The 50 best: Sound investments from a record year

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The Independent Culture
More CDs, records and tapes are sold in the month before Christmas than at any other time of the year. Most, of course, are intended as presents - but what to buy? Here, The Independent's team of music critics picks over the best of the year's releases - from rock and pop to classical and opera, via dance, hip hop, reggae, jazz, roots and blues - and offers suggestions for further listening. Just press play ...







This week's 50 Best was chosen by a panel made up of The Independent's music critics. Andy Gill, Tim Perry and Fiona Sturges nominated their rock, pop and alternative releases of the year; Martin James and Nick Coleman chose their dance, hip hop and reggae favourites; Roger Trapp selected the best jazz, roots and blues recordings; and Duncan Hadfield picked out the finest classical and opera discs of 1998.

NOTE: Prices given are based on those quoted by HMV and Virgin and apply to CDs only. They are subject to variation, however, and should be used as a guide only.




Up is REM's most experimental album, etched and shaded with a subtlety in short supply since Automatic for the People, though without unduly sacrificing pop appeal. The departure of drummer Bill Berry has freed the group to investigate styles outside their usual guitar rock, taking on cool funk grooves, post-rock noise and smooth soul ballads. The lyrics, meanwhile, are Michael Stipe's most direct and emotionally honest to date. Refreshingly clear-eyed, considered and optimistic. (Warner Brothers, CD, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Future Bible Heroes, Memories of Love (Setanta, CD, pounds 14.99) AG



Picking up the mantle from Roni Size's Mercury award-winning New Forms, and running with it over 20 tracks, 4 Hero's third album is the drum'n'bass cognoscenti's most complete offering yet. Rich in colours, sounds and styles, Two Pages updates Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, lacing them with drum'n'bass stylings that owe much to the darker side of Detroit techno. A landmark album of pure quality. (Talkin Loud, CD/MC/LP, pounds 16.49)

If you liked this, you'll love: Jonny L, Magnetic (XL Records, CD/LP, pounds 14.99) MJ



This is the most ambitious of all Lovett's elegantly lackadaisical works, in which he surveys the songs of his favourite Lone Star songsmiths over the length of two CDs, to the mellow rippling of Texan guitars. Indeed, Texas never sounded more like a place where real people live, and less like a place you'd want to die. Terribly, bleakly moving in parts. Terribly, parochially funny in others. (MCA, CD, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Robert Earl Keen, Picnic (Arista Austin, CD, pounds 17.49) NC


BARTOK: THE MIRACULOUS MOUNTAIN Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer

Bartok's animated, Expressionistic ballet score to a grotesque pantomime is a modernist masterpiece. This music needs big gesture and big playing; sensuality and syncopation, and it gets it on an electrifying recording employing native Hungarian forces, under the masterly baton of Fischer. With the disc intelligently supplemented by a number of Bartok's no-less- frenetic folk arrangements and dances, this thrilling Mandarin beats off all contenders. (Philips, CD, pounds 14.99) If you liked this, you'll love: Bartok, Out of Doors; Max Levinson (N2K Encoded Music, CD, pounds 16.99) DH


ROSSINI: IL TURCO IN ITALIA Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Riccardo Chailly

Passionate, zany, frothy, fast-moving, exhilarating - all these apply to Chailly's masterful account of Rossini's comedy, blessed with a dream- team cast including Cecilia Bartoli, Ramon Vargas and Michele Pertusi, Engineering-wise, there's a "wide-screen" theatre sound, with both words and harmonic textures emerging in reciprocal clarity. This won the Gramophone Awards Opera category, and rightfully so. (Decca, CD, pounds 21.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Rossini, Cantatas; Riccardo Chailly (Decca, CD, pounds 14.99) DH



Bless these fun-loving young northerners for effectively telling Britpop that it's dead by making this superbly diverse album, which shows that there should be more to making a rock record in Britain than by rehashing the Beatles and the Kinks. Deserving winners of the Technics Mercury Music Prize, they derive their sound unashamedly from the American South - but it's the added contemporary urban loops and experimental sounds that make it so excellent. (Hut, CD/tape/LP, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Arnold, The Hillside Album (Creation, CD/tape/LP, pounds 11.99) TP



A brilliant collision between charismatic wordplay and funky experimentation. The positivity of this debut album is a perfect antidote to the prevalence of violence-fixated rap. Jurassic 5 present all the stylings of hip hop's old skool, with four MCs passing the mic in a showdown of lyrical dexterity. Yet, thanks to the cutting-edge beat montages from DJs Cut Chemist and Nu Marc, it successfully avoids the retro trap. (Pan/PIAS, CD/LP, pounds 12.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Eric B and Rakim, Paid in Full: the Platinum Edition (4th & Broadway/ Island, CD/LP, pounds 18.49) MJ



Many New Orleans musicians have become international stars, but sadly honey-voiced Johnny Adams did not see his name up there besides the likes of Dr John and Fats Domino before he died this year. An interpretative singer whose versatility matches that of Hart, he was known as the Tan Canary in the Sixties, but over the past few years has made several albums featuring distinctive versions of material from such great tunesmiths as Percy Mayfield and Dan Penn. (Rounder, CD, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: The Original Roland Stone, Remember Me (Orleans, CD, pounds 15.49). RT


MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO.9 Vienna Phil/Sir Simon Rattle

Of the many agreeable versions of Mahler's valedictory symphony, few deliver a better all-round perspective than this blistering account by Rattle, in superb command of a top-form Vienna Phil. Sir Simon plays the massive score for all its worth, setting the scene in the long first movement, extracting maximum grotesque pathos from the two inner scherzi, and surmounting the whole with a transcendental Adagio finale. (EMI, CD, pounds 23.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Mahler, Symphony No 4; CBSO/Sir Simon Rattle (EMI, CD, pounds 8.99) DH


MUSSORGSKY: BORIS GODUNOV Kirov Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev

Opinion is divided over which of the two versions of this is the better: the seven-scene 1869 version, or the fleshed-out 1872 revision. To help you decide, Gergiev presents them both, complete, on five CDs. Different voices take the roles of Boris and Grigory, but both editions boast tremendous all-round singing and taut, atmospheric orchestral playing. (Philips, CD, pounds 49.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth; Chung/Ewing/Haveland/Langridge (Deutsche Grammophon, CD, pounds 31.99) DH



Hewn from personal hardship and wistful reflection, Deserter's Songs is a breathtakingly poised work shot through with a sense of wonder that sets Mercury Rev apart from most in today's cynical rock scene. The album's charm derives from the contrast between songwriter Jonathan Donahue's voice, fragile as Neil Young's, and the sophisticated arrangements, which employ strings, harpsichord, horns, and bowed saw. (V2, CD, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Grasshopper & the Golden Crickets, The Orbit of Eternal Grace (Beggars Banquet, CD, pounds 14.99) AG



A sultry mix of down-tempo beats, cinematic ambience and Eighties electronic pop, Moon Safari finds Parisian-duo Air reinventing John Barry's Midnight Cowboy score and melting the results over Pierre Henry's avant-garde opera Messe Pour le Temps Present. The effect is one of carefully crafted beauty, where simple melodies, textured layers and Moog refrains betray an obsession with kitsch. With Moon Safari, Air have created an album that is as sensual as fine perfume and addictive as good coffee. (Virgin, CD/LP, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Kid Loco, A Grand Love Story (Yellow Productions/EastWest, CD/LP, pounds 4.99) MJ



The acoustic-blues revival has thrown up many talented singer/guitarists, but Hart's eclecticism puts him in a class of his own. Reminiscent of Hank Williams one moment and a roots reggae band the rest, this record touches many bases. Moreover, it continues in the tradition of Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder in not allowing an obvious love of old recordings to get in the way of pushing the music in fresh directions. (Hannibal/ Rykodisc, CD, pounds 13.49)

If you liked this, you'll love: Eric Bibb, Spirit & the Blues (Opus, CD, pounds 14.49) RT


VARESE: COMPLETE WORKS Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Asko Ensemble/Riccardo Chailly

The marvellous Riccardo Chailly, Gramophone's Artist of the Year, turns his attention to the oeuvre of the arch-Modernist and virtually unclassifiable Varese. There's too much to say about these two records here: scores are based on the latest scholarship by the composer's friend Chou-Wen Chung; some vital fragments have been either orchestrated or completed; and Chailly's in-depth readings, both with full (very full in some cases) orchestra or ensemble, brim with colour, technique and sheer high-gloss panache. (Decca, CD, pounds 30.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: works by Cage, Stockhausen, Birtwistle and Zappa - all of whom rate Varese. DH


NIELSEN: MASKARADE Danish National Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Schirmer

Denmark's national opera has never really caught on elsewhere, though this new recording may well change that. Using a new score prepared for the Carl Nielsen Edition, Ulf Schirmer takes every opportunity to re-appropriate Maskarade as a comic masterpiece. The pacing is panoramic yet detailed; the orchestra plays with panache; and the largely native cast produces fine individual singing, poised ensembles and staunch choral work. The result is a comic classic that vyes for a place in the Falstaff or Rosenkavalier league. (Decca, CD, pounds 30.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Nielsen, Incidental Music to Aladdin; Danish National Radio Orchestra/ Rozhdestvensky (Chandos, CD, pounds 14.99) DH



Outstripping his erstwhile colleagues in Take That with his smart, post- Britpop sound, Robbie Williams continues his miraculous transformation from manufactured teen pin-up to credible pop icon. His second rabble- rousing album, boasting cameo performances by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, is loaded with sharply satirical lyrics and anthemic pop tunes. His trademark exuberance and brash confidence rises like steam on "Strong" and "No Regrets", and becomes positively triumphal on "Karma Killers" (Chrysalis, CD/tape/minidisc, pounds 14.49)

If you liked this, you'll love: Robbie Williams, Life Thru a Lens (Chrysalis, CD/tape/minidisc, pounds 14.49) FS



Faithless's sound is all about the celebration and unity of the rave, with anthemic hooklines, subtle breakdowns and rushing crescendos echoing Ecstasy-culture's joie de vivre. On Sunday 8pm, however, Faithless display a more reflective nature. With a deep-funk foundation, they explore Gaelic melody, Eric Satie, folk and just a hint of Motown soul, while rapper Maxi Jazz's sharp lyrics strip everyday reality bare with alarming simplicity. An album of rare and understated brilliance, Sunday 8pm is the natural successor to Massive Attack's Protection. (Cheeky, CD/LP, pounds 12.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Red Snapper, Making Bones (Warp, CD, pounds 10.99) MJ



A hugely gifted accompanist who has played with many of today's stars, including Joshua Redman (see No 38), pianist Mehldau is now making a considerable name for himself as a frontman. This record is extraordinary in that it manages to sound as if it is well within the post-bop tradition at the same time as straying into other realms. In his hands, songs by pop outfits such as Radiohead sound as timeless as a Coltrane ballad. (Warner Bros, CD, pounds 15.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Keith Jarrett, Tokyo '96 (ECM, CD, pounds 16.49) RT


MONTEVERDI: OTTAVO LIBRO DE MADRIGALI Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini

Monteverdi surmounted his eighth, last and grandest Book of Madrigals with two mini-dramas - Il Combattimento and Il Ballo delle Ingrate. But it was the more heterodox first part of the Eighth Book that took this year's Gramophone Awards Baroque Vocal category prize. Superbly crafted readings convey the full range of Monteverdi's already advanced musical language, and the seven singers work wonders, ably supported by a small but brittle, transparent body of strings. (Opus 111, CD, pounds 15.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Monteverdi, Il Combattimento/Il Ballo delle Ingrate; Concerto Italiano (Stubbs/Tragicomedia, CD, pounds 14.99) DH


SCHUMANN: GENOVEVA Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt spent two years studying Schumann's only opera before performing it; he subsequently made this electrifying live recording, with a magnificent cast including Ruth Ziesak, Rodney Gilfry and Thomas Quasthoff. Based on plays by Hebbel and Tieck, perceived wisdom held that the opera contained some good music but was dramatically weak. Yet here, fast-paced theatre and fine all-round musicianship make for a compelling "new" addition to the repertoire. (Teldec, CD, pounds 30.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Schumann, Scenes From Goethe's `Faust'; Claudio Abbado (Sony, CD, pounds 15.99) DH



Even Thin Lizzy's classic western-influenced "Jailbreak" didn't rock like this little beast that reared its head from the armpit town of Denton, Texas. Punk-metal guitars clash with mountain-music breaks and pedal-steel loops while the splendidly gruff voice of Brent Best luridly chronicles the downs, and the downs, of love as experienced by trailer-park desperado lushes. Lyrically it unashamedly kicks at the underbelly of rural America, but Best's literary grounding always manages to help put a thought-provoking curveball into each song. Play very loud. (Doolittle, CD, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: the Backsliders, Throwing Rocks at the Moon (Polydor-Mammoth, CD, pounds 9.99) TP



Granite-voiced roots cantor of Seventies Jamaican vintage tips up in Nineties London and delivers one of the most grimly passionate post-drum'n'bass rhythm albums of the age. You may or may not recollect his Scratch-produced Sons of Slaves, from 1976, but it just happens to be the greatest reggae record of all time. Arguably. (Big Cat, CD/LP, pounds 12.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Massive Attack Mezzanine (Virgin, CD/minidisc/vinyl, pounds 13.99) NC



A stunning record by what must be - quite literally - the biggest voice in world music today. Blends gospel with the insistent rhythms of her native Brazil - think Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin crossed with Astrud Gilberto - in a simple production that exudes raw power. Rodrigues shares with the recent rash of Cuban groups the ability to communicate effortlessly across language barriers. (Hannibal/Rykodisc, CD, pounds 12.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Compay Segundo, Lo Mejor de la Vida (Dro East West, CD, pounds 14.99) RT



As a tribute to the polystylist composer who died this year come these accounts of his four string quartets from the Kronos. The quartets' conflicting spirits of ludic playfulness and intense despair are perfectly captured, though each retains an individual aura. Allusions are plentiful - to Shostakovich, Bartok, Berg, Beethoven and many more - but the voice that emerges is quintessentially Schnittke's own. Powerful, intelligent playing, plus the fine engineering and instrumental balance that are characteristic of the Kronos at their best. (Nonesuch, CD, pounds 30.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Schnittke, Chamber Music for Cello; Alexander Ivashkin & Irina Schnittke (Chandos, CD, pounds 14.99) DH


RAMEAU: LES FETES D'HEBE Les Arts Florrisants/Christie

A deserving winner of the Gramophone Awards Early Opera category, Christie's exquisite account of Rameau's lavish magnum opus, first performed in 1739, maintains the high energy and the incidental beauties of the score in comparable measure. Fronting a team that includes Sophie Daneman, Paul Agnew and Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, plus the resplendent period-instrument ensemble that is Les Arts Florissants, Christie has not just single-handedly opened up a new world of repertoire, he dominates it. (Erato, CD, pounds 22.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: any of Christie's explorations into the French Golden Age of Lully, Monteclair or Charpentier. DH



If, by some biological freak, Sheryl Crow was able to keep making records for the next century, she might, just might, be able to come up with something that compares to this. Simply put, Ms Williams is the best female songwriter America has to offer right now. Slightly more rustic than Crow, this fifth album in two decades shows her at her best. There's no standout track because all 13 are of the highest calibre. A crossover classic that will surely bring mainstream rewards. (Mercury, CD, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams (Koch; 1988 re-release with six new tracks, CD, pounds 14.99) TP



The Beastie Boys' much-touted return to hip hop is a far more eclectic affair than the vocoders and breakbeats of lead in single Intergalactic had suggested. Essentially three albums in one, Hello Nasty finds each of the trio exploring his own avenues of choice. Thus the album wanders through heavily scratch-mixed old-skool hip hop, Beck-esque folk-rock, and the freeform discipline of the dub sound-system. The result is surprisingly unified, held together by a strong understanding of the subversive nature of funk. (Grand Royale, CD/LP, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Mixmaster Mike, Anti Theft Device (Asphodel, CD/LP, pounds 14.99) MJ



Latest album by incendiary Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez confirms the promise of last year's Latin-tinged Monk tribute Panamonk. This album - his fourth as leader - is wider- ranging. Though there are still nods to Monk, as well as to Chick Corea and other jazz pianists, it takes in blues, eastern sounds and even folk singing from his native country. But throughout there is improvisation and swing aplenty. (Impulse, CD, pounds 16.49)

If you liked this, you'll love: David Sanchez, Obsesion (Jazz Masterpiece, CD, pounds 15.99) RT


TIPPETT: THE ROSE LAKE London Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Colin Davis

The late Sir Michael Tippett's last major work - the autumnally shaded and sumptuously scored Rose Lake - in a loving rendition by the orchestra and conductor who premiered it. Tippett finished the work, inspired by the light on a lake in Senegal, as he was nearing 90. Yet there is no waning of his powers as he employs a large orchestra to startling Debussyian effect. Stylishly played and articulated, Davis is the ideal aural guide to the exotic environment. Composers' reputations often suffer a decline immediately after their deaths. Tippett's will not. (Conifer Classics, CD, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: any of the fine recent recordings of Tippett's consummate output. DH


BIRTWISTLE: THE MASK OF ORPHEUS BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis

Premiered at the London Coliseum by ENO back in 1986, Birtwistle's massive three-act reworking of the Orpheus myth (to a libretto by Peter Zinovieff) was hailed as one of the most significant musical and theatrical events of that decade. Yet could such a complex and ambitious score ever be adequately rendered on disc? The answer is, amazingly, "yes" - via this brilliantly produced package based on a live performance in the Festival Hall. (NMC, CD, pounds 19.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Birtwistle, Gawain; Royal Opera House (Collins Classics, CD, pounds 27.99) DH



Finally released after 30 years as the key-stone of the Dylan bootleg industry, Live 1966 - actually recorded at Manchester's Free Trade Hall - is a rock landmark, capturing Bob at the peak of his powers, blowing away a doubting audience with the loudest, most intense live performance anyone had encountered. "Judas!" cried an audience outraged by the electric backing band, but their catcalls and slow hand-claps were useless against the band's sheer power and the wired grandeur of Dylan's personality. (Columbia, CD, pounds 21.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: The Band, The Shape I'm In - The Very Best of the Band (Capitol, CD, pounds 15.99) AG



Flavoured with the disparate styles of dub and alternative rock in equal amounts, Seeking Pleasure offers much of the darkness of Massive Attack's Mezzanine, but without the forced Gothic hip hop mannerisms. A flawless collection, this, The Aloof's third album, finds epic strings, thundering drums and strolling bass lines employed as a foil for soul-drenched vocals. The resulting mix is both vibrant and sombre, echoing the post-punk sobriety of early New Order as much as it embraces the carefree eclecticism of leftfield club culture. Stunning. (East West, CD, pounds 15.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Unkle, Psyence Fiction (MoWax, CD/LP, pounds 13.99) MJ



Highly individualistic pianist Allen garnered comparisons with the late Bill Evans for trio recordings with, first, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and then Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Her latest effort is more mainstream, though there are glimpses of her avant-garde sensibilities. The piano definitely takes the lead, with great support play from a band featuring her husband, the trumpeter Wallace Roney. (Verve, CD, pounds 15.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Jacky Terrasson, Alive (Blue Note, CD, pounds 16.99) RT


PROKOFIEV: SINFONIA CONCERTANTE FOR CELLO & ORCHESTRA City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mork/Jarvi

Sinfonia Concertante - part symphony, part concerto - is a reworking by Prokofiev of his originally coolly received Cello Concerto, rewritten with the talented young Rostropovich in mind. Just as considerable is the virtuosity shown here by the Norwegian cellist Truls Mork, who, along with the CBSO, has achieved a sonic balance rare in accounts of music employing a large orchestra and solo string. (Virgin Classics, CD, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Shostakovich, Two Cello Concerti; Mork (Virgin Classics, CD, pounds 15.99) DH


BRITTEN: ALBERT HERRING Northern Sinfonia/ Steuart Bedford

As part of Collins Classics superb Britten Edition comes a sparkling account of the composer's second chamber opera, premiered in 1947. The 11 instrumentalists work marvels in suggesting a larger group, but there are great individual timbres, too. Tenor Christopher Gillett leads an excellent cast, which also features Josephine Barstow, Felicity Palmer, Robert Lloyd, Gerald Finley and Della Jones. It's not often one laughs out loud at comic opera on record, but there's merriment and style here aplenty. (Collins Classics, CD, pounds 27.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: virtually all of Bedford's Britten Edition (Collins Classics, CD, pounds 27.99) DH



With What Another Man Spills, 14-strong Nashville combo Lambchop continued their struggle to emancipate country music from the usual round of bars, beers, trucks and tears, using the comforting textures of the form to present real-life matters and emotions with a frank mixture of lust, loss and more than a few misplaced bodily fluids. The group's subtle collusions of strings, vibes, horns and pedal steel guitar create a vast, amorphous, not-quite-house-trained sound that constantly seeks to extend itself. Real music for real people. (City Slang, CD, pounds 14.49)

If you liked this, you'll love: The Hangovers, Slow Dirty Tears (Smoke, CD, pounds 14.99) AG



Reggae's "studio idler" never sounded better than when plunging about on the surface of Bunny Lee's buoyant roots rhythms. He might not have had the gravitas of contemporaries Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, but he had the "groove to make you move", as they used to say in dread circles. This is as good as he ever got, which is very good indeed. (Blood & Fire, CD/LP, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Horace Andy, In the Light (Blood and Fire, CD, pounds 14.99) NC



Highly entertaining tenor-saxophonist Redman has the wit and the chops to carry on the mantle of Sonny Rollins. This latest record is perhaps not his most powerful effort - try Wish or Moodswing - but, like frequent collaborator Mehldau, he can find the swing in the least likely of contemporary material and provides a welcome antidote to the meanderings of much modern jazz. (Warner Bros, CD, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Roy Hargrove, Family (Verve, CD, pounds 15.99) RT


PENDERECKI: CREDO Oregon Bach Festival Choir & Orchestra/ Helmuth Rilling

With so much recent sacred music in the "mystic minimalism" trend forged by Tavener, Gorecki and Part, it's good to have a new liturgical opus with genuine substance to it. Such is Penderecki's ravishing, large-scale setting of the Nicene Creed, scored for five soloists, boys choir, mixed choir and orchestra. Alluding to the Bach and Beethoven tradition, he fashions a dramatic statement of faith brimming with dynamic contrast, and choral and orchestral effects. (Hanssler Classic, CD, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Penderecki, Violin Concerto; Anne-Sophie Mutter (Deutsche Grammophon, CD, pounds 14.99) DH


ADES: POWDER HER FACE Almeida Ensemble/ Thomas Ades

The great white hope of 21st-century British composition, the precocious and immensely talented Thomas Ades has already scored many fine successes, even though he is still in his twenties. There's certainly much to admire in his stunning chamber opera based on the true-life "adventures" of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Philip Hensher's libretto is witty and sharp; and Ades responds with a spiky musical tapestry, exploiting his excellent ensemble (Jill Gomez in the title role) to devastating effect. (EMI, CD, pounds 23.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Ades, Living Toys (EMI, CD, pounds 17.99) DH



With an inventive range of beats and scratching, the maverick Morcheeba create a perfect soundscape for Skye Edward's gorgeously soothing vocals, and can lift the listener to great places. From the smooth opener of "The Sea" through the country hip hop charms of "Part of the Process", to the mellow title track, Morcheeba make music to kick back to - even though the themes are inevitably of losing control and alienation. It's these twists that make it the most thought-provoking pop album of the year. (China, CD/tape, pounds 12.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Elliott Smith, XO (DreamWorks, CD/tape, pounds 14.99) TP



Ranking among the year's most hyped outfits, the Lo Fi Allstars have proven themselves worthy of the attention with this debut album. Their anti-trainspotting sample nihilism has resulted in an irreverent collection of genre-hopping mayhem. From the beatific spoken words to the disco samples and acid-house stylings, Blown Mind finds Public Enemy, the Sex Pistols and Chic in a funk-addled collision that leaves the rest of the big-beat frontline dead in their tracks. (Skint, CD/LP, pounds 14.49)

If you liked this, you'll love: Propellerheads, Decksanddrumsand-rockandrockandroll (Wall of Sound, CD/LP/MC, pounds 14.99) MJ



Cassidy is an impossible-to-categorise singer who died of cancer while still in her thirties but left a small legacy of classy recordings. Boosted while still alive by veteran R&B performer Chuck Brown and Mick Fleetwood (but don't let that put you off), she had a heartbreakingly pure voice and a readiness to sing just about anything. This compilation places the neo-gospel number "Wade in the Water" beside Christine McVie's "Songbird" and Pete Seeger's "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread". (Hot Records, CD, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Tracy Nelson, I Feel So Good (Rounder, CD, pounds 14.99) RT


LET THE BRIGHT SERAPHIM Handel Players/ Bern/Steele-Perkins

This is a sumptuous, thematically linked compilation of brilliantly performed Baroque music for trumpet and soprano, featuring the Handel setting that gives the album its title, Purcell's Genius of England and Scarlatti's Cantata Su le Sponde del Tebro. The debut recording for Scottish soprano Jeni Bern, it proves a grand showcase for her sparkling tones. Add the virtuoso musicianship of Crispian Steele-Perkins, and you have a disc of rich, joyous rewards. (Carlton Classics, CD, pounds 10.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Let the Trumpet Sound; Steele-Perkins (Carlton Classics, CD, pounds 10.99) DH


MOZART: ZAIDE Academy of Ancient Music/Paul Goodwin

Composed simultaneously alongside the far more famous Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Mozart's unfinished Zaide (no overture or finale) was long considered an interesting curiosity, but not "great". This masterly account, however, more than makes amends, with no fewer than 15 richly contoured vocal items crammed onto a single disc. The cast of five sing like angels, and the period instrumental sound is buoyant and crystal- clear. Seraglio fans will find that this forms far more than a dry run for the later opera. (Harmonia mundi, CD, pounds 15.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Mozart, Seraglio; John Eliot Gardiner (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv, CD, pounds 30.99) DH



Sparklehorse's second offering is a gentle, vulnerable album full of touchingly sympathetic songs about animals, birds and insects, all rendered with a deliberately amateurish charm, in the manner of naive art. There's a strange, evanescent quality, with tracks constructed from semi-audible smudges of sound, like driftwood sculptures - as if they've been recorded, then partially erased, leaving the ghosts of the songs behind. The result is a strikingly patinated, beguiling work. (Parlophone, CD, pounds 16.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Dirty Three, Ocean Songs (Bella Union, CD, pounds 14.99) AG



Imagine techno informed by the Afro-funk of Fela Ransome Kuti and jazz- fusion of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, and you'd be close to the work of Max Brennan. On this, his ninth album in three years, Brennan contorts the rigid foundations of techno, adding counterpoint percussion, flourishes of free-form jazz, and chopped bass lines. Demanding and occasionally uncomfortable, Alien offers a stunning display of liquid tech-funk, placing Brennan at the forefront of the global techno underground. (Sublime Records, CD/LP, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Fila Brazillia, Power Clown (Pork Recordings, CD, pounds 12.99) MJ



Wonderful solo outing by favourite guitarist to such artists as Diana Krall, Mose Allison and Roy Hargrove. Full of self-confidence, Malone eschews the excessive emphasis on technique and pyrotechnics preferred by so many practitioners of his instrument, in favour of an easy-swinging record on which his own material bears comparison with the standards. All this, and a rhythm section of music by Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Lewis Nash, too. (Impulse, CD, pounds 16.49)

If you liked this, you'll love: Robben Ford & The Blue Line, The Authorize Bootleg (Blue Thumb, CD, pounds 14.99) RT



A cult composer of the moment is the self-effacing Spaniard Federico Mompou, who, though he lived to a great age, left behind a relatively small oeuvre of piano works. Wistful, evocative and unassuming, they require considerable pianistic technique to bring them off to best effect. Hough has what it takes, probing to the emotional core of these exquisite miniatures to mesmeric effect. His choice of works forms a beautifully balanced recital line-up, amounting to perhaps the most significant piano release of the year. (Hyperion, CD, pounds 14.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Cesar Franck, Piano Works; Stephen Hough (Hyperion, CD, pounds 14.99) DH



Not so much an opera, more a modern American musical, though no less enjoyable for that. I Was Looking at the Ceiling takes its title from a quote on the 1994 California earthquake. To a pithy libretto by June Jordan, Adams' equally economical setting examines the effect of the catastrophe on a septet of diverse characters. Adams himself conducts the modern pit band with flair. (Nonesuch, CD, pounds 13.99)

If you liked this, you'll love: Adams, Clarinet Concerto `Gnarly Buttons'; Michael Collins (Nonesuch, CD, pounds 14.99) DH