1. SONIC YOUTH Dirty (DGC) Rock & roll — whatever that archaic phrase means in the ’90s — simply doesn’t get more vital and intense than this: seething anger over sexual discrimination and Republicanism, melancholy over the shooting death of a friend, sadness over friendships gone astray, and fantasies sexual and otherwise, all set to layers of sonic blitz from our leading underground guitar band. Sonic Youth, who’ve been playing so-called alternative rock since long before it had a name, are still insolent brats. (In that photo tucked behind the package’s see-through CD tray, just what are those people doing with those stuffed animals?) But Dirty reveals, finally, an unexpected and welcome depth and emotional range that broaden with each listening. Whether unleashing coiled-up guitars that literally sound like they’re burning rubber, or settling back into billowy ripples of feedback, the band explores the connection between beauty and ugliness, as well as the crucial difference between hiding behind cynicism and actually blurting out one’s emotions. Alternative rock grows up — or, at least, just enough to count.
2. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of… (Chrysalis/EMIRG) The hip-hop album of the year, and not just for the gliding top 10 hit, ”Tennessee.” Like that song, this album is both spiritual and earthy. The group knows how to dig into the past, from the inspired use of a blues harmonica sample to an overall warm, communal vibe that recalls the salad days of Sly and the Family Stone (the group’s reworking of Sly’s ”Everyday People” is only the beginning). Yet from its succulent textures to its whoop-it-up beats, the album is nothing less than a thoroughly modern pop aural collage. Besides, anyone who made even the mighty Public Enemy seem old hat — which Arrested Development did, easily — was clearly onto something.
3. NENEH CHERRY Homebrew (Virgin) One of the most difficult and contradictory records on this list — less brash and more sparsely produced than Cherry’s 1989 debut, Raw Like Sushi, and the product of a now-well-off pop star who fancies herself as some sort of world-citizen bohemian. Given time, though, it is also one of the year’s richest: a swirl of hazy, ambient ballads and subtly rhythmic jazz-hop from a woman with a sense of mission and a vocal style that easily swings from lithesome singing to smart, sassy rapping. Don’t think her three-year layoff has mellowed her, though: On brazen tracks like ”Money Love” Cherry still knows how to throw down with the best of them.
4. SUZANNE VEGA 99.9 F (A&M) Not since her first album has Vega seemed so edgy and tightly wound — and her scrapyard music, a clatter of acoustic and metallic sounds that could probably be termed industrial folk, has never seemed so wonderfully inspired. Other singer-songwriters should get out this often.
5. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III History (Charisma) Wainwright is one of the few veteran folkies who has retained his self-lacerating wit, usually in songs about his own eternally mid-level career. History, though, proves that no one writes more cutting, insightful songs about the family — about arguing with your kids, mourning the death of a father with whom you were always at odds, screwing up relationships well into middle age, or simply looking at a snapshot of you and your kid sister and soberly realizing it is four decades old.