1. Bottle Rockets, The Brooklyn Side. This is a thoroughly wrongheaded record. No one cares about rural America these days (save Newt Gingrich, and that's just the con artist in him). Country music only appeals to bumpkins and suburbanites, and even they don't like country rock (it goes without saying that MTV kids don't either). The few who might like to hear what the Bottle Rockets proffer will be confused both by the title of the band's second album (a bowling term, not a geographical reference) and the cover photo of a billiard ball.
But this wrongheadedness is what the record's about. The band--who rock like Crazy Horse--don't exactly celebrate the rural haplessness they see around them: they think a lot of it's a goof ("Sunday Sports"), and they'll take a stand when they have to ("Star and Bars," from their first album). But they're not condemnatory either. For better or worse they know it's a part of them and there are plenty of others around who'll do the put-downs for them. If pushed into a position of choosing, they'll come down solidly on the side of their compatriots. Lead songwriter Brian Henneman may be on to something: little bits of wondrous logic ("If any thousand dollar car was worth a damn / why would anybody wanna spend ten grand?"); the occasional moment of lyrical felicity ("Maybe it's something in my genes / Maybe it's something in my jeans"); and as brutal a depiction of his musical heritage as has ever been articulated (as in the song "Welfare Music"). All this just for starters, played with no little ferocity. The result elegantly captures an ambivalence somewhere between hate and love, clear-eyed but somewhat rueful, all bound up in a metaphysical free-fall--call it the Love Song of J. Alfred Six-pack in four-four time with plenty of distortion.
2. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York. All one can say against this album is that the title sucks, there's one or two too many Meat Puppets covers, and we already knew the extent of the talent it posthumously demonstrates. To which one would reply that the title's irrelevant, the album is a valuable document of a show in which the Pups were an important part, and that we didn't really. Certain songs are revealed to be lighter than we thought ("About a Girl"), while others (like "Dumb") are far heavier. But Nirvana's songs are overshadowed by a chilling suite of covers--ranging from the delicate (Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World") to the absurd (Vaseline's "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam") to the lacerating (the 19th century's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night")--that woefully chart the singer's end.
3. Liz Phair, Whip-Smart. An end run around the sophomore slump: no message, no moral, no context--just songs, songs, songs.
4. Mavericks, What a Crying Shame. Like the Bottle Rockets, the Mavericks are too smart to be country; but they're also far too country to be rock. What makes their album a success is their sweeping understanding of the music's high-strung heart and the immense authority and unshaking tenor of leader Raul Malo.
5. Portishead, Dummy. Local techno maven David Prince calls this record "trip-hop." I call it a heavily electronic pastiche made with a surpassing emotionality: it's acid-dream-soul music, courtesy of the daring samples of song-constructor Geoff Barrow and the Billie Holiday-like languor of singer Beth Gibbons. In theory, atmosphere is all for an album like this, in a way that subsumes trivialities of the past like "songs" and "tunes." Portishead finesse the issue nicely by including both.
6. Hole, Live Through This. A record difficult to think about clearly. But Courtney Love's galvanizing concerts animated the songs, revealing her as a fearless polemical annotator of female and personal pathology, d/b/a a rock star. Love is unstable enough--and the record was created under circumstances felicitous enough (i.e., in the company of a pop genius)--that its difficult mix of unfriendly subjects and a friendly sound may never be duplicated. That's her next job.
7. Green Day, Dookie. With three million fans behind them, the onetime lovable losers in Green Day suddenly became less lovable; unchanged was songwriter Billie Joe's Chuck Berry-like desire to give the kids what they want to hear: more songs about being bored--with hooks.
8. Tindersticks, Tindersticks. With the rise of Jeff Buckley, heavily emoted lounge rock has made a comeback, at least for some fans. This obscure English band--whose debut effort was hailed as album of the year in 1993 by Melody Maker but who haven't been heard from since--pull it off much better. Leader Stuart Staples, acting like a besotted, overemotional Bryan Ferry or a slightly less doomed Nick Drake, oversees a delicate, acoustic-based mix of tender guitars, strings, and even trumpet. While the instruments hint of British rurality and the band is careful to include moments of verisimilitude--the false start on "Blood," for example--the songs, strange meditations on the mind and soul, are detached from almost any sort of worldliness.
9. Veruca Salt, American Thighs. What makes this record isn't its extremely facile manipulation of pop strictures nor its rampant commerciality, both of which are interesting but beside the point. It's the dedication of youthful songwriters Nina Gordon and Louise Post to the album's center: a tale of growing up and out in the 1990s. Key supporting role: a rock 'n' roll band.
10. Morrissey, "Vauxhall and I." Morrissey's fifth solo album merely confirms what we've known for a while: he's a gifted if fairly outre singles artist who makes surprisingly good records no matter who he collaborates with. The opening "Now My Heart Is Full" gathers his friends ("Don't have too many / Just some raincoated lover's puny brother") for some sitting-'round-the-campfire love stories, including a cheerful stalker's tale, bits of intergender bitchiness, and a closing showstopper with a percussive fanfare worthy of none other than himself.