Rock and roll over

In today's music business, tomorrow's revolution is yesterday's fad

15. Let's Face It, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Big Rig/Mercury Records (nine points)

What hath No Doubt wrought? The irony of ska's newest wave--so crassly inspired by the multi-platinum success of the pride of Anaheim--is that No Doubt had largely abandoned the genre before the 1996 release of its mega-hit Tragic Kingdom. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones make this list largely as veteran representatives in an increasingly crowded field. Let's Face It isn't so much offensive as mostly just unnecessary so long after the Specials and Selecter and their ilk were cranking out an edgier, smarter brand of the stuff almost two decades ago. Overkill has turned a once-vibrant style into another fad. (Appleford)

The best obscurities of 1997
Sometimes it's not what you know, but where you look
Face it; in this job you listen to way more music than almost any other human being on the planet. It's hard not to drift off into Musicgeekland--where if it sells, it sucks, and if anybody else has heard of it, it must be bullshit. There are, however, some interesting things out there, languishing miles from the nearest strip mall, that most people just won't ever become aware of.

--Matt Weitz

The Covenant, Wally Brill (Island Records). Despite the multiple idiocies that cluster around electronic music, the medium does present fascinating opportunities for the kind of cultural blending that's been known to create great art. The Covenant--full of found sounds, loops, and samples, but built upon old 78-rpm recordings of Jewish cantors--may be one of the most forceful arguments in favor of electronica since Ryuichi Sakamoto's Smoochy.

The Get-Go, Paul Cebar (Don't Records). Cebar is one of the heirs to that funky throne carved by Dr. John, Little Feat, and Van Morrison. So perfectly does he capture the mood of high-stepping on a humid Southern day that it comes as something of a shock when you find out he hails from Milwaukee. Nonetheless, his songs are syncopated soul-stirrings at their most rhythmically appealing.

Symphony 1997, Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony Classical). Helped along by a large rack of ancient bells unearthed in China a few years ago, this symphony commemorating the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese is both immediate and deeply tied to the past. Yo-Yo Ma's extraordinarily resonant cello seems to speak for the cost behind all advancement, and the singing of the Yip's Children's Choir is light with the promise of the future.

Parole Music, Kevin Johnson and the Linemen (Sam Records). Despite the album's title, Parole Music establishes this East Coast aggregation as something fairly rare these days: pursuit of roots-rock ideals with restraint. The better qualities of this album seep in around the edges, gradually making themselves known.

Last Tango in Bubbleland, Phoebe Legere (Random Records). New York's Legere may play all the kewpie doll/French maid roles with the costumes and personae she enlists in the telling of her little-girl-in-the-big-city story, but she's far from dumb: She understands how much a song needs a touch of scenery-chewing and sense of soap opera. On this album Legere has fun, to be sure, but always with a piece of her real heart showing.

Looking for Butter Boy, Archie Roach (Hightone Records). Roach is an Aborigine who was taken from his birth parents and raised in a mission in Australia. Perhaps that sense of "outsideness" is what enables him to write such gently yearning pop songs or such justifiably anthemic declarations. His voice is reminiscent of Sam Cooke's, colored by his personal experiences just as the music on Butter Boy is influenced by Australia: an enduring frontier resonance, but livened up with a tropical streak and cushioned by an English beer hall sense of sentiment. Very resonant.

Schoolgirl Report, Gert Wilden & Orchestra (Crippled Dick Hot Wax Records). This is the year's great hidden treasure. Wilden is a soundtrack king in Germany, where in the '70s he wrote the scores to a string of soft-core porn movies called Schoolgirl Reports. The songs here are precise evocations--like you'd get from a computer or alien visitors--of the kinds of music used to set the mood in Matt Helm or biker movies, but attacked with Teutonic enthusiasm that somehow makes them more. Echoes of the songs these cuts were cribbed from float through the melodies like ghosts. Few albums this year were this much fun to listen to. Wagnerian lounge? It could happen.

Wingless Angels, Wingless Angels (Island Jamaica). "Brother Keith" Richards is the motive force behind this album, but he does a commendable job of staying out of the way while producing and playing guitar on it. Showcasing the style of a group of Jamaican Nyabinghi (a Rastafarian sect) drummers who sing as a group while they play, the African rhythms of the drums mix hypnotically with the singing, which follows melodies adapted from Wesleyan hymns. Needless to say, this is a very tribal album, with the music drawing power from the union of what at first appear to be opposing styles. Full of primal campfire and water-hole vibes, this album is perfect for any hunter-gatherer's more meditative moods.

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