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POP MUSIC

10 Albums That Promise to Age Well

A midyear ranking of the top pop offerings finds that the best of these have elements of timelessness.

July 07, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Pop music is often tied so closely to the emotional and social currents of the moment that what seems wonderful and essential at one point can come across as hopelessly dated just a few years later. Yet our best artists--from Joni Mitchell and Curtis Mayfield to Bob Dylan and Patti Smith--speak with such insight and craft that their choicest works are not neutralized by time.

The reason the first half of 1996 was such a satisfying period in pop was the arrival of several albums that had traces of this timelessness.

It's easy, in fact, to imagine Mitchell herself nodding in appreciation of Ani DiFranco's fearless tales of romantic turmoil in "Dilate," or Mayfield feeling kinship with Me'Shell Ndegeocello's commentaries on racism and sexism in "Peace Beyond Passion."

Dylan too might smile at the sometimes baffling musical jigsaws of Beck, while Emmylou Harris and Aretha Franklin could probably spend a whole evening with the alluring new albums by Gillian Welch and Toni Braxton, respectively.

And Smith? In perhaps the year's most remarkable development, she returns with an album that recalls much of the landmark grace and imagination of her own hugely influential '70s work.

Here are the year's most accomplished works so far, ranked in order of quality:

1. Ani DiFranco, "Dilate" (Righteous Babe). The music here is minimalist and the theme is familiar (a stormy relationship with a married man), but the result is far from timid or stale. This young New Yorker with folk instincts and punk defiance challenges and delights with her savage imagery and unflinching observations. In "Adam and Eve," one of the year's most memorable pop declarations, DiFranco defines her own engulfing approach to life and love: I did not design this game / I did not name the stakes / I just happen to like apples / And I'm not afraid of snakes.

2. Beck, "Odelay" (DGC). Don't look for songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" or "To Ramona," but a lot of things that Beck Hansen does may remind you of Dylan circa '65. He's a folk songwriter who has a magical way with words, continually coming up with interesting and surprising rhymes and images that defy pop rules. Impatient with the polite strains of folk music, he plugs into the hip-hop revolution the way Dylan hooked into rock 'n' roll. The Dust Brothers--the duo that worked with Beck on the songs and production of "Odelay"--may give his hip-hop side what the Band gave Dylan's rock 'n' roll side.

3. Me'Shell Ndegeocello, "Peace Beyond Passion" (Maverick). Like many of the most inspired soul albums, this collection represents a spiritually accented journey from a point of personal and social disillusionment to a higher ground. Ndegeocello even speaks at the beginning of the album of being alienated from the things in life that supposedly bring comfort. "Jesus cured the blind man so that he could see the evils of the world," she says in one song, which also talks about the disorientation of a black woman praying to a "pretty white Jesus."

4. Gillian Welch, "Revival" (Almo Sounds). Among the raves printed on the promo copies of this glorious debut by one of the sweetest voices in country since Emmylou Harris is one by Harris herself, an unerring judge of talent: "Gillian writes with what at first seems to be a childlike simplicity, but on closer listening, you realize you are in the presence of an old soul, one who knows the blue highways of the heart. With this record, she has managed to lasso the mystery and understated eloquence of the Carter Family and bring them to the brink of the millennium. It's a gift to all of us who need music to be more than just background noise." Enough said.

5. Rage Against the Machine, "Evil Empire" (Epic). There may never be a Rage album that is as thrilling and forceful as the socially conscious L.A. quartet is onstage, but there is more than enough power and passion here to give you a convincing sample of the live show. Where the lure of the group's debut album was tied largely to Zack de la Rocha's blistering, hook-filled raps, bandmates Tom Morello, Tim Bob and Brad Wilk are co-stars in "Evil Empire" as they unleash a gut-force sonic assault that hits you like a fist in the face.

6. Toni Braxton, "Secrets" (La Face). With her 1994 debut album, Braxton appeared to have the vocal authority and command of phrasing to become one of the great R&B and pop singers ever--right up there with Aretha and Anita. With this exquisite follow-up, there's no doubt about it. Another triumph too for writer-producer Babyface.

7. The Fugees, "The Score" (Ruff House/Columbia). This New Jersey trio steps up a level with an album that stretches hip-hop in all sorts of dazzling ways--juxtaposing raps as purposeful and biting at times as Public Enemy's with smooth reworkings of such old favorites as the Bob Marley hit "No Woman, No Cry."

8. Steve Earle, "I Feel Alright," (E-Squared/Warner Bros.). Earle conveys the desperation and pain of his past drug addiction and the joy of a man who has battled back against those self-destructive ways. Bonus points for Earle's "Ellis Unit One," an anti-death-penalty message that is the most sobering moment on the acclaimed "Dead Man Walking" album.

9. Patti Smith, "Gone Again" (Arista). It's both chilling and inspiring to hear the woman whose music once spoke of the future with such assurance to now be reflecting on death. Yet Smith examines the feelings of loss in ways that are once again uplifting.

10. Lyle Lovett, "The Road to Ensenada" (Curb/MCA). There are so many deliciously funny songs as well as dark, disillusioning ones that this "Road" seems at times to have too many curves. But Lovett uses the contrasting moods to give us an absorbing look at the way relationships can blossom and suddenly die.

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