After September 11,
all forms of popular music seemed particularly out of sync with the times. There
was the predictable upsurge of blind one-dimensional patriotism reflected in
endless renditions of the national anthem, “God Bless America,” and “America The
Beautiful.” The healing and unifying power of music was powerfully present in
the “America: A Tribute To Heroes” concert telethon, with performances by Bruce
Springsteen, U2, Alicia Keys, and Neil Young ringing prayers of peace and sorrow
that could speak to and for all humanity. Beyond these options, one could find
enduring relevance in Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War” and “With God On Our Side,”
Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” U2′s “One,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and Bob
Marley’s “Redemption Song.” But from the Billboard charting pop in 2001, nearly
everything felt trivial and narcotic.
Not a new story,
of course. Pop music has been following a path of diminishing significance for
decades now. But with corporate saturated marketing gearing nearly all
strategies to sustain mega-trends of teen pop, Pearl Jam imitation hard rock,
and prefab hip-hop, the year’s pop mainstream seldom offered anything more than
cheap thrill entertainment. For music giving a deeper sense of human reality and
potential, listeners had to make an active and critical search beyond radio, TV,
and advertising. From all over the music map, here are my top 40.
Dylan, Love And Theft
A stellar veteran
band led by Texas guitarist Charlie Sexton alternates backdrops between sweet,
rural swing and dirty, low-down blues as Dylan spews cynical and lusty
observations on a world gone wrong. Full of razor-sharp humor, bold attitude,
and acute wordplay, Love And Theft is Dylan in all his cranky
Wrapped in a
quiet late night ambiance built out of lush, haunting electronica, Bjork opens
to naked erotic and spiritual yearning. A remarkable singer with a sensuality
too real for the hit parade.
White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The
Drummer Meg White
and guitarist-singer Jack White play a twisted garage version of country, blues,
and rock echoing bits of Hank Williams, Hound Dog Taylor, Cole Porter, and Ray
A quieter and
more reflective record than Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, but another soul
baring gem from one of the best songwriters in the country.
Chao, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (Virgin)
With the Clash
and Bob Marley as his primary rebel music inspiration, Chao is striving to bring
street life concerns of Latin America and Europe to the youth of the U.S.
Flowing rhyme in Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese and riding fusions of
reggae, ska, rock, and Latino pop, Chao is an uncategorizable crossover dream.
Coup, Party Music (75 Ark)
Out of Oakland,
Boots Riley and DJ Pam The Funkstress make no bones about their socialist
politics, even in the wake of the post-September 11 patriotic fervor. For the
Coup, grooves and rhyme are the medium of political manifesto detailing class
and race oppression within a critique of capitalist society as a whole. Plenty
of infectious P-Funk driven bump and grind here, but this “party music” is a
thowback to the politically conscious hip-hop of Chuck D and Kris-One.
Keys, Songs In A Minor
Pianist-writer-singer Alicia Keys exploded to stardom on this stunning debut
release. Here and there formula production creeps in, and at times youth betrays
a stretch for realism, but on Songs In A Minor, Keys displays awesome
talent and enormous heart reminiscent of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and
Guy, Sweet Tea (Silvertone)
inspiration in the raw, droning blues of the north Mississippi hill country,
Buddy Guy confronts old age, mortality, betrayal, and race with fierce passion
and incendiary guitar.
and Julie Miller (Hightone)
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony)
Buddy and Julie
Miller play a roughhewn, heart-on-the-sleeve country music aching with deep
emotion and hard truths. Each is a wonderful writer and singer, but their
talents combined produce gorgeous Southern drawled harmonies, mournful
Appalachian traditionalism, and knifing roadhouse guitar that make for a
brilliant, idiosyncratic brand of alternative country.
Gillian Welch and
her partner writer-singer-guitarist David Raw- lings hold to a more ancient
acoustic blueprint of country, but with each album grow more at ease and
original in making old-time sounds a natural setting for here and now concerns.
Time (The Revelator) is their best to date.
Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol)
An extension of
last year’s Kid A. Another slice of brooding soundscapes and fragmented
perceptions depicting the scary normalcy of everyday alienation.
Scott, Experience: Jill Scott (Sony/Epic)
Stone, Mahogany Soul
With a live disc
revisiting material from her superb 2000 debut album and a bonus studio disc
introducing a batch of new songs, poet-singer Jill Scott gets the space to show
off more vocal and word power. This is the one that really answers the question,
“Who is Jill Scott?” Angie Stone’s sophisticated neo-soul hues closer to the
classic old school legacies of Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hatha- way, and Marvin
Gaye. Like her influences, a messenger of bittersweet real life.
Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under The Influence (Bloodshot)
Jo Phelps, Sky Like
Broken Clock (Ryko)
singer-songwriters whose intimate, soul searching brand of song has earned wide
critical acclaim and devout club audiences. Escovedo draws from his Mexican
heritage, folk, rock, blues and classical to explore wounds of race, love, and
family. Phelps’ dark, meditative blues recall the troubled spirits of Skip
James, Robert Pete Williams, Roscoe Holcomb, and Dock Boggs.
Various Artists, O Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack
The huge and
unexpected commercial breakthrough of the O Brother soundtrack shows how
“uncommercial” music can connect with a mass audience when given wide visibility
and social context. Although Nashville reveals few signs of turning away from
hat and hair acts, at least in the margins of the country music mainstream there
is a little more light shining on the nation’s rural roots.
17. D on
Byron, You Are #6: More Music For Six Musicians
Byron and trumpeter Dave Douglas are two jazz players who try to make the
political implications of their music explicit. On albums such as Tuskegee
Experiments (1992) and Nu Blaxpoitation (1998), Byron pointedly
pushed listeners to confront the racist underbelly of American society. You
Are #6 looks at the country through an Afro-Carribean perspective that
questions America’s comfortable apathy, makes light of John Wayne movie music,
and taunts “Dub Ya.” Douglas’s Witness has a more progammatic
agenda—celebrating writers and activists confronting imperial power. Weaving
moods through Arabic based soundscapes, Douglas honors “Women At Point Zero,”
fantasizes “Kidnapping Kissinger,” nods to Seattle’s WTO “Ruckus,” before
settling into the extended centerpiece “Mahfouz,” a dedication to Egyptian
author Naguib Mahfouz that includes narration from Tom Waits.
Super Seven, Canto
installment of Los Super Seven moves beyond Tejano and traditional Mexican music
to reveal a multifaceted panorama of Latin sounds from Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and
Odetta, Looking For A Home
One of the great
voices of American folk music gives a stirring tribute to the music and politics
of Leadbelly (1889-1949). Ballads, blues, protests, and work songs make up the
program, with Odetta infusing each tune with the drama and truth that once made
folk music dangerous.
Haggard, Roots, Vol. 1
Parton, Little Sparrow
Parton are being rejuvenated by a return to roots and influences. For Haggard,
an easy swinging tour through the honky tonk songbook of the legendary Lefty
Frizzell, and for Parton, the high lonesome sound of bluegrass and tragic
stories of unwanted pregnancies, fatal attractions, and shattered dreams.
Burnside, Burnside On Burnside (Epitaph)
Taylor, White African
grand master of north Missisisippi hill country blues gets back to basics on
this live set recorded in Portland and San Francisco. Backed by his longtime
guitarist Kenny Brown and grandson Cedric Burnside on drums, R.L. unleashes the
most fierce and hypnotic sound in American roots music. Equally compelling are
Otis Taylor’s tales of racial violence and poverty. The oppressive historical
soil that most modern day blues wishes to forget, Taylor puts in your face.
Orlando Cachaito Lopez, Cachaito (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Best known as the
bassist of Buena Vista Social Club fame, Cachaito as bandleader shoots off into
an adventurous contemporary fusion of Latin jazz, funk, and hip-hop.
Various Artists, Poet: A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt
Various Artists, Avalon Blues: A Tribute To The Music Of Mississippi
John Hurt (Vanguard)
The year’s most
essential tribute albums. Van Zandt, the late great poet laureate of Texas
singer-songwriters, gets his due through 15 deeply felt performances by a who’s
who cast of roots singer-writers including Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams,
Steve Earle, John Prine, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, and Nanci Griffith. Likewise
for the Peter Case-produced Avalon Blues. From the heart appreciations by
folk, blues, and rock performers (Gillian Welch, Taj Mahal, Dave Alvin, Chris
Smither, Beck, to mention a few) touched by Hurt’s rural blues genius.
jazz player explores the blues through the varied musical weave of multicultural
Ozomotli, Embrace The Chaos (Uni/Interscope)
Mocosos, Shades Of Brown (Six Degrees)
Ozomotli and Los Mocosos aim for a mind/body connection with Latino youth and
anyone else who wants to come along for the ride. Ozomotli deliver overtly
leftist politics through a captivating stew of funk, salsa, rock, rap, and world
sounds. The Los Mocosos blend of rap and song leans heavy on the brown soul
tradition of 1960′s and 1970′s bands such as Malo, Azteca, El Chicano, and War.
Gaughan, Outlaws And Dreamers (Appleseed Recordings)
singer-songwriter offers inspiration rooted in Celtic tradition and working
class struggle. Employing spare arrangements relying on only guitar, fiddle, and
concertina, Gaughan sings tough and tender tales born of a committed life.
Highlights: An especially elegant rendering of Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone” and
the powerful autobiographical title track.
Charlie Haden And Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Nocturne (Uni/Verve)
Cuban pianist restrains his pyrotechnic flair and acoustic bass master Haden
supplies fat, lyrical eloquence on an exquisite set of Mexican and Cuban
ballads. Guest saxophonists David Sanchez and Joe Lovano are icing on the cake.
Muldaur, Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain
Hammond, Wicked Grin (Pointblank)
to blues of the 1920s and 1930s, and Hammond’s knock-out interpretations of Tom
Waits tunes brought the enduring power of the tradition into sharp focus. A
great comeback for two underappreciated blues veterans.
Maal, Missing You
Lagbaja, We Before Me
for African unity and praises to love and life, Senegal’s Baaba Maal has never
sounded more impassioned. Soulful Islamic wailing, the righteous guitar of
Monsou Seck, and a rich mix of tunes, rhythms, and moods make Missing You
Maal’s most dazzling recording to date. Nigeria’s Lagbaja is led by a mysterious
masked singer who aims to carry forward the musical and political legacy of Fela
Kuti minus celebrity. The album title, We Before Me, calls for the needs
of the masses over the needs of the elite and the 11-piece powerhouse band mixes
fiery Afro-beat, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B stoking solidarity and resistance.
Strokes, Is This It? (RCA)
Underground /Ramones connection is obvious and the hype surrounding their debut
is premature, but the Strokes penchant for matching catchy and crude guitar
noise to the muffled yowl of singer Julian Casablancas generates some genuine
madhouse fun. Time will tell if there’s anything more to offer.
away from his alt country outfit Whiskey-town, Ryan Adams’ singer-songwriter
muse has exploded all over the rock map. On Gold, Adams second solo
album, country-styled heartbreak gets its due, but over the course of 70 minutes
sonic references run from Neil Young to the Stones to the Who, Dylan, and
Blind Boys Of Alabama, Spirit Of The Century (Real World)
Six decades into
their life’s mission, The Blind Boys Of Alabama step outside the envelope of
gospel to reconfigure tunes from Tom Waits, Jagger-Richards, and Ben Harper. The
most astonishing and rewarding leap, however, comes on a mesmerizing melding of
“Amazing Grace” and “House Of The Rising Sun.”
Charley Patton, Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues
Box set of the
year. The hefty package includes five CDs covering all issued and previously
unissued recordings of the Delta blues giant, one disc of Patton tunes recorded
by peers, including Son House, Ma Rainey, and Lonnie Johnson, a disc of
interviews, and a reprint of Revenant founder John Fahey’s 1970 book on Patton.
The attention is warranted and overdue. Recording between 1929 and 1934, Charley
Patton’s harsh singing, intricate finger and slide work, and vivid, haunted
lyrics captured the dread and desire of his life and times with near
overwhelming intensity. Z