Stewart's faves for 1991

Well, I put together a Top Ten since those things seem to be inevitable...but I couldn't stop there, so we've really got something like a top 22, plus special mention for some great reissues.

The Top Ten

1. Mekons - "Curse of the Mekons"

This album doesn't pack the straight-out-of-the-gate all-out attack of their last, "Rock & Roll", and at first I underestimated it for that reason. But it just keeps getting better with each listen.

2. Richard Thompson - "Rumour and Sigh"

The production by Mitchell Froom doesn't add much, but doesn't detract much either, from one of Thompson's strongest batch of songs in years, and that's saying a lot. Who else could write a song about a motorcycle that sounds like a timeless traditional ballad?

3. Crowded House - "Woodface"

The addition of Tim Finn (which, alas, turns out to be a one-shot deal, as Tim has now left the group) shifted Crowded House back towards Split Enz territory. A somewhat brighter sound, marvelous Finn brother harmonies, and extremely catchy tunes as usual.

4. Blood Oranges - "Corn River"

It's actually dated 1990, but I didn't see it until this year, nor was it widely reviewed as far as I can tell, so I'm slipping this one in. Stripped-down roots rock with bluegrass mandolin.

5. Elvis Costello - "Mighty Like a Rose"

Costello's finest album in years. Most of the supporting cast from "Spike" returns, but this release is more consistent -- yet musically diverse, as exemplified by the first two tracks: it kicks off with the Beach-Boys-with-fangs "Other Side of Summer", then goes into the mechanical freakout of "Hurry Down Doomsday".

6. Ice-T - "Original Gangster"

Ice-T just keeps getting better -- harder and smarter at the same time. He sounds just as good rapping fast or slow, and he's got a sense of humor too.

7. Various - "Place of General Happiness: Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings vol 2"

A great collection for those who like their music quirky. Brookings wrote strange little poems about things like toast, sacrificing all logic for the sake of rhyme, and their transcendent banality makes them perfect rock lyrics. There's a sense of unity not present in most "tribute" albums, even though the musicians involved wrote their own music to Brookings' poems.

8. David Doucet - "Quand J'ai Parti"

The first solo album from Beausoleil guitarist Doucet finds him staking out a new role for Cajun acoustic guitar, bringing it equality with the fiddle and accordion. His nimble yet comfortable guitar style brings to mind Doc Watson or Norman Blake.

9. Public Enemy - "Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black"

PE sheds a few layers of sound, resulting in an album that's less of an all-out sonic assault than the last two. In itself, that's a bit disappointing to me; but the effect is to shift attention back to the powerful voice of Chuck D and his foil Flavor Flav, and that can't be bad. Includes the great collaboration with Anthrax on "Bring the Noise".

10. Ray Anderson - "Wishbone"

Accessible but forward-looking jazz from a real master of the trombone. Anderson ranges from gut-bucket vulgarity to beautiful, clear-toned upper register sounds. Originals like "Ah Soca" display his sense of humor, and his vocal approach to the standard "Comes Love" is nothing short of bizarre.

Honorable Mention:

Straitjacket Fits - "Melt" Dripping, oozing psychedelic pop from New Zealand.

Young Fresh Fellows - "Electric Bird Digest" Buzzing guitars, punk-pop tunes with great melodies. Lyrically, it's weaker than previous efforts, but still fun.

Thomas Mapfumo - "Chamunorwa" Contemporary music from Zimbabwe. Most tunes are built around intertwining lines from the electric guitar and mbira.

World Saxophone Quartet - "Metamorphosis" The addition of African drummers makes a great foundation for these excellent saxophonists' exploratory flights.

My Bloody Valentine - "Loveless" Simple formula: Cocteau Twins ethereality plus early Jesus & Mary Chain noise. It works best on "To Here Knows When", where the vocal sighs compete with what sounds like the offspring of a guitar and a garbage disposal.

Kronos Quartet/Astor Piazzola - "Five Tango Sensations" Argentinian bandoneon master Piazzola composed and performed these pieces with avant-classical darlings Kronos. They got top billing but in a perfect world he would have.

Henry Threadgill - "Spirit of Nuff...Nuff" Threadgill experiments with textures & arrangements in his latest group, Very Very Circus, consisting of drums, two tubas, two guitars and trombone (the latter replaced by french horn in the touring band). And, of course, Threadgill on alto sax and flute.

Sally Van Meter - "All In Good Time" Solo album from the dobroist for progressive bluegrassers the Good Ol' Persons, with a great supporting cast. Upbeat bluegrass, some ballads and one slow Irish air.

Robyn Hitchcock - "Perspex Island" This was a disappointment for me, a big Hitchcock fan. The sound of this is much too "college rock" for me, and the lyrics are much more, well, normal. He's still a fine songwriter, though.

Residents - "Freak Show" Best album from the eyeball boys in years, because it's their wierdest in years. A suite featuring songs about various denizens of the freak show (e.g. "Harry the Head") sung in their typical spooky deadpan.

Carl Jackson/John Starling - "Spring Training" Acoustic country music with enough hot picking to appeal to most bluegrass fans. Features vocals by Emmylou Harris and backing by her band, the Nash Ramblers, including Sam Bush and Roy Huskey Jr.

Boozoo Chavis - (untitled) Zydeco from one of the pioneers. Chavis' many years out of the music biz seem to have kept his sound fresh and true to its roots.

Reissues of the year

Scratch Acid - "The Greatest Gift" A collection of virtually everything the Scratch Acid boys recorded. Noisy but really varied experimental rock.

Flatt & Scruggs - "1948-1959" A four-CD set of everything Lester & Earl recorded during those years. While that doesn't cover their period of greatest popularity (i.e. the "Beverly Hillbillies" era) it is packed solid with great bluegrass.

Z'ev - "One Foot In The Grave" A two-CD retrospective of the career of solo percussionist Z'ev. Includes a thick booklet with interviews, photos, etc.

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