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A YEAR FULL OF EARFUL

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Amid the censorship and lip-synching controversies, the lambada and Bart Simpson's blues album, some good music actually got made in 1990. Here are the 10 best albums of the year (remember, one man's opinion) along with some worthy almosts:

Was (Not Was): Are You Okay? (Chrysalis) _ While producer Don Was became hot property after Bonnie Raitt's Grammy sweep _ taking the helm for albums by Dylan, Iggy Pop and others _ his best work came with his own band. Emphasize band. With Are You Okay?, the Was Bros. featured their 10-piece touring ensemble, including supremo vocalists Sweet Pea Atkinson, Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell.

The grooves are tougher than in the past, the jazzy sensibility heightened. The result: a smart, witty dance-pop album.

Jellyfish: Bellybutton (Charisma) _ The new San Francisco quartet made a triumphant album in the Beatles-via-Squeeze-via-Crowded House vein. The melodies are irresistible, the vocal harmonies sublime, the sonic touches just right. In my racket, you're always turning to something new, leaving all but a few of last week's discs behind. Bellybutton never wore out its welcome.

Prince: Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park) _ The film was a stiff, but the album is terrific. I was surprised that Bridge wasn't a yearlong chart-topper. Prince deftly navigates (instead of wanders through) a myriad of styles, from punchy funk to snappy pop-rock to space-blues and gospel flavors. And all of it bears his inimitable stamp.

Carmen McRae: Carmen Sings Monk (Novus/RCA) _ The impeccable jazz singer glides through this collection of heady tunes as if they were nursery rhymes. Thelonious Monk's compositions don't generally lend themselves to vocal interpretation _ lyrics are a tough fit _ yet rarely has the late legend's material sounded so musical. A special mention goes to sound quality, which is crisp and full of depth.

Gilberto Gil: O Eterno Deus Mu Danca (The Eternal God of Change) (Tropical Storm/WEA) _ Brazil's tropicalismo artists, of which Gil (Zheel) is one, are as cosmopolitan as they come, blending African-derived rhythms with sophisticated harmonies and melodies that unfold in sensual splendor. O Eterno Deus Mu Danca, sung exclusively in Portuguese, is the consummate convergence of exotica and accessibility.

Sonny Rollins: Falling in Love With Jazz (Milestone) _ The tenor titan's best work in years. Rollins' brawny, slightly pinched, tone continues to grow in character _ a genuinely different sax sound. He and his band swing mightily through this set of standards originals. Rollins' solos are a glorious blend of abandon and control.

Wendy & Lisa: Eroica (Virgin) _ Prince's progeny finally stakes its own claim. Former Revolution members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, new band in tow, stir together a heady brew that includes percolating funk, psychedelia, hard-rock, blues, folk and more. The rhythm tracks brim with detail and odd angles _ an accordion here, a full orchestra there. Sounds like their former mentor, doesn't it? Except that it's different.

Johnny Adams: Walking on a Tightrope _ The veteran R&B singer can get down-and-dirty or supper-club cool; he can growl or belt or soar into falsetto. Tightrope mixes simmering numbers with effervescent uptown swing-blues, horns and all.

Lisa Stansfield: Affection (Arista) _ Hmm, a disco record in the Top 10. Affection doesn't hammer you into the pavement with thudding backbeats; there's a subtle sway to the rhythms. Stansfield is a first-rate soul singer, blending power and nuance.

The Neville Brothers: Brother's Keeper (A&M) _ After the muted feeling of last year's Yellow Moon, Brother's Keeper signals a return to the groove. The rudimentary melodies are apt showcases for the Nevilles' special vocal chemistry. There's still nothing like witnessing the Nevilles live, but Brother's Keeper is one of the Crescent City band's finer recordings.

Almosts: Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker and others team up for the dark, bluesy soundtrack to the Hot Spot (Antilles). David Baerwald steps away from David + David to make captivating pop-rock on Bedtime Stories (A&M). The Pogues dig Hell's Ditch (Island), sizzling Celtic punk. Michael Brecker makes hot electric jazz on Now You See It . . . (Now You Don't) (GRP). The year's best world-music album is the Pakistani Qawwali music heard on Qawwal and Party (Realworld/Virgin) by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Buckwheat Zydeco makes pumped-up Creole dance music on Where There's Smoke There's Fire (Island).