The first play of Christmas

'Tis the season to give CDs, again: in time-honoured tradition, our critics choose their favourite record releases of the year
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The Beatles: Anthology 3 (Apple). This final scrapbook is the one that justifies the whole Anthology undertaking, in that it is the only volume on which most of the versions differ radically from the songs we know already. Fifty tracks is far too many, but the best of the strummed demos make up an indispensable Beatles Unplugged.

Beck: Odelay (Geffen). Forget the slacker label. Beck Hansen is much less idle than 95 per cent of his contemporaries in American rock, hip- hop and blues (he collapses all three genres, and a dozen more). Yet his gift is to make a sophisticated collage seem as effortless as any laid-back shambolic sprawl. It's got some decent tunes, too.

Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must Go (Epic). On which the noise terrorists learn that being militant and intense doesn't have to mean making an unlistenable racket. A dynamic, compelling rock album that refuses to be overshadowed by the story of guitarist Richey James's disappearance.

Space: Spiders (Gut). Worth the money for the singles - "Neighbourhood", "Female of the Species" and "Me and You v the World" - this multi-faceted debut sees the Liverpudlian Four-Piece Who Don't Copy the Beatles applying Nineties rock-production techniques and a ska beat to lounge-crooning melodies ... and that's before they really start to get weird.

Dar Williams: Mortal City (Grapevine). When I played this album to a songwriter friend, he sobbed that he was going to smash his acoustic guitar, so demoralised was he by the quality of this sweet-voiced young New Englander's clever, evocative lyrics and spellbinding folk music.

Rheinallt H Rowlands: Bukowski (Ankst). Some might doubt the pop credentials of an album whose centrepiece is a 10-minute Welsh-language tribute to the celebrated Californian heavy-drinker Charles Bukowski, but to adopt such a narrow-minded approach would be to deny yourself one of the year's most exquisitely unexpected pleasures.

Genaside II: New Life 4 the Hunted (Internal). Scarier than Tricky and harder to classify than Underworld, this shadowy south-London outfit have made the year's neglected classic. From source material as diverse as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" they have fashioned a darkly compelling dance hybrid; the result sounds something like Massive Attack's Blue Lines might have, if it had been recorded in prison.

The Fugees: The Score (Sony). Just when the gangstas seemed to be having things all their own way, this unapologetically wholesome Brooklyn/Haitian hip-hop trio conquered the world. The soaring voice of Lauryn Hill (previously best-known - improbably enough - as the star of Sister Act 2) is the year's most irresistible instrument; and the Fugees' unnerving blend of continuity and disruption puts countless more self-consciously cutting-edge rappers to shame.

Palace Music: Arise Therefore (Domino). Just pipping Aphex Twin's brilliant Richard D James Album (Warp) to the "champion maverick" post, this fourth album in as many years from the Kentucky troubador Will Oldham is the most stunning piece of hardcore introspection since Nick Drake's Pink Moon.

RL Burnside: A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (Matador). In the noble tradition of John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat's Hooker'n'Heat, this Socratic blues dialogue shows off the talents of both Holly Springs delta veteran RL Burnside and his upstart New York backing troupe The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to their fullest and most scabrous extent. "I need 40 nickels for a bag of potato chips," whines Spencer. "You don't get out of my face quick," RL snaps back, "I'm going to kick your ass."

Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Sony). Though it's a re-release and therefore maybe shouldn't count, nothing this year beats this astonishing six-CD box-set. Encased in what looks like a marvellously vulgar solid-gold spine, the requisite 200-page booklet tells you more than you will ever want to know about the century's greatest partnership between an instrumentalist and an arranger. The interleaved CDs duplicate the already available Davis-Evans albums, but there's much else besides, including no less than four versions of Kurt Weill's "My Ship", arrangements so sensitive that you would be happy to listen to nothing else for six hours.

Julian Arguelles: Scapes (Babel). The British saxophonist's album is astonishing for a number of reasons, not least the majesty of Arguelles' reeds playing (he plays all the parts apart from the drums, which are looked after by his brother Steve). But more than that - and rarely for a British album - it's also a set with a context: the evocation of a sense of place through dense, atmospheric improvisations. Though not always easy going - chewy and abstract as well as ethereal and figurative - it's still deeply satisfying.

Cassandra Wilson: New Moon Daughter (Blue Note). Not exactly a new venture for the American vocalist, but rather the second instalment in a world-domination masterplan, following 1993's Blue Light Till Dawn. Yet though the formula is more or less the same (Wilson dredging up folk and country songs from the past to create a kind of hip Americana), her own songwriting has come on by leaps and bounds: originals like the beautiful "Solomon Sang" more than live up to the covers of tracks by the likes of Hank Williams and Neil Young.

Bill Frisell: Quartet (Nonesuch). Another sortie into Americana. The guitarist's band invests country hoe-downs, low-down-and-dirty blues, gospel harmonies and Caribbean modes with a minimalist aesthetic of jug- band informality, to considerable effect.

Betty Carter: I'm Yours, You're Mine (Verve). So beautifully restrained that it almost counts as ambient music. On the title track the classic vocalist scat-sings across a melody derived from Bach, her breathy syllables floating in the air as the piano, bass and drums establish a perfect circle of notes. When the tenor sax enters briefly for a restrained whoosh of emotion, it's like an ecstatically elongated sigh.

Nielsen: Piano Pieces. Leif Ove Andsnes (Virgin Classics). The symphonies are standard issue these days, but Carl Nielsen's chamber music remains marginal in concert programmes outside Scandinavia, and this release is exactly what was needed to shed some light on the piano scores. If you don't know them, be prepared to be amazed by both their lyric beauty and their idiosyncratic power - delivered here by the outstanding Nordic pianist of his generation.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op 109, 110, 111. Alfred Brendel (Philips). Brendel has been recording and re-recording the Beethoven sonatas since 1963, and this culminatory release in his latest cycle delivers the weight of experience, but unoppressively. Scale and clarity come finely balanced; and for all the years of long acquaintance, this has a fresh, spontaneous- sounding brilliance that could sometimes trick you into thinking it the playing of a young man. A fine memento of Brendel's 65th birthday.

Britten: The Rescue of Penelope and Phaedra. Halle Orchestra/Nagano (Erato). A concert adaptation of incidental music for a 1940s radio play, The Rescue gives Nagano and the Halle a chance to shine as they didn't when their new hall opened in Manchester this year; it's a fascinating piece of rescue- work in its own right, with narrations by Janet Baker. The coupling, poignantly, is music first written for Baker and now sung ravishingly by the next- generation star of this year's Glyndebourne Theodora, Lorraine Hunt.

Vaughan Williams: Songs. Rolfe Johnson, Keenlyside. Duke Quartet/Graham Johnson (Collins Classics). Launching a new English-songs series on Collins, this collection makes an auspicious start with singing of intelligence, refinement and sym-pathy, and accompaniments that really support the voice as well as having something to add. You barely miss the orchestra in the piano-accompanied Five Mystical Songs; and the performance of On Wenlock Edge is all meat with no fat - as strong a recording of this seminal English cycle as I've ever heard.

Schubert: Die Schone Mullerin. Bostridge/Graham Johnson (Hyperion). It's been a good year for Ian Bostridge, who won a Gramophone Award for this release and could easily have picked up another for his disc of rare Britten songs, The Red Cockatoo (Hyperion again). The voice is youthful, fresh, sincere, unforced - perfectly charactered for Schubert's unrequited lover and with a pure transparency of tone to touch your heart. A key contribution to Graham Johnson's complete Schubert series.

Verdi: Don Carlos. Alagna, Hampson, Van Dam, Mattila. Orchestre de Paris/Pappano (EMI). When the Paris production of Don Carlos transferred to Covent Garden earlier this year, Roberto Alagna seemed small in the title role - in every sense. But on these discs (taken live from the original Paris shows) it's a different matter. The singing is superb, direct, with magnificent support from the rest of the cast; and Antonio Pappano's conducting almost convinces you that the Orchestre de Paris is a great ensemble.

Birtwistle: Gawain. Le Roux, Tomlinson. Royal Opera/Howarth (Collins). Not exactly easy-listening, but a remarkable piece of work that captures the scale and grandeur of what was seen on stage, and with far more detail than you'd ever have picked up in live performance. The cast are superb, with John Tomlinson cutting a vocally fearsome figure as the Green Knight. And if Birtwistle's grinding orchestral textures assault your ears too much, you can always adjust the volume.

Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel. Gorchakova, Leiferkus. Kirov Opera/Gergiev (Philips). The latest in a superlative series of Russian opera recordings from Valery Gergiev and his Kirov company, this is the first to have won a Gramophone Award (and not before time). There's a special chemistry at work here: the performance is electrifying, start to finish. And it catches Gergiev's favourite soprano, Gorchakova, at her best, interpolating poignant beauty into an abrasive score.

Massenet: Herodiade. Studer, Denize, Heppner. Orchestre du Capitol de Toulouse/Plasson (EMI). This came out at the very end of 1995 but didn't really hit the shops until '96; and it deserves recognition if only because it proves why Cheryl Studer - an unreliable voice of mighty ups and downs - is a star. You find her here on a distinct high, eloquently conducted by Michel Plasson, who supplies both the only complete version of the score on disc and the necessary conviction to bring off music that rewards effort, despite not always being of cast-iron quality.

Weber: Der Freischutz. Wottrich, Orgonasova. Berlin Philharmonic/Harnoncourt (Teldec). Nikolaus Harnoncourt collects new territories like Roman emperors used to, and this Ur-text of German Romanticism is a serious conquest, handsomely done in almost every respect. It's cast at strength, with Gilles Cachemaille, Christine Schafer, Kurt Moll and Wolfgang Holzmair jostling for vocal space. And Harnoncourt's controlling musicianship is big on wisdom, with a wonderful way of questioning the C-major sunniness of the finale. !