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Year of the Vulture

Christopher Henderson

YO LA TENGO
I CAN HEAR THE HEART BEATING AS ONE
(Matador)

Why did the best rock LP of the year by a city mile lose to the just-OK OK Computer in so many critics' polls? Too humble? Too romantic? Too spacey? These were all strengths in my book. And with a record that let rock speak to electronica with both tunefulness and hypnotic groove-magic, the Yo Las beat Radiohead at their own game. The pleasure points include crickets; basement tributes to Jobim, Bacharach, and the Jesus and Mary Chain; and Georgia Hubley playing Moe Tucker playing Clyde Stubblefield. Like Another Green World (another perfect LP), Heart alternates haunting instrumentals with songs long on wistfulness. Steeped in Velvets/Television strum'n'flail, it's also a definitive NYC rock album (Jonathan Fire*Eater, kiss my Queensborough ass). And just to rub it in, they did it from Jersey. (Will Hermes)

VARIOUS ARTISTS
ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC
(Smithsonian Folkways)

This reissue of hippy Herodotus, Harry Smith's 1952 compilation of 84 country, blues, cajun, gospel, and fiddle tunes may be the only record from 1997 that'll still mean shit in 2097. Recorded between 1926 and 1934 by musicians from places as far flung as Texas, West Virginia, and the "godforsaken country called Minneso-tee-o," these 78s crystallized a soundvision of Whitman's America--a place coming together at the seams. Here Blind Lemon Jefferson is a watchdog; the original pimpdaddy "Stackalee" shares a king-size bed with the Carter Family's playa hatin' anthem "Single Girl, Married Girl"; and a doom-lovin' lunatic from Norton, Virginia, named "Dock" Boggs holds court as the grandpappy of rock & roll. And all that history retails for a piddling $67.99 at Oar Folk. (Jon Dolan)

NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
(Bad Boy)

Pretend Biggie didn't die. Imagine that the cheapest and most expensive irony of all never happened. Listen to Life After Death the way it was intended to be heard. Check how Biggie's trenchant emotions play Lennon to Puffy's McCartney-esque pop whimsy on the monster hits "Hypnotize" and "Mo' Money." Or how Biggie freeze-dries entire Iceberg Slim novels down to thrilling, harrowing four-minute vignettes like "Somebody's Gotta Die," or "Niggas Bleed"; how Biggie's incomparable couplets land even harder when an ace producer like Wu-Tang's RZA is the one lacing the grooves with a predatory bass line. Skip over filler like "Ten Crack Commandments" and "Playa Hater," silly attempts to reinforce a street cred Biggie, if not Puffy, already has. Biggie's dead. Fuck Puffy and Sting; check out "Miss U," the man's own somber anthem to grief. It's a small comfort. Let's rest in peace while we're still alive. (Britt Robson)

ERYKAH BADU
BADUIZM
(Kenar/Universal)

Not the most innovative artist on the list, Badu may be the most subversive. Why? Because this charismatic singer doesn't play. And, at the same time, she obviously does. Standing tall with history wrapped 'round her head, she plays a series of black women--pissed off, mischievous, hurting--and she plays them with dignity and detail. As much as any novelist, she carries these heroines' conflicted hearts into your home. Turnabout's fair play for Badu: She slips barbed images into the sexy stream of her deep beats and dancing voice, catching the listener like a trout. Who gave her permission to rearrange me? Well, I did, of course. And she wasn't even talking to me. (Terri Sutton)

BUILT TO SPILL
PERFECT FROM NOW ON
(Warner Bros.)

The latest chapter in Doug Martsch's evolving epic of indie-rock high romance departs from the land of the perfectly tossed-off pop song for that of the perfectly tossed-off guitar suite. Most songs clock in around the seven-minute mark, and they tumble together in an art-rock waterfall; as far as return trips to Dark Side of the Moon go, these tunes beat Radiohead's OK Computer handily (see Yo La Tengo, above). Like all good rock, it's mostly about obsession. As Martsch mewls to a muse near the start: "I can't get that sound you make out of my head." Me neither. (Hermes)

JANET JACKSON
THE VELVET ROPE

(Virgin)

Lil' Miss Jackson's not a virgin anymore. On The Velvet Rope Janet searched for her soul, discovered her "coochie," and came out with a sex- and queer-positive declaration of independence. Control freaks Jam and Lewis led her limited vocal range through an R&B/hip-hop hall of mirrors where every coo and whisper could reflect with authority and grace. Critics jerked off to the Joni Mitchell sample padding the Q-Tippity "Got 'Til It's Gone," but it was the sunny, fidelity funk of "Together Again" that made my own critic's coochie gleefully "swell up and fall apart." (Dolan)

SPRING HEEL JACK
BUSY CURIOUS THIRSTY
(Island)

 

Because, within the Babel tower of electronic dialects, Roni Size is too straight and Oval too abstract. Because you can read this album's title as truth in advertising. Because I don't know a thing about the modern classical music people say John Coxon and Ashley Wales draw on, and I still find their compositions smart and intoxicating. Because my head struggles to fit all the bleating horns and searing strings and grave-digging bass and trilling piano they've sampled into some kind of whole--because I have to struggle. Because these hard-won collages--these elegies and hauntings, speed trials and meditations--shake me to my bones. Because Spring Heel Jack gets away with so much. (Sutton)

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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