State of Siege

4. Mother May I, Splitsville (Columbia). In thrall to the hard side of power pop -- from the Who through KISS through Cheap Trick through the Neighborhoods A Mother May I singer/songwriter/guitarist Damon Hennessey and drummer/producer Rob LeBourdais set keening, buzzsaw melodies against lyrics that poke and prod at the foibles of both youth and popular cultures ("Teenage Jesus," "Painted On"), as well as the trials and tribs of domesticity faced by twentysomething punks ("Jane packs her bags, she says, 'Hey, Dick, I'm leaving you'/Dick's passed out on the couch listening to Husker Du"). And yet Hennessey takes aim most frequently at himself on the jarring self-doubt fests "Birthday Wish," "In Between," and "Meet You There." As for the music, wisely, Hennessey and LeBourdais leaven the windmill chording with bursts of country twang, wah-wah effects, metal riffing, and kamikaze drumming. Go!

5. PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love (Island). Perhaps the most ambitious A certainly the most audacious A album released by a popular artist in 1995, To Bring You My Love opens and closes with desperate journeys that wrap sexual longing and religious cries around each other like a Velcro-grip double helix. In between, Polly Jean Harvey traverses all manner of sonic landscapes, from primordial garage whomp to elegiac string quartet to dense aural whorl, much of it colored by creepy, under-your-skin, barely audible effects. Two tracks, "C'mon Billy" and "Down by the Water," channel the spirit of Bobbie Gentry's 1967 number one "Ode to Billie Joe," and Harvey suffuses everything here in oceans of watery imagery. Teeming with ecstasy, passion, and pain throughout, and quite likely my favorite record of the year.

6. Kendra Smith, Five Ways of Disappearing (4AD). On record, former Dream Syndicate bassist and Opal singer/bassist Kendra Smith creates her own private psychedelic realm, and Five Ways of Disappearing, not unlike her untitled 1993 ten-inch EP, functions as a sort of journey to the center of her mind. Vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely middle Earthian, vaguely vaudevillian, the album reveals its distinctive pleasures with repeated listenings: Smith's percussive piano and wheezing pump organ on "Bohemian Zebulon"; her breathy, multitracked vocals on "Temporarily Lucy"; the rolling fuzztone hook and ambient guitar twinklings on "In Your Head"; Smith's Nancy Sinatra-esque vocal and trippier-than-thou lyrics on "Valley of the Morning Sun"; her freaky-deaky soft-shoe through "Maggots"; an eerie, thumping cover of Richard and Mimi Farina's "Bold Marauder." Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

7. Tarnation, Gentle Creatures (4AD). Tarnation singer/songwriter/bassist Paula Frazer's sad, quavery voice and ghostly, skeletal country songs recall not so much another time period as they suggest messages beamed in from another dimension. Her languorous lamentations of love gone wrong and unrequited yearning unfold over rippling lap-steel guitar, slowly tapped snare drum and cymbals, and plodding bass lines, to which Frazer adds her dolorous, Patsy Cline-like warble. The song titles alone reveal the prevailing theme: "Game of Broken Hearts," "Tell Me It's Not So," "Two Wrongs Won't Make Things Right," and "Do You Fancy Me." Filmmaker David Lynch would flip for this triumph of downbeat atmospherics.

8. Teenage Fanclub, Grand Prix (DGC). If you've followed along through Teenage Fanclub's albums, including this one (their fourth), then you already know the drill: Simple, midtempo, hooky verse-chorus-verse (or chorus-chorus-verse) melodies fleshed out with almost detached spoken-sung vocals and a scrum of slashing guitar chords. Singers/songwriters Norman Blake, Gerry Love, and Raymond McGinley tend to obsess about the same two things over and over (pure pop love, pure pop music), the honest heart cheek by jowl with the jaundiced eye, but they do so with a fetching A if smart-ass A rock literateness that goes way beyond mere fan-boy geekdom, particularly on "Neil Jung" and "Hardcore/Ballad." The distilled essence of a jillion great radio singles.

9. Wanderlust, Prize (RCA). In truth, singer/songwriter/guitarist Scot Sax's shimmering pop-rock songs break neither new musical nor lyrical ground, cleaving closely to the Beatles/Badfinger/Raspberries/Big Star axis, but he fashions such remarkably irresistible melodies, affixes them to mildly provocative thoughts on commitment, ambition, and love lost/love gained/love imagined, and then sings them so convincingly that their seeming lack of originality becomes instantly moot. Wanderlust's ballads ("Deepest Blue"), chugging midpaced numbers ("Wanna Feel New"), and a clutch of unbridled rockers (led by "Coffee in the Kitchen") all testify to the undying power of the hook. And Deep Blue Something are VH1 stars? Donnez-moi un break.

10. Wilco, A.M. (Sire/Reprise). When Jay Farrar (the dour country guy) bailed out of Uncle Tupelo unexpectedly, chum and colleague Jeff Tweedy (the cute rock guy) picked up the pieces and soldiered on as Wilco. Good thing. That band's debut sounds a whole lot like Tweedy's U.T. songs: unpretentious, heartland rock tunes flecked with country and western instrumentation (mandolin, dobro, banjo, fiddle, pedal steel guitar); Jeff's agreeably raspy vocals; and smart insights regarding friendship, love relationships, and, on "Passenger Side," the dilemma of getting around when your driver's license has been revoked. Tweedy's easygoing "Pick Up the Change" breaks your heart even as it sets your head to nodding, and his rollicking "Casino Queen" is the best song the Stones didn't write for Sticky Fingers. But his memo to Farrar about the dissolution of their partnership, the jaggedly tuneful "Box Full of Letters," just might be the best song I heard all year.

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