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2. Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, The McCartney-MacManus Collaboration (unreleased). As a long-suffering Macca apologist, I always welcome any evidence that The Cute One didn't burn his last gallon of inspiration with the side-two medley on Abbey Road (or with the drunken chorus of "Picasso's Last Words," if you prefer). To that end, this series of unreleased late-'80s demos made by McCartney and Elvis Costello is a revelation, even if you've heard the sanctioned versions of these songs. On these acoustic demos, the two Macs sound like Scouse Everly Brothers with a thesaurus, harmonizing beautifully on tunes like "So Like Candy," "My Brave Face" and two unreleased gems: "25 Fingers" and "Tommy's Coming Home." Only in the context of this collection is it obvious how macabre their collaborations tended to be, and how deftly they brought out the best in each other.
3. Emitt Rhodes, Listen, Listen: The Best of Emitt Rhodes (Varese Sarabande). The patron saint of obscure pop wimps, Rhodes created a mild sensation in 1971 with a tuneful debut album that featured him on every instrument, and produced a modest hit with the song "Fresh As a Daisy." It was an achievement that Rhodes would never match again. This compilation smartly ties together Rhodes' erratic solo work with his late-'60s teen-wonder phase as leader of the Merry Go Round. A relic from the time when there were no societal ills that a good three-part harmony couldn't solve.
4. The Who, The Who Sell Out (MCA). This has long been my favorite Who album, and last year I set aside my scratchy vinyl copy (packaged as part of a double set with its predecessor, A Quick One) and plunked down some plastic for the remastered CD with bonus tracks. No other album so expertly captures all that was appealing about this band: the devotion to pop culture, the adolescent sense of humor, the rich melodicism, the garage-band scruffiness, and the spiritual obsessiveness. Also, it includes "I Can't Reach You," a peak of gorgeousness that the Who never reached again.
5. Sam Phillips, The Turning (DCC). This 1987 disc was originally released under the singer's real name Leslie Phillips, and it came as quite a jolt to those who had come to associate that name with pious Christian ditties. This record doesn't have the sense of assurance that defined Phillips' subsequent albums, but its wobbly, transitional feel carries its own charms. Producer/future husband T-Bone Burnett damaged a couple of good tunes with ill-considered drum machines, but "Love Is Not Lost," "Libera Me," and especially the elegiac "Carry You" rank with the highlights of Phillips' sterling songbook.
6. The Left Banke, There's Gonna Be a Storm: Complete Recordings (PolyGram). Like Rhodes, this baroque pop ensemble had a brief heyday, and even their best work straddles the acceptable edge of fruitiness. But this collection shows that they were more than the two-hit wonders ("Walk Away Renee," "Pretty Ballerina") most rock history books would have you believe. If nothing else, the Left Banke -- even more than Ray Davies -- proved that the harpsichord made as much sense in a three-minute rock song as in an 18th-century Viennese symphony.
7. John Lennon/Bob Dylan, Video Outtakes From Eat the Document (unreleased). There's no music on this 20-minute video, but for rock archivists it holds more fascination than several releases in either man's catalogue (Some Time in New York City and Knocked Out Loaded spring to mind). Basically, Lennon and Dylan sit in the back of a car and banter, with swinging London (circa May 1966) as a backdrop. Only about a minute of this footage made it into Eat the Document, which itself has never been released. Lennon is uncharacteristically cautious here, while Dylan gradually downshifts from animated to near-catatonic. Two highlights: Dylan chiding Lennon for liking "the big chick" from the Mamas and the Papas, and Lennon barely suppressing his horror as a strung-out Bob prepares to hurl. One can only imagine what was blowin' in the wind that afternoon.
8. Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks). I didn't connect with this 1998 release until early last year, but it's already one of my all-time favorites. A sophisticated pop composer with a healthy dose of rock-star brattiness, Wainwright far outstrips anything you would expect from a pedigree that includes Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle for parents. If Randy Newman had been Canadian, brazenly queer and blessed with an angel's voice, this is what his debut album would have sounded like.
9. Leon Russell, Retrospective (Shelter). Veteran producer Snuff Garrett worked with Phil Spector, yet he insists that Leon Russell was the most talented musician he ever saw. That assertion might be a hard sell to those who regard Russell as a nasal Oklahoma boogie hack with the most unkempt white beard this side of the North Pole -- when they bother to regard him at all. In fact, Russell was a multi-instrumental virtuoso who cast a pretty big shadow over early '70s rock (Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow," Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour). I don't have much use for his boogie side, but I've always been a sucker for his sappy ballads: "This Masquerade," "Lady Blue," "A Song for You," etc. This would be a guilty pleasure if anyone cared enough about Russell to make me feel guilty about it.