ARTS: A record Christmas

'Tis the season to give CDs ... Here, our critics choose their discs of 1995, from Pulp to Prokofiev, and Tricky to 'Troilus and Cressida'
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The Independent Culture
ROCK & POP 1

Blur: The Great Escape (Food, CD/LP/tape). Class bigots with an obsessive reverence for rock's past and an inability to empathise with others. That's the kind of person who dislikes Blur, and who trots out the dogmatic anti-Britpop arguments. Don't listen to them. Listen instead to this melancholy masterpiece of contemporary culture. Then listen again, and again. Each time you'll notice something new.

Bjork: Post (One Little Indian, CD/LP/tape). Again, Ms Gudmundsdottir rewrites the pop rulebook - and this time it's in Icelandic. Roughly translated, it says: nakedly uninhibited vocals, some experimental, magical nonsense and lyrics that mark her down as the Ira Gershwin of the Nineties.

Black Grape: It's Great When You're Straight ... Yeah (Radioactive, CD/LP/tape). Shaun Ryder's ruffians dance on the grave of the Happy Mondays; the rest of us just dance. A baggy funk-rock party that's sleazier than a cabinet minister, and funnier too.

Wayne Kramer: The Hard Stuff (Epitaph, CD/ LP/tape). A survivor of Detroit's revolutionary rockers, The MC5, Kramer teams up with some of America's new punk generation. As a guitarist, a militant social commentator and storyteller, he's harder hitting than ever. "Cool in the past / Cool in the present / When the light hits right / It's damn iridescent." Damn right.

Pulp: Different Class (Island, CD/LP/tape). How could lyrics this acidic, spiteful, earthy and literate, and music that incorporates Seventies disco and Velvet Underground strings, end up as a fabulous pop phenomenon? Maybe because quality and intelligence sometimes triumph, because Pulp don't sound like anyone else, and because this album at last has melodies as distinctive as the words and the arrangements. Nicholas Barber

ROCK & POP 2

Tricky: Maxinquaye (4th & Broadway, CD/LP/ tape). It remains to be seen what the tormented Bristolian will do with the pre-eminent position this superb debut secured him in the Britpop pantheon, but we will always have it as a landmark of downbeat dread genius to remember him by.

Baby Bird: I Was Born a Man (Baby Bird, CD only). Just how much space can there be inside a four-track tape recorder? This first in a series of five bizarre and magical albums compiled from Sheffield-based Steven Jones's library of over 400 songs suggests that the answer to that question is "quite a lot".

Oasis: (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (Creation, CD/LP/tape). The mild-mannered Mancunians' triumphant follow-up to 1994's Definitely Maybe took a little while to set up camp in the sub-conscious, despite being the fastest-selling album since Michael Jackson's Bad. But who cares if the lyrics sometimes suggest too long spent hugging trees in the forest with Paul Weller, when the tunes are as unforgettable as "Wonderwall" and "Champagne Supernova"?

Various Artists: Triskedekaphilia (Ankst, CD/LP/ tape). Featuring not only Gorky's Zygotic Mynci but also the intriguing Ectogram, the winsome Catatonia and the sublimely bitter and twisted Datblygu, this fascinating collation of Radio Cymru session material is the perfect introduction to the wonderful world of Welsh-language pop.

A Guy Called Gerald: Black Secret Technology (Juice Box, CD/LP/tape). Six years on from his bewitching acid-pop landmark single "Voodoo Ray", the enigmatic Gerald Simpson released an album to match. In tandem with Goldie's more widely touted Timeless, this is the perfect riposte to anyone who still thinks jungle sounds best coming out of someone else's car stereo. Ben Thompson

JAZZ

John Patton: Minor Swing (DIW, CD only). He used to be "Big" John Patton, the most groovesome of all the bygone Blue Note Hammond- organ swingers, and in that sense nothing much has changed. What's relatively new is the continuing partnership with art-punk John Zorn on alto sax, whose whopping brain-power is thankfully submerged beneath a deep respect for old-school rhythm'n'blues reed-splitting excitement.

Charlie Haden & Hank Jones: Steal Away (Verve, CD only). Simple, elegant and heartfelt, this bass and piano duet on a selection of hymns, spirituals and folk songs - many of them associated with the Civil Rights movement - is exactly the kind of meditative album that repays repeated listening. As usual, the singular thump of Haden's bass is worth several busy rhythm sections.

Dave Douglas: In Our Lifetime (New World/ Countercurrents, CD only). Recessive, thoughtful compositions from the New York trumpeter (a colleague of Zorn's), coupled with new arrangements of tunes by the late Charles Mingus trumpeter Booker Little, and capped by Douglas's beautiful "Four Miniatures for Booker Little", a bittersweet piece of great grace and power.

Keith Jarrett: At the Blue Note - the Complete Recordings (ECM, 6-CD box). Never one to do things by halves, pianist Jarrett is represented here by every single note he played over three nights last year at New York's Blue Note club. The material is mostly standards, the backing the usual Standards Trio of Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, and the results are by and large pretty wonderful, although Jarrett persists in trying to sing (or more accurately, mumble) - which after five hours or so grates more than a bit.

Julian Arguelles: Home Truths (Babel, CD only). Superbly burbling saxophone from the young British leader distinguishes this emotionally turbulent set from a band of Steve Swallow on electric bass, Mike Walker on guitar and Martin France on drums. At its best when the tunes are slow to mid- tempo, as one or two worrying fusion mannerisms creep in when the pace hots up. But Arguelles plays like a true star throughout. Phil Johnson

CLASSICAL MUSIC

Schumann: Heine Settings. Wolfgang Holzmair/ Imogen Cooper (Philips, CD only). In other words, Dichterliebe, the op 24 Liederkreis, and seven other songs, performed by what many critics - and I'm one of them - consider the finest song recital partnership around. Holzmair's dark intensity and Cooper's flawless synthesis of heart and mind work beautifully together - you'd have to do a lot of listening to find more profound, exacting or "absorbed" responses to these texts.

Victoria: Requiem. Gabrieli Consort/McCreesh (Archiv, CD/tape). The funeral for the Spanish 16th-century Empress Maria was apparently "the most solemn and sumptuous" ever seen: an atmospheric detail faithfully reproduced on this disc, which reconstructs not just Victoria's music but the whole event in terms so vivid you could almost reach out and touch the corpse. McCreesh captures best the mystic transcendence of the piece, with a judicious balance between preci- sion and the gut desire to bask in sonic splendour.

Hindemith: "Mathis Der Maler" Symphony, Nobilissima Visione, and Symphonic Variations on Themes of Weber. Berlin Philharmonic/Abbado (DG, CD only). A superb disc of Hindemith standards which serves as a reminder of how invigoratingly unacademic this not-so-fashionable composer's music can be in the right hands. With strong, controlled direction, fulsome playing, and a rich but cleanly engineered sound, I'd defy any listener not to be won over.

Britten: Folksongs. Lott, Langridge, Allen, etc. Graham Johnson/Steuart Bedford (Collins, 3-CD box). With a cast of thousands that includes choirs and instrumentalists, this documents all the published and several unpublished folk-song settings, in performances that come as near as damn it to being definitive. Never before has the scope and brilliance of these supremely artful annexations of oral tradition been so thoroughly exposed.

Haydn & Schubert: Sonatas. Yevgeny Kissin (Sony, CD only). The wunderkind of the piano, as astonishing as ever. He belongs, no doubt, within the Russian school of Gilels, but at the same time he transcends schools. There's no text-book method in his playing: it's completely individual and persistently surprising, although not perverse - as this disc admirably proves. Michael White

OPERA

Walton: Troilus and Cressida. Opera North/ Hickox (Chandos, CD only). This release ends Chandos's complete Walton Edition on a triumphant note. You could find fault with individual performances, but collectively it's a magnificent achievement, which reinforces Richard Hickox's stature as a conductor of British music and re-affirms the status of an undervalued score.

Chabrier: Briseis. BBC SO/Ossonce (Hyperion, CD only). The stunning performance of that unfinished stump of an opera which amazed everyone at the 1994 Edinburgh Festival. Radiant with French-Wagnerian excess, it's an extraordinary piece, like no Chabrier you're likely to have heard before.

Rossini: Cenerentola. Larmore, Giminez, Quillico/Rizzi (Teldec, CD only). In what is probably the finest recording of the piece in recent years, Carlo Rizzi sets a cracking but exquisitely controlled pace, and steers a cast who, for once, have an across-the-board strength in the coloratura department. Jennifer Larmore is particularly lovely in the title role, and the comedy is souffle-light.

Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel. Kirov Opera/Gergiev (Philips, 2 CDs). A harrowing score, not easy on the ear, but caught in all its vivid, raucous colour by Valery Gergiev. The voices are thrilling, led by Sergei Leiferkus and the entrancing young Galina Gorchakova (sounding stronger, richer, altogether healthier than she did at Edinburgh this year).

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro. Studer, McNair, Bartoli, Gallo, Skovhus. Vienna Philharmonic/ Abbado (DG, 3-CD set). Claudio Abbado's first Mozart opera on disc, believe it or not, and he plays it safe, using the most traditional of orchestras rather than a period band. But there's period- awareness in the playing - which is buoyant, crisp and motivated, running to faster speeds than you'd expect - and outstanding singers with a real sense of ensemble. The unreliable Cheryl Studer is at her best as the Countess; and Cecilia Bartoli, always better on disc than on stage, makes an irresistible Cherubino. MW !

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