Sonic Reducers

2. Oblivians, Rock 'n Roll Holiday! Live in Atlanta, 8/19/94 (Negro). This Memphis trio has a great album available on Crypt (Soul Food), but if you've been buying their singles and EPs, you already own more than half of it. Better then to seek out this live set, which brings the scuzz-rock action of an Oblivians show right into your living room. From the chaotic opener "Motorcycle Leather Boy" to the grinding version of "Never Change" that closes the record, this is to punk rock what James Brown's Live at the Apollo was to R&B A a classic night captured for the ages.

3. Son Volt, Trace (Warner Bros.).
4. Wilco, A.M. (Reprise). Mourn the loss of Uncle Tupelo if you must, but when you finally wipe away the tears, you'll realize that Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar's new groups -- Wilco for the former, Son Volt for the latter -- are better, and not just because they've each found a way to personalize the rural country and western that's always been so close to their hearts. On the surface, it seems that neither strays far from his previous work: Tweedy likes to rock, Farrar likes to brood. Dig deeper, though, and you'll hear a moody edge in Tweedy's swinging romps such as "I Must Be High" and "Box Full of Letters," while Farrar's typically bleak sentiments in "Route 5" and "Drown" are accompanied by the hardest rock of his career. And like Tupelo's best work, both sets are full of desolate lives, broken hearts, and soured dreams.

5. Everclear, Sparkle and Fade (Capitol). On paper, Everclear's major-label debut should be awful: a punk-based trio from Nirvana's neck of the woods with an ex-junkie singer (Art Alexakis) who can't help sounding like the late Mr. Cobain offering up a quasi-concept album about one tortured punk's miserable life. Sparkle and Fade works, though, thanks to the real-life details in Alexakis's songs and the real-life pain in his coarse, yelping voice. "Santa Monica" re-creates perfectly the confusion and anger that arises when a couple splits up. Both "Strawberry" and "Heroin Girl" are smack sagas in which every line rings true. And "The Twistinside" spells out the problems facing the Mohawked crowd when adulthood comes calling: "Breathing fire doesn't look good on a resume/Neither does anything else we do." Indeed.

6. Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes (Matador). By now you either love 'em or you hate 'em -- either you think of 'em as a low-fi version of the Beatles or just another puff of indie-rock smoke. Myself, I love 'em, and if their latest isn't quite as breathtaking as last year's Bee Thousand (or as much fun as the double-live Crying Your Knife Away, also released this year), it's still a good time: 28 compact classics flying in and out of a murky mix that somehow never obscures Robert Pollard's endearing vocals or his screwball lyrics. And if you're looking for a new guitar hero, try Mitch Mitchell on for size. He could very well blow your head off.

7. Pavement, Wowee Zowee (Matador). The critical backlash against the band was inevitable, and this long, at times meandering album did little to stave it off. Granted, some of these songs are little more than sonic puddles, with Steve Malkmus creating ripples with his willfully obtuse wordplay, and I still miss the high-strung madness of 1991's Perfect Sound Forever. Nonetheless, I'm fascinated by nearly everything here: the honky-tonk splendor of "Father to a Sister of a Thought"; the clubfooted groove that propels "Rattled by the Rush"; and especially the gliding pop majesty of "AT&T" and "Grave Architecture." And as the arrangements get looser, Malkmus has more room to prove to anyone who's interested that he's one of the most inventive vocalists in postpunk history. Who else could sing, in all sincerity, a line such as "my heart is made of gravy" and make you hear it as gospel?

8. Bardo Pond, Bufo alvarius (Drunken Fish). Stoner sludge and slop-rock goop from a genuinely bent Philadelphia fivesome. If "Back Porch" A nearly five minutes of stumblebum riffage, outer-space slide guitar, and Isobel Sollenburger's vocal droolings A isn't the red-eye anthem of 1995, you can sign me up for the twelve-step program of your choice.

9. The Brentwoods, Fun in South City (Radio X). No, not every girl group today sounds like Expose, Babes in Toyland, or Luscious Jackson. This West Coast trio, led by former Supercharger drummer Karen Singletary, rocks the Sixties punk sound harder than anyone this side of the Mummies, with trash-can drums and thick slices of cheesy Farfisa organ. With no less than three testimonials to the power of some dance known as the Buri Buri, and snotty little nuggets such as "Doofus Stomp," "Go Get Bent," and "Little Barfy Bobby," Fun in South City is a party record for the ages.

10. Quintron, The Amazing Spellcaster (Bulb). Where this one-man wonder's debut album, Internal Feedback 001-011, offered dense drum tracks and not much else, Spellcaster comes off like a lost Sun Ra session, with generous doses of haunting organ, water-bottle percussion, and some very nice trumpet and theremin doodles. Atmospheric, yes, but also quite loopy.

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