The Congos Heart of the Congos (Blood and Fire) This may well be producer Lee Perry's masterpiece, in addition to being one of the most beautiful and spiritual reggae records of all time. A hard-to-find import since its release in 1977, now reissued with an EP of vintage remixes and ephemera. Essential.

various artists Red Hot + Rio (Antilles) The latest, brilliant installment of this ongoing AIDS charity series focuses on old and new pop styles from Brazil, a country especially hard-hit by the disease. My faves: PM Dawn's Beatles-esque samba, Everything But the Girl's drum'n'bass bossanova, and Stereolab's dope jam with Herbie Mann.

Norma WatersonNorma Waterson (Hannibal) Waterson is one of the great divas of English folk, and she wraps her beautifully weary voice around new standards by Billy Bragg, Ben Harper, and Jerry Garcia, among others. She's backed by an all-star band featuring Richard Thompson, who delivers his best full-LP performance in years.

Bally Sagoo Bollywood Flashback and Rising From The East (Columbia) Indian film music as heard through the ears of the great young Anglo-Asian dance music producer. If you count bootlegs, 1994's Bollywood is probably multiplatinum in India.

Paulo Bragança (Luaka Bop) Portuguese fado bears some relation to flamenco song, but I've always found it much more romantic. This soulful young singer brings the music out of the conservatory (where it seems to be spending too much time) and into the streets.

Chief Stephen Osita OsadebeKedu America (Xenophile) Remember his set at First Avenue two years ago? I'll never forget it, and this recent session catches the elder statesman of Nigerian highlife at his mature prime.

various artists Money Be No Sand (Original Music) Sixties and '70s rock and soul as seen through the lens of West African pop tradition. The gorgeous cover of The Beatles's "Don't Let Me Down" (by Ghana's Charlotte Dada) is only the beginning.

Rachid Taha olé olé (Mango) How producer Steve Hillage--ex-guitarist for the Anglo-French psychedelic group Gong, currently blipping away with his ambient techno outfit 777--got hooked up with this French-Algerian rai hearthrob is anyone's guess. But the result is the best rai session I've heard in ages.

VarttinaKokko (Elektra) The major label debut of Finnish folk's answer to En Vogue. As always, the harmonies are to die for.

various artists Czeching In (Skoda) New wave rock mutations from the Czech and Slovak republics.

Arto Lindsay O Corpo Sutil (Bar/None) With help from Brian Eno, Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, Deee-Lite's Towa Tei, and a variety of sharp Brazilian players, Lindsay makes a subtle tropicalía record for downtown NYC, heavy on the bossa nova.

SepulturaRoots (Roadrunner) Brazilian death metal rules, okay?

Madredeus Ainda: Soundtrack From The Film "Lisbon Story" (Metro Blue) Portuguese fado from the music's reigning young stars, who also appear in the Wim Wenders movie. When do we get to see it?

Bim Sherman Miracle (Beggar's Banquet/On U Sound) One of reggae's greatest singers reunites with legendary dub producer Adrian Sherwood & friends for a mostly acoustic, East-meets-West Indian session with Talvin Singh and the Bombay Studio Beats Orchestra.

Orlando Owoh with his Omimah Band Dr. Ganja's Polytonality Blues (Original Music) Best album title of the year, also primo stoner guitar music from Owoh's mid-70s Nigerian juju-highlife crew.

Nguyên Lê Tales From Viêtnam (ACT/Blue Jackel) One of the few recordings to bring the unusual beauty of Vietnamese traditional music in contact with Western styles, in this case jazz fusion. Thus, some typical excesses, but fascinating overall, especially Huong Thanh's soulful vocals.

Kekuhi Kanahele Hahani Mai (Punahele/ Mountain Apple) A revelatory set of old-style Hawaiian country songs sung in gorgeous native tongue by this venerable island woman.

GS I Love You: Japanese Garage Bands of the 1960s (Big Beat import) The Spider's "Seishun A Go-Go" is great, but it was the Out Cast's Kenji Todoroki demolishing "Long Tall Sally" that sold me.

Solas Solas (Shanachie) Young Irish trad supergroup with multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and vocalist Karen Casey, whose haunting version of "The Newry Highwayman" is worth the price of the CD.

I. K. Dairo MBE & his BlueSpots Definitive Dairo (Xenophile) Sweeter-than-sweet sessions from 1971 that blend guitar-charged highlife and drum-mad juju, by the late legend of Nigerian pop. If you've forgotten how good African music can be, this will remind you.

Afro Celt Sound System Volume 1 Sound Magic (Realworld) It doesn't always gel, but this techno-tinged jam between veteran Irish folkies and some of Baaba Maal's Senegalese crew looks towards a bold post-club fusion. Keep at it, boys.

INDEPENDENT LABEL CONTACTS: Original Music, 418 Lasher Rd., Tivoli, NY, 12583; 914-756-2767; [email protected].. Big Beat c/o Ace, 46-50 Steele Rd., London NW10 7AS, England; [email protected].. Mountain Apple, P.O. Box 22373, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96823; 1-800- 882-7088... Bar/None, P.O. Box 1704, Hoboken, NY, 07030; ACT/Blue Jackel, 322 Hicksville Rd., Bethpage, NY, 11714; 516-932-1608... Skoda, P.O. Box 1389, Wilmington, DE, 19899-1389 ... Xenophile/Green Linnet, 43 Beaver Brook Road, Danbury, CT, 06810; 1-800-468-6644; [email protected])

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