WEEKEND music critics reviewed more than 400 releases in 1990, which, if nothing else, suggests that they keep the stereo on pretty much all the time. How can you pick the year's 10 best recordings in the face of such aural overload? We don't know, because that's not what we asked them to do. We asked them to give us their 10 favorites of the year, records (or CDs or cassettes) that for whatever reason stayed on the turntable (or in the CD player or tapedeck) a little longer and a little more often than anything else. JOE BROWN
Pet Shop Boys "Behavior" (EMI). The most personal Shoppers to date, the perfect pop of "Behavior" solidifies the duo's distinctive neo-disco sound; the songs include an elegy for lost youth and friends lost to AIDS, and keen observations about our behavior in relationships of any stripe.
Sinead O'Connor "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" (Ensign/Chrysalis). Forget the haircut, the national anthem headlines and the "SNL" boycott -- there's no denying the power of O'Connor's music, questing for purity and wrestling with darkness within and without.
Barbara Higbie "Signs of Life" (Windham Hill). A pianist finds her (enchanting) voice, and with her first solo album, lands near the top of the new singer-songwriter class. Subtly exploring relationships and self-transformation without the cloying new age jargon, Higbie has made a "Tapestry" for the '90s.
Deee-Lite "World Clique" (Elektra). The most exuberant record of the year -- and the decade, to date. This is the real "world music" -- Russia's Super DJ Dmitry and Japan's Jungle DJ Towa Towa set up the sampledelic sound, and New Yawk's Lady Miss Kier is the soulful siren, adding up to an unabashed celebration of (say it) disco. You can almost forgive them for bringing back platform shoes.
The Sundays "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" (Rough Trade). The Sundays' primer is part Smiths (the melancholy jangle), part Cocteau Twins (the ethereal unintelligibility). But it's mostly original, and after two hearings it's indelible. Who can say what singer Harriet Wheeler is going on about? The important thing is you know exactly how she feels.
The Winans "Return" (Qwest/Warner Bros.). This combination of gospel + good groove made a believer out of me. The Winans brothers hook up with Bro. Teddy Riley, and the merger of their soaring sermonizing and his decidely secular new jack swing is heaven-sent. Anita Baker's arranger Michael Powell handles the slow and creamy ones.
The Roches "Speak" (Paradox/MCA). Silent for far too long, the three weird sisters from New Jersey returned with an extraordinarily generous album of extraordinarily personal songs. This was a great year for Roches fans -- their Christmas album "We Three Kings" is destined to be a classic, too.
The Beloved "Happiness" (Atlantic). Soon after this Brit rock duo discovered Ecstacy and the commercial cache of dance music, they traded in their sloppy jangle guitars for clean-lined synths and sequencers and came up with this enlightening suite of danceable new age messages.
Various artists "Red Hot + Blue" (Chrysalis). In this most imaginative charity album (the proceeds go to AIDS services), 22 international Name Artists essay 21 tunes by Cole Porter with mixed results. The best -- Neneh Cherry's "I Got U (Under My Skin)," U2's throbbing "Night and Day," k.d. lang's full and aching "So in Love," Annie Lennox's haunting "Every Time We Say Goodbye" -- connect the longing, anxiety and loss of the AIDS era with idiosyncratic Porter interpretations. And Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop's irreverent take on "Well Did You Evah" would certainly have Porter spinning (and maybe grinning) in his grave.
Original Off-Broadway Cast "Falsettoland" (DRG). The most affecting musical of the year, "Falsettoland" concludes William Finn's "Marvin Trilogy," about a man who left his wife for another man and tries to keep the whole family together. It's set in 1981, as a shadow called AIDS is starting to darken the urban landscape. As they did in the theater, the songs made me laugh out loud, then brought me to tears, again and again. EVE ZIBART
Sisters of Mercy "Vision Thing" (Elektra). It's hard to say whether this is political satire (the Bush-league title track, for instance) or serious heavy rock; but a couple of tracks, "Something Fast" and "When You Don't See Me," are startlingly good.
Uncle Tupelo "Uncle Tupelo" (Rockville). An astonishing combination of hill- and riverside traditionalism, hand-cranked Victrola verisimilitude and massive feedback. The first country-thrash stars (runners up: Boston's Big Barn Burning).
Dash Rip Rock "Not of This World" (Mammoth). This is what "I Wanna Be Sedated" would have sounded like if the Ramones had grown up in bayou country. And "Bum For Egypt" stands as my favorite love song of the year.
Sinead O'Connor "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" (Ensign/Crysalis). Such nakedness is always subversive.
Little Women "Pretty Wiped Out" (Outer Space). Some identity crisis -- five men, headed by a Peter Garrett lookalike, writing zydeco/boogie/reggae/rock songs like a Tragically Hip version of Big Country. Smart, and too smart to show off.
Big Head Todd & the Monsters "Midnight Radio" (Big). Hard soul '60s revivalist Todd Park Mohr is a songwriter who hasn't abandoned the four-verse melodic form, and who hasn't an ounce of wimp about him either.
They Might Be Giants "Flood" (Elektra). Like Poi Dog Pondering's "Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea," this is "A Child's Garden of Verse" for unreconciled adults. Yes, "Birdhouse in Your Soul" is pretty much the blueprint, but this way you don't have to hit the repeat button.
Blake Babies "Sunburn" (Mammoth). This is an antidote to wispy neo-bohemian pop. Clever, independent, but real and sometimes reticent.
The Waterboys "Room to Roam" (Chrysalis). Such free-spirited Irish traditionalism must seem subversive to someone -- especially as Mike Scott is, as his name suggests, not Irish. I just find it exhilarating -- a mind excursion.
Les Negresses Vertes/3 Mustaphas 3/Mano Negro These European imports are a sort-of entry, as they would say in racing: frenetic, multilingual speed-freak music that turns your mental movie screen into a multiplex (spaghetti westerns, French Foreign Legion romances, Godzilla epic, etc.). A stable mate is Guesch Patti, but most of those visions are X-rated; mondo Moulin. RICHARD HARRINGTON
Angelo Badalamenti "Twin Peaks" (Warner Bros.). You don't have to be a fan, much less a fanatic devotee, of this ultra-odd television series to appreciate its many mood swings, with David Lynch's disparate (and sometimes desperate) characters hauntingly underscored through their own special themes -- sort of like "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" after the Flood.
Robert Johnson "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings" (Columbia). Fifty years after his death, Robert Johnson is brought back to life in a long-delayed completist project well worth the wait: Country blues would tranform into urban agony at Johnson's "Crossroads" and while Patrick Swayze's ghost cleaned up at the box office, Johnson's will haunt your reveries a lot longer.
Neil Young "Ragged Glory" (Reprise). It's still Crazy Horse after all these years that brings out the best in Young (guitar feedback and all). Young insists that the '60s into the '90s will go -- is this what they mean by classic rock?
World Party "Goodbye Jumbo" (Island). Karl Wallinger is another '60s-rooted forward thinker, though with a decidely sunnier outlook than Young. Also, he put together a great band and managed to bring the perfect studio pop of the album to vibrant life on stage at Lisner.
Rosanne Cash "Interiors" (Columbia). This album is part confession, part therapy and full throttle country soul bared wide open. Love hurts, love heals, love confuses and love inspires Cash, who holds absolutely nothing back. At the end, you can almost hear a voice saying, "Your time is up."
En Vogue "Born to Sing" (Atlantic). "Hold On" is a classic single for the '90s, no matter how it's mixed. The four women who came together for this album sound like both deep family and a gospel choir; when their voices blend, it's not mere harmony, it's sheer heaven, with an earthy underpinning.
A Tribe Called Quest "People's Instinctive Travels and the Path of Rhythm" (Jive). It was close betwween rap conceptualists Digital Underground, the Jungle Brothers and the Brand Nubians, but this Native Tongues Tribe put it all together: laid-back, funny, surreal and Afrocentric funk'n'soul, with a decidedly offbeat point of view.
Ice Cube "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" and "Kill At Will" (Priority). No one has provided a more psychologically chilling, or musically riveting, drive through the nation's urban ghetto than this West Coast rapper brought East to work with the Public Enemy Bomb Squad. Early in the year, "Most Wanted" churned up the controversy with its harsh language and unbridled anger, but at year's end, "Kill at Will" unveiled a more focused, introspective Ice Cube directing his energy in a more positive direction.
Blue Nile "Hats" (A&M). If you woke up 30 minutes before dawn on a rainy night, this music is what you'd feel like. Scotland's moody hues may have provided the inspiration, but Glasgow University provided the literate sensibilities that allow these songs to linger long after you're fully awake.
Jellyfish "Bellybutton" (Charisma). Sure, it's a guilty pleasure, but pure pop for "then" people always is. In the end, though, it's not the Paisley posturing, or the jingly-jangly energy, but a collection of killer hooks that suggests this band has its own future as well as several other people's pasts. MIKE JOYCE
Neil Young "Ragged Glory" (Reprise). Ragged but right in ways that Young's albums haven't been since he split up with Crazy Horse. Couple this with last year's "Freedom," and you have enough attitude, sentiment, politics and guitar kicks to fuel Young's concerts for years to come.
Bill Frisell "Is That You?" (Elektra-Musician). Remarkably accessible by Frisell standards -- especially the blues-drenched update of "Chain of Fools." Even so, there are few guitarists around these days with more curious and unpredictable things up his sleeve than Frisell.
Robert Johnson "The Complete Recordings" (Columbia). Granted, you may find yourself editing out the alternate takes, but then that's why CD players are programmable. Besides, it's nice to have the option of hearing them alongside Johnson's definitive delta blues recordings.
Frank Frost "Midnight Prowler" (Earwig). Deep-south blues served up the old-fashioned way by Frost -- a veteran harmonica player, singer and Sonny Boy Williamson protege.
John Hiatt "Stolen Moments" (A&M). A happy family life may have robbed Hiatt of some his anger, but it hasn't substantially dulled his pen or his passion.
Pat Metheny "Question and Answer" (Geffen). This isn't the only Metheny album to appeal to both straight-ahead and contemporary jazz fans, but it's the best. The great and indefatigable drummer Roy Haynes deserves a lot of credit for that -- Metheny and bassist Dave Holland thrive on his inspired support -- and the alternately fluid and fiery pop and jazz covers help as well.
Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie "Paris 1989" (A&M). The surviving founders of be-bop perform a series of convivial and conversational duets and cap the session with reminiscences about Charlie Parker.
Tommy Flanagan "Jazz Poet" (Timeless). The name of the album and the record label pretty much says it all. Although Flanagan's piano artistry helped enrich Sonny Rollins's latest release, these 10 elegant, swinging and expressive performances are the real stuff.
Randy Weston "Portraits of Duke Ellington" (Verve). Another unblemished gem from a jazz pianist who doesn't get nearly the recognition he deserves. This is actually one installment of a terrific three-CD set. The others are devoted to Thelonious Monk and original works. While you can't go wrong with any of them, the Ellington tribute is the most rhythmically compelling.
The Jackie McLean Quintet "Dynasty" (Triloka). A cross-generational romp featuring veteran alto saxist Jackie McLean in peak form and his son Rene on tenor and soprano saxes and flute. Just when you thought the father-son thing was passe, along comes this exhilarating hard-bop-inspired session. GEOFFREY HIMES
Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya "African River" (Enja). The year's best album is this overlooked jazz masterwork from Ibrahim, the pianist/composer formerly known as Dollar Brand. Combining the folk music of his South African childhood with his lifelong obsession with Duke Ellington, he creates one of the most powerful musical statements ever made about the connections between Africa and North America.
Prince "Graffiti Bridge" (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.). The soundtrack from one of the year's worst movies is the year's best pop album. Whether writing and producing for the Time, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, Tevin Campbell or himself, Prince ingeniously integrates not only black and white styles but also political, sexual and religious themes in this blueprint for pop in the '90s.
Rosanne Cash "Interiors" (Columbia). Cash, writing and producing all the songs herself for the first time in her career, has created a restrained, folkish album that nonetheless focuses on the essential country-music theme: troubled marriages. Cash digs so deeply into this subject that she sounds like Patsy Cline singing the Elvis Costello songbook.
Charles Mingus "Epitaph" (Columbia). If Mingus had been a European-American classical composer rather than an African-American jazz composer, his ambitious symphony -- 19 movements for a 30-piece jazz orchestra -- wouldn't have had to wait until after his death to be performed. As it was, this double-CD set captures last year's premiere at Lincoln Center; it's not a perfect performance, but it's more than good enough to discern what an important, powerful work "Epitaph" is.
Los Lobos "The Neighborhood" (Slash/Warner Bros.). These East L.A. Mexican-Americans insist that all of American culture belongs to them, and they prove it, too, with an album that tackles Chicago blues, California garage-rock, Appalachian string band, Tennessee honky tonk and Georgia R&B with such rare command that one has to reach all the way back to the Band for a useful analogy.
Neil Young "Ragged Glory" (Reprise). Young has always made his best music with the ragged but heartfelt rhythm section known as Crazy Horse. This album is a return to their first triumph, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere": long garage-rock jams with lots of grungy guitar in a bruising, ruthless search for traditional values -- true love and a country home.
The Replacements "All Shook Down" (Sire/Reprise). This is really a Paul Westerberg solo album, for the other Replacements appear only sporadically behind him. Self-doubt has crept into Westerberg's songwriting, creating music bleaker and more minimalist than the Replacements' rampaging mid-'80s work but richer as well.
Earl King "Sexual Telepathy" (Black Top). New Orleans's best guitarist and lyricist, King recorded this, his best album ever, with three different, top-notch blues bands. His singing and guitar-playing are impressive, but even better is the playful originality of his songwriting. If Chuck Berry had grown up in New Orleans, he might have made an album like this.
The Flatlanders "More a Legend Than a Band" (Rounder). Recorded in 1972, this album has only surfaced this year. It was worth the wait, for it features three of Texas's best singer-songwriters (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely) backed by fiddle, mandolin and a quivering musical saw. This all-acoustic album is so timeless, it could have been made in 1930, 1950 or 1990.
John Hiatt "Stolen Moments" (A&M). The year's single best song is Hiatt's "Seven Little Indians," a bizarre but utterly compelling fable about eccentric families. The other 11 songs are pretty good, too, as this quirky country-rocker teams with producer Glyn Johns for his most confident, best-sounding album yet. MARK JENKINS
The Sundays "Reading, Writing & Arithmetic" (DCG). This quartet may very well be one of those one-shot Brit-indie bands, but the marriage of David Gavurin's churning guitar and Harriet Wheeler's soaring voice is the sound of the year.
Lou Reed & John Cale "Songs for Drella" (Sire/Warner Bros.). This tribute to Andy Warhol inspired songs that are not merely Reed's most heartfelt in years, but also his most artful. And after all these years Cale's classical chops and urbane voice are still the ideal foils to Reed's more anarchic disposition.
Chills "Submarine Bells" (Slash/Warner Bros.). Ten years on, Martin Phillipp's heavenly pop non-hits finally get the production values they deserve, and the results are as affecting as always and sumptuous as never before.
Fugazi "Repeater" (Dischord). This Washington band, post-hard-core's great tight hope, has yet to make a record equal to its incendiary live shows, but on tracks like "Merchandise" and "Blueprint" this comes close.
The Beautiful South "Welcome To" (Go Discs/WEA). Acid-laced pop pastries, these sweet-sounding, harsh-meaning songs for whomever bite the hand that feeds them, with venom and verve.
Pooh Sticks "Formula One Generation" (Sympathy for the Recording Industry). Though not quite so naive as their predecessors, the spirit of the early Undertones lives in this Welsh quintet's speedy but tuneful songs about teenage highs and romantic lows.
Mano Negra "Puta's Fever" (Virgin). They sing in Arabic, French and Spanish and invoke a wide array of traditional styles, but the attitude is not worldbeat, it's punk rock. And that makes all the difference.
Jesus Jones "Liquidizer" (SBK). This London quintet's accomplishment is not so much its eclectic hip-hop-rock sound -- well-realized, but somebody had to do it -- but its consistency: This album is not just a single plus filler, but 12 crackling, well-matched ravers.
Morissey "Bona Drag" (Sire/Reprise). The singles that didn't quite make it add up to an album that does -- so maybe the reason that songs like "Interesting Drug" and "Picadilly Palare" didn't quite make it is that were album tracks all along.
Coo Coo Rockin' Time "Coo Coo Party Time" (50 Skadillion Watts). It's no coincidence that one of this album's most inspiring songs is called "Put Records Back in the Record Store": At a time when Amerindie has become almost an annoyance, this D.C. band makes the case for low-tech better than anyone.