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Foreign Ministers

America's recent burst of creative energy -- grunge -- is definitely over, yet in 1997 the music industry continued to feed us a string of false Pearl Jams: Tonic, Matchbox 20, Better Than Ezra, Live, the Verve Pipe, et cetera. It's no wonder the best music of 1997 came from faraway places. The English account for half of my top ten albums for last year, the Scots took two places, as did we Yanks, and the Dutch earned one. My list below is arranged in ascending order, with the best album of the year appearing last.

10. Roni Size and Reprazent, New Forms (Mercury). Jungle remains an interesting sound -- and that's about it. As an art form it doesn't exactly express much, though there are a few artists who've managed to give the stuff some personality and pizzazz. Roni Size is one of them. (Another is Spring Heel Jack, whose Busy Curious Thirsty also came out in late 1997.) Size makes his debut with New Forms, and he's aiming high: two discs full of junglist rap, jazz, and soul, with enjoyable riffs (a rarity in the genre) and interesting textures. Quite good -- now what?

9.Old 97's, Too Far to Care (Elektra). Finally an "insurgent country" album that's actually insurgent (unlike the Cowboy Junkies) and country (unlike Wilco). Led by the 26-year-old singer-guitarist Rhett Miller, this Dallas-based band rips through thirteen dynamite countrified rock tunes with postpunk energy and Wild West authenticity. Especially recommended for those who hate country music.

8.Chumbawamba, Tubthumper (Republic/ Universal). The year's unlikeliest success story is Chumbawamba, a group of British anarchists who, after fifteen years of political activism and musical pranksterism, now find themselves part of the pop machinery: Their tongue-in-cheek anthem, "Tubthumping," has been lodged in the Top 20 on Billboard's singles chart for four months, peaking at No. 6. The album has plenty more to offer: bright pop tunes, jungle-jazz influences, and catchy hooks galore, all in the service of the group's subversive political platform. Wonder what they'll do with those royalty checks?

7.Blur, Blur (Virgin). These Britpop darlings' attempt to experiment with American-style slacker-rock both succeeds and fails. It's a great mood piece, full of weird noises and murky melodies, yet almost every song is blatantly derivative. ("M.O.R." is such an obvious rip-off of the old David Bowie send-up "Boys Keep Swinging" that it begs for litigation.) Repeated listening reveals new pleasures, however, and Blur deserves kudos for venturing into foreign territory. The song that saves the album: "Death of a Party."

6.Bettie Serveert, Dust Bunnies (Matador). Nothing new, nothing daring, just thirteen absolutely perfect pop songs from this lovable Dutch quartet. Carol van Dijk's gawky, pretty voice is simply irresistible, especially on crisp tunes such as "Geek" and "What Friends?" The album's most precious moment is "Heaven," a short, sad song about the boredom of hanging out behind the Pearly Gates.

5.Edwyn Collins, I'm Not Following You (Setanta/Epic). A fond, funny, and sometimes vitriolic review of that most baffling of decades, the Seventies. Collins, a Scottish punk turned erudite popster, has committed his share of fashion crimes and so can sing with authority, "I'm going back to my old school/'Cause to tell you the truth/All those songs of my youth/Move this old fool." With his loungy voice and clever use of cheesy synthesizers, Collins sounds like a chap who's been there and done that -- and he's not about to do it again just because everyone else rediscovered bell-bottoms.

4.Pavement, Brighten the Corners (Matador). Those who haven't yet caught this band's crypto-intellectual vibe probably never will. Yet Pavement's fourth album is one of its most accessible, with up-tempo rhythms and clever, catchy melodies. It also finds the band's resident language-poet, Stephen Malkmus, in a fairly straightforward mood: "You've been such a great host/The roast/Was just so perfectly prepared/Now I know you care." Brighten the Corners doesn't depart from Pavement's slipshod pop sound, but it's further proof that they know exactly what they're doing.

3.Primal Scream, Vanishing Point (Reprise). After a year or so of pretending to be the Black Crowes (cf. the 1994 embarrassment Give Out but Don't Give Up), these well-drugged Scots have come to their senses and returned -- with a vengeance -- to the wiggy, gritty, hard-driving dance rock that they do so well. Standout tracks: almost everything on Vanishing Point, but the bionic groove of "Kowalski" and the treacherous dub of "Stuka" are pinnacles of urban cool.

2.Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever, Amen (Caroline/Sony). Has anyone noticed yet that Ben Folds, the leader of this oddly named trio, is quickly becoming the best songwriter and arranger in pop music since Elvis Costello? Not that Folds shares Costello's working-class rage or murderous wit -- on the contrary, Folds has a light touch, a taste for jazz, and a wry sense of humor. He sings of the twilight world of slackers and their girlfriends, but his piano-based tunes possess a sophistication that belies their lightweight subject matter. With only two albums to his credit, Folds has yet to produce a masterpiece, but it may well be in the works. In the meantime Whatever and Ever, Amen will more than suffice.

1.Spiritualized, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating Through Space (Dedicated). Probably the most ambitious rock/pop album to appear this decade. Packaged as a giant pill -- it even comes in a plastic bubble backed by peel-away foil -- Ladies and Gentlemen is the brainchild of Jason Pierce, once a member of the seminal drone-rock outfit Spacemen 3. These twelve songs narrate Pierce's personal journey from soul-numbing drug abuse ("Come Together") to the discovery of new emotions ("I Think I'm in Love"). The album ends on a dark, uncertain note with the junkie dirge "Cop Shoot Cop...." Pierce's musical universe encompasses electronica, soul, R&B, ambient, and classic rock, but his lyrics are simple poetry ("Love the way you smile/Stay with me/Smile all the time, don't go"). Each song seems like an entirely new way to express a certain feeling or thought. An astonishing achievement.

-- Rafer Guzman


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