Critics' Choice

A year-end recap of the albums that made it worthwhile to own a stereo in 1997

4. Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars) Every track is a punk juggernaut, but the title song best defines the frantic exultation of this girl trio. Dig Me Out does for riot-grrl what the Clash's London Calling did for punk a generation ago: suggest a way the music could mature without losing its urgency.

5. Helium, The Magic City (Matador) Mary Timony is a shy, nervous performer, but her kaleidoscopic use of musical textures made this album the Pet Sounds of 1997 lo-fi indie rock. With the Carslike, New Wave synth ride of "Leon's Space Song," this Liz Phair for the D&D set even proved she has a sense of humor.

6. Super Deluxe, via satellite (Revolution) From the disrespected power-pop faction of the Seattle, Washington, scene that also produced the Posies come four guys who love a big hook and never got over their old Farrah Fawcett posters. They're such natural populists that when they sing "Your pleasure's mine," they really mean it.

7. Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin) Largely eschewing the bittersweet country-punk of Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, Carla Bozulich and her band throw themselves into relentless punk rage, and emerge the better for it. Like Come's Thalia Zedek--with whom she shares a sleepy, nicotine-stoked raspiness--Bozulich is a heroin-damaged soul desperately hanging on to her defiance, as evidenced by the clinching final line of "California Tuffy": "You will never get my heart."

8. You Am I, Hourly Daily (Sire) This was actually released a year ago in the band's native Australia, but it only recently made it stateside. Anyone who still has affection for the mid-'60s heyday of the Kinks and the Who will tumble for this.

9. Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen (550 Music) Ben Folds is a smarmy smartass with a mile-wide cruel streak, but, boy, can he pound them ivories. This Carolina Joe Jackson for the '90s doesn't bother to look sharp, but tosses some tuneful, well-aimed revenge daggers at childhood bullies ("One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces") and ex-lovers ("Song for the Dumped").

10. Various artists, The Inner Flame (Atlantic) Tribute albums are onerous by nature, but this is the exception that proves the rule. Tucson dobro-guitar god Rainer Ptacek joins in on a celebration of his unjustly overlooked career, along with notables like PJ Harvey, Evan Dando, and Giant Sand. Ptacek's recent passing makes this all the more poignant and essential.

Honorable Mention: Just when you thought Rhino Records had exhausted every worthy reissue possibility, it weighed in with three of its best-evers: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul and box sets devoted to Ray Charles and Charles Mingus did what these kind of reclamation efforts are supposed to do; they rekindled your enthusiasm for timeless music.

Serene Dominic
1. The Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin) My favorite album of the year has it all: humor ("Folks Like Us"), blitzkrieg ("Toy Box"), pop ("I Killed a Cuckoo") and pathos ("Butch"), and it does it all in an arc, wearing you out like great sex or a trip to the dentist. It even manages to sound like both simultaneously. Incredible!

2. Sneaker Pimps, Becoming X (Virgin) When trip-hop adheres to the pop formula of verse/chorus/verse, both worlds of songwriting benefit. And with lyrics like "Just cause we're talkin' don't mean we're friends," Kelly Dayton gets my crown for Miss Ice Queen of 1997.

3. Del Amitri, Some Other Sucker's Parade (A&M) Because Justin Currie has such a likable voice and the group's songs are so instantly catchy, there's a wrongheaded tendency to view Del Amitri as some Scottish version of Huey Lewis & the News. Even the single "Not Where It's At" gamely makes light of the band's square-to-be-square cache. If its traditional rock arrangements married to intelligent, insightful lyrics make it a guilty pleasure, then maybe wonderful pop isn't a priority for you.

4. Everclear, So Much for the Afterglow (Capitol) "Everything to Everyone" was my favorite single this year, and "The hand you hold is the hand that holds you down" was my favorite line. Art Alexakis is a most-underrated songwriter, probably 'cause he once sidelined as a rock critic. Read into that what you will.

5. Blur, Blur (Virgin) Why Blur keeps being viewed as Avis to Oasis' Hertz is beyond comprehension. Oasis' recent idea of being creative is stretching slight songs out to seven minutes in an effort to weigh in with "Hey Jude" importance, but it always wound up sounding more like a waterlogged "Atlantis."

Blur simply throws the glove in Noel Gallagher's mug with "Beetlebum," and then shows those poseurs how to make inventive and highly melodic music for the '90s.

6. Beat Angels, Red Badge of Discourage (Epiphany) These cads cover twice the ground DeGeneration does at half the budget. Plus, they brought "snot" into pop vernacular, something the Sex Pistols didn't even do!

7. Trunk Federation, The Infamous Hamburger Transfer (Alias) When the Trunk Feds brought their elaborate stage show to L.A., some naysayer in the audience referred to it as "shtick rock." As if shtick was a bad thing. As if rock didn't need some mighty shtick shoved up its ass. Initially, some local fans were disappointed by this CD because they'd been used to hearing these songs with the arresting visuals. This is known in some quarters as "The MTV Problem." Careful repeated listening reveals it as a masterful album, brimming with dark and amusing songs about murder, mayhem and Jell-O.

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