By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Short and simple, with a basic format and concrete posts to attach these judgments to, the following list is a survey of the year's records that are worthy of your money. I've tried to be as honest as possible here by including, out in the open, any shortcomings I may have for each, followed by a standard, by-the-book justification for its inclusion on the list. The final determination of quality is based on the amount of money I would pay as ransom if kidnappers broke into my house and snatched the record. It's tough to quantify such a thing, but I've tried to be realistic (given that I budget a lot of money for new music in any given year). These are in no particular order.
Justification: Guitar, piano and voice combine to create the most revelatory record of the year. Moon Pix contains soft, mysterious songs with lyrics that, though often roaming and transient, are delicately phrased and across-the-board inspired: "It must be the colors and the kids that keep me alive/Cuz the music is boring me to death," Chan Marshall sings on "The Colors and the Kids," then somehow manages to move to wading in the ocean with her pants rolled to her knees and whispering, "Yellow hair you are a funny bear." A beautiful, warm love song, the vibe she conjures is transcendent, one of dozens on the record.
If someone kidnapped this from me, how much ransom I'd pay for its return, realistically: $500, after I was done weeping and pleading for them to please not injure it.
Artist, album and label: Massive Attack, Mezzanine (Virgin).
Reservations: An early-year skepticism toward anything affiliated with trip-hop led me to doubt the potential of Massive Attack.
Justification: This ain't trip-hop, this is a massive melding of rock, dub, hip-hop, post-punk and ganja texture. More than any record released this year, this for me sums up the peering-into-the-abyss fear that's sweeping the culture at the end of the century -- shaky, tense, a tad desperate and bursting at its seams. Bonus points for sampling the Velvet Underground, Isaac Hayes and the Cure; it's about time someone samples music other than the standard jazz breakbeats and funk grooves.
Artist, album and label: The Handsome Family, Through the Trees (Carrot Top)
Justification: I wrote about Chicago's Handsome Family so often this year that I'm sick of doing it. The reason I composed all those words, though, are their perfect songs and the creepy Southern Gothic lyrics created with banjo, Autoharp, guitar, bass and beatbox. Through the Trees gives me chills.
Ransom: $500, and then I'd make it my life's mission to hunt down the kidnappers, put them in the stocks and force them to listen to "Down in the Ground" over and over again.
Artist, album and label: Beck, Mutations (DGC)
Reservations: I'm not sure I could spot a dud Beck record at this point; for some reason, I'm blind to any faults he may have. Since the release of Mellow Gold, there's hasn't been one new Beck song I haven't fallen in love with.
Justification: Beck claims that this isn't the follow-up to last year's Odelay, whatever that means. It most certainly is, even if it finds him performing with nary a sampler or fabricated groove and stretching out with organic instruments, silence and restraint. Melodies as smooth and seamless as any written in any age, with lyrical and musical hooks that are some of the best of the decade, Mutations is a glorious understatement from the brow of a brainiac on Robitussin.
Ransom: None; I'm pretty sure I can download an MP3 of it off the Internet, upload it onto my Diamond Rio player and dupe 100,000 copies of it for the entire readership of the paper.
Artist, album and label: Various Artists, We Are Reasonable People (Warp Records, UK)
Reservations: Compilations usually drop dead after the first few listens.
Justification: The year after electronica came and went in the national press as the "next big thing," the artists who ignored or were oblivious to the hype were down in their basements with a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment, lots of drugs and creative juices flowing, creating some of the most revolutionary music of the decade. Most of these artists failed to create exciting full-lengths (mainly because they insisted on making them 75 minutes long) but created mind-blowing cuts galore. The best label out there is Warp, and their roster of artists, including Autechre, Broadcast, Boards of Canada, Plone, Plaid and Red Snapper, among others, is a fantastic snapshot of the diversity and creativity of these digital mad scientists.
Reservations: I anticipated this record for four years; realistically, there was no way I was not gonna love it, which gives my critical capacities pause.
Ransom: $475 and a duped CD-R of the album so that the thief would be able to hear this great record; maybe it'd provide him solace and hope to straighten up and fly right.