Every year when the National Academy
of Recording Arts and Sciences celebrates its Grammy Awards, I gag at the
notion that any of this music industry pomp honors the best music of the
past year. Although all of the big time entertainment awards cater to money
and power, the Grammy ceremony offers up a particularly shameless brand
of groveling. This year’s 42nd annual Grammy Awards (February 23) was
more of the same.
To begin with the obvious, the Grammy Awards are selected by established
industry big wigs (writers, producers, musicians, and other industry professionals)
whose tastes and loyalties are bonded to the commercial successes of major
label music companies. Accordingly, all of the show’s big winners come
from the rosters of music industry conglomerates and most enjoy blockbuster
record sales (upwards of a million units sold).
No surprise then when the January 4 nominations included giant commercial
acts such as the Backstreet Boys, TLC, Ricky Martin, the Dixie Chicks, Christina
Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Santana dominating all the major awards categories
(Album of The Year, Best New Artist, Male Pop Vocal Performance, Female
Pop Vocal Performance, Rock Album of The Year).
In the non-mainstream music categories such as blues, folk, bluegrass, gospel,
jazz, and world, the Grammys approach credibility. Less manipulated by the
sway of commercial arm twisting, nominations in these categories include
artists from small labels and generally tend to appreciate music not aimed
at a mass market. Although, even here, older and established performers
are favored over younger and less conventional musicians, nominations do
at least draw attention to strong respectable releases from the past year.
This year’s bluegrass nominations, for example, presented a solid group
of albums by the legendary Ralph Stanley, Steve Earle and the Del McCoury
Band, Ricky Skaggs, and David Grisman and friends. Blues and folk categories
shined a light on worthy works by B. B. King, Robert Cray, Pinetop Perkins,
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Prine, and Doc Watson. In even more obscure
categories such as Tejano, Polka, Latin Jazz, Classical, and Opera, the
Grammys recognized musical riches well beyond the popular music mainstream.
The catch is none of these small market music awards get the spotlight of
the prime time Grammy telecast. Handing out these “lesser” awards
early and off camera, the Grammys reinforce the marginalization of all the
non-mainstream sounds already excluded from virtually all visibility in
the mass media. For its gala self-congratulatory event of the year, the
music industry worships only at the alter of the almighty dollar.
So it is that most of the awards are predictable. The real action and suspense
of the Grammy evening comes in the parade of the rich and famous flouting
fashion, cool, and cleavage. Punctuating the ceremony with glitzy, overproduced
performances from the year’s nominees, the show only underscores how
little the proceedings have to do with musical excellence. Backslapping
and self- promotion is the name of the game.
This is not to say that all the Grammy winners stink. There are some commercially
successful artists whose music is exciting, emotional, and provocative in
ways that shed light on the human condition. The ten nominations and eight
awards going to guitarist Carlos Santana for his six million-selling “comeback”
album Supernatural gives one of the pioneers of Latin-rock deserving
recognition. For a fine tribute album to western swing giant Bob Wills,
country veterans Asleep At The Wheel (with five nominations and one
award) also earned due praise. Other respectable high profile winners included
the Roots and Erykah Badu (Rap Performance By Group) and Diane Krall (Jazz
These triumphs (and a few others could be added), however, made it into
the winner’s circle with the commercial clout assistance of major labels.
Other winners in the major categories (TLC, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, the Dixie
Chicks, Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain) also predictably greased their
path to victory with mammoth record sales and major label promotion campaigns.
And as expected, it was a huge night for Santana.
With a record-tying eight Grammys, Santana managed to hold off teen-pop
hit makers such as the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Ricky Martin and
’N Sync for the year’s biggest honors (Album of The Year, Record
of The Year, Song of The Year). Due respect to Santana’s elegant and
passionate guitar artistry, but the fact is the competition was dismal.
In a very bad year for pop music, Santana’s Supernatural album
grabbed ears not just because it was good, but because nearly every track
featured happening rock-pop guests. Hitch that scheme to the year’s
Latin music craze and you’ve got a far more compelling product than
the party and dance offerings of Cher and Ricky Martin.
But judged against the full range of the year’s popular music and without
any heavy allegiances to the music industry, Santana’s Supernatural
gains a more realistic appraisal. In the Village Voice’s year
end nationwide critics poll, Supernatural ranked in at number 40.
The other four Grammy nominees for best album finished as follows: TLC’s
FanMail number 31, Dixie Chick’s Fly number 41, the Backstreet
Boy’s Millennium number 133 and Diane Krall’s When I
Look In Your Eyes number 265.
The real surprises, and exceptions, on the nominations list were the unclassifiable
and independent label-based Tom Waits and Ani DiFranco. Some portion of
the Academy voters had to really like these small market artists to garner
each of them three nominations. For Waits to land the Grammy for Best Contemporary
Folk Album was the evening’s most pleasant shock.
Given the rigid categories of music industry marketing, the Academy wound
up labeling Waits’s singing on the tune “Hold On” a Male
Rock Vocal Performance while his album Mule Variations was lumped
in the hodge podge Contemporary Folk category to compete with John Prine’s
country duets collection In Spite Of Ourselves, Beauseoleil’s
cajun- rooted Cajunization, Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips’s
Fellow Workers, and Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt’s Tucson
Sessions. Naturally no chance in the big-time Male Rock Vocal category,
but in this odd little niche, with one of the most acclaimed records of
the year, Waits came out on top.
Aside from a few small breakthroughs, however, most of the Grammys continued
to follow the money. Maximizing investments in Santana, the Dixie Chicks,
and Shania Twain, the music industry doled out awards corresponding to commerce
and giving one final commercial surge to the year’s already big winners.
Mostly from the new year—a small batch of good stuff that the Grammys
Chuck Prophet, The Hurting
Back in the early 1980s singer/ writer/guitarist Chuck Prophet gained a
bit of semi-popular recognition while playing in the LA-based psychedelic
roots band Green On Red. Since then, through a series of indie label solo
projects, he’s built a small but devoted following attracted to rough-hewn
blues and country-flavored rock. But on The Hurting Business, Prophet
bends his sound toward the scratchy turntables and rhythmic atmospheres
of hip hop. The dry Tom Petty-flavored vocals and tough-minded storytelling
remain intact. Prophet’s characteristic guitar fire, however, is restrained
to suit moody groove-based tunes colored with Tex-Mex organ riffs, smooth
soul samples, lap steel moans, and bluesy percussion. A kind of mean streets
trip-hop for the new century. Special highlight: “Dyin’ All Young,”
an eloquent and tragic ode to victims of urban violence.
Steve Young, Primal Young (Appleseed Recordings)
For over 30 years singer/songwriter Steve Young has remained too far out
of the loop of the country music mainstream to be heard by the wide audience
he deserves. Yet in the more offbeat regions of roots music, peers hail
his work with reverence and awe. “As a writer,” says Lucinda Williams,
“Steve is in a league with Dylan and Hank Williams—and he sings
like an angel.” The late great Townes Van Zandt once gushed, “For
that voice, that guitar, and those songs to come together in one person
is a wonder.” Now thanks to his first release in the United States
in six years, fans new and old get a wonderfully balanced sampling of Young’s
talents. Featuring original and traditional material, alongside exquisite
covers of Merle Haggard (“Sometimes I Dream”) and Scotland’s
Dick Gaughan (“Worker’s Song”), Primal Young is a
must buy for the left folkie and alternative country crowds and one of the
early gems of the new year.
Various Artists, The Rough Guide To World Roots
Various Artists, The Rough Guide To Irish Folk (RGNET)
World music samplers abound in today’s market, but unfortunately many
of these collections seem put together only as comforting mood music for
middle-class shoppers checking out exotic goods and fashion. The folks at
Rough Guide do a better job, celebrating the genuinely rootsy expressions
of five continents with over seventy-seven minutes of soulful and triumphant
sounds that can’t be dismissed as background listening. The range of
musicians and voices includes more well known performers (to western ears)
such as Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen, Senegal’s Baaba Maal, Cuban
powerhouses Cubanismo and Afro-Cuban All Stars, and the awesome Pakistani
star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The less heralded talent includes Ecuador’s
Carmen Gonzalez and Koral Y Esmeralda, South African Busi Mhlongo, Arabic
singer/dancer Natacha Atlas, Indonesian pop star Detty Kurnia, and Brazilian
indigenous music explorer Mariui Miranda.
Rough Guide’s Irish folk round-up likewise separates itself from the
competition with a diverse mix of established and rising musicians. Followers
of Irish music will recognize the bigger names such as De Danann, Reeltime,
Deanta, Moving Cloud, and fiddlers Paddy Glakin and Kevin Burke. But lesser
knowns like tin whistle master Brian Hughes and “old style” Gaelic
singer Padraigin Ni Uallachain provide equally rewarding performances. In
all, a consistently strong offering of jigs, reels, and ballads covering
the ancient and evolving flow of a grand tradition.
Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
Rock and roll in general and post-punk indie rock in particular don’t
have much of a track record for proclaiming the glories of long-term emotional
commitments. The Hoboken, New Jersey trio know as Yo La Tengo, however,
has never steered a musical course that set easily within either camp, so
the current excavation of the joys and weight of a long shared history is
not so surprising. Since 1984 drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan
have shared their muse and personal intimacies through nine album’s
worth (now ten) of oddly melodic alternative rock. The difference this time
is a delicate mostly feedback free sound and sustained bittersweet confessions.
Wonderfully original and one of Yo La Tengo’s finest.
Fela Kuti, The Black President: The Best Of Fela Kuti
Nigerian Afrobeat innovator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti never made the big crossover
in the U.S., but his amazing propulsive blend of West African sounds, jazz,
and funk left an indelible mark on world pop. Building boiling grooves of
hypnotic polyrhythmic beats, blasting horns, and steady pulsing guitars
as a launching pad for incendiary free-styled improvisation, Fela laid out
a jam band blueprint that avoided “out there” abstraction. In
the hands of Fela, intoxicating sounds became a political weapon.
Since his death in 1997 of AIDS-related illnesses at the age of 58, Fela’s
music has been scarcely available. But in upcoming months, with 20 original
albums scheduled for domestic release, U.S. audiences get another chance
to pick up on his stirring and flamboyant legacy. The place to begin, however,
is the recently released two-CD Black President anthology. Covering
recordings from 1972 to 1989, this “best” collection supplies
a solid overview of the sound and politics that threatened Nigerian elites.
Sampling inflammatory tracks assailing Westernization, poverty, political
and military corruption, Black President traces an evolving activist
art boldly attacking reigning regimes. Song titles alone (“Zombie,”
“No Agreement” and “Coffin For Head Of State”) suggest
Fela’s dangerously uncompromising stance. No surprise that he was jailed
and beaten often. In a particularly brutal attack in 1977, Nigerian soldiers
fractured his skull and threw his 82-year-old mother out an upstairs window
while burning his home and recording studio to the ground. To the end, however,
Fela remained a voice of the poor still dreaming of a democratic socialist
Africa. Less admired is Fela’s renowned egoism and defiant sexism.
Though his mother was one of Nigeria’s first feminists, Fela reveled
in the pleasures of polygamy and the rule of patriarchy.
Nonetheless, for taking a stand against Nigeria’s decadent upper classes
through a fiery African-based brand of pop, Fela Kuti became one of the
giants of world music.
Corey Harris, Greens From The Garden (Alligator)
Guy Davis, Butt Naked Free
One of the most significant blues trends of recent years has been the reinvigoration
of rural traditions by a new generation of African American players. Corey
Harris and Guy Davis are in the vanguard of that group (along with Alvin
Youngblood Hart, Keg Mo’, and Eric Bibb), but raves for their impressive
guitar work and singing has often been tempered by questions of originality.
These releases should lay authenticity concerns to rest.
Released last year, Harris’s Greens From The Garden carries
forward the heavy Delta influences displayed on his two previous albums.
But this time plowing more varied roots, including New Orleans brass band
and Caribbean traditions, Harris opens up fresh possibilities for a modern
Black American folk music. His stories are of current racial realities and
the new multicolored sound is both tradition-based and contemporary.
While not forsaking his country roots, Davis, too, is breaking new ground.
A full scale electric band yields a versatile and engaging sound that should
widen his appeal. The real growth on Butt Naked Free, however, is
in the songwriting. With 13 original blues, Davis brings traditional blues
themes of ecstasy, sorrow, mortality, and protest into a 21st century context.
Just the kind of vital vaccine the blues needs to avoid extinction. Z