Records for Christmas: Always touched by your presents dear: From Liszt to Arrested Development, from B B King to Britten, 'IoS' critics choose their top five CDs of the year

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The Independent Culture
ROCK . . .

BEN THOMPSON

Neil Young: Harvest Moon (Reprise 9362-45057). Revisiting the personnel, mood and even lyrical themes of Harvest, Young's most popular album, 20 years later, this should have been a nostalgia crime. Instead it's a triumph, marked out by diner waitresses on Harley-Davidsons, a great dead-dog song - 'Old Shep' for the Nineties - and the concluding epic 'Natural Beauty', in which Young somehow gets away with the line 'Amazon, You had so much and now so much is gone'.

Sonic Youth: Dirty (DGC GED24485). Setting aside the self-indulgence that had cluttered much of their previous work, the veteran New York art punks produced their best album at the ideal moment - just as their proteges Nirvana seized the commanding heights. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, the happy royal couple of the American guitar underground, take turns with the vocals, dissecting their culture with a new sense of purpose - 'I believe Anita Hill]' - and a natty line in feedback squalls.

Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of . . . (Cooltempo c1929). De La Soul made hip-hop proud to be suburban. Arrested Development take it into the farmyard. This is a cleverly contrived mix of homespun philosophy, reshuffled Sly Stone beats and some valuable advice to today's young people about forsaking Nintendo joysticks for the pleasures of rhubarb. When Cooltempo finally realised what a hot property they had on their hands, they TV-

advertised it almost to death, but this is still a breath of fresh air in a disappointing year for rap.

Madonna: Erotica (Maverick/Sire 9362-45031). With the pro-Madonna critical consensus effectively shattered by her shrink-wrapped venture into vanity publishing, the coast was clear for the Material Girl to release her most complete album. The title song was a misleadingly seamy taster - there is no saucy concept here, just a great pop-dance record: 14 songs, at least 13 tunes, and no two of them alike. The deceptively subdued finale, 'Secret Garden', is the most daring thing she has done. Musically.

The Future Sound of London: Accelerator (Jumpin' & Pumpin' TOT2). In their sonic laboratory in darkest Dollis Hill, the unassuming duo of Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain concocted the best of several fine cerebral house albums released by British dance acts this year. The surprise hit single 'Papua New Guinea' was the passport to their new sound land. This captivating full-length ensemble of ethereal flute-noises, borrowed voices and bustling beats is the ideal gift for anyone who never wants to listen to another techno hit based on a children's TV theme.

. . . AND ROLL

TIM DE LISLE

Leonard Cohen: The Future (Columbia 472498). Not many people since the Beatles have followed one great rock album with another. Not many people of 58 have even tried. Four years after I'm Your Man, the Larkin of Los Angeles has come up with another set of perfect miniatures, glistening with wit, charm and unembarrassed poetry, and featuring the simile of the year: 'I'm stubborn as those garbage bags / That time cannot decay'. Not so much The Future as the present.

Peter Gabriel: Us (Virgin VS PG7). In a year that was stronger on songs than whole albums, this was the only other classic. Twelve songs about life, love and the pursuit of therapy, with lovely tunes, words that are both heartfelt and polished, and backdrops, by Daniel Lanois, that have depth, grandeur and a haunting sense of space. The mid- life crisis never sounded so good.

Talking Heads: Sand in the Vaseline (EMI EQ 5010). The new album from David Byrne, Uh-Oh (Warner Bros 7599-26799), contained only four great songs (out of 12). Whereas this, the larger of the two collections with which his group bowed out, offered, at a sceptical estimate, 20 (out of 33). We already knew that no band of the past 15 years had been as clever, as funky, or as lasting: this set showed that none had travelled as far - from the urbane country of 'Heaven' to the exuberant irony of '(Nothing But) Flowers', from the fat gospel-funk of 'Take Me to the River' to the zydeco nihilism of 'Road to Nowhere'. The only reason not to buy it is if you already have all the songs, which you won't, because four are new.

Brian Eno: Nerve Net (Opal 936245033). After a six-year break - perhaps not the word for a workaholic polymath - Eno released two solo albums in 1992. One, The Shutov Assembly (Opal 936245010), was ambient, and my subconscious has yet to tell me what I think of it. This was the other - an hour of happy dislocations which showed the industrial-dance world what Eno and Talking Heads once showed the rest of us: that you can stretch your mind at the same time as your legs.

Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom (Tuff Gong/

Island TGCBX1 512 281). The most handsome of the year's boxed sets, the one that gave the best value for money (78 tracks, on four CDs or cassettes, for about pounds 30 or pounds 21 respectively), and the most pleasurable. It looks like a book, and acts as a biography: the life of a remarkable man.

JAZZ

RICHARD WILLIAMS

John Surman: Adventure Playground (ECM 1463). After several extraordinary albums of saxophone-and-synthesiser overdubs, Britain's most original jazz musician brings in three distinguished playmates: pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Tony Oxley. What they have in common, besides virtuosity and big ears, is a flinty sensitivity: lyricism without sentimentality.

Hal Willner: Weird Nightmare (Columbia 52739). Charles Mingus was a brilliantly acute musical portraitist: think of 'Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat' (Lester Young) and 'Open Letter to Duke' (Ellington). Now Hal Willner, an A & R man of remarkable taste and tenacity, pays the late composer a similar tribute. The material is all Mingus's, interpreted by members of Willner's loose repertory company of off-mainstream players. The real story, though, is the way the arrangements are used as settings for Mingus's turbulent lyrics and prose, delivered by Leonard Cohen, Hubert Selby Jr, Robbie Robertson, Diamanda Galas, Elvis Costello, Dr John and Chuck D.

New York Stories (Blue Note CDP 7 98959 2). The blowing session lives] Recreating the take- no-prisoners atmosphere of nights at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in the late Fifties, seven hard- boppers prove there's life in the old format. Outstanding are the young tenorist Joshua Redman (son of Dewey) and a fabulous new drummer, Yuron Israel, who kicks like Philly Joe Jones in his prime. But the olive in the martini is Danny Gatton, a guitar-picker from Maryland who is known, if at all, for roadhouse R & B and country stuff, but comes on here like the missing link between Wes Montgomery and James Burton.

Jimmy Giuffre 3: Flight, Bremen 1961 (hat ART CD 6071). Previously unheard concert by the short-lived group that seems to have invented contemporary chamber-jazz, thanks to its effect on (inter alia) the future founder of ECM Records, Manfred Eicher. Giuffre's clarinet, Paul Bley's piano and Steve Swallow's bass explore a calm inner space, with occasional detours into a unique species of pastoral funk.

B B King: King of the Blues (MCAD4-10677). One knew it all the time, of course, but it's still a shock to read quite so explicitly how manager Sid Seidenberg's five-year plan turned the former Mississippi sharecropper into a worldwide symbol of the blues. Here's the story, from the raw urban blues of 'Miss Martha King' in 1946 to the MTV- friendly sheen of U2's 'When Love Comes to Town' 40-odd years later. These five-hour, four- CD boxed retrospectives sometimes seem more like tombstones, but this one - astutely chosen, beautifully presented - can't do any harm at all.

CLASSICAL

MICHAEL WHITE

Liszt: An Italian Recital. Stephen Hough (Virgin 7592222). To my ears, Stephen Hough is the most captivating British pianist of his generation and he is at his best in this intensely aromatic repertory. The programme, which is taken largely from the Annees de Pelerinage, is thoughtfully compiled. The playing is intelligent and penetrates the purple drapery of Liszt's exoticism with a quiet, unfussed resolve, that succeeds in uncovering the spiritual certainties that underpin it all. A revelatory encounter.

Walton: Cello Concerto/1st Symphony. Harrell, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle (EMI 7545722). The CBSO sound can be a little spiky here, too clipped, too dry; but Lynn Harrell is, I think, the finest interpreter of the Concerto available on disc. His tone is warm - appropriately Mediterranean in what is the most 'southern' of Walton's orchestral scores - and radiantly stress-free, even in the heat of virtuoso figure- work. The symphony is not so special, but it's still a well-conceived performance.

James MacMillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie/Tryst. BBC Scottish, Maksymiuk (Swann 310502). The recording debut of the year, confirming what previous live performances had indicated: that James MacMillan is a young composer of outstanding gifts. An instant Proms hit, Isobel Gowdie has sustained its fascination in the transfer to disc and grows in stature on repeated listening. Its companion piece here, Tryst, is deeply felt, unacademic music that sets out to make an impact and succeeds.

Britten: War Requiem. Harper, Langridge, Shirley-Quirk, London Symphony Orchestra, Hickox (Chandos 8983/4). Better than the Simon Rattle version and giving even the Britten a run for its money, this War Requiem came out at the end of 1991 but it was too good to slip between the cracks of the years - which is why it secured two prizes (Best Choral and Best Engineering) in the 1992 Gramophone Awards. It's Hickox at his most engaging: forthright and committed. And the disc captures the vastness of the score with a

miraculous veracity.

Barber: The Lovers. Chicago SO, Schenck (Koch 371252H1). First recording of Samuel Barber's late (1970s) choral masterpiece in all its sensual glory - as erotic a celebration of physical love as anything in Messiaen, and an unlikely piece for Barber to have written except that it carries veiled self-references to his own, troubled affairs of the heart, and other parts of the body. Never done

in Britain, it's a real discovery and comes

coupled with the tougher Prayers of Kierkegaard.

OPERA

MICHAEL WHITE

Handel: Giulio Cesare. Larmore, Schlick, Concerto Koln, Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi 901385/7). There have been two opera releases in 1992 that no selection could ignore, and this is one: a period performance of Handel's greatest stage work that delivers the whole text (for the first time on CD) with superlative vocal and instrumental quality. Rene Jacobs makes enough space in his tempi for the voices to luxuriate in the beauty of their arias, but doesn't over-egg the cake.

Die Frau ohne Schatten: Varady, Domingo, Behrens, Van Dam, Vienna Philharmonic, Solti (Decca 4362432). The other 1992 must-have: a recording which is all superlatives (reputedly the most expensive ever made) with the glittering cast Die Frau needs to be half-way viable. Solti has a magisterial command; and the Vienna Phil reminds you with every measure that it is the classiest opera orchestra around.

Wagner: Gotterdammerung. Marton, Jerusalem, Hampson, Tomlinson, Bavarian RSO, Haitink (EMI 7544852). The culmination of the Haitink Ring cycle and a solid achievement. Eva Marton's Brunnhilde is my one (major) reservation. But the other voices are so strong (with the agreeable surprise of Anne Sofie von Otter tucked away among the norns), the orchestral sound so good, and Haitink so impressively secure in his reading, that it makes a handsome issue.

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo. Ainsley, Bott, Robson, New London Consort, Pickett. (L'Oiseau Lyre 4335452). Philip Pickett specialises in creative scholarship, and this Orfeo is a prime example: thorough and convincing in its period detail but imaginative in the way characters and atmosphere are filled out. John Mark Ainsley - young tenor of the year - gives a deeply human vocal portrait of Orfeo, as affecting as it is refined.

Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmelites. Dubose, Gorr, Yakar, Opera de Lyon, Nagano (Virgin 75922721). Theological opera is an acquired taste and Carmelites, which is more argument than action, requires special pleading on that count. But Kent Nagano comes closer than any conductor I know to enlivening its debate, with a bright, sharply articulated vibrancy in the conversational exchanges, a fine French cast, and a clear head amid the compelling awfulness of the final scene, in which the nuns go singing to the guillotine. Grand guignol at its grandest. (Photograph omitted)

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