Here are my choices for the top national and Orange County pop albums of the past year, in order of preference.
Top Albums 1. Wilco, "Being There" (Reprise). Deftly recycling Stones licks and dusty Gram Parsons country-rock moves, leader Jeff Tweedy shows that, while stylistic innovation is nice if you can get it at this late date, it's heart, a personal voice and a great ear for melody that give rock its enduring appeal.
2. Liquor Giants, "Liquor Giants" (Matador). Everything that goes for Wilco's Tweedy is true of Liquor Giants auteur Ward Dotson, except that Dotson's favorite chunk of rock's reusable past is cut from the rich ore vein of the Beatles and the Kinks.
3. Social Distortion, "White Light White Heat White Trash" (550 Music/Epic). Mike Ness sings from the middle of a ferocious sonic storm, delivering prayers and curses, conjuring regretful memories and forging hard-won insights. The definitive album of a long, proud punk rock career.
4. Johnny Cash, "Unchained" (American). What's the deepest part of Cash--his singing voice, his faith, his sorrows, his knowledge of what makes a good song, or his sense of humor? It's all here, as his second flowering continues.
5. Beck, "Odelay" (DGC/Bong Load). The album of the year in conceptual terms, though not quite my favorite. Beck is plugged into almost every current running through contemporary pop, and he and his production partners redirect and scramble the signals in exciting ways. An attempt, as in Cubist painting, to represent the world anew by fracturing it.
6. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "All This Useless Beauty" (Warner Bros.) There seems to be a large school of critical opinion that says Costello's latter-day sophistication has made him musty and uninspired. Maybe they remember most fondly the angry young man he used to be. The still-angry older craftsman heard here is as emotionally and vocally daring as any of today's angry youngsters.
7. Paul Westerberg, "Eventually" (Reprise). Talk about mellowing gracefully. The former Replacements howler has learned to sing more than gargle as he explores gentler feelings. He's still "unsatisfied," as one of his old band's greatest non-hits put it, but learning to live with it by taking the longer view.
8. Suzanne Vega, "Nine Objects of Desire" (A&M;). Still cerebral, but not so emotionally detached as she has sometimes been, Vega composes with the acuity of a knife-thrower as she handles the big subjects of eros, birth and death. The highly rhythmic production is full of surprises and sonic treats.
9. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "Braver Newer World" (Elektra). A hazier, more textured production job than on his more rootsy albums, which has its virtues and drawbacks. But Gilmore's songwriting and song-borrowing remains impeccable, and that beautiful, Zen-like voice of his expresses the yearning beyond yearning.
10. Tish Hinojosa, "Dreaming From the Labyrinth/Sonar del Laberinto" (Warner Bros). The calm, deep beauty of this Texan's voice makes her the antithesis of today's Alanis-led crew of nervous and nervy types. Casting the songs in both Spanish and English was an artistic masterstroke, not a politically correct gesture: Somehow it makes them more dreamlike and resonant than they would have been in either language alone.
Honorable mention: 11. Sublime, "Sublime" (Gasoline Alley/MCA); 12. Robyn Hitchcock, "Moss Elixir" (Warner Bros.); 13. Cassandra Wilson, "New Moon Daughter" (Blue Note/Capitol); 14. Steve Earle, "I Feel Alright" (Warner Bros./E Squared); 15. The Delphines, "The Delphines" (Fountainbleu Entertainment); 16. Everything but the Girl, "Walking Wounded" (Atlantic).
Top O.C. Albums 1. Liquor Giants, "Liquor Giants" (Matador). (see overall list).
2. Social Distortion, "White Light White Heat White Trash (550 Music/Epic). (see overall list).
3. Sublime, "Sublime" (Gasoline Alley/MCA). (see accompanying story).
4. Lunar Rover, "Lunar Rover" (Vital Music). Jon Melkerson uses his superb guitar and song-structuring talents, draws on his classic sources--Television, the Velvet Underground and Neil Young--and tells an involving, heartening story about riding out emotional turbulence.
5. Thermadore, "Monkey on Rico" (Atlantic/Holiday). Robbie Allen sheds the perennial sidekick's role he's had for more than 10 years on the Southern California alternative-rock scene and emerges with a varied gem that excels at everything from folk-rock and heartland strains to wry punk and moody Pearl Jam-ish musings.
6. The Joykiller, "Static" (Epitaph). Probably only Mike Ness of Social Distortion rivals Jack Grisham for the title of most memorable personality of the O.C. punk movement; Grisham keeps up with the competition in this zooming, catchy collection of sharp-focus combat photos from love's battleground.
7. Matt Barnes, "Demos" (Still Working for the Man Music). A year without a Jann Browne album is a year without a special kind of sunshine, but her guitar-playing sidekick kept our appetites whetted with this EP. It featured the usual close Browne/Barnes collaboration, but with front-person roles reversed, and yielded their usual alternative-country excellence.
8. Aunt Bettys, "Aunt Bettys" (EastWest). Cranking '70s glam bands such as the New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople provide inspiration for the sonic backdrop; Mike Knott's detailed notes from the underbelly of seedy-barroom life fill in the plot lines in memorable fashion.
9. Red Five, "Flash" (Interscope). Jenni McElrath and Betty Carmellini form the twin vocal/guitar team that puts an invigorating, zestful spark into the old familiar modern-rock-neo-garage-band thing.
10. (tie) The Flavor, "The Flavor" (Superfriction). Isn't young romance wonderful? Not for the Flavor, whose do-it-yourself debut muses bittersweetly on the slings and arrows of significant-otherdom. Catchy songs abound as the band takes a pop-leaning, British-influenced, '80s college-rock approach.
10. (tie) Mr. Mirainga, "Mr. Mirainga" (Way Cool/MCA). Some truly bizarre song ideas, good melodic hooks, and the use of Latin rhythms lend spice to this rough-and-grungy bunch.
10. (tie) The Ziggens, "Ignore Amos" (Skunk). They're a surf band. No, they're a folk and country band. Mainly, they're an extremely fun and playful light-satirical band. But what about those heartfelt religious songs? Now you know why "zigzag" and "Ziggens" both begin with Z.