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Bragging rights: British agit-pop rocker Billy Bragg--an American hero.

Editor's choice: Spins that spun well

By Greg Cahill

EACH YEAR, the recording industry cranks out 26,000 new releases, a veritable tide of often overhyped aluminum. That's roughly equivalent to the number of CDs in a well-stocked music store. And when you consider that a really well-stocked music store offers a large selection of catalog items as well--like all the Stones, Replacements, and Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet titles your heart could desire--there's precious little space left for those new releases.

Thus, the time-honored tradition of best-of-the-year reviews.

Do music critics have time to listen to all 26,000 releases? Hardly. We're too busy hiding from the torrent of dreck the major labels send us by vegging out on VH-1's "Pop-Up Video." Of course, it's pretentious to present these lists as the year's best. Still, they provide a chance to flag some noteworthy releases that might otherwise slip under the radar. So here are a few spins that spun, if not endlessly, then damned well on the old Onkyo this year:

Oscar Aleman Swing Guitar Masterpieces, 1938-1957 Acoustic Disc

HE IS HAILED as the Argentine Django Rheinhart. But some jazz buffs feel that guitarist Oscar Aleman actually had better chops than his more famous Gypsy counterpart. Marin mandolinist and label chief David Grisman sets the record straight on this two-CD set culled from four out-of-print classic LPs. Lots of American standards. Lots of Latin heat.

Beck Mutations DGC

THE SWEETHEART of the postmodern hip-hop scene lets his inner Ray Davies emerge while settling into a flower-pop groove that has more in common with the folksy psychedelia of Pink Floyd (circa Meddle) than current beatsters. This stripped-down, acoustic-based set is Beck's most consistent work to date.

Billy Bragg & Wilco Mermaid Avenue Elektra

YOU CAN BET Springsteen would have given his impeccably capped eye teeth for this project. But British agit-pop star Billy Bragg (backed by Americana stalwarts Wilco) got the nod to record 15 lost songs from the archive of folk legend Woody Guthrie. The result is a glorious set of visceral folk rock that ranges from the intensely personal to the incisively satiric.

Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater Cool Blues Walk Bullseye

AFTER A LENGTHY hiatus, blues guitarist Eddy Clearwater comes roaring back on this rollicking barnburner produced by ex-Roomful of Blues guitarist Duke Robillard (who also provides some tasteful licks). The songs run the gamut from blues stomps to rockabilly to South Side strut. The key word: cool.

Ramblin' Jack Elliot Friends of Mine Hightone

IT'S EASY to take Ramblin' Jack for granted--after all, this Grammy-winning folk great plies his wares at the tiny Blue Heron in Duncans Mills and the colorful Western Saloon in Point Reyes Station. But a host of famous friends--including Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Bob Weir, and Guy Clark--shine a light on this crusty troubadour on 11 duets.

Joe Ely Twistin in the Wind MCA Nashville

LYLE LOVETT got all the attention for his lukewarm collection of cover tunes, but fellow Texan Joe Ely shows that the Lone Star State still hosts some of the most dangerous music around, filled with jagged beats and Western bravado. Tex-Mex country rock as ornery as a Panhandle rattler.

Lisa Gerrad and Pieter Bourke Duality 4AD/Warner

ALPHA WAVE ALERT! Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance and percussionist Pieter Bourke deliver a transcendent sound inspired by gothic-folk songs, Sufi chants, and early Christian music, all cloaked in Middle Eastern instrumentation and sparse, haunting arrangements. You might not end up speaking in tongues, but when Gerrard does, you can't help marveling.

Bill Laswell Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis, 1969-1974 Columbia

Shirley Horn I Remember Miles Verve

THERE WAS NO shortage of tributes this year to the late, great jazz trumpet master Miles Davis, including a flood of reissues from Davis' fusion period. These are two of the best. Bill Laswell tapped Davis' innovative fusion material for a postmodern translation that reconstructs newly restored performances and previously unreleased themes from the landmark recordings In a Silent Way, On the Corner, and Get up with It. Some great grooves. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., area pianist and vocalist Shirley Horn, whose work inspired some of Davis' best ballads, reclaims three tunes from Davis' Seven Steps to Heaven, as well as three from Porgy and Bess and a trio of others. Sultry. Sassy. Stunning.

Nick Lowe Dig My Mood Upstart/Rounder

BRITISH pub rocker dresses mostly melancholy love songs in blue hues. One reviewer likened these songs to the glowing embers of a dying romance. And one listen to "Cold Grey Light of Dawn" will show you why. Hard to beat.

Ernest Ranglin In Search of the Lost Riddim Palm

HE IS BEST KNOWN in reggae circles as the man who taught Bob Marley to play guitar, but Ernest Ranglin's contributions to music include a stint with the pioneering Skatalites. Here Ranglin journeys to Senegal in search of the percolating beats that inform that upbeat, Jamaican dance music. In the process, he lays down some of the most ebullient jazz-inflected riffs of his distinguished career and taps into the soul of the African continent.

Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Mercury

HER SONGS HAVE been covered by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Tom Petty. Mary Chapin-Carpenter's rendition of Williams' "Passionate Kisses" earned them both Grammys in 1994. This year, this talented Texas singer-songwriter came into her own. Featuring achingly sweet vocals and chillingly honest lyrics, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is rife with mostly autobiographical songs that compose a stark travelogue of the human heart.

From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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