's recent critics' poll). But the pedal steel sings, the voice breaks like George Jones on a very serious bender, and the sorrow weaves back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line in search of a home it never finds. Might be the best post-breakup convalescing soundtrack since Blood On the Tracks. (Hermes)

JIM HALL
PANORAMA: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
(Telarc)

Hall's reputation as a superior guitar accompanist (check out his duets with Bill Evans) made even hammy guests like trombonist Slide Hampton and pianist Geoff Keezer listen hard and play smart. More august visitors such as flügelhornist Art Farmer and pianist Kenny Barron practically purr with delight as they rub up against Hall's masterfully crafted guitar lines and prismatic harmonies. Terry Clarke (drums) and Scott Colley (bass) monitor the rhythm with the dedicated prescience of palm readers. The result is a collection of tunes that contains the spontaneous flair of a live concert and the intimate teamwork of a venerable ensemble. (Robson)

SLEATER-KINNEY
DIG ME OUT
(Kill Rock Stars)

The uppity Northwest trio's second-straight classic comes on as ferociously sincere as Ani DiFranco's "Not a Pretty Girl." It also meta-rocks as self-consciously as Pavement's "Stereo." Singer/guitarists Tucker and Brownstein mean everything, twice over. And they mean nothing. Which is why they can claim what DiFranco can't: perspective. And why they effortlessly exude what Pavement will always lack: conviction. Dig Me Out taunts the listener with dubious raptures. Even the title dares you to find the "authentic" voice in its catalog of impassioned personas. Forget that. Just see if you can dance while not always believing in the steps. See if you can walk off into the future knowing the plank won't hold you long. (Sutton)

VARIOUS ARTISTS
NUYORICAN SOUL
(Blue Thumb/Giant Step)

Puerto Rican house-music legends Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and "Little" Louie Vega string together an extended dance mix boiling over with love for a Pan-American groove and history; it's sweetest lyrics--which never gets much more profound than "It's all right! I FEEL IT!"--still resonate like an orgasmic national anthem. Pulling together three generations of musicians and singers from every flavor of Nuyorica--salsa, jazz, funk, disco, house, and hip hop--this melting pot is so hot it damn near transforms crusty fusion musician Roy Ayers into a funkmeister. Afro-Cuban jams bleed into loose-booty house hits. Eddie Palmieri takes a gorgeous piano solo; Ayers wades in to the mix, only to drown in disco; and two of the toughest hip-hop instrumentals of the year bookend the whole affair. (Dolan)

BOB DYLAN
TIME OUT OF MIND
(Columbia)

Bob Dylan isn't a genius anymore. The poetic guru who channeled an entire counterculture through his reflexive wordplay grew out of his gift decades ago. Ever the romantic, though, he leaned on doomed love to crack off a final masterpiece, Blood On the Tracks, before heading into the wilderness to discover Jesus and reacquaint himself with seminal blues. Time Out of Mind brings it all back home and comes to terms with mortality: The doomed love affair here is the one with life itself. The dominant element is not the lyrics, which are strong but don't bear his vintage incandescence, nor Daniel Lanois's purposefully pint-sized production; it's the gnarled exhaustion in Dylan's voice. Aside from his Bo Diddley knock-off "Cold Irons Bound," this is a lucid manifestation of looming decay. The genius is dead; long live the sage. (Robson)

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