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Gilbert Garcia:
1. Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars) Smith really isn't a folkie, he just uses a folkie's acoustic tools because his haunting tunes sound best in spare settings. He's actually a masterful pop songwriter, composing melodies so gorgeous that they enliven and enrich his simple, opaque lyrics. On "Ballad of Big Nothing," he gently sings "You can do what you want to, whenever you want to," and makes it feel heartbreakingly sad in a way that printed lyrics never are.

2. Cornershop, When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop) In a musical year defined by cultural collisions, this was one of the more exotic, and certainly the most accessible. Tjinder Singh is a Brit of Indian descent who gets off on house music and knows his way around the Velvet Underground catalogue, and his band's music is as wonderfully schizophrenic as such a bio implies.

3. Ron Sexsmith, Other Songs (Interscope) Lost in a world without empathy, the Toronto-based Sexsmith humbly sings with genuine compassion for Average Joes and Josephines like himself, and makes it feel like a new concept. "Strawberry Blonde" is the most beautiful track here, but it's the implausibly sympathetic "Child Star" that fully demonstrates how big Sexsmith's heart is.

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.

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Serene Dominic
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Gilbert Garcia
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