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--Zac Crain

Afghan Whigs, 1965 (Columbia)
The Afghan Whigs don't want to save your soul so much as they want to help you find it, freeing your ass so your mind will follow Greg Dulli and company into the back-alley dives from which their music crawls. The Whigs are still the best bar band west of the E-Street Band, and 1965 makes Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons seem about as funky as James Taylor sidemen. But the band's blaxploitation grooves are just a backdrop for Dulli's tortured--or so he'd have you believe--come-ons. Alternating between a bedroom whisper and a juke-joint holler, he could make a nursery rhyme sound vaguely dirty; every word he utters is just another part of the longest pick-up line ever. It's the closest a fat white guy from Cincinnati will ever come to gettin' it on like Marvin Gaye.

ALL, Mass Nerder (Epitaph)
Teen angst rarely sounds as genuine as it does coming from the thirtysomething members of ALL. Only when the band name-checks former Oakland A's pitcher Vida Blue does it show its age, and even then, the reference flies by like a hummingbird tweaking on a sugar rush, lost in the album's speed-reader odes to all the girls they've loved before. After a decade together--almost two if you count its previous incarnation as the Descendents--ALL only gets better with age, trimming away a little more fat (prog-punk instrumentals, pointless metal excursions) each time out. As a result, the album is tighter and shorter (the longest song clocks in at around two and a half minutes) than a hooker's skirt. Mass Nerder is proof enough that growing older doesn't always include growing up.

Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)
Mermaid Avenue is as good as you'd expect an album to be that features Billy Bragg and Wilco writing music to lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie, which means it's better than Christmas coming twice in one year. Most critics probably put this on their best-of-1998 list without cracking the shrink-wrap, which is a shame, because the payoff is even better than the idea. Drifting from schoolboy sonnets to tossed-off children's songs, Bragg and Wilco show a different side of the Dust Bowl troubadour, the part of Guthrie that thought with his heart as much as his head. It's a collaboration every bit as inspired as the Elvis Costello-Burt Bacharach pairing should have been. And even Natalie Merchant can't screw it up.

Braid, Frame and Canvas (Polyvinyl Record Co.)
With Frame and Canvas, Braid finally finds the beating pulse beneath the cold precision of Slint and Don Caballero and their brethren--bands that approach songs more like calculus equations, losing the feeling somewhere between complicated chord progressions and because-we-can time signatures. Like those groups, Braid changes its songs' tempos and rhythms more often than a white man dancing. But at heart--and there definitely is one--it's an album full of love songs, as confusing and complicated as love sometimes is.

Compound Red, Always a Pleasure (DeSoto)
Perhaps no other record released this year is as dynamic as this one: Greg Steffke's whispered screams battle Mike Allen and Jim Minor's rumbling guitar bluster, then they switch sides and do it all over again. For the most part, Steffke's effort is futile. When Allen and Minor dive headlong into a riff, it feels as if Always a Pleasure was recorded as the studio tumbled down the side of a mountain, each downstroke sending the song careening further out of control. But when Steffke is up to the challenge, it's as beautiful as lying on your back in a field of green grass, watching the sky explode on the Fourth of July.

Jets to Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree)
Somehow, Jets to Brazil made a morbidly depressing album sound like shiny, happy new wave played on broken-down instruments, wrapping its misery in bits of staccato guitar and cheap-keyboard flourishes until you can almost see a grin through the tears. And that's where the band's genius lies: Almost every song is about suicide or breakups or both, but by the time you make the connection, you've bitten on every pop hook the band has cast out. Even more inexplicable is the final track, "Sweet Avenue," a glass-is-completely-full tale of newfound love, so overwhelmingly optimistic in its outlook; it is the most depressing song on the album.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky