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YEAR IN REVIEW 1995 : POP MUSIC: ROCK, COUNTRY, R&B, RAP, LATIN, JAZZ : Tapping Into Rock's Soul : Springsteen's 'Joad' and Harvey's 'Love' lead a pack of intense works by new female artists and venerable veterans.

December 31, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

This was a year of dramatic comebacks and spectacular breakthroughs in pop, a time in which veterans Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman and Neil Young shared top creative honors with a stirring crop of young, mostly female mavericks, including PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette.

Musically, the albums on the list of the 10 best works of 1995 range from stark acoustic folk and invigorating electronic dance to restless rap and Broadway-minded pop. Yet most of the albums share a soul-baring intensity that gives them urgency and purpose.

At the top of the Class of 1995: Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and PJ Harvey's "To Bring You My Love," works so rich in character and commentary that they had the feel of artful novels.

In "Tom Joad," Springsteen updates both "Nebraska," his own despairing 1982 look at an American underclass stripped of hope, and "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's 1939 novel about the similar oppression of farm workers in the California fields.

Harvey, the gifted English singer-songwriter, takes us into a far different but equally compelling world. Her album is a bold, unflinching examination of the longing and doubt, lust and guilt that infect and inflame relationships.

1. Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (Columbia). The locales of the songs range from Texas' Galveston Bay to California's San Joaquin Valley, but the artistic path leads straight through the "Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen's absorbing 1993 song about the anguish of a man whose body is being destroyed by AIDS.

Before that song, which won a Grammy and an Oscar, Springsteen seemed to be having trouble finding his creative voice for the first time since his "Born to Run" glory days. In 1992's two albums, "Lucky Town" and especially "Human Touch," he alternated with mixed results between revisiting the R&B/rock roots that first inspired him and chronicling his feelings as a family man who at last had found happiness.

But the social observation and compassion of "Streets of Philadelphia" put Springsteen back in touch with the part of his art that gave us "Nebraska."

The new album, however, isn't just a replay. Where the "Nebraska" songs took the form of narratives, the people in these songs are frequently caught in such bleak, dead-end situations that the songs seem like eulogies. The most affecting moments, from "Sinaloa Cowboys" to "Galveston Bay," focus on the new arrivals, from Mexico and elsewhere, in a country where the gap between the haves and have-nots has become a cancer on the social fiber.

2. PJ Harvey's "To Bring You My Love" (Island). Harvey steps away from the volcanic instrumental intensity of her earlier "Dry" and "Rid of Me" albums, but she sacrifices none of those works' captivating fury.

"I've lain with the devil / Cursed God above / Forsaken heaven / To bring you my love," she sings in one song, framing the raw emotions with the explosiveness of the blues and the exotic, sophisticated pop-rock associated with such artists as Peter Gabriel and Tom Waits.

In conveying the desperation of a person crying out for someone or something to believe in, Harvey takes us into the cold sweat of a nightmare in the album's best songs.

3. Neil Young's "Mirror Ball" (Reprise). Hey ho away we go / We're on the road to never / Where life's a joy for girls and boys / And only will get better. Those are the opening lines in the latest in Young's remarkable series of recent albums, and you know he's setting us up for the pitfalls underlying life's rosy expectations. In a marvelous intergenerational teaming with Pearl Jam, the veteran rocker is suspicious of the '60s ideals of peace and love, but suggests that the failure of his generation to live up to its goals is no excuse for another generation to discard them.

4. Moby's "Everything Is Wrong" (Elektra). Who would have thought that the most engrossing spiritual-minded album since U2's "The Joshua Tree" would come from a star in the dance music world? As independent as he is talented, this New York recording studio mastermind draws on everything from Ministry-like industrial force to classic disco bounce to Ennio Morricone beauty to add color to the album's theme of finding sanity and salvation in a corrupt age. A work of exceptional vitality and range.

5. 2Pac's "Me Against the World" (Interscope). Today's rap, whether Dr. Dre on the West Coast or the Wu-Tang Clan on the East Coast, is far more interested in musical textures than ideas, which makes the commentary on "Me Against the World" all the more affecting. At its best, the album--part bravado and part regret--recalls the troubled soul-searching of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

6. Ani DiFranco's "Not a Pretty Girl" (Righteous Babe). DiFranco dazzles you with her anything-goes brand of punk-folk, which surveys contemporary scenes and attitudes with the surreal swagger and insights you might expect if someone magically dropped young Bob Dylan on a street corner in 1995 and asked him what's up.

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