Artists Of The Year

Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, will be published by Henry Holt in April.


by Charles Aaron

"You know, that's not really hip hop." This was the retarded refrain around pop campfires in 1996 as defensive B-boys, wannabe boys, and self-appointed cultural authenticators betrayed the music's origins as an inclusive framework for rewiring history's mystery. Too often this inanity was dropped in reference to the two most innovative hip-hop albums of the year, The Fugees's The Score and DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. The Fugees caught flak for their version of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," which recast the original's heartsick pas de deux as a sensual soundclash. "Fake-ass R&B type shit" whined Jeru the Damaja, who pissed on the Fugees's ambitious renewal project, which reclaimed hip hop's West Indian sound-system roots and conscious lyricism. Could this grousing have something to do with the fact that the group's lead voice was a college-attending, suburb-representing woman? Mmm.

DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, also has a tough time credibility-wise, being a college-educated white kid whose debut album totally eschews rapping (though he works with a variety of MCs on his own Solesides label). Endtroducing is an instrumental treatise by way of the sampler, pushing the work of DJ geniuses Grandmaster Flash, Mantronik, Prince Paul, and DJ Premier, to an almost novelistic level of meditative storytelling. I have no doubt that hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa would big-up Shadow's ingenuity. Point of reference: At a New York appearance earlier this year by the Chemical Brothers (the Beavis and Butt-head of British breakbeat techno), the evening's MCs were none other than Old School hip hoppers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Caz. With nothing to prove, Herc and Caz heartily welcomed the Chemical dudes to the hip-hop family. Willfully judgmental young heads might well take heed.

Charles Aaron is senior editor at SPIN.


by Joan Freese

Writer Kathleen Norris lives and works in Lemmon, S.D., a small town that sits in the shadow of the North Dakota border. Although an accomplished poet, Norris is perhaps best known for her nonfiction, including the acclaimed Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. In that book, Norris addressed the growing anachronisms of contemporary rural life on the Great Plains. Part memoir, part spiritual journey, part geography primer, Dakota brought to page the vastness and complexity of the Plains. There, living in the home her grandparents built, removed from the mainstream of American society, Norris finds both the solitude and the community she credits for forging her artistic voice.

This year, Norris published The Cloister Walk, a memoir of time spent in residence at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. Already an oblate, or associate, of a North Dakota monastery, Norris (a married Protestant, no less) is dropped into the thick of church intellectual and spiritual life. While striving to study and, in some ways, join the everyday life of people of faith, Norris thoughtfully contemplates the church year, the Psalms, and even the Virgin Martyrs. The Cloister Walk is beautifully written. As in Dakota, Norris reveals a poet's use of language, eloquent and precise. And woven tightly into her prose are such a wide swath of literary references, that clear the lifestyle the artist has cultivated leaves time for voracious reading.

It's profoundly moving to read a voice this true. At a time when self-help and New Age spirituality books litter bookstores (how's about Elaine St. James' three-volume series on "simplifying" your life? No contradiction there!) Norris is a refreshing reality check. She professes no easy answers, stares down no simple truths. Living a life of faith, she writes, is a messy, complicated endeavor for human beings of every stripe. And that is truly a road less traveled.

Joan Freese is a Minneapolis writer and a regular contributor to City Pages.


by Keith Moerer

On Wilco's song "Sunken Treasure," Jeff Tweedy sings that he was saved by music, but "maimed by rock & roll." It's a good line, but Tweedy, an under-30 critics' pet signed to a major label and married to the owner of Chicago's hippest club, is not the most convincing example. My vote goes to Amy Rigby, whose Diary of a Mod Housewife was the year's most unexpected pleasure. Sure, R.E.M. "survived" a monstrously tough world tour and lived to sign a new megadeal. But Rigby has squeaked by her whole adult life, intent on living a bohemian dream even as she works temp jobs to feed her young daughter and tries to hold a shaky marriage together.

Diary of a Mod Housewife is a testament to her efforts, 12 songs that are funny, sad, and harrowing, with less attitude and more truth than sometimes seems possible. The music is a hopped-up mix of rock, psychedelic pop, and smart country. The lyrics are full of dumb lust, domestic resentment, and romantic regret. "Down Side of Love" is a cross between the spunk of Carlene Carter and the hurt of Rosanne Cash before she got too poetic. "Knapsack" sounds like a distaff version of Paul Westerberg's "Skyway," just Rigby and her acoustic guitar confessing desire for the bookstore clerk she checks her bag with. As Rigby promises herself and her estranged husband on the album-closing track: "We're stronger than the fairy tales, diaper pails, lack of heat, urge to cheat, shattered hopes, tired jokes, doctor bills, urge to kill." Based on the evidence I'm not so sure, but here's hoping that she proves me wrong in 1997.

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