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The Year in Rap, Soul and More

Penny Dreadfuls
Coin of the Realm: The Penny Dreadfuls' album featured tenacious hooks, sinewy guitar playing and terse, cryptic lyrics.

Photo by Dave Snow

Ten albums stood out above the
crowd of pretenders in 1996

By Nicky Baxter

THERE IS more music to listen to than time to listen to it in any given year--not to mention shelf space within reach of the CD player--which is why my list of 1996's Top 10 albums aims more at eclecticism than comprehensiveness.

Penny Dreadfuls
Penny Dreadfuls
While boys want to be No. 1, these L.A. girls just wanna have fun. And rock our world. Their eponymous album is shot through with pop smarts: tenacious hooks, sinewy guitar and terse, cryptic lyrics about sons of queens and burning crayons. In the Dreadfuls' universe, guyville's very existence hinges on the band's fecund imagination. On songs like "Unravel," the vocals might remind old new-wave survivors of Go-Go's girl Belinda Carlisle, but don't even go there; this first offering is very attractive; which is a very different thing than merely cute.

New Kingdom
Paradise Don't Come Cheap
Gee Street/Island
"Mexico is callen me, and damn if it ain't all in me ... And nuthin' better than an unplanned escape." Weirder script has rarely been flipped. Like much of Paradise Don't Come Cheap, "Mexico or Bust" is an ornery chunk of hip-hop. Tom Waits­like vocals, sun-seared verse and a thick musical palette hint at New Kingdom's material world but don't penetrate the quintessentially cracked, whirling sonic vision Sebastian and Nosaj purvey.

Regretfully Yours
Regretfully Yours produces something approximating a religious experience; certainly it's as close to an immaculate conception as I've come across this past year. The only real dilemma was determining which tune was the dopest. In the end, "Sucked Out," a kind of mini-lesson on how to shriek pop, won. Equal parts velvet and venom, the vocal performance is a heat-seeking missive. When singer John Davis cries, "Who sucked the fe-e-e-el-in'?" not only are we keen to know the answer, we also want to beat down the bastard(s) responsible. The remainder of Regretfully Yours is merely fabulous.

The Last Poets
The Legend--The Best of the Last Poets
Along with the Watts Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, this proto-rap ensemble emerged at the tail end of the great rebellion of the late 1960s set off by Africans born in America. The Last Poets operated on the same street level as today's glock-hop heads, sans the single-minded nihilism. As illustrated by this two-disc "best of" compilation, little if anything escaped the Harlem-based word whirlers' scrutiny; they broke off rhymes targeting white domination and "good" diction­havin' house negroes and street villains. Alternately taunting, cynical and acidic, the Last Poets were first and foremost provocative. These brothers would be run outta Dodge today. Scoop up this slice of U.S.-African history before it mysteriously "disappears" for good.

Rubbing Doesn't Help
Two girls who can trill like larks accompanied by a couple of guys who know their way around a modern-rock tune. Separately, the two singers sound spiffy; together, they're simply heavenly. "I Don't Care" could also describe Magnapop's musical-world view. Cynical but sexy; cruel and infrequently kind, Rubbing Doesn't Help bounces from the bash and pop of "This Family" to the jangle-rock of "Open the Door." Definitely more spice than sugar, this disc is as good a snapshot of contemporary life in suburbia as any release this year.

Los Lobos
Colossal Head
Warner Bros.
Colossal Head is further evidence of this East L.A. band's burgeoning penchant for blending the earthy with the esoteric. Latin slam jams like "Mas y M..as" shudder and shake with Latin soul, but the guitar solo has rockin' jump blues stamped all over it. "Everybody Loves a Train" recasts the mythic status northbound train travel once had for blackfolks as a tongue-in-cheek travelogue. Overall, Head sounds like its been sprinkled with juju dust. With Colossal Head, Los Lobos offers proof that they are the Band of our era.

George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars
T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. 550
This album marks the reunion of George Clinton and P-Funk stalwarts, including original members Bootsy and Catfish Collins. and Bernie Worrell. How's the funk? Let's just say that you can smell it from miles away. With so many musicians' egos to feed, it's remarkable that this Mothership takes off, but then Clinton has proven himself an excellent steward in the past, and on this P-Funk Allstar extravaganza, he's on course once again. While his son's skills as a songwriter haven't fully matured--George Jr. contributes the bulk of the material here--the "mobb" keeps everything right "on the one."

Fantastic Planet
Slash/ Warner Bros.
The name's a joke, but Failure's Fantastic Planet is anything but. It may not send you over the moon, but it is transportive nonetheless. Portions of Planet suggest the band's no stranger to airy prog-rock. The album's segues rely on brains rather than brawn and are especially evocative, but Failure isn't afraid to flat-out rock, either. These atmospheric shifts would mean little, of course, were it not for the group's musical facility, smart songcrafting, and lyrics that leave plenty of space for listeners to inhabit.

Curtis Mayfield
People Get Ready! --
The Curtis Mayfield Story

Simply put, People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story is the definitive artistic statement, elbowing aside any doubts concerning Mayfield's significance as a musician and herald of social change. This three-CD set spans the Chicago soul man's career commencing with his tenure with the post-doo-wop Impressions ("Gypsy Woman," "Amen" etc.). The compendium delves deep into his remarkable solo catalogue from the 1970s as well, including cuts from the wildly successful Superfly soundtrack. Though listeners can track Mayfield's most popular tunes, this isn't just another greatest-hits collection; it offers a complete portrait of a genius at work, warts and all. If you purchase just one boxed soul collection this year or next, this is the one.

The Fugees
The Score
Despite the continued push by industry pimps to promote gangsta, the Fugees were the dominant force in 1996's rap race. The formula? An irresistible melange of hard-body hip-hop, sultry retro-soul vocals and raggamuffin skank, all slammed into overdrive by megadope beats. Still, few believed the Fugees had multiplatinum potential; their first release didn't cause many jaws to drop. But Praz, Wyclef and L-Boogie didn't wave the white flag, opting instead to sharpen their chops; as a result, The Score is nearly perfect. Even middle-class/age hip-hop haters could get with "Killing Me Softly" and "Ready or Not." But what made The Score particularly arresting were the rugged rhymes as heard on "The Beast." With five million units sold, it's safe to assume the Fugees have in fact evened the score.

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro

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