CDs OF THE YEAR: ROCK: Some easy listenin' Panufnik, better-than- ever Charlatans ... and verbal riches from Richman - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

CDs OF THE YEAR: ROCK: Some easy listenin' Panufnik, better-than- ever Charlatans ... and verbal riches from Richman

BLUR: 13

(Food)

Still trying to persuade us that they made Parklife in a previous life, Blur leave perky brass and polished vignettes even further behind here than they did on 1997's self- titled album. "Coffee & TV" is a sweet morsel of almost-Britpop, but the rest of 13 is a druggy haze of mutilated guitars, blank-stare vocals and hypnotic effects. These didn't restore Blur to the hearts of Smash Hits readers, but after a few listens, everyone else should be drawn in: Blur's noisiest, strangest album is also their loveliest and most affecting.

CHARLATANS: US AND US ONLY (Universal)

They may not have had the shattering impact of, say, Oasis or the Stone Roses, but the Charlatans have never stopped improving. True to form, their sixth album is their most likeable so far. It's also the first one they've produced themselves (hence the title). Instead of relying on their trademark funk-rock jams, the Charlies have experimented with different moods and time signatures, settling on a rootsier, grainier texture than usual: saloon-bar pianos and acoustic guitars rattle along in appealingly loose, rough-and-ready fashion.

DESTINY'S CHILD: THE WRITING'S ON THE WALL (Columbia)

The four Texan vocalists bring attitude and urgency to their songs, but most of the credit for this album should go to such ubiquitous names as Rodney Jerkins, She'kspere, Missy Elliot and Timbaland. Instead of sticking to traditional, steady swing rhythms, these producers spatter the record with fibrillating stop-start beats. And instead of a pale wash of backing traces, there are sharp dabs of colour; a thump of timpani, a pluck of strings, a prickly acoustic guitar loop. I'd like to see an Indie band as radical as this getting on Top of the Pops.

CHEMICAL BROTHERS: SURRENDER (Virgin)

Tom Rowland's long hair and yellow-tinted specs should have tipped us off: the Chemical Brothers are hippies at heart. Their third album kicks off with their sleek, slick, energising rhythms, but these are soon mingled with - and eventually submerged beneath - swirling, spiralling psychedelia. The superstar DJs pour out waves of sitars, spacey bleeps, backwards cymbals and hazy vocals from a typically impressive roster of guests. On "Out of Control", the presence of New Order's Bernard Sumner and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie sees three generations of dance-rock pioneers unite. An historic moment.

ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN: WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO WITH YOUR LIFE? (London)

The Bunnymen's second album since they reformed in 1996 is not a record to make you dream of past glories. Mercifully short by today's bloated standards, it's the work of a band who were determined not to include any song that wasn't of top quality. Just as Nick Cave slowed the pace and lowered the mask on his last album, the Bunnymen have grown more reflective, and their latest music is understated and undistorted, with an emphasis on acoustic instruments. Ian McCulloch has always fancied himself as a Scouse Sinatra rather than a yelping trenchcoat, and he has the courage of his convictions. Perhaps because he was nearing 40 as he made the album, he took its title to heart.

FLAMING LIPS: THE SOFT BULLETIN

(Warner)

After years of experimenting, the Oklahoma oddballs propel themselves to the forefront of American rock with a bona fide masterpiece. It's a big, warped, symphonic, psychedelic album, packed with gorgeous, melancholy pop tunes and lyrics which have their own idiosyncratic intelligence and lovelorn sincerity. It's off-kilter US indie as sung by Neil Young and produced by Brian Wilson. And it makes most of their peers seem like unimaginative slackers.

GOMEZ: LIQUID SKIN (Hut)

Last year, Gomez won the Mercury Music Prize with a record they knocked up in a garage for their own amusement. Bring It On had skilful semi-acoustic musicianship, the anarchic pick 'n' mix eclecticism of Beck, and a tin-shack bluesiness unheard of from Southport twentysomethings. The follow-up is simply Bring It On with more ambition: there are fewer fake Americanisms, the sources are less obvious, and the songs are less straightforward. Whenever possible, verse/chorus structures are tangled up with changes of key, time signature and instrumentation. And it still sounds as though they knocked it up in a garage for their own amusement.

MACY GRAY: ON HOW LIFE IS (Epic)

Do not adjust your stereo. Macy Gray's voice is supposed to be this crackly. Nor is the 30-year-old's sexy rasp - midway between Billie Holiday, Tina Turner and Marge Simpson - the only remarkable attribute of her debut album. On How Life Is deserves to be measured against classic soul in all departments. The songwriting is smart, gritty but positive; the Stax brass and funky guitar are reminiscent of Sly Stone. Not that Gray is stuck in the past. Pleasingly unreliant on samples, her music none the less has a hip-hop feel, making it one of the year's freshest, most stylish and tuneful pop albums. What we'd been waiting for: some serious competition for Lauryn Hill.

JAMES: MILLIONAIRES (Mercury)

After 1993's Laid, James's momentum was dissipated by side projects, accountancy mishaps and resignations. It was only when last year's Best Of compilation went double platinum that a reinvigorated James realised they had another shot at the title. Amazingly, they didn't waste it. Millionaires is an album with big aspirations, a bigger heart and choruses that are bigger still. "I believe in happiness/ I believe in love," sings Tim Booth (below) on "Just Like Fred Astaire", and this clearly enunciated anti-cynicism illuminates the whole record.

MELKY SEDECK: SISTER AND BROTHER(MCA)

Blandinna "Melky" Jean and Farel "Sedeck" Jean are the younger sister and brother of Wyclef Jean, empire-building leader of the Fugees. Their debut album is more than worthy of the family name, but it includes a few tricks of their own. Melky Sedeck apply hip-hop beats to the gutsy, melodic vocals and organic arrangements of Sixties soul and Seventies funk. They then add classical music: symphonic samples, Melky's multi-octave opera singing and Sedeck's piano cadenzas. Any sensible A&R men should already have signed up any stray Jean siblings or, failing that, household pets.

MOBY: PLAY

(Mute)

It's difficult to place Richard "Moby" Hall in the pop world. While he is one of rave's founding fathers, he is just as comfortable with funk rock, ambient and hip-hop. On this sprawling spiritual soundtrack, all of these facets of his creativity are on display, but the most thrilling tracks are early field recordings of blues singers. Moby loops these antique laments and adds his own beats and instrumentation to bring together the music of the beginning and the end of the century.

RANDY NEWMAN: BAD LOVE (Dreamworks)

Following a decade of Oscar-nominated film soundtracks, Randy Newman's first "personal" album since 1988 is delectably vintage stuff, with a glorious breadth and depth both to the music and to the satire. As usual, his trick is to write vaudeville tunes as cuddlesome as those he composed for A Bug's Life and Toy Story, and then to populate them with repugnant characters painted so vividly that you have to keep reminding yourself that they really are just characters.

NEW RADICALS: MAYBE YOU'VE BEEN BRAINWASHED TOO (MCA)

If the sleevenotes are to be believed, the New Radicals are Gregg Alexander of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, plus a different bunch of musicians on almost every track. None the less, Maybe ... has a coherent feel. In essence, it's loose-limbed, loose- hipped, bluesy rock with lots of guitar and chunky piano, so it's tricky to pin down what makes it so attention-grabbing and vital. It could be the brattily confrontational lyrics or Alexander's bleary falsetto or the magnificent tunes. Probably all of the above.

JONATHAN RICHMAN: I'M SO CONFUSED (Vapor)

Every time Jonathan Richman releases a record, it's one of my albums of the year. I make no apologies - I've still to find another songwriter who is as charming, funny or emotionally vulnerable. Every line glows with his humour, even when he's dealing, as he does on I'm So Confused, with his own divorce. Many of his earlier songs have been quirky serenades to his wife, which makes this album all the more touching. Give it to someone who's just split up with their partner.

WILCO: SUMMER TEETH

(Reprise)

On first listen, the follow-up to 1995's acclaimed Being There sounds like nothing more than very good bar-room country rock. But given another listen, Summer Teeth is revealed as very, very good bar-room country rock indeed. What is particularly miraculous is the way it can be rickety and dishevelled at the same time as being richly rigorously orchestrated - like Sergeant Pepper and Pet Sounds as heard through the smoke and chatter of a mid-Western honky-tonk.

XTC: APPLE VENUS

(Cooking Vinyl)

XTC could claim to be the uncles of Britpop, but on this, their first album in seven years, they put away their Sixties costumes in favour of acoustic guitars and chamber orchestras. None the less, the record is truer to the pop precision, the exploratory spirit and the arch cleverness of the Beatles than any of the Britpop bands were. Now nibbled down to the core duo of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC retain their love of lulling melodies and lyrics about drinking stout in the countryside. Apple Venus is mature but magical, angry but heart-warming, earthy but transporting ... and just as commercially unsuccessful as usual.

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