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A highly subjective guide to the year's best indie releases

Y2K on the Downlow

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Y2K has been a year in which popular music has been plagued by the limited musical choices of sugary-sweet bubble gum pop, testosterone-laden rap/metal, and sample-crazy R&B. Unfortunately, this was at the expense of releases on the periphery of the music-buying masses' sensibilities. Most of the true gems of 2000 were hiding just below the surface of all the corporate fodder. One of the most powerful albums I've heard in the past 365 days has actually been a synth-pop record. While maybe a bit more industrial-sounding than your average Depeche Mode effort, the English duo VNV Nation (Victory Not Vengeance) generated a tenacious dance record in the form of "Empires." The album's momentum is only outweighed by the incredible attention paid to its songwriting and creation of atmosphere. On the same note, Apoptygma Berzerk from Norway also gets an honorable mention for "Welcome To Earth," an album that puts a completely different spin on the synth-pop genre, but which is no less danceable than VNV Nation. Rounding out the dance category is Charlottesville's own Bella Morte. This gothic dance duo's "Where Shadows Lie" album was recently rereleased on the nation's top label for goth music, Cleopatra Records, and it is selling well nationally. The band's carefully crafted songs can set a club's dance floor on fire. For those into a harder, more guitar-driven sort of diversion, here are some top punk picks. Spearheading the attack is "Malice And Misfortune" from Those Unknown. While only a four-song release, this blend of politically aware lyrics, powerful songwriting and polished production makes this a top-of-the-line Oi!/Street Punk release that's bound to be a classic. From the very same record label, the San Francisco-based TKO Records, comes a new mini-album from Boston punk legends The Real Kids. We've not heard a thing from them since the 1980s, but this year the group reformed and created "Down To You," a fun foray in to the world of poppy punk rock 'n' roll. In the same musical vein is "Sound And Fury!," a compilation billed as "a sampling of the best old-school punk bands in central Virginia." The record is a solid effort featuring local artists The Halfways, Ultra Bait, The Counselors and The Elderly. Plus it's only available on vinyl — and it doesn't get more punk rock than that. From the other side of the country, California's Swingin' Utters (a group that marries the sound of The Pogues with that of the Stiff Little Fingers) made a welcome year-end return with their newest self-titled album. In a final potpourri category, the punk-tinged rockabilly outfit The Amazing Crowns fires up the roots rock with the scorching "Royal." The album's title is a blatant potshot at another band that involved the band in a messy copyright lawsuit over the use of its original moniker, The Amazing Royal Crowns. I believe the band's troubles only nurtured the group's creative process, which shows through in the quality of the latest batch of songs. Reviving the fire of '60s soul, is a group of English men and women known as The Action Time. With their new conceptual 7-inch EP, "Comedown Blues" (that's right, it's only available on vinyl), we are treated to three songs about reckless indulgence and its sometimes tragic consequences. If it's a blast of power pop you're looking for then the Tidewater-based Rip Dizzy can accommodate you. The band's album "No Room to Dance" mixes the polished craftsmanship of pop with the urgency of punk and devil-may-care attitude of third wave ska. Fans of Richmond's own pop powerhouse The Waking Hours should take note of this one. Who knows, 2001 might shine a little more light on some of the many unsung underground artists deserving attention. But then again, bubble-gum pop, rap/metal and carbon copy R&B all have at least another year of shelf life in them, so then maybe

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