Best Country Albums
1 EL CORAZON Steve Earle (Warner Bros.) On this mostly acoustic folk effort, Earle pays tribute to heroes Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams in original songs written in their styles. ”Taneytown,” the unspoken confession of a black man who kills a white youth in self-defense, is simply unforgettable.
2 LEE ANN WOMACK Lee Ann Womack (Decca) If country had a breakthrough female this year (Deana Carter scored for ’96), it was Womack, who combined Dolly’s tremolo, Tammy’s sob, and Reba’s elongated vowels into a fetching tradition-based style. Her success — she’s just gone gold — could help turn Nashville back to its hard-country roots.
3 SUNDAY MORNING TO SATURDAY NIGHT Matraca Berg (Rising Tide) Songwriter and burgeoning artist Matraca Berg nearly stole the CMA Awards this year with her performance of ”Back When We Were Beautiful,” part of this Eudora Welty-ish song cycle of life in the small-town South. A soulful, sensuous pastiche of human loneliness.
Best Jazz Albums
1 THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD RECORDING John Coltrane (Impulse!) Could the best jazz of 1997 be music from 1961? Better question: How could a generation of Coltrane imitators compete with their master, captured on this four-CD set of mostly unheard recordings made at his accessible prime? In a field overflowing with artificial blood, Coltrane provides the pulse, the richness, and the life-sustaining magic of the real thing.
2 TERROR AND MAGNIFICENCE John Harle (Argo) And how could somebody who’s not even a jazz artist — the prolific classical saxophonist Harle — make it onto a list of best jazz albums? By combining classical, pop, and jazz elements in a commandingly original musical montage that belongs to no one genre, and to all. Besides, guest vocalist Elvis Costello sounds great — and Sinatra’s not recording these days.
3 CAPETOWN FLOWERS Abdullah Ibrahim (Enja) Rhythmic, spiritual South African music reduced, refined, and reduced and refined some more, then more, until it’s the sheer essence of beauty. That may sound pretentious, but Abdullah Ibrahim never does. Simply the purest sounds around today.