Music: And not one of them a turkey
No, those aren't our music critics below - that's Prodigy, creators of just one of the CDs we'd like to find under the Christmas tree
Sunday 14 December 1997
Rock And Pop Nicholas Barber David Byrne: Feelings (Warner). Country- and-western-drum-and-bass, anyone? Mr Melting Pot teams up with Britain's Morcheeba to mix a multicultural, multi-coloured cocktail, as moving and playful as it is cerebral, with more instrumental diversity per song than most artists get round to in their whole career.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: The Boatman's Call (Mute). Twelve confessional piano ballads about doomed, decaying love - and yet, not one of them ends with a woman being stabbed repeatedly while crows flap overhead. Cave leaves his crazy-preacher robes in the cupboard for once.
Eels: Beautiful Freak (Dreamworks). Grunge grows up. Where once there was slacker complacency, now there are Mark "E" Edwards's compassionate social commentaries, and the most pretty, artful arrangements this side of Beck. Keep grunge' s punkish simplicity in the mix, and you've got the best new American band in years.
Jonathan Fire Eater: Wolf Songs For Lambs (Deceptive). They (yes, it's a band) met in Washington DC, but had relocated to New York long before recording this. It figures. You have to spend time in New York before you can make this sort of wordy, organ-smeared, anarchic, garage rock'n'roll.
Primal Scream: Vanishing Point (Creation). The perfect soundtrack to an unwritten Irvine Welsh film, and economical, too: why pay Hawkwind, the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors, the Happy Mondays, and, er, Gary Numan, not to mention a crowd of dub and easy-listening stars, when the Scream Team will do the lot for you?
Prodigy: The Fat of the Land (XL). The aural equivalent of a syringeful of adrenaline in the heart, this revolutionary concoction gives the Essex boys convincing grounds to claim that they are the future of popular music. Or, to put it another way, it's dance music that rock fans can get into as well. See also: the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole.
Radiohead: OK Computer (Parlophone). You can argue all you like about whether or not this one is more heart-wrenching than 1995's 1.5m-selling album, The Bends, but it's certainly better than almost any other album released recently. Gorgeous then grotesque, fragile then frightening, it proves that even guitar bands can create sounds that no one has made before.
The Verve: Urban Hymns (Hut). The amazing thing here is that "Bitter Sweet Symphony" doesn't overshadow the rest of the album. There are plenty more towering tracks where that one came from, as Richard Ashcroft and Nick McCabe attach the aimless haze of previous Verve records to punchily structured, serious songs.
Spiritualized: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (Dedicated). Almost as immaculately made as its medicine-box packaging, and almost as daringly long as its title, this album at last justifies Jason Pierce's assertion that Spiritualized make soul music: druggy, hypnotic, Velvet Underground-inspired soul music maybe, but full of cleverly articulated sadness and love none the less.
The Rolling Stones: Bridges to Babylon (Virgin) and Bob Dylan: Time Out of Mind (Columbia). Let us salute two legends from the Sixties, now more or less in their sixties themselves. Dylan's painful meditations on disillusionment and death seems to have grabbed most of the critical plaudits, but it's the Stones who are full of life, with a stack of new ideas and a rough'n'ready energy they haven't had since before their wives were born. JAZZ PHIL JOHNSON
Tomasz Stanko: Litania - Music of Krzystof Komeda (ECM). Album of the year, no messing: meditative, melancholy (and perhaps just occasionally rather morose) themes by Roman Polanski's first soundtrack composer, rearranged by the Polish trumpeter Stanko for the autumnal tonal colours ol his sextet, with the addition of guitarist Terje Rypdal on a couple of tracks. Though the beautiful surface is broken sometimes by dissonant ripples of free jazz - ensuring that one is never entirely comfortable - the overall effect is stately and sublime.
Julian Arguelles: The Skull View (Babel). The English saxophonist and composer's follow-up to last year's breathtaking solo set Scapes, with arrangements for an octet (featuring Django Bates on tenor horn and Mike Walker on guitar) and veering between cerebral fusion and limpid ballads. The ballads win out, but it's great all the same.
Bheki Mseleku: Beauty of Sunrise (Verve). A post-modern return to Blue Note-style bop roots by the South African pianist and his producer Graham Haynes, complete with muscular ensemble-riffs, bravura solos and a resolutely joyous feel for the material. The traditional jazz virtues of unrestrained blowing are cushioned within tight, punchy arrangements.
Various Artists: Eastwood After Hours (Malpaso). Tribute to Clint, recorded at the Carnegie Hall last year, with a thrilling big band led by John Faddis, and more jazz stars than you can shake a Magnum at. Jimmy Scott's vocal on "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" a wild bossa-nova version of "Misty", and old-timer Jay McShann's hoe-down on "San Antonio Rose" are among the many highlights. Clint plays piano too, but briefly.
Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (ECM). Wheeler (Canadian by birth, English by long residence) is a trumpeter, one of the leading figures in European jazz. He has recorded a series of impeccable albums for ECM, but none betters this, on which a superstar band excels on the leader's own compositions, plaintive and provoking by turns. SOUL AND DANCE PHIL JOHNSON
Roni Size and Reprazent: New Forms (Talking Loud). The Mercury Prize- winner. There's hardly a sample in sight over a staggeringly long trawl through an entire ocean of drum-and-bass soundscapes, with the skittering beats impressively skippered by the Bristol DJ and his crew. The new jazz-fusion starts here.
Erykah Badu: Baduizm (Kedar Entertainment/Universal Records). Not, needless to say, the new Billie Holliday, but at last, a female soul singer who writes her own tunes, sings like a feisty angel and carries the old-soul flame with grace and style.
KC and JoJo: Love Always (MCA). The ex-Jodeci boys in a marvellously kitsch attempt at taking on the lurve-groove baton from Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack and Barry White. There's testifyin', signifyin' and crotch- tuggin', and enough Lycra-textured late-night seduction soundtracks to satisfy the wildest bedroom fantasies of any stud or stud-ess manque. Yeah!
DJ Cam: Substances (Inflammable Records). Impeccably obscure French DJ reworks jazzy, funky textures, old-skool beats and drum-and-bass sensibilities through heterodox samples to come up with perhaps the best bricolage of hip-hop and jazz so far. The album Mad Blunted Jazz is another of his creations worth looking out for. CLASSICAL MICHAEL WHITE
Samuel Barber: Music for Solo Piano. Leon McCawley (Virgin Classics). Classic FM listeners take the Barber Adagio intravenously, and don't, it seems, explore much further. But they should, because the piano music is engagingly attractive: an eclectic balance between classical decorum and romantic lyricism that McCawley (who once won second prize at Leeds) handles instinctively.
Stravinsky & Mussorgsky: Duos for Classical Accordions. James Crabb & Geir Draugsvoll (EMI). No, not a Christmas novelty: deadly earnest, and virtuosic to a degree you'd never expect from the instrument that reminded Edvard Grieg of "a pig with a sore throat". The arrangements are imaginative and bold, and carry cult potential. Maybe the accordion will have its day again.
Federico Mompou: Piano Music. Stephen Hough (Hyperion). A composer whose concert life tends to reside unannounced, in encores at the ends of programmes, Mompou was part of the inter-war Spanish cultural exodus to Paris, and wrote music of deceptive simplicity that stands somehwere between Satie and the "Holy Minimalists" in its combination of humility and power. Hough plays it with heartfelt eloquence: a discovery.
Sibelius: Symphonies 1&4. Lahti SO, Osmo Vanska (Bis). You may never have ventured across Lahti, its symphony orchestra, or its conductor, Osmo Vanska; but they've become big news, with an ongoing cycle of Sibelius symphonies that stands comparison to the best around. The strength and grandeur of this first instalment is impressive: unequivocally the Real Thing, invigorated with the raw, sharp glamour of the frozen north.
To the Soul: Thomas Hampson Sings the Poetry of Walt Whitman. Craig Rutenberg, piano (EMI). Most of these settings are American, but Whitman's earliests champions were the staunchly British Stanford and Vaughan Williams, who took Whitman as a mystic-visionary rather than as the prophet of (gay) sexual candour he became for later composers like Ned Rorem, Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas. And Hampson makes handsome work of them all: direct, intelligent, fastidious, without the heavy sell that sometimes overwhelms his reading of a text. OPERA MICHAEL WHITE
Britten: Albert Herring. Christopher Gillett, Josephine Barstow, Felicity Palmer etc. Northern Sinfonia/Steuart Bedford (Collins Classics). The most parochially English of the Britten operas, Herring has always been a showcase for British singers of intelligence and musicianship. And that's what you find here, marshalled by as authoritative and insightful a Britten conductor as we have.
Handel: Agrippina. Della Jones, Alastair Miles etc. English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (Philips). Gardiner's golden baton does it yet again, with a fine Handel recording and welcome return to the studio for Della Jones, the fabulous low-flying coloratura mezzo. With an embarras of countertenors in Derek Lee Ragin, Michael Chance and Jonathan Peter Kenny, plus Anne-Sofie von Otter in the minor role of Juno, this Agrippina has been generously cast and is a joy to hear.
Walter Braunfels: Die Vogel. Hellen Kwon, Wolfgang Holzmair, Matthias Goerne etc. Deutsches Symphonie Berlin, Lothar Zagrosek (Decca). The least anguished of all the things unearthed by Decca's "Entartete Musik" series, Die Vogel is a score of luscious, post-Wagnerian enchantment - sung here with a cast that includes the cream of the new German vocal intelligentsia, Lieder stars Holzmair and Goerne.
Puccini: La Rondine. Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna etc. LSO, Antonio Pappano. (EMI). The set that made a clean sweep of this year's Gramophone Awards, and shows what everybody's favourite operatic couple can do. The show belongs to Gheorghiu, who is in sublime form. But there's distinctive singing from Alagna too, and wonderful orchestral playing from the LSO under Pappano.
Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie. Mark Padmore, Lorraine Hunt etc. Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (Erato). Another Gramophone Award-winner, and exemplary of Christie's knack for breathing new life into the exquisite, sometimes stifling artifice of French baroque. His youthful cast is stunning, with the American mezzo Lorraine Hunt assaulting your ears with sheer intensity And the alert, clean-cut ensemble playing of the Christie band has never sounded better.
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