The blues represent the anvil of the American experience; Ulmer takes his ax to them and the sparks fly. Ghosts abound--Muddy, Wolf, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker--for a nasty séance in the studio that Elvis and Jerry Lee built.
Kora, trombone, oud, raps, violin, Fender Rhodes, and all the usual strings and skins. Spanish, English. Hip hop, salsa, jazz, gumbo funk, son, pop, batucada, rock, highlife. With an amiable vengeance.
6. De La Soul, AOI:Bionix (Tommy Boy)
Smarty-pantsed rappers who refuse to be pigeonholed as smart. "Trying People" makes the phrase positive hip hop seem inadequate; "Pawn Star" makes it seem inappropriate. A beguiling collide-a-scope in living color.
7. David Murray Power Quartet, Like a Kiss That Never Ends (Justin Time)
The vital link between Eric Dolphy and James Carter continues to swagger from bonfire wanderlust to blowtorch intensity on his tenor sax and bass clarinet. Prolific as hell, he's delivered his best disc in at least two months.
8. Robert Earl Keen Jr., Gravitational Forces (Lost Highway)
Getting goosebumps from a Texas tunesmith ain't no rarity, but the back-to-back amulets of "Wild Wind" and "Not A Drop Of Rain" put Keen in Townes Van Zandt territory. More folk than country this time, and his best one yet.
9. Irvin Mayfield, How Passion Falls (Basin Street)
The erstwhile too-cerebral, prodigiously talented trumpeter from Los Hombres Calientes gets bushwhacked by heartbreak and pours out his passion (which thankfully never falls) in soulfully roiling jazz, footnoting Shakespeare and the Bible along the way.
10. Henry Threadgill's Zooid, Up Popped Two Lips (Pi)
Threadgill's tunes are as burly and nimble as dancing bears, playful potency with a whiff of novelty. His new acoustic sextet, Zooid, is a cross between Air and Very Very Circus.
11. Basement Jaxx, Rooty (Astralwerks)
Rocks harder and takes more chances than Remedy. For ecstasy without Ecstasy, spin "Do Your Thing."
12. Faithless, Outrospective (Arista)
The stiff, self-indulgent voiceovers (too wack to be called raps) and the sloppy paean to Muhammad Ali occasionally spill ego on the pristine trance/funk/ambient textures with a creepy-cool panache--like having your deserted highway reveries interrupted by the splat of fat bugs on your windshield.
My disdain for cult idolatry (enough already with the bullshizzo argot) gets overwhelmed by his impeccable flow, subversive humor, uncanny vocabulary, and charismatic arrogance. But if he stabs one more guy, I won't forgive him.
We should all aspire to Lowe's wizened wisdom, accepting the perspective that maturity offers with wry, sly gratitude and imparting dollops of sagacity in return. A thoroughly satisfying repast of vintage pop, country, and blues.
15. System of a Down, Toxicity (Sony/Columbia)
16. Steve Turre, TNT (Telarc)
17. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia)
Overrated but still marvelous. A whirring brain with no voice left triumphs through sheer mental telepathy. For those reared on Highway 61 or Blood on the Tracks, he's become the premier genius in nostalgia's nursing home.
18. Carla Cook, dem bones (MaxJazz)
19. Mary J. Blige, No More Drama (MCA)
Spearheaded by the year's best single ("Family Affair"), Mary J. successfully comes to grips with getting happy, with her spontaneously spine-tingling vocal prowess intact.
20. The Crystal Method, Tweekend (Geffen/Outpost)
Hipsters already think Crystal Meth is passé (either a very good or very bad omen), but slap the crushed electronica grooves of "Roll It Up" on the box at a party for a reminder that hipsters usually can't dance.
Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order: Aceyalone, Accepted Eclectic (Nu Gruv); Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century (Real World); Richard Bona, Reverence (Columbia); Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Jive); Rodney Jones, Soul Manifesto (Blue Note); Joydrop, Viberate (Tommy Boy); Alicia Keys, Songs in A Minor (J); Femi Kuti, Fight to Win (MCA); Lagbaja, We Before Me (IndigeDisc); John Lewis, Evolution II (Atlantic); Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul (Sony/Epic); John Mellencamp, Cuttin' Heads (Columbia); Ludacris, Word of Mouf (Def Jam); Mint Royale, On the Ropes (MCA); Jason Moran, Black Stars (Blue Note); Res, How I Do (MCA); David Sanchez, Travesia (Columbia); Angie Stone, Mahogany Soul (J); various artists, Tomb Raider Soundtrack (Elektra); Rufus Wainwright, Poses (Dreamworks).
--Britt Robson, staff writer, City Pages
1. Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky)
2. Basement Jaxx, Rooty (XL/Astralwerks)
3. Atmosphere, Lucy Ford (Rhyme Sayers Entertainment)
4. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
6. Fugazi, The Argument (Dischord)
7. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia)
8. The Moldy Peaches, The Moldy Peaches (Rough Trade)
9. Manu Chao, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (Virgin)
10. Clinic, Internal Wrangler (Domino)
--Peter S. Scholtes, staff writer, City Pages