1. Lambchop, Tools in the Dryer (Merge): A meaty cross section of B-sides, singles, alternate or live takes, demos and suchlike, spanning the life of one of Nashville's most progressive musical collectives. Since a great deal of Lambchop's work is scattered over singles, contributions to one-off projects and cassette-only releases, this compilation is particularly welcome, and never redundant, even for hard-core fans.
2. Orquestra America, Sabor Profundo (Real Rhythm): Good as the Buena Vista Social Club is, it's not the only outfit working in Cuba. Orquestra America, now 60 years old, have an untouchable pedigree and a mind-boggling repertoire in the forms and vocabularies of traditional and popular Cuban music. Sabor Profundo catches them in a 12-piece incarnation performing popular songs, percussion workouts (of the dozen players, five are drummers) and straight-up dance numbers.
3. The Sadies, Tremendous Efforts (Bloodshot): As good an opening salvo in the resurgence of garage rock as you'd ever want to hear. Guitarists the Good brothers work in myriad forms, from countrydelic to sinister Western echo chamber, without missing a trick. One of the year's tightest, most guitar-happy releases.
4. My Morning Jacket, At Dawn (Darla): A welcome respite from the preprogrammed, sample-heavy hype that dominated '01, MMJ's sophomore release is a heady, nourishing mix of Americana, country rock, road-weary solitude and earned optimism. Pure as a double shot of good whiskey on a rainy night.
5. Mark Growden's Electric Piñata, Inside Beneath Behind (Wiggle Bisquit): The first release from this Bay Area musician, 1999's Downstairs Karaoke, was a bit too scattered to cohere. But Inside Beneath Behind is a genuine tour de force, a mix of beery dancehall, ambient sound, ringing percussion and growly harmonies that rings true from start to finish. Tom Waits and Kurt Weill fans will find a familiar but uniquely skewed sensibility in Growden's aesthetic.
6. Billie Holiday, Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) (Columbia): The price tag on this 10-disc set is indeed hefty, but what's inside--every note from Holiday in Columbia's massive Holiday catalog, finally collected in one place and with loving attention paid to sound quality and historical context--is worth the investment. The shameful history of Holiday compilations and collections is too lengthy to go into here, but simply put, this is one of the most satisfying, most important boxed sets ever released.
7. Terry Southern, "Give Me Your Hump!": The Unspeakable Terry Southern Record (Koch International): One of the most welcome surprises of the year, if I may be forgiven for including a spoken-word disc in the roundup. Southern, the diabolical genius who penned such films as Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, author of the books Blue Movie and The Magic Christian, was one of the most underappreciated American satirists of the 1960s and 1970s. Here he reads excerpts from his own writing (including the "hump" sequence from Candy, his infamous literary collaboration with Mason Hoffenberg), and guests ranging from Marianne Faithfull to Michael O'Donoghue interpret his work, in an archival project long overdue.
8. Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra, It Is Forbidden (Total Energy): A blistering live performance at the 1974 Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival. The multitrack master tapes for this show were stolen, so the audio comes from the soundboard. Still and all, this is the Arkestra at its most incendiary, with sidemen Clifford Jarvis and Marshall Allen on drums and reeds delivering some of their most impressive work. Worth searching out.
9. Various artists, Sounds Eclectic (Palm Pictures): Fourteen tracks culled from Los Angeles station KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic show, featuring live no-overdubs performances from a stunning variety of artists. Beck's solo rendition of Hank Williams' "Lonesome Whistle" and Yo-Yo Ma's "Prelude" from Bach's "Cello Suite #1 in G-Major" are but two of the standout tracks, which ought to give you some indication of the range of talents on display here.
10. Various artists, Morricone RMX (Warner Brothers/WEA International): An album of Ennio Morricone themes, remixed and tweaked by contemporary electronica artists, sounds like the proverbial high-concept failure. But the skill and the respect that each of these artists brings to the table makes Morricone RMX a mostly wonderful collection of tracks. Morricone's own eclectic styles come to the fore in a delightful interplay of familiar melodies and modern technologies. A release that will appeal to the thinking techno fan and the serious music scholar in equal measures.
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