2000: The Year In Music
I KNOW WHAT you're thinking: Another year, another damn Top 10 list.
Well, yeah. You're right. But this isn't just any year. And this isn't just any Top 10 list. I mean, don't you read the papers? With the thrilling powers of digital technology poised to transform every Compaq into a jukebox, this could be the last year the album as we know it exists! And that means...this could be the last Top 10 list you ever read.
Then again, maybe not. Rock critics make lousy soothsayers, and I've stopped offering predictions about a single artist's career, let alone the future of the business. If I truly could glimpse the future, I'd be drawing a heftier check as a telepsychic or an A&R flack. And trust me, so would every other pundit opining on the issue. The writers I know are not such technically adept beings, so don't be surprised if the guy now holding forth on the revolutionary potential of Napster was accepting instruction from his ten-year-old daughter on how to use his first AOL account just eighteen months ago.
Experience has, however, taught me one indubitable fact about the future: It will be infinitely more boring than anyone predicts it will be. Take gene-splicing, and the wicked possibilities therein. Are they going to inject us with human-adaptive chlorophyll cells so we can photosynthesize and sunbathe for sustenance instead of gorging ourselves on Little Debbie snack cakes? Dream on. Instead, they're just going to make vegetables square so they're easier to ship.
So, for me at least, the biggest industry story this year isn't downloadable media, which points to a future that will only unfold with time, but rather the stupefying success of the Beatles' 1, which points to a commercial past that remains with us. After all, I'm never amazed when people snatch stuff up for free--that's just common sense rearing its uncommon head. But when hordes of folks pay for what they already own, that's some insight into the psychology of capitalism. Capitol's implicit marketing pitch is startling: Quick, buy songs you already own before you're forced to download them for free--they're in a brand-new box! Well, I hate to get all Menshevik on your ass, but it would seem that the ideological conditions that would enable the download revolution to commence are not yet in place, comrades.
In other words, the notion of the album as a whole retains some appeal--for regressive commercial reasons, and for authentic aesthetic reasons as well (not that the two aren't often one and the same). All of which is just an excuse for me to blab about 10 albums I dug in 2000, list another 30 that are just incrementally less wondrous, and make fun of a few select unworthies.
And speaking of Radiohead: Although Kid A was leaked onto the Net prior to release, it was the album's public reception, and number-one berth, that was so shocking. Like Sgt. Pepper's or London Calling, the record became both an artifact to be consumed in toto, and a mass cultural moment. Maybe it will stand as a landmark, one of the last instances of a dying art form. Or maybe it will fill the resell bins alongside such once-esteemed artifacts as Bandwagonesque and Arrested Development. Like I said, I'm not very good at all this future stuff.
Forget about Dre and any other Cali thug who jacked Bernie Worrell's high-end synth whine for quick cash. No P-Faker whose idea of down-and-dirty sex is trading coke for a backstage blowjob could ever be worthy of unfastening George Clinton's cock ring. But Outkast's Andre and Big Boi deem Billy Ocean a pimped-out ghetto supastar, posit "What does love smell like?" as a pressing existential query, and stand convinced that the freakin's only good when it's as thick and goopy as yesterday's grits. Of course, if vintage George was some unholy mix of freakazoid genius and mystagogical con, Outkast are just starry-eyed hustlers and what-if whiz kids, which makes their charming navigation of downhome's tricky sexual politics that much more impressive. The conciliatory shout-out to "baby's momma's mommas" is the scene-stealer of "Ms. Jackson," but the coital politesse of "I'll Call Before I Come" and the double-standard-straddling "We Luv Deez Hoez" are more keyed in to the rhythm of their daily doings--and perhaps yours, too.
The Friends of
These two mature Aussie craftsmen unknown to 99 percent of the globe edge closer to the sublimity of pure pop than a dream factory's supply of harmonized teen wonders. The arrangements are rudimentary verging on skeletal--just delicate guitar arpeggios frosted by the occasional hint of cello, anchored by a surprisingly understated Janet Weiss on drums. The lyrics are conversational commonplaces that verge on Max Martinized cliché: "There's magic in here"; "There's ice around your heart." Ten years after splitting up, the duo gloss the edges of relationships and emotions they needn't sketch more boldly because you already know them by heart. The Go-Betweens are wiser now because they're older, sadder because the wisdom doesn't seem to help much, sweeter because they've learned sadness doesn't help, either.
3. James Carter
Chasin' the Gypsy
Just like, um, the Insane Clown Posse, every rocker's most beloved jazz cat simultaneously released two separate discs this year. And not only does Carter's "tribute" to Django Reinhardt (which characteristically turns out to be Carter's salute to none other than his own fine self) predictably outrock them doughy palefaces, it also unpredictably outrocks Carter's own fusion-minded Layin' in the Cut, which is no laggard itself. Resent his glitz and wallop all you want, but there's no dodging the fact that no one explores the tonal range of the saxophone so intrepidly without abandoning melody completely.
The Marshall Mathers LP
It's said that the standard defenses for hip-hop offenses are contradictory--you can't be both keeping it "real" and just indulging in "fantasy." Well, okay, let's pretend we live in a world where misogyny and homophobia already exist, where said vices are, in fact, rampant--the pathetic tools acquired by small fry who regularly dodge arbitrary acts of violence intended to humiliated them. (I know our grown-up, middle-class simulacrum of polite society hides such raw power dynamics; to witness such turpitude firsthand, I suggest a visit to your local high school.) The Marshall Mathers LP is an unsparing, complex, scary, and hilarious vivisection of the white male pathology: the fear of being called a faggot, or the fear of being a faggot, or the fear of being too ugly, or the fear of being too pretty, or the fear of not having anyone weaker than you to bear the brunt of your insecure rage, or the fear of suddenly realizing you can take out your insecurity on anyone and that doesn't make you any more secure. Very real fantasies, I'd say.
5. Del the Funkee Homosapien
Both Sides of the Brain
Del's First Avenue show this summer was a revelation, a glimpse into a genuine underground phenomenon. That packed house united a bedroom community who keep in touch electronically with an artist who has had little mass public exposure since most of his fans were in their teens. Judging from his first disc to receive nationwide distribution in over half a decade, he deserves that love. Del's voice is unique in hip hop: gently amused rather than snide, battle-hungry but never belligerent. Unflappable in his skepticism of poseurs and braggarts, he seamlessly integrates his capacious cranium's street lobe and bookish core.
The Sophtware Slump
Haven't you heard? Bombast is all the rage, with countless arty types putting the phony back in symphony while envisioning the end of the world. Jason Lytle is a subdued exception, an old-style indie twiddler, resistant to massive soundscapes because they'd be way too much work. Confronting anomie with all the good humor one smart-ass can muster, he constructs robot pals who die of loneliness, sets up camp in a "Broken Household Appliance Natural Forest," and ends up stranded on the moon squinting at his loved ones through a telescope. He's the future, your future.
How disappointing that so many otherwise intelligent people are denying themselves the tawdry pleasures of the best "pure" disco album that Madonna has churned out since her first full-length. I mean, if you don't grasp that "Cosmic systems intertwine/Astral bodies drip like wine" is a joke, her electronically processed "I like to singy singy singy/Like a bird upon a wingy wingy wingy" should be all the wink you need. I especially like the way Madonna stares at her guitar on the back cover like she's trying to figure out where the on button is.
8. Lucy Pearl
Every year, critics who are uncomfortable with technology or the f-word select an honorable, safe, bourgie retro-soul concoction to overrate. But we'll get to D'Angelo in due time. This selection of unassuming come-ons marks Tony! Toni! Toné! alum Raphael Saddiq as the most lithely soulful boyIIman of his age. From his initial "Kissing you is not enough for me" onward, he makes sex sound like fun and games, even when he's dissing your kin on the self-explanatory "Can't Stand Your Mother." (Sorry, Ms. Jackson...) En route from En Vogue to her solo career, Dawn Robinson doesn't flub any of her lines along the way.
The Death of Quickspace
Is it just wishful listening on my part or is this all-but-unacknowledged selection of moody, tuneful drones the guitar record of the year? Rather than sculpting riffs and effects into drafty cathedrals of gloom, former Faith Healer Tom Cullinan stretches bare melodies past the breaking point, allowing those inclined to scrutinize each melodic component that rises from the flow and slinks back underneath. Anyone with a long enough attention span to hang in there is sometimes rewarded with a third chord, a shift in tempo, a lyrical coda. Sometimes not. Underneath, a hypnotic forcebeat chomps forward like a combine shredding a patch of daffodils.
10. Rokia Traore
Malian neo-traditionalism--a phrase that probably means zilch to you and doesn't fully register with me either. Oh, I know what it means: Rather than using the chintzy drum machines that have overrun West Africa, this sharp young woman digs into the past for sustenance. But what does it sound like from this great a cultural and geographic distance? Just an uncommonly nuanced and hypnotic take on Mali's already hypnotic, nuanced wash of strings and xylophones, plaintive voices and easeful polyrhythms. Gorgeous, with translated lyrics worth reading.
The rest of my Top 40, in order of preference
Wu-Tang Clan, The W (Loud); James Carter, Layin' in the Cut (Atlantic); Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars); The Handsome Family, In the Air (Carrot Top); De La Soul, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy); Sonic Youth, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen); The Kinleys, II (MCA Nashville); Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume II (Elektra); David S. Ware, Surrendered (Sony); PJ Harvey, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island); Elastica, The Menace (Atlantic); Ass Ponys, Some Stupid With a Flare Gun (Checkered Past); Jungle Brothers, V.I.P. (Gee Street); Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador); U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope); Chicks on Speed, Will Save Us All! (Chicks On Speed); Youssou N'Dour, Joko (The Link) (Elektra Nonesuch); The Beautiful South, Painting it Red (Ark 21); Rancid, Rancid (Hellcat/Epitaph); Roni Size/Reprazent, In the Mode (Talkin' Loud/Island); Ghost Dog (Epic/Razor Sharp/Sony); Wyclef Jean, The Ecleftic: Two Sides to a Book (Columbia); Merle Haggard, If I Could Only Fly (Anti-/Epitaph); Suzzy Roche, Songs From an Unmarried Housewife (Red House); Rubén González, Chanchullo (Elektra Nonesuch); Sonny Rollins, This Is What I Do (Milestone); Free the West Memphis 3 (Koch); Capleton, More Fire (VP); Green Day, Warning (Reprise); Mouse on Mars, Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey)
All That You Can't Leave Behind
BEEN THINKING A lot about leaving Minneapolis lately. Maybe moving to New York, like members of the Cows, Deformo, Lifter Puller, and others before them. Soon as I take care of that -$28 checking balance, it's goodbye frozen nostril hair forever.
Thing is, everyone who leaves talks about coming back. And they talk about the music they left behind. Imagine that: the music. When I first started writing about local rock 'n' roll a few years back, nobody--not writers, certainly not musicians--considered this beat auspicious. Now, from his desk at the Seattle Weekly, onetime Minnesota resident Michaelangelo Matos proclaims Lifter Puller his record of the year. Last week former City Pages music editor Jon Dolan phoned from Spin to insist I reserve cover space in these pages for the new Low album. Dolan hates Low, or so he used to say. Absence makes the heart clean its ears.
So in the spirit of taking stock before cutting losses, I have just visited the Minnesota History Museum's "Sounds Good to Me: Music in Minnesota" exhibit, a thoroughly wonderful display premised on the generous notion that music is a history of audiences above all else. There are welcome tributes to Minnesota rock godfather Augie Garcia and others, but irreverence is everywhere in evidence--no wonder City Pages' Keith Harris got off on "Funkytown" being represented by a karaoke booth with a dinky remix console (Revolutions Per Minute, November 9). What better way to demystify a classic than by giving it to visiting grade schoolers to improve?
The overriding assumption here is that music should be viewed in a way that lets a Hmong discotheque or a rural polka mass or the crowds at the legendary Prom Center ballroom mean as much as Prince or "Surfin' Bird." The museum's faux diner features old-fashioned jukeboxes at each booth stocked with Minnesota songs of every period, from the Andrews Sisters to Astronaut Wife. On each table sit cards for suggested additions to the jukebox, asking the museum visitor to "please add a few sentences describing why your choice is important to you."
I can't imagine an inclusive spirit more contrary to our consumer political culture of polls and focus groups, where dubious experts turn social history on its head by selling first and asking questions later. A few days after hitting the museum, I participated in a television-pilot audience testing where the MC polled the crowd with the question, "What do you think of opinion polls?" then absently repeated it as, "Do you think your opinion counts?" In the exhibit, at least, product is an afterthought. Music is framed as a business, to be sure, but also as a form of memory and an art.
Of course, assessing the year in music is by necessity a noninclusive process--an audience of one writes this sort of history--and in my subjective little realm it barely matters at all that Best Buy bought out Musicland this month. Not that business isn't a critic's business: In the span between Lifter Puller's national release of Fiestas + Fiascos and Low's bizarre new "Little Drummer Boy" Gap ad, the downtown, all-ages Foxfire Coffee Lounge closed its doors. So did the nearby all-ages DJ club Liquid. And in both cases, art has duly suffered. Meanwhile, Lifter Puller themselves split, along with countless others. Mollycuddle's final moments at the Foxfire remain fixed in my memory as the most evocative image of struggling local musicians you could imagine: Tommy Kim trying repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to smash a guitar against a brick wall. The fact that First Avenue just canceled its erstwhile barometer of local music culture, the annual late-December Best New Band Night, is perhaps poetic more than it is unjust.
Then again, I'm staring right now at a pile of very good local CDs. All of them are at least as ambitious and engaging as half my Top Ten list of two years ago. Yet this pile represents only this year's "honorable mentions," (which will go unmentioned here). The pile next to that first one contains my ten favorites. All are listed below with observations from three angles--business, memory, and art--through which we may one day view the music in its own exhibit. Plus a few sentences describing why my choice is important to me.
1. Lifter Puller
Fiestas + Fiascos
Business: The band is no longer in
Memory: "LFTR PLLR" spelled out in colored vinyl records taped to the windows of the Weisman Art Museum.
Art: Having spent years trying to like Craig Finn's Springsteen-with-a-lollypop flow, I finally gave up and began absorbing his lyrics as a hip-hop-hating parent might: through slow, teeth-clenched osmosis. And guess what? Riding that electric bull of a guitar-keyb groove, Finn's private-dick-like narration starts to sound like what the poetry fans take it for. As much as his mates, he knows when to repeat and when to plow on. He's got more riffs than Fugazi covering Supertramp. And while his Lake Street peopled with card sharks and pimps and disco gangsters might be as imaginary as a planned library and public gardens on Block E, the rendering is as well-paced, open-hearted, and vivid as any urban storytelling BS of yore from the Clash or, well, Springsteen.
2. Mason Jennings
Birds Flying Away
Business: The singer sold out First Avenue and nearly filled the Fitzgerald.
Memory: The audience sang every word at those shows.
Art: A lot of folks, Jennings included, took my flip evaluation of his vocal style as an attack on the man's authenticity. (I claimed at the time that Jennings's Pennsylvania roots weren't enough to explain how the lyric "violence" becomes "vah-olence.") The letters in response were a reminder that practicing criticism on your neighbors can be like a real-life replay of that great scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen produces Marshall McLuhan in person to deflate some windbag queued up for a movie. (Soon Craig Finn will phone from New York: "Sir, I've been listening to you, and you don't understand my work at all.") But my speculations about Jennings's cultivated singing accent, albeit lamely qualified with a "probably," were meant to emphasize that the way he snaps words in two is an aesthetic choice, however conscious, and a good one at that. Certainly all the Brazilian funk, gospel, and (for all I know) gabber house rhythms digested in the trio's acoustic compost sculpture constitute a choice too. But the other two guys aren't what makes these songs worth playing to friends or redialing all-Eighties radio in vain to request.
Ford One, Ford Two
Business: Unconfirmed rumor holds that Puffy offered $600,000 for a nine-album deal with Rhymesayers.
Memory: Atmosphere member Eyedea winning the Blaze Battle Face-Off 2000 World Championships on HBO.
Art: Slug's multitracked alto sounds like former ER ambulance driver Ron Eldard being thrown down a well by Lee Perry. But the voice is really just a rapid delivery system for spiel: He's a populist with Eminem's gift of gab--which is to say that none of Slug's references are as obscure as "former ER ambulance driver Ron Eldard." And unlike that younger Midwesterner, Slug unravels sick magical realism that always comes down on the side of women: On the underground single of the year, "The Woman With the Tattooed Hands," he rather touchingly affirms their masturbation rights. Aside from that track, and discounting the previously released "Nothing but Sunshine," I count only two other great new songs. But there's nothing else in pop or hip hop as accessibly arty as the dubbed-out "Free or Dead," where Slug hits I-94 to honk at cattle, insult cops, and flirt with the voice at the Hardee's drive-through. He describes a terrible show and resenting his audience for it. Then he retreats to the hotel to toke up and consider the possibilities: failed MC, promising travel writer.
Business: That Gap ad will buy the guitarist-drummer couple a lot of diapers for their young daughter.
Memory: The incongruous screams of "Low! Low!" after sleepy shows.
Art: This is the best indie-rock Christmas album ever made by a single band. This is also the only indie-rock Christmas album ever made by a single band. But the eternal pa-rah-pah-pah-pum changes, the husband-wife give-and-give, and the trio's already near-silent nocturnal moodiness suit the spirit of holiday reverence. Even if, in our Whoville-cum-Babylon, Alan Sparhawk's gentle call to "deny the flesh" reads as Chinese.
Business: First triple vinyl to come out of local hip hop, from the oldest crew to come out of Minnesota.
Memory: Torched the Foxfire with the hottest hip-hop show in the club's history.
Art: Minneapolis MC I Self Divine flows like a mountain bike down a spiral staircase. But then so do Big Boi and Andre, and anyone down with "B.O.B.," the certified musical freakout of the year, might take the 'Nots' minimalism as the perfect counterpoint. Atlanta-via-Minnesota producer Kool Akiem is as adventurous in dissecting a groove as Self is in overloading it. And the latter has a lot to say, which repays replay twice over.
6. The Waves
Flame Alittle Brighter
Business: Only one gig this year that I know of.
Memory: I missed it.
Art: The high-pitched singing, pizzicato plink, and piano plunk of "Hey Boo" decorate a deep, dirty snare beat that European DJs might salivate over if more than 20 people owned the record. Yet the song (with its memorable "I don't want to think about New York" refrain) could comfortably snuggle next to your favorite Go-Betweens number on a Please Love Me mix-tape. Keep whispers of "better than the Hang Ups" to a polite murmur, thanks.
7. Selby Tigers
Business: National distribution, mild buzz.
Memory: On Halloween, at least three fans dressed up as jumpsuited bassist Dave Gardner--the supposed Italian immigrant "Sammy G," owner of a lonely pencil 'stache.
Art: This is punk rock as feigned tantrum, the sort of performance a four-year-old masters and learns to enjoy while convincing herself the tears are real. Which is another way of saying it's all rock 'n' roll fun--a bizarre "Slack Motherfucker" cover at the Go-Go's reunion, or X covering Grease, or something of the sort. All three vocalists--one female--imagine themselves as teen rebels torching the mansion, cutting school, and calling on fellow students to "screw the fluorescent glow"--which really should have been an Abbie Hoffman book title. It all feels like a record you wish you could give your younger teen self or distribute among the currently Britney-obsessed.
8. Tulip Sweet and her Trail of Tears
Business: Singer Steph Dickson asked me for career advice, a bad sign.
Memory: Blacked out.
Art: There is no faux hip-hop patter in indie rock quite as hilarious as Dickson's zombie-robot reading of "It's all good. How you like me now?" And that's just the first song.
9. Trailer Trash
Nearer My Bar to Thee
Lee's Liquor Records
Business: Movie Hermann, U.S.A., featuring Trailer Trash, out next year.
Memory: Wednesdays at Lee's.
Art: Sure it's satiric--you noticed the band name? But this late-'99 collection of originals crept into non-scenester rotation with a reverent love of country song-form and wry eye on south Minneapolis culture.
10. Mark Mallman
How I Lost My Life and Lived to Tell About It
Eagles Golden Tooth
Business: The piano man is currently starring in a major feature film (although he's the one making it).
Memory: To shoot one scene, he climbed down a 50-foot cliff of the Grand Canyon.
Art: Some would claim this is the best local album of the year for reach, if not grasp. But the gap betwixt the two, and the irony Mallman marshals to fudge it, is also his charm. He sounds like a Hmong discotheque, a rural polka mass, the Prom Center, Prince, and "Surfin' Bird" all rolled into one.
THE VERY WORST? Not in this year of artistic democracy run rampant, when every kid with Pro Tools, a CD burner, and his temp job's postage meter transformed himself into David Geffen. In my most generous mood, I might agree that almost all of the mediocrities listed below offer up occasional moments. But each has been borne on a wave of critical hyperbole worth balancing out with some cold-eyed dissent. In alphabetical order.
Clever girl--having previously invented disco you can't dance to, she now attempts showtunes you can't sing along to. And succeeds! What will she think of next?
Live, the intense murk of his distinctive--maybe-even-groundbreaking--mix reveals its true purpose--the soundtrack to a striptease that eventually bares his soul if not his private parts. Who could begrudge the ladies the steamy conceptual coup of Marvin Gaye as a superhuman ebony Chippendale? But a return listen to the actual recorded product reveals maddeningly diffuse, fussy touches, and fewer flashes of flesh than I suspect I'd demand if I were his target gender. Granted, I'm not, but D's over-reliance on his pinched falsetto seems to me as monotonous as 70 minutes of wham-bam.
Red Dirt Girl
When she hits a melody just right, it's a thing of wonder. When she just glances off it, though, she floats out of your consciousness like a feather on a gentle breeze--and she is indeed genteel enough to deserve so prissy a cliché as that. When there isn't even a melody within earshot, her larynx vibrates prettily like the world's most mellifluous dishwasher.
Okay, now that I've got your attention... I've grown to marginally prefer the low-level anxiety and dilettantish splurges in electronic color here to the paranoid bombast of OK Computer's grave, crystalline architecture. But the mood Kid A generates is so precious, so fragile, so chilly, I have no desire to invoke it, and wonder why--and if--other paying customers do. Is this just another example of the middle class courting the avant-garde to make itself feel clever? Or have millions of human beings been so drained of spirit that the only beauty they can envision rests in dreams of paralysis?
Step aside, Marshall Mathers, and let a really shady misogynist do his bit. This sad sack won't slit your throat, because he knows a condescending kiss-off and a callow putdown leave more lasting psychic scars. And he won't make you suck his dick, because he knows you don't have to sexualize women to objectify them--all you have to do is deny them a soul. Who will be the next in line to let him down? Besides several million record buyers, of course.
The Man Who
Just what you never knew you didn't need--a Third Way between Blur and Oasis. Not as snooty as the first, not as snotty as the last--just another depressingly faceless example of "But they write their own songs." Give me Red Ken and Norman Cook any day. (Harris)
This Holiday Season, Give a Gift to the Record Industry
DON'T EVEN THINK the biz has fully cannibalized itself. Best-ofs continue to spring forth from the corporate loins, though these collections are often for specialists, extreme fans, or all-day suckers. So while you'll find a few standard greatest-hits selections in this rundown of compilations, reissues, and other odds and ends, most are more wide-ranging, and intended for the discerning dilettante.
Art Ensemble of Chicago
Les Stances à Sophie
"Your head is like a yo-yo/Your neck is like a spring," declares "Rescue Me" soul survivor Fontella Bass. Then the horns (including those of hubby Lester Bowie) grow more ragged and the groove shifts in ways that would have James Brown fining his players. A glimpse into what jazz-funk could have been, and a moment lost.
Dancehall 101 Volumes 1 & 2
Thirty-four tracks in all--or, I should say, thirty-four cuts, since certain trademark tracks are repeated with different voices rhyming, chattering, or otherwise making joyful noise atop them. But far from redundant, this repetition adds to the distinct illusion of a boisterous culture providing a running commentary on its own evolution in a way that no single-artist dancehall disc can.
On the Floor at
Norman Cook's new album proper, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, is more fun than you've heard, but I still prefer this hour-plus DJ mix, finally released stateside this year, which proves Cook a master of the arcane ability to know which record to play after which other record. Linear? Progressive? Hell, his mix is dang near teleological--the closing "Rockafeller Skank" sounds like the culmination of centuries of rhythmic evolution.
Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Volume 4
Record collectors gripe that the selections here aren't obscure enough: Any dabbler in Americana has met up with John Henry and Casey Jones, the Carter Family and Robert Johnson. But as no greater a fan of country music's first family than propriety demands, I insist that any record collector who pairs the all-too-accepting Christian passivity of "No Depression in Heaven" alongside the worldly and disgruntled Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" has a wiser historical perspective than most preservationists.
Hip Hop 101
Tommy Boy Black Label
"No need to R&B it," declares Self Scientific on the lead cut. "Dedicated to the real hip hop," Jigmastas declare one cut thereafter. But that doesn't mean any of the acts here (compiled by De La Soul's Maseo) are fool enough to think hooks are for chicks and dumb white kids. While the MCs on Hip Hop 101 are often concerned with dick size, props denied, and other matters of interest only to a select few in their own area codes, there are also unexpected quips such as this, from Royce the 5'9":"My mom's got Alzheimer's/My dad's an alcoholic/So last night I forgot to drive drunk and hit you."
The Best Best of Fela Kuti
Like Fela's egomania and his appetite for women, the monstrous MCA reissue process--13 discs in all--was both wildly excessive and yet still proportionate to the artist's genius. You can really only appreciate Afrobeat's deceptive synthesis of African and American funk when you experience the music's dip into ordinariness--dull spots so transcendentally uneventful you know no mere hack would allow them to pass. But I'll forgo such enlightened masochism, thanks, and settle for the hits.
Kwaito: South African
More techno than hip hop, and more mbaquanga than either, this is electrodance for a party that's really out of bounds. With BPMs slowed past the expectations of Western clublife, the languorous bump can sound awkward at first. But who ever said the brand-new beat needed to be breakneck?
Unlike their compadres in Havana, San Juan musicians can accrue U.S. dollars, and enjoy plenty of interaction with family on the mainland. Can you hear that, as a result, many of these musicians are caught between a dialectic of folkloric homeland pride and commercially driven urban innovation? Maybe not, but I suspect that dialectic keeps them honest, inuring them to salsa hyperactivity and traditionalist thumbsucking alike.
Solesides Greatest Bumps
Still no sign of another DJ Shadow full-length, but sampledelia's loss has been a boon for hip hop, which Shadow claimed to be representing even while looping Tangerine Dream bites. Here's proof he meant it--the sharpest MCs on the West Coast matched to an electrominimal beat harder than the opposite coast's standard thumpa-thump. With the incomparable duo Latyrx's debut LP out of print, this is your only place to hear "Balcony Beach," the deepest 5:13 of MC contemplation on the planet. Don't miss out.
Alone With His Guitar
As Hank's voice drips into the cracks between those three familiar chords, you realize you're hearing anew a twang so cemented within the public domain you'd always taken it for granted. What draws your attention to his vocal style, perhaps for the first time in years, isn't that there are no drums to distract you from the melody, but that there are no classics to distract you from the performances. Essential. (Harris)
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