And they're so easy to wrap as well

Stuck for a last-minute stocking-filler? Make it a lovingly chosen one, with our critics' pick of the year's very best CDs
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The Independent Culture
Air: Moon Safari (Source). Pencilled into the albums-of-the-year list since its release in January, this collection of soothingly gorgeous space-age lounge music does the impossible - twice. It's a cool record made by Frenchmen; and it makes electronic keyboards and Vocoders sound lush, warm, seductive and sincere.

Beck: Mutations (Geffen). Just when we thought we knew Beck Hansen well enough to turn his name into an adjective, he moseys off in an unexpected direction. Ever the pioneer, on this "parenthetical" album he leaves behind the samples and hip-hop beats, loads his wagon with harmonicas and harpsichords, and takes us on a long, twisty-turny journey through the West.

Cardigans: Gran Turismo (Stockholm). Nina Persson could sing the Daily Telegraph's letters page and her luscious voice would still tear chunks off the heart. Instead, she's cooing sceptically about love's sweet sorrow, along with a pristine indie-pop backing.

Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Columbia). A landmark album, this was written, performed and produced in its entirety by the voice of the Fugees (and what a voice it is). She can stroll from rap to reggae to soul to gospel as easily as she can cross the street.

Hole: Celebrity Skin (Geffen). An invigorating race down a Californian freeway with the radio turned up full. A better rock-star than actress - whatever she might think - Courtney Love gives her recent tragedies the finger with some radio-friendly post-grunge pop that could be Belinda Carlisle on a bad-hair day.

Madonna: Ray of Light (Warner). With awe-inspiring skill, William Orbit crafts a mystic, tidal, ambient-rave soundscape, and sends flickering beats, dreamy strings, funky organs and garage guitars floating through the haze. The self-obsessed woman chanting cod-spiritual lyrics over the top isn't too bad, either.

Massive Attack: Mezzanine (Virgin). Whether there will ever be another Massive Attack album or whether their final creative act was swearing at Fergie at the MTV Awards last month, the trio's trilogy is almost matchless. Since we last visited, their subterranean world has grown even murkier and edgier, and even more thrilling, with live guitar and drums providing the jagged outcrops, and, as usual, some softly luminescent melodies.

Money Mark: Push the Button (Mo Wax). A deceptively modest, playful album that the Beastie Boys' keyboard player (and carpenter) knocked up on his days off, Push the Button none the less casually affirms that Mark Ramos-Nishita can compete with Air, Barry White, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, the Byrds and the Beatles, among others, at their own games.

Pulp: This is Hardcore (Island). Tumbling melodies, gargantuan arrangements, desperately moving words ... slow sales. This classic is at least as catchy as Different Class, but the teen following of the thinking person's pop group was underwhelmed. That's what happens when you make a troubled, questioning album about being a grown-up.

REM: Up (Warner). At the stage in their career when they should be settling into MOR blues-rock or embarrassing themselves by attempting dance music, REM just keep evolving and maturing, exploring new shapes and textures while retaining the hallmarks - nagging tunes and cerebral but affecting lyrics - that make them one of the most rewarding, artistic bands ever. Nicholas Barber

JAZZ

Rita Marcotulli: The Woman Next Door (Label Bleu). The Italian pianist (a new name to me) has fashioned an extraordinary album from the grand projet of a musical tribute to the films of Francois Truffaut. Drawing on various permutations of a Franco- Italian ensemble, and eschewing literal interpretation of the themes in favour of deeply personalised evocations of their moods and associations, Marcotulli creates a series of little masterpieces, each in a different style. There's accordions a-plenty, Charles Trenet songs and nods to the Seventies fusion of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Formidable.

Jan Garbarek: Rites (ECM). A brilliant return to form from the Norwegian ice-man of the tenor and soprano saxophones. The contents are admirably diverse, and include a Laplander folk-tune, a sampled and synth-washed evocation of India, several ambient-hued chill-out grooves, and contributions from a Norwegian boys' choir and a Georgian singer.

Anouar Brahem: Thimar (ECM). This cross-cultural encounter features the Tunisian oud player with Englishmen John Surman on reeds and Dave Holland on bass. The combination prompts patterns of improvisation that reach far beyond the expected poles of either culture. Jazz fusion in the best sense - a perfect soundtrack to meditative Sunday mornings.

Brad Mehldau: Songs (Warner). A superbly recorded piano trio session (with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums) of mainly lyrical ballads. There's five Brad Mehldau originals, each in an appropriately limpid vein; intensely emotional versions of two numbers indelibly associated with Frank Sinatra, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (from Rodgers and Hart's classic show Pal Joey) and "Young at Heart"; and jazz arrangements of Nick Drake's "River Man" and Radiohead's "Exit Music'.

Keith Jarrett: Tokyo '96 (ECM). The familiar "Standards" trio, with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, in yet another live recording of, well, standards. Though Jarrett's own muse has apparently left him, the inclusion of two tunes by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell helps up the pace to a boppish sprint, and the final sequence, in which "My Funny Valentine" merges into Jarrett's own "Song", is one of the great jazz epiphanies. Phil Johnson

CLASSICAL AND OPERA

Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim's Progress. Finley, Royal Opera/Hickox (Chandos). A sublime - but problem - piece which has been waiting half a century for a champion, which it gets with a cast that documents the current quality of younger British singers (Susan Gritton, Rebecca Evans, Mark Padmore, Pamela Helen Stephen) and Gerald Finley giving the performance of several lifetimes in the title role.

Schubert: Lieder. Ian Bostridge/Julius Drake (EMI). From the British tenor who can do no wrong, this is a successor to his universally admired Schumann disc (although actually recorded before it), and every bit as covetable: mostly well-known songs, and cautious in the choice of tempi and dynamics, but with no punches pulled in the singing itself. For all their lightness, purity, and cultivation, these are youthfully direct and vital readings, beautifully accompanied.

Elgar/Payne: 3rd Symphony. BBC SO/Andrew Davies (NMC). Anthony Payne's midwifery on the sketches of Elgar's unfinished symphony was one of the events of the year. It revealed a futuristic promise to the great man's final years that few would have imagined. This world-premiere CD delivers it with relish, as the BBC Symphony Orchestra reclaim the score they originally commissioned: not a flawless reading, but sincere and heartfelt, and alive with energy.

Musorgsky: Boris Godunov. Kirov Opera & Orchestra/Gergiev (Philips). The big-hitting CD project of the year and a radical response to the old problem of which version - five-scene or seven-scene - to do. Answer: you do them both, and let your listener choose. They come with separate, though overlapping, casts, and some outstanding singers whose names won't always be known to British audiences but register with the new, focused brilliance that betokens modern Russian singing. Olga Borodina is especially impressive as Marina.

Pavel Haas: Sarkatan. Prague State Opera/ Israel Yinon (Decca Entartete Musik). The first recording of a literally unknown score, written in 1938 by one of the Terezin composers whose work has had a new lease of life, courtesy of Decca's pioneering Entartete Musik series. The writing is a joy, exuberantly energised and with occasionally haunting melodies. And though the piece got mixed reviews this year when Wexford staged it, it was hailed a triumph in this newspaper! I stand by every word. Michael White

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