(Hannibal HNCD 1418)
In a year when much-heralded Britpop albums turned out to be either turgid and underwhelming (Be Here Now) or pompous and overrated (OK Computer), it was left to an eccentric old-stager to show the breadth of sounds and styles beneath the sullen surface of British pop. Robert Wyatt's Shleep was witty, humane, philosophical, and full of the most sheerly beautiful music I've heard all year. It's Wyatt's best work since 1974's Rock Bottom; where that plied mainly watery metaphors, this one applies itself to the air, with insights courtesy of sparrows and swallows and dreams of flight. Lyrically, songs such as "Free Will And Testament" and "Blues In Bob Minor" are packed with Wyatt's gentle but firm self-examination, set to his inimitable blend of airy, ruminative jazz and drones streaked with subtle rock references. An acquired taste, maybe, but the presence of Eno, Phil Manzanera and Paul Weller alongside jazzers like Evan Parker and Annie Whitehead ensures Shleep an attractively eclectic surface.
The first double-album in years which wouldn't have been better as a single LP, this second release from Wilco doesn't have a duff track among its 19 songs. Comparable in its own way to Exile On Main Street, Being There renders country-rock and raggedy-ass American punk with a bar-room warmth and conviction that's entirely beguiling, as songwriter Jeff Tweedy draws on his own mid-life crisis to ruminate on what it means to be still rocking when youth is a distant memory. Harnessing doubt, exhilaration and obsession alongside keen insights into the symbiotic nature of the artist/fan relationship, the results are all the more heartening for their refusal to opt for facile, fashionable gloom.
3 The Prodigy
The Fat of the Land
Treading a fine line between chart-friendly populism and cutting-edge weirdness, the Prodigy's run of hit singles is the most sustained bout of pop experimentation since the Beatles. Faithful to his original formula of fast hip-hop breakbeats, mad samples and wibbly noises, with The Fat of the Land, Liam Howlett's breathtaking sonic sculptures bring a whole new context to the dance/rock crossover. Punk roots, space-rock weirdness, hip-hop anger and techno energy - it's a devastating blend of attitude and inspiration. This is the true face of modern British pop: heavily mascara'd and pierced, gurning like a comic villain, and with two devil's- horns of hair shooting out from its pate.
4 Wu-Tang Clan
(RCA 74321 457682)
This monumental double-album is everything you expect a rap record to be: angry, sexy, dangerous, sly, loquacious, funny, journalistic, obscene - and more. In places it's quite baffling, as the Clan's nine rappers unleash wave after wave of dazzling verbals. Surreal and allusive, it's the rap equivalent of Blonde On Blonde, with a core of integrity in a shell of oblique imagery. The RZA employs the bleakest backing tracks in hip-hop history, but instead of myopically hymning the gangsta lifestyle, there's a serious call to creative redemption in tracks such as "It's Yours" and "A Better Tomorrow".
5 The Gourds
Dem's Good Beeble
(Munich Records MUSA 501)
In a genre becoming neater by the minute, the Gourds make country music for people who don't iron their jeans. Their sound is based around the striking vocal combination of songwriters Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith - one high and adenoidal, the other darker, lower and rougher - cutting across each other while guitars and accordion wheeze and twang drunkenly. It's a well-marinated sound, steeped in American musical history but unafraid of taking the occasional licence with its roots; I'm reminded of nothing quite so much as the Band in good-time cajun mode, than which there are few higher recommendations.
6 Ben Harper
The Will to Live
(Virgin CDVUS 128)
In a year notable for the resurgence of acoustic blues courtesy of a talented crop of new young bluesmen like Corey Harris and Alvin "Youngblood"' Hart, his sheer skill and ambition sets Ben Harper apart from his peers. On The Will to Live, he combines the saintliness and integrity of Bob Marley with the grace and power of Jimi Hendrix, drawing mellow magic from his antique Weissenborn slide guitar. Vocally, he has the gift of all great gospellers in being able to make even the simplest and most obvious of sentiments - like the title-track's "we've got to have the will to live" - sound urgently insightful. Given that his dry, weary husk of a voice lacks both the power of the great gospel shouters and the ecstasy of the great gospel falsettos, this is quite some achievement.
7 Bob Dylan
Time out of Mind
(Columbia COL 486936 2)
On his first batch of original material since 1991, Dylan sticks closely by the blues stylings to which he paid homage on Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong - these days, it seems, he finds greater pleasure in manipulating the cliches of a classic form, than generating more arresting, innovative imagery. Utilising a low-key bar-band style streaked with brooding organ and nervy guitar flourishes, Dylan focuses on that old standby, woman trouble, in both blues shuffles such as "Million Miles", and the more sepulchral pieces, such as "Not Dark Yet". The general feel is of a terminally depressive JJ Cale, except for the concluding 17- minute spoken blues "Highlands", which finds the Bard apparently too tired to shovel any more glimpses into the ditch of meaning, to paraphrase one of his old lines. A long overdue return to form.
8 The Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole
The Chemical Brothers' follow-up to Exit Planet Dust is more a matter of persistence than progression: it's more of the same - more of the same juddering drum licks, punchy basslines and squelching synthesisers, all crammed into small projectiles and fired with enough force to wake the dead. True artists of the mixing-desk, the duo's genius lies in the way they mash the various elements into a jam of noise that appeals as much to rock fans as it does to clubbers. State of the art sampladelic weirdness.
9 Jim White
(Luaka Bop 9362-46472-2)
Former fashion model, pro surfer, cab driver and Pentecostalist, Jim White proves himself a complete original on this debut album, a sequence of Redneck Gothic tales possessed of a strange blend of deep-river stillness, rustic jauntiness and backwoods weirdness. To the dry plunk of banjo and guitar (and the occasional whine of musical saw), White relates odd, dreamlike stories shot through with religious portents and bizarre coincidences. The impression is of a naif in the American wilderness, searching for redemption - not unlike what the banjo-picking kid from Deliverance might have come up with if he went to college and developed some perspective on his background.
(City Slang EFA 04998-2)
Lambchop's Kurt Wagner is rather like an American Robert Wyatt: there's a similarly vulnerable air to his singing, and an engagingly idiosyncratic approach to the backings conjured up for his oddball songs. But where Wyatt operates on the fringes of European jazz and British eccentricity, Lambchop uses the white American musical vocabulary of country and easy- listening music, stretched into new and intriguing shapes. The extended tonal palette enables unusual textural combinations, such as the shared glimmer of glockenspiel, trumpet and pedal steel guitar in "Crawl Away", and even allows for some musique concrete in the title-track, an exercise in abstract soundscaping utterly alien to the country genre.Reuse content