ROCK / Albums of the year: And then there were ten: UFOrb, REM, INXS . . . Andy Gill condenses the best of 1992

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Arrested Development's 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In The Life Of . . . (Cooltempo CCCD 1929) was album of the year by a short head from the perennially powerful REM. It brought a new, highly articulate sensibility to rap. Like Sly Stone, that earlier radical black hippie whose riffs and choruses provide several of this album's touchstones, Arrested Development blend elements of soul, rap, swamp-rock, blues and R&B into their sound. And like The Family Stone, the rest of the group provide a high-spirited backdrop to rapper Speech's tracts. This is didacticism as fun.

On Body Count's Body Count (Sire 7599-26878-2), Ice-T took his already hyperbolic expression of black grievance to pathological levels, and caused a freedom of speech brouhaha with the homicidal fantasy 'Cop Killer'. Eventually Ice-T himself withdrew the offending track, claiming retailers and record company employees had been physically threatened by policemen. Though the album leans more towards mordant dumb comedy than usual, its significance lies in its deliberate appeal to white kids: its sentiments are not new in rap, but nobody seems bothered when they're aimed at black youth.

A work of unusual diversity and confident experimentation, Welcome to Wherever You Are (Mercury 512-507-2) found INXS playing with the punch of a soul band on material which blends styles and influences from a range of sources. It is the group's best record by some distance, with Beatlish influences well in evidence, and bristling with pop hooks applied in odd directions. The absence, after three hit albums, of producer Chris Thomas means this recording is both rawer than the usual INXS sound, and more adventurously sophisticated, with even a 60-piece orchestra drafted into service for the anthemic 'Baby Don't Cry' and the finale, 'Men And Women'.

For A World Out Of Time (Shanachie 64041) Henry Kaiser and David Lindley, the guitarist's guitarists, linked up with leading lights of the Malagasy music scene. Originally intending simply to record native musicians, the pair threw off their pith helmets and went native, adding their own parts to the indigenous music where they felt it would help, and teaching their collaborators songs like 'I Fought The Law'; at one point, they even have a Malagasy pop group playing an Okinawan folk song. We're so used to responding to world music as 'spicy' that it's unusually refreshing to hear a music in which the spice comes from the first-world musicians, Kaiser and Lindley's contributions livening up what might otherwise be another set of ethnic-music cliches.

With UFOrb (Big Life/Wau] Mr Modo BLRCD 18), The Orb continued to stretch the boundaries of pop acceptability, arranging a 39-minute single ('Blue Room') and the other long, relaxing pieces which comprise this album. The missing link between the contemporary dancefloor and early-Seventies space-cadet outfits like Gong and Tangerine Dream, their preferred mode is to soundscape a series of slow, spacey electronic whooshes, with little to grasp hold of by way of hummable tunes or musical landmarks. It's ambient house, but with the latter element diminished to barely a memory. This is primarily a music of accompaniment rather than foreground attention; it's hard to imagine anyone actually listening to UFOrb, but it's nice to hear.

Though not as immediate and pop-conscious as Out Of Time, REM's Automatic For The People (Warner Bros 9362-45055-2) occupied its own emotional terrain, which extends with each listen. Organ, mandolin, electric piano and strings dominate the instrumental textures, providing a firm form for the album's crepuscular moods and imagery, which primarily concern death, pain and departure - from the death-bed articulation of 'Try Not To Breathe' and 'Sweetness Follows' to, most perversely, 'Man On The Moon', a meditation upon the nature of truth which doubles as an uplifting elegy for the late surrealist comedian and wrestler Andy Kaufman. But these ruminations are balanced by a series of ecstatic moments - the soft glow of 'Star Me Kitten', the joyous epiphany of 'Nightswimming' - that lend a warmth and intimacy to the album.

On her first album in 14 years, Coincidence And Likely Stories (Ensign CCD 1920), Buffy Sainte- Marie's political fire remained unquenched, particularly regarding Native American affairs: the classic 'Starwalker' and the bitter but unbowed 'Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee' make glorious use of pow-wow chant samples in their presentation of the Indian case, whilst the searing Oliver North critique, 'Disinformation' and the Springsteenesque 'The Big Ones Get Away' pin down wider political issues. Coincidence And Likely Stories is all the more impressive for the way it was recorded on computer and delivered down the transatlantic phone line to her record company, this fiftysomething folkie demonstrating a grasp of modern technology to shame retroids like Neil Young. He spent the best part of the year complaining erroneously about digital recording before releasing his worst album in years - recorded, with shameless hypocrisy, at a digital studio.

Frequently compared to Slade or Chas & Dave, The Shamen, as heard on Boss Drum (One Little Indian TPLP42CD), are actually the Gary Numan of the Nineties, super-nerds offering a vision of a brave new world - in their case, a brand of drug-influenced New Age milleniallism. This album ranged from the techno simplicity of 'Librae Solidi Denari' to the Orb-esque 'Scientas', though the cheeky drug chant and catchy fairground organ hook of 'Ebeneezer Goode' represent the group's true strengths.

The most surprising comeback of 1992 was that of former Husker Du frontman Bob Mould, whose solo albums had become increasingly, unlistenably miserable, but whose new power trio Sugar marked a sterling return to the melodic grunge-rock style he pioneered with his first group. On Copper Blue (Creation CRECD 129), his guitar playing remains as dense as ever, employed in the service of chiming pop songs like the single 'Changes' and 'If I Can't Change Your Mind'. He remains open to influences - for 'A Good Idea', he takes several leaves out of The Pixies' textbook - though for the most part this is all his own work, rendered with a punkish enthusiasm that stands at odds to the prevailing nihilism of modern grunge-rock.

Hal Willner approaches the role of producer as an art form in itself, harnessing and catalysing the most disparate talents on tribute albums which feature reinterpretations of the spirit of a composer's work. For Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (Columbia 472467 2), he brought together a small jazz combo, augmented it with Vernon Reid, Marc Ribot and Keith Richards, and added the extraordinary home-made instruments of the late American composer Harry Partch, all in tribute to another late American composer, Charles Mingus. Over the resulting weave, great grainy American voices such as those of Robbie Robertson, Dr John, Leonard Cohen and Chuck D, read Mingus's poems and sections of his autobiography, Beneath The Underdog. The astounding result is as much a tribute to the versatility of the musicians involved as to Mingus.

Also recommended from 1992:

The Black Crowes, The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion (Def American). Retro-raunch.

JJ Cale, Number 10 (Silvertone). Laid back grooves.

Leonard Cohen, The Future (Columbia). Crafted cynicism.

Del Tha Funky Homosapien, I Wish My Brother George Was Here (Elektra). Quirky rap.

Eric B & Rakim, Don't Sweat The Technique (MCA). Jazz rap.

Faith No More, Angel Dust (Slash/London). Visceral rock.

The Fatima Mansions, Valhalla Avenue (Kitchenware). Indie excoriation.

The Flaming Lips, Hit To Death In The Future Head (Warner Bros). Oddball indie.

Peter Gabriel, Us (RealWorld). Public therapy.

Ice Cube, The Predator (4th & Broadway). Dangerous rap.

Los Lobos, Kiko (Slash/London). Splendid diversity.

Sergio Mendes, Brasileiro (Elektra). Latino moderne.

Ministry, Psalm 69 (Sire). Techno-thrash.

Youssou N'Dour, Eyes Open (Columbia). Afro moderne.

The Prodigy, Experience (XL). Hardcore techno.

Ultramarine, Every Man And Woman Is A Star (Brainiak). Ambient house.

Various Artists, Duke Reid's Treasure Chest (Heartbeat). Rocksteady classics.

Tom Waits, Bone Machine (Island). Tom Waits.

Was (Not Was), Hello, Dad . . . I'm In Jail (Fontana). Re- mixed hits.

XTC, Nonsuch (Virgin). Perfect pop.

(Photograph omitted)