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‘Dead Man Walking’ Ambles Away With Year’s Top Singles

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

In all the year-end acclaim for Beck as the man of the year in pop music, some of the applause should be saved for movie director Tim Robbins.

The soundtrack album for Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking” gave us both Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One” and Eddie Vedder’s collaboration with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on “The Long Road,” which top my list of the most distinguished single recordings of 1996. (The list of best albums appears in Sunday’s Calendar.)

Equally important, the album--which also included tunes by such respected pop figures as Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith and Tom Waits--served as a reminder of the importance of passion and purpose in a pop music world where most artists don’t really have anything to say.

The soundtrack project started when Robbins--whose brother, David, wrote the film’s score--sent rough cuts of his film to various songwriters whose work he admires and invited them to submit any songs that might be appropriate for the film or album.

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Earle responded with “Ellis Unit One,” basing the lyric on stories he had heard from his relatives about the reaction of prison guards and townsfolk to executions at a Texas prison.

“I must have watched the movie three times with my band while we were ending a tour, and it had such a powerful effect on me that I sat down after I got home and wrote the song in about two hours,” Earle said in an interview earlier this year.

Pearl Jam singer Vedder had already written “The Long Road,” which was inspired by the death of his favorite high school teacher, when he saw the early version of “Dead Man Walking.” He thought the song might fit the mood of the film, and Robbins agreed.

“I was just trying to ring a bell with the song . . . something to signal that an important human being had left the earth,” Vedder said recently about the song, which was written during the 1994 sessions for the Neil Young-Pearl Jam album, “Mirror Ball.” “I actually started playing a D chord, which actually sounds like a bell.”

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Although the degree of purpose varies in the other records on today’s list of the year’s 10 best singles or album tracks, each conveys a spirit that contributed greatly to the richness of pop during the last 12 months.

In the spirit of a New Year’s Eve countdown, here is a salute to the year’s most engaging tunes, starting with some honorable mentions.

* Steve Earle’s “Valentine’s Day” (E-Squared/Warner Bros.). Earle wrote this ballad, which appears on his “I Feel Alright” album, after forgetting to get his wife a Valentine’s card. The sentiments, however, also seem to serve as a deeper apology for all of Earle’s erratic and irresponsible behavior during his years of drug addiction. In the song, he sings, “I ain’t got a card to sign / Roses have been hard to find. . . . I only hope that you’ll be mine.”

* Deana Carter’s “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” (Capitol Nashville). Carter turns her feelings of romantic disillusionment into a disarming feel-good anthem that should have concert audiences singing along as fervently as Garth Brooks’ similarly spirited “Friends in Low Places.”

* Pulp’s “Common Sense” (Island). Jarvis Cocker’s look at class snobbery has the feel of a British rock classic, combining the musical tension and liberation of early David Bowie with the witty social satire of Ray Davies.

* Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” (Capitol). These Texans have been around so long that it’s easy to take them for granted in the alt-rock world, where the emphasis is on the new kids on the block. But the Surfers came up with one of the freshest and most striking efforts of the year in this single, which explores the chills and thrills of wild youth.

* Tony Toni Tone’s “Thinking of You” (Mercury). After hearing this seductive track from the Oakland trio’s “House of Music” album, you’re ready to swear that Al Green has gone back into the studio with the Hodges brothers and the rest of the Hi Records house band. If lead singer Raphael Saadiq really is this good, you can see why he’s talking about a solo career.

* The Tony Rich Project’s “Nobody Knows” (LaFace). The knock on this silky hit was that it sounded too much like Babyface to deserve special praise. But there was an effortlessness to the ballad that is deceptively difficult to achieve. It’ll sound as good a decade from now.

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* Quad City DJs’ “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” (Atlantic/Big Beat). If it’s just fun you’re after, this party-minded hip-hop excursion is it.

* Prodigy’s “Firestarter” (Mute). If the next pop revolution is going to be fought on the techno-assisted dance floor, Prodigy is going to be in the middle of the fray. The only question about this wondrous blend of rock and dance sensibilities is whether you prefer the single’s “edit” version or the more lavish “empirion mix.”

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Now, the Top 10 countdown:

10. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” (Ruthless). Throw out “Macarena” (please!) and this was the biggest-selling single of 1996--a record noteworthy for both its positive rap message and marvelous vocal interplay. Grammy bound.

9. Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” (LaFace). Braxton is evolving into the most striking female singer in R&B; since the arrival of Anita Baker a decade ago, and she could have also made this list with her other classy hits, “Let It Flow” and “You’re Makin’ Me High.”

8. John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey’s “Is That All There Is?” (Island). Regardless of What’s Next in pop, you get a sense that Harvey will have a voice in shaping it. Here, the daring British singer-songwriter teams with partner Parish and co-producer Mick Harvey on a remake of the old Peggy Lee hit that is so customized and commanding that it gives new life to the Leiber & Stoller song. This track appeared on both Parish-Harvey’s “Dance Hall at Louse Point” album and the “Trainspotting” soundtrack collection.

7. Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (Epic). Beneath the lovely Beatle-esque melodies, Noel Gallagher writes about his times with the heart and craft of the greatest rockers. Here, he warns about putting your faith in the wrong hands, including those of rock ‘n’ roll bands.

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6. Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” (Epic). The reason Gallagher is the most successful songwriter in British rock in years isn’t just that he was influenced by the Beatles but that he is also daring enough to try to top them at their own game. Here, he captures the kind of innocence and psychedelic mystery that marked “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

5. 2Pac’s “California Love” (Death Row). Before Tupac Shakur’s death, the key to this funky rap exercise was the production of Dr. Dre, who also contributed vocal assistance. Listening to the song now, however, the record’s appeal rests equally in vibes so positive that the single comes across as the ‘90s equivalent of the Mamas & the Papas’ 1966 “California Dreamin’.”

4. Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s “Leviticus: Faggot” (Maverick). A stark, disturbing look at bigotry that is so solidly crafted that it justifies an epithet in the title that could easily be seen as exploitation in other hands. Illustrating how deeply rooted sexual prejudice can be, Ndegeocello tells of parents who are so opposed to their son’s gayness that they contribute to his death.

3. Beck’s “Where It’s At” (Geffen). The reason Beck was at the heart of pop in 1996 is that his “Odelay” album--written and produced with the Dust Brothers--brought together rock ‘n’ roll roots and hip-hop in ways that pay homage to folk, country and blues and also open a sonic door to the future. Here, he toasts the dance world joys of two turntables and a microphone.

2. Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “The Long Road” (Columbia). This was a landmark track in several ways. The song, a search for spiritual comfort, not only led Vedder to the more personal writing style found in Pearl Jam’s “No Code” album but its use in the film also introduced Khan, the remarkable Pakistani singer, to a wider U.S. audience. A graceful and profound work.

1. Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One” (E-Squared/Warner Bros.). There was a time in the ‘80s when Earle’s insightful blue-collar tales led critics to call him the Bruce Springsteen of country, but the term never seemed a comfortable fit. This song, however, is as compelling a social portrait as anything on Springsteen’s gripping “Nebraska” and “The Ballad of Tom Joad” albums. It’s a song with all the rich detail and power of a great novel or film.


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