The pop world of 2000 was a dreadful mess, still dominated by boy band
bromides, naughty sweet boy toys, rap-metal meatheads, and gangsta nihilism.
Against that backdrop rises the sensational Eminem whose critically hailed
and mass selling The Marshall Mathers LP may cleverly reflect the confusion
and stupidity of our time, but does it with a hate-filled party gang mentality
that surely makes the world less safe for women and gays. But with searching
ears you could find gems of critical and enlightened inspiration. As with
past years, there are fewer comments on music previously reviewed in this
Rage Against The Machine,
This audacious reinvention of the rebel spirit of rap and rock blows apart
originals by Erik B. and Rakim, Cypress Hill, Afrika Bombaataa, Springsteen,
Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the MC5. Zack de la Roca spews rhyme with
life or death conviction, drums and bass supply earthshaking rhythm bedrock,
and Tom Morello’s guitar launches huge and majestic sonic bombs. Perhaps
the greatest cover band of all time.
Patti Smith, Gung Ho (Arista)
Hope, idealism, anger, and compassion course through this no-frills rock
call to activism. One of her great albums and a wonderful link between
the 1960s, Seattle, and beyond.
Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
With its brooding electronic atmospheres and vocalist Thom Yorke’s delicate
tenor singing, Kid A offers a moody, but pleasant surface. Beneath the
gorgeous dark sheen, however, you’ll find the disturbing normalcy of fragmented
souls floating through the world with little sense of identity or meaning.
No answers here, only the scary provocations that we don’t get from the
evening news and advertising.
Sleater-Kinney, All Hands On The Bad One (Kill Rock Stars)
The gender and corporate critique remains acute and the voices and guitars
of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker keep soaring to new heights.
Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Ave. Vol. II (Elektra)
The second gem culled from the unheard lyrics of Woody Guthrie. Bragg and
Wilco continue to display a knack for matching Guthrie words to catchy
roots sounds. The results are revelatory, enlarging our appreciation of
Guthrie’s humanity and genius.
Common, Like Water For
Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free (Loud)
A new political and moral sensibility is on the rise in hip-hop and Common
and Dead Prez are in the vanguard. Common works his rhymes over an artful
backdrop of jazz, soul, and world sounds, while Dead Prez’s Stic.man and
M-1 bust their anti-capitalist Black Panther flavored lines to raw, molten
grooves fostering delirious agitation. Different methods for turning heads
and actions toward political and cultural change.
P.J. Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (Island)
An aggressive celebration of the joys and insecurities sparked by new love.
Harvey has never sounded so up or accessible. But with her Dylan snarl
and hard driving guitar attack, rest assured Stories is not your typical
U2, All That You Can’t Leave
Finally getting the news that their experiments with irony and assorted
studio tricks were a dead end, U2 returns to melodic, yearning rock and
roll. This one deepens with each listening, affirming life and love through
a grand swirl of sonic nuances and Bono’s impassioned vocal grace.
Jill Scott, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach)
Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun
Poet/songwriter/singer Jill Scott’s debut album laces hip-hop flavored
R&B with swoony shades of Marvin Gaye and Billie Holiday, but her poetic
stories of bittersweet (and often ugly) real life love are the heart of
her appeal. One of the freshest breakthroughs of 2000. Kindred spirit Erykah
Badu opened a door for this brand of truth-telling on 1997’s Baduizm. Like
Scott, Badu likes to talk and sing atop easy flowing funk, jazz, and soul.
But Mama’s Gun finds Badu exposing fears and vulnerabilities not present
on her debut album. Issues of single motherhood, romantic loss, and loneliness
give this set a hard edge of female urban blues.
Richard Buckner, The Hill
One of the most unusual and ambitious records of the year, The Hill draws
lyrics from the dark poetry of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.
First published in 1915, Masters’s 214- poem masterpiece ripped away the
phony veil of small town life by allowing the dead to speak openly of their
pained and tragic earthly lives. Buckner’s selection of characters and
words mirrors Masters’s intent, but through an uninterrupted half-hour
roots-rock song cycle that plants the drama in the here and now. Brilliant
and sadly true to life.
Lou Reed, Ecstasy (Reprise)
With pristine electric guitar noise, Al Green-inspired horn arrangements,
and a diary of bitter and tender romantic memories, Reed leads listeners
on another of his disturbing excavations of the male human heart. The difference
this time, consistently strong writing and exquisite minimalist sound.
Marianne Faithful, Vagabond Ways (Instinct)
Her raspy voice and dark-themed tunes will never win a wide audience, but
when song arrangements and production balance the mood and message, Faithfull
weaves powerful, incisive blues. With a few lapses, that’s what happens
on Vagabond Ways.
Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (E-Squared)
Earle’s rough edges remain, but in these Beatlesque roots-rock love songs
he’s taking stock of a newfound peace of mind. One exception to the rule,
“Jonathan’s Song,” another of Earle’s eloquent pleas against the death
Mekons, Journey To The End Of The Night (Quarterstick)
The smartest Marxist band to emerge from the 1977 British punk upsurge,
the Mekons for two decades have given us personal/political tunes that
critique, despair, and defiantly resist late 20th century capitalism. Another
batch of bleary, tough tunes that see through the crap and won’t give up
RZA, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The
Samurai (Razor Sharp/Epic)
RZA’s edgy soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog is a spare, lonesome
urban mood piece evoking the fear and risk of young black male existence.
The best movie music of the year.
Johnny Cash, Solitary Man
Merle Haggard, If I Could Fly
Although virtually abandoned by the country music mainstream, Cash and
Haggard are now finding sweet inspiration with record companies that don’t
box them in. Cash’s third album for American is an acoustic-based stare
down with mortality as honest and poig- nant as anything he’s ever done.
Haggard, working for the first time with the left-oriented Epitaph, reveals
old wounds and a tender new opening of the heart in his strongest set of
tunes in years.
Steve Young, Primal Young (Appleseed Recordings)
A woefully underappreciated singer-songwriter, Steve Young sings and writes
only from the purity of his muse. Not an attitude that produces fame and
fortune, but one that has created a gorgeous body of songs. Primal Young
is one of his masterpieces, a stunning mix of original and traditional
material rooted in working class toil and struggle and the idioms of folk,
blues, and country.
Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Tony Rice, The Pizza Tapes
This two-night acoustic jam exploring folk and bluegrass roots features
the fluid interplay and inventive solos of three extraordinary musicians
making music for the sole pleasure of creative play.
Allison Moorer, The Hardest Part (MCA)
No country album released in 2000 expressed the struggles and complexities
of romance more powerfully than The Hardest Part. Allison Moore sings and
writes with a naked honesty that is sorely absent from the bulk of Nashville
product. On a hidden track, she is even willing to confront the harrowing
murder of her mother by her father. A document of pain and survival aptly
James Talley, Nashville City Blues (Cimarron Records)
Talley speaks with a clear class consciousness that is not acceptable in
the mainstream country music biz, so search this one out. Bleak and tough
working class blues contradicting the glories of our “great economy.”
Various Artists, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume
The two-CD Volume Four contains 28 traditional “hits” by the likes of Robert
Johnson, the Carter Family, Lead Belly, the Monroe Brothers, Bukka White,
the Blue Sky Boys, and Sleepy John Estes, to mention a few. Essential oral
history for anyone interested in tracing the connections between traditional
and contemporary people’s music.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night (Windcharger/Rounder)
With his sweet, natural nasal twang voice, Gilmore covers a set of solid
tunes by fellow Texas songwriters (Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt, Willis
Allan Ramsey, Walter Hiatt, Steve Gillette), along with a few odd surprises
by Jerry Garcia, Kurt Weill, and Bertolt Brecht.
Kasey Chambers, The Captain (Asylum)
Another refreshing new country voice, Australian Kasey Chambers pulls her
style from a wide range of heroes and heroines (Hank Williams, Gram Parsons
and Emmylou Harris, Wanda Jackson, Dolly Parton, and Lucinda Williams)
and like them sings with straight-to-the-heart passion.
Mark Olson & The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, My Own Jo Ellen (Hightone)
The ex-Jayhawks singer-writer finally steps forward for a solo album, but
one so unassuming and homespun its not likely to get its due. Olson sets
his small stories of rural daily life against a backdrop of graceful low-keyed
country rock slowly and unpretentiously evoking values of friendship, love,
R. L. Burnside, Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (Fat Possum)
On this incredibly haunting blend of north Mississippi hill country blues
and eerie trip-hop, R.L. Burnside tells lived stories of hard times, murder,
love, and loss. The grooves are absolutely hypnotic and Burnside’s words
and singing resonate hard, bitter truth. Unquestionably the most powerful
blues album of the year.
Robert Belfour, What’s Wrong With You (Fat Possum)
Another North Mississippi master, Robert Belfour creates blues steeped
in the oldest rural traditions. What’s Wrong With You, if not for its clean
sound, could easily pass for long lost recordings of some forgotten blues
player from the 1930s. But with original songs, fluent guitar, and sinister
vocals, Belfour brings country blues into the new century with vital, contemporary
North Mississippi All-Stars, Shake Hands With Shorty (Uni/Tone Cool)
Sons of noted Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, Luther and Cody Dickinson
work the Mississippi hill country trance boogie through a blues rock sensibility
akin to the Allman Brothers and Cream. Not for purists, but their rough
and loose covers of Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, and R. L. Burnside
have the right ingredients to spawn a new and younger blues audience in
the 21st century.
Chris Smither, Live As I’ll Ever Be (Hightone)
Singer-songwriter Chris Smither is a blues-rooted fingerpicker extra-ordinaire
and one of the most poetic soul searchers working the folk circuit. Studio
recordings have never fully captured Smither’s artistry or intensity, so
this live one is a must. A sampling of some of his strongest writing and
a beautifully recorded voice and guitar immersed in the traditions of Robert
Johnson, John Hurt, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Corey Harris and Henry Butler, Vu-Du Menz (Alligator)
Harris’s guitar and Butler’s piano stew a unique blend of New Orleans meets
Delta blues. Gritty call and response vocals, barrel- house party romps,
gospel soul, and slashing slide guitar displaying the tradition’s resilient
optimism. One of many highlights is the spellbinding “Mulberry Row”—a tune
named after and evoking Thomas Jefferson’s slave quarters on his Monticello
Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss
Thing! (Fat Note)
Rekindling the flame of pre-rock jazz and blues, Smith and the Skillet
Lickers give Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Basie, and Ellington modern feminist
interpretations that are hilarious raucous fun, sexual, and subversive.
Outstanding eight- piece band musicianship to boot.
Jimmy Scott, Mood Indigo
At the age of 75, and after 5 decades of professional singing, Jimmy Scott
remains one of the great interpreters of popular song. Unfortunately, his
high-pitched, “feminine” voice has never garnered a wide audience. Gender
ambivalent, nakedly emotional singing is not a mainstream cup of tea. Still,
jazz, pop, and rock singers, from Nancy Wilson to Madonna to Lou Reed,
proclaim his artistry and influence. In recent years, Scott has started
to enjoy a small “comeback.” His newest release is an intimate masterpiece
fully showcasing his brilliance. Supported by sterling players such as
pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist George Marz, and saxophonist Hank Crawford,
and working in sparse, slow paced arrangements, Scott infuses standards
like “How Deep Is The Ocean?,” “Blue Skies,” and “Mood Indigo” with profound
yearning and anguish. The jazz vocal album of the year.
James Carter, Layin’, In The Cut (Atlantic)
Chasin’ The Gypsy (Atlantic)
The most versatile, ambitious, and least conservative saxophonist of the
younger generations, James Carter produced two astonishing releases in
2000. Paying homage to guitarist Django Reinhardt on Chasin’ The Gypsy,
Carter burns through a set of vintage swing material showing off blazing
chops, superb supporting players (violinist Regina Carter and drummer Joey
Baron), and passionate conviction. Layin’ In The Cut is something altogether
different—a funk/jazz/rock fusion bursting with brawling energy and irreverent
Chico O’Farrill, Carambola
One of the great pioneers of Latin jazz again demonstrates a magnificent
sweep of creativity drawing from big band jazz, Stravinsky, mambo, and
Afro-Caribbean folk forms.
Danilo Perez, Motherland (Verve)
Perez is a young and hugely talented pianist who keeps pushing jazz toward
a wider inclusion of Latin musical forms. This one embraces strains from
South America, the Caribbean, and his homeland Panama while holding true
to lessons of Monk and Bud Powell.
Fela Kuti, The Black President: The Best Best of Fela Kuti (MCA)
Nigerian Afrobeat innovator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, three years after his
death from AIDS-related illnesses at age 58, is finally getting the push
for a U.S. crossover. Fela’s music is a hard pulsing blast of polyrhythms,
horns, and guitars all working in service of an inflammatory attack on
Nigerian elites. Best Best is a much needed introduction to this fiery
voice of the poor and a democratic socialist Africa. One of the giants
of world music.
Various Artists, Ken Burns Jazz: The Story Of America’s Music
If you watched the 10-part Ken Burns documentary Jazz on PBS in January,
you know that Burns interprets the meaning and history of jazz from a liberal
ideological bent that confronts issues of race but remains chummy with
capitalism (his prime sponsor is General Motors). Nonetheless, the jazz
tradition has never been treated with more intelligence and respect in
hours of prime time visibility. The Jazz box set is, likewise, a respectfully
packaged and authoritative overview of a vastly neglected art form. The
5-CD box connects dots following ragtime to now, including landmark tracks
from early masters like Jelly Roll Morton on up to Wynton Marsalis. As
with the TV series, however, insight and coherence begin to wane when the
timeline reaches the 1960s. The musically and politically radical free
jazz movement gets scant attention and women, avant garde, and younger
players of the last two decades are virtually absent (Betty Carter, Carmen
McCrae, Abbey Lincoln, Diana Krall, David Murray, David S. Ware, John Zorn,
Joshua Redman, Don Byron, James Carter, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood,
to mention but a few). Still, what’s here makes for a state of the art
primer for novices and a wonderful refresher for veterans.
Louis Armstrong, The Complete Hot Fives And Hot Seven
This 4-CD collection of 1925 to 1929 recordings captures a giant of 20th
century music as he overturns the dominate ensemble format of the day by
bringing the jazz solo front and center with his awesome tone and hot flowing
lyricism. Decades later Miles Davis summed up the influence, “You can’t
play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played. I mean even modern.”
There are no more essential recordings in the history of jazz.
Charlie Parker, The Complete Savoy And Dial Recordings, 1944-1948 (Savoy)
At 8 CDs and a hefty price tag, the Parker box is marketed to the most
serious jazz fans and Parker fanatics. But there can be no argument with
the importance of the music. This is Bird at his peak inventing the sound
known as bebop and opening the door to what is now called modern jazz.
Various Artists, Rhapsodies In Black: Music And Words From The Harlem Renaissance
Including music, poetry, and prose from an extraordinary Black artistic
movement in the years 1918-1935, Rhapsodies is oral history at its finest.
The music selections run through Bessie Smith, Eubie Blake, Ellington,
Lead Belly, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Armstrong, and Holiday
and the readings, by a cast including Ice-T, Gregory Hines, August Wilson,
and Quincy Jones, cover works from Claude Mckay to Zora Neale Hurston.
An expansive lesson in Black history and the most innovative box presentation
of the year.
Various Artists, The Best Of
Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems Of The American
Underground From The Pages of Broadside Magazine (Smithsonian Folkways)
A document of a remarkable and not too distant moment when a small band
of songwriters and two staunchly dedicated visionaries, Gordon Friesen
and Agnes “Sis” Cunningham, came together to create a united front of radical
topical song. The musical protests include tracks from Dylan, Ochs, Seeger,
Nina Simone, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte Marie, and lesser knowns
such as Peter La Farge, Richard Farina, and Bonnie Dobson. A treasure chest
Various Artists, Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection 1960-2000
On 107 tracks spread over 5 CDs, Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz presents
all manner of the nation’s musical roots, including blues, zydeco, gospel,
cajun, Tex-Mex, work hollers, and hillbilly. Nothing particularly commercial
or crossover here, just the unadulterated voice of hard working people
releasing their woes and celebrating their joys. Among the “stars,” Mississippi
Fred Mcdowell, Clifton Chenier, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lydia
Mendoza, and Big Mama Thornton.
Jimi Hendrix, The Jimi Hendrix
Culled from mostly unissued studio jams, alternate takes, and live performances,
this 4-CD set is an amazing extension of an already amazing legacy. Hard
to believe Hendrix packed so much experience into so few years.
Los Lobos, El Cancionero—Mas Y Mas: A History Of The Band From East L.A.
No other rock band gives the country’s experience as broad a social and
musical range. It’s all here—Mexican and Tex-Mex traditions, roots to avant
rock, R&B, jazz, blues, folk, and country. An American Dream expressing
our most noble multicultural aspirations.