By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
5. I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, Brian Wilson (MCA). The former Beach Boy hasn't kept his head in the sand all these years: He's mad, but he's not crazy. This collection of old and new songs redone in the studio with Don Was and a host of studio pros is a far superior work to the other Brian Wilson album of this year--the Van Dyke Parks collaboration Orange Crate Art, a flight of light pop fantasy that belongs to an era that no longer exists. These Times strips away the mystique and veneer of old songs like "The Warmth of the Sun" and "Caroline, No" and reduces them to fragile moments that Wilson is careful not to crush in his shaky hands; the songs contain echoes of the Beach Boys (especially "Wonderful" and "Do it Again"), but once lifted out from the wave-of-sound production and the weight of history, they reveal a thin and tiny voice struggling just to be heard--by himself, as much as by anyone else.
6. Stellar Regions, John Coltrane (Impulse). Recorded five months before Coltrane's death from liver cancer, these recordings were holed up with the sax great's wife and partner, pianist Alice Coltrane, until a few months ago when Impulse released the disc as part of its Coltrane reissue series. Unlike this year's Atlantic boxed set--a remarkable and lovingly assembled collection of his entire "middle period" output with the previously released Giant Steps outtakes included--Stellar Regions documents one of his final days (Feb. 15, 1967, to be exact), when Coltrane was reigning in his avant-free-jazz and looking for the melody inside the cacophony, which is what makes this album so astonishing: It's noisy but never dissonant, loud even when nothing's going on, hard to get inside but lovely once you're past the front door. It's the Impulse-era Coltrane duking it out with the Atlantic Coltrane, the introspective and spiritual man seeking solace inside a bebop reverie. He honks and squeals his way through the dark ("Iris") and comes through the other side ("Offering") at peace, at ease, and, finally, at rest.
7. Boss Hog, Boss Hog (DGC). Jon Spencer's blaxploitation post-blues explosion was, until this record, a one-note joke that played itself out as best it could in the hands of a guy who played it strictly for smirks. Boss Hog, a collaboration with wife Cristina Martinez, is the great rock band Blues Explosion acts like they don't want to be--as much punk ("Skibunny," "What the Fuck") and funk ("Green Shirt," "Beehive," "I Dig You") as it is mock blues (the brilliant cover of Ike Turner's "I Idolize You"). If Martinez recalls PJ Harvey on a couple of tracks, it's probably intended as parody: "I'm in Texas, I'm in pain," she groans over a moaning cello and piano, never giving away the joke.
8. It's Heavy in Here, Eric Matthews (Sub Pop). The trumpets that signal this album's arrival recall nothing so much as the Who's Quadrophenia, but the songwriting is purely subtle, smooth pop--melodies that seemingly have no beginning or end because they're always the middle. Matthews, formerly one half of the sadly unknown Cardinal, is the kind of musician who understands that the power of pop music comes not just from overpowering sounds--the roar of a guitar, an inanely catchy chorus, snappy drums that pound out a 4/4 beat--but from the quiet moments that sneak up and wind their way into the ear, find their way to the heart, and stay there. There's nothing ironic about the strings and sax and harpsichord of "Three-Cornered Moon," nothing disingenuous about the whisper in his voice when he wonders if the "Poisons Will Pass Me." Joe Jackson used to make records like this, Matthew Sweet wishes he could, Stephin Merritt comes close, but only Eric Matthews does. How, I have no idea.
9. The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen (Columbia). It's no Nebraska, not even the same time zone, but Tom Joad is the Springsteen he does best--mumbled, moody folk-rock songs about the walking wounded, the outsiders and losers just looking for their place in a society that would rather forget they exist. They're folks who sleep on pillows made of rock, who find that the "helpin' hand" is there only to slap them in the face. They're Mexican illegals going to work in the speed labs and dying by the side of the road; bored shoe-store clerks who meet the wrong women and end up robbing and killing and running until they reach the end of the world; discharged soldiers who find their hands are forever molded to the barrel of a gun; racist fisherman who find the face of their enemy in the reflection of a mirror. Springsteen is no Steinbeck, but you damned well better believe he's Woody Guthrie and then some.
10. Gone, Dwight Yoakam (Reprise). Dwight's idea of country starts and stops in the 1960s, when radio embraced styles as diverse as the mariachi-pop of Marty Robbins, the British Invasion blues of the Yardbirds, the slick twang of Buck Owens, the Vegas-via-Memphis soul of Elvis, and the dust-bowl growl of Johnny Cash. Gone plays itself out like a nostalgic spin through those memories, the only thing missing being the static and the voice of a disc jockey between the songs counting off the influence: Buck Owens ("Don't Be Sad"), Them ("Never Hold You"), Marty Robbins ("Sorry You Asked"), Patsy Cline ("Heart of Stone"), Johnny Cash ("Baby Why Not"), Buddy Holly ("Near You"), Elvis Presley ("Nothing