The Best of 1994

This Perfect World--Freedy Johnston
What a dichotomy between this man's sweet Kansas tenor and the bitter tales he has to tell. Johnston possesses both a writer's voice and a singer's; he manages to create some of the catchiest tunes one could hope to hear to wrap those lyrics around. If one stopped after a listen or two, one would likely wonder what all the fuss was about but along about the third or fourth spin, the scales fall from your ears. The wordplay is, at times, astonishing. Details from the subjects' lives are revealed in bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, until the listener is hit iwt the full force of the song's meaning. This one's a co-winner of the BRETTnews Album of the Year.

The down-and-dirtiest work these guys have ever produced. It's remarkable what a long run this band has had, still managing to keep intact their crediblity. In the end, and as always with this band, it's the tunes that drive this album. A true surprise to me and the co-winnder of the BRETTnews Album of the Year award.

Rock Animals--Shonen Knife
Hello Kitty meets Black Sabbath, the Kinks and untold others. The album rocks, the concerts rocked even more. A must-have.

If I Were a Carpenter--Various Artists
Talk about your guilty pleasures! This "tribute" album brightens the aural wallpaper of my youth with a fresh coat of irony. Mind you, I never owned a Carpenters' album but these songs followed me about just the same. On a hot summer's day spent painting the roof of my father's shop, I first heard the dulcet tones of Karen Carpenter crooning "Close to You." Top Forty radio being what it was then, I must have heard that song a dozen times that day and certainly dozens more times since. But a good pop tune is timeless, it seems, because, so help me, the Cranberries here manage to breathe some new life into that sappy old '70's standard.

And they do it by playing it relatively straight. Any razzing that occurs on this disc is gentle and affectionate. Shonen Knife's peppy power pop version of "Top of the World" manages, if it's possible, to be even brighter, bouncier and bubblegummier than the original.

Not that everything is bright and sunny here. American Music Club brings an apt one-drink-and- two-cigarettes-too-many attitude and sound to their version of "Goodbye to Love," while Sonic Youth lends "Superstar" just the sort of creepy obsessiveness its creepily obsessive lyrics deserve.

When first I received word of this project, I thought,"Okay, dammit, this tribute album business has gone far enough! Have these people no decency?" But I'm glad this one snuck in before the moratorium.

August and Everything After--Counting Crows
Okay, so it came out in '93. But it hit it big in '94 and that's when I began listening to it. And listen I did. Often. Not that there aren't problems, not the least of which is Adam D.'s painfully ill-suited hairstyle. And then there's that voice, seemingly the bastard offspring of some unholy union between Michael McDonald and Van Morrison. But somehow, for this collection of tunes, it worked. These Crows aren't doing anything that hasn't been done before and I'll go on record here and now as predicting a fatal case of sophomore jinx for these guys but, hey, they got it right this once.

Industrial noise, eerie sounds, hiphop beats, spacy vocals. It's kinda scary but I like it.

Eleven Shots of Whack--Walter Becker
Here's the companion piece to Donald Fagan's 1993 release, Kamikiriad. The tunes? Steely Dan revisited. Becker's voice? A little Fagan, a little Boz Scaggs, a little...I dunno...Leo Kottke? Dan fans should pick this up. It won't, however, change any detractors minds, I don't believe.

My Life--Iris Dement
Go ahead. Look around. You won't find anyone else on the country charts with this woman's heart and soul. She's not slick but good country never is.

Latin Playboys--Latin Playboys
This noisy, somewhat rough Los Lobos offshoot band picks up where Kiko left off and adds a couple of left turns. Recommended.

Mars Audio Quintet--Stereolab
It's perky. No, it's trancey. Perky! Trancey! Hey, you two, Stereolab is perky and trancey. I like this album, though it's largely in French, not my language of choice for good rock music. Go figure.

Tulare Dust--Various Artists
Artists from the outer gringe of country music cover a dozen Merle Haggard tunes on this tribute to the Craggy One. One of the artists is Lucinda Williams, what more do you need to know?

Steppin' Out: Astaire Sings--Fred Astaire
A re-release of an early 50's project, this finds the ultra-smooth hoofer, ably backed by some jazz greats of the day (Oscar Peterson, Flip Phillips, Barney Kessel), crooning some of the very tunes he introduced onstage and in films. Very classy indeed.

Whip Smart--Liz Phair
Much of the buzz surrounding this artist seems to focus on her bad-girl image and, indeed, those seeking tittilation must wait only until the second verse of the first song for the use of the f-word. Look past the tiresome ballyhoo, however, and you've got a hook-filled, hard-rocking album.

American Thighs--Veruca Salt
A really good album that covers the entire spectrum of rock'n'roll styles. A must-have for your next road trip.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy--Sarah McLachlan
McLachlan's intimate, introspective lyrics and powerful vocals combine to make this a compelling collection. Less a new Joni Mitchell than a distaff Jimmie Spheeris for the 90's, McLachlan unabashedly bares her soul, daring us to look away.

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