A Whiter Shade of Gray

From Louis Armstrong to Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson and Prince, it's axiomatic that cultural collisions and stylistic miscegenation breed some of the best musical innovations. But for the first time in a long while, 1997 felt like a year to stray from the gray and savor sounds in black and white. For me, anyway, niche-oriented country and hip hop held sway in the form of erudite shit-kickers from the heartland and rappers from Chi-town and the East Coast who eschewed the hard-core gangsta shit for more flexible but firm syllables and principles. Here's the rundown, in order of ascending melanin.


Carrying Your Love With Me (MCA)

The most reliable vehicle on the Nashville assembly line, Strait's got the hat, the belt buckle, the minister's visage, and the amiable twang. He's never really been a songwriter, but when he decides to pick up a tune it suddenly belongs to him--perhaps because he understands that nobility and dysfunction are never that far apart.


24 Hours A Day (Atlantic)

Their blunt-object propulsion is matched by a blunt-object stupidity that can't be redeemed as irony or "art," making them the Devo of country rock. The guitars never wend when they can jangle and roar, yet they still whipsaw through the mix like a steel braid. Best songs: the accurately pathetic lust of "Perfect Far Away," the cow-town anthem "Indianapolis," and the guitar fest "Things You Didn't Know."


Picnic (Arista/Austin)

Keen's songs of mordant wanderlust capture characters like lightning bugs in a jar--folks beguiled by their own puny flames as they slowly suffocate. Confusing love and infatuation, they martyr their pride, pushing the throttle into the highway under a full moon. Sometimes it's poignantly bleak; sometimes it's pretty damn funny.


El Corazon (Warner Bros.)

An ambitious tour de force from the John Belushi of shit-kickers, Corazon finds Earle pleading for the return of Woody Guthrie behind harmonium and shakers; skronking it up like Neil Young as Emmylou Harris warbles in the background; pickin' and wincin' with the Del McCoury Band; and deploying the barbershop blues of the Fairfield Four gospel group.


Blue Moon Swamp (Warner Bros.)

Making a disc every decade or so apparently keeps Fogerty perpetually refreshed. His vocal yowl has the innocent glee of a river brat who just happened upon a bag full of snakes; his music is as fetid and fonky as the bayou in July, and his melodic riffs have the impenetrable, gleaming essence of diamonds in the rough.


Harlem World (Bad Boy)

Why do I prefer paddy-cake simplicity from Puffy's sidekick over the madder skills of possemate Jay-Z? It's about the organic self-assurance of Mase's flow, the way his deadpan delivery deflates the grandeur of Puffy's productions down to a human level. And the shit can be hummed forever.


Adrenaline Rush (Big Beat/Atlantic)

Fans of Das EFX or Bone Thugs, in particular, shouldn't sleep on this overlooked disc, which features hip-swiveling rhythms and quicksilver rhymes with a dollop of Dre-inflected gangsta cool. Even without checking the lyrical content, this Chicago MC's spew is a caffeinated kick in the head; the rhymes themselves are topical, deft, and brimming with passion as they blur by.


One Day It'll All Make Sense (Relativity)

The Windy City rhyme sayer has the molasses drawl of Gil Scott Heron and a slew of guest stars to assist his cogitatin' disposition. Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo weighs in on spiritual self-determination, new mother Lauryn Hill is around for some straight talk on abortion and parental responsibility, De La Soul goofs it up for a boast off. Even Common's pops has his say. To legitimize the whole affair and anchor the middle of the disc, Common displays his own skillz on what are arguably the two best tracks: "My City" for the science, and "Hungry" for the flow.


The 18th Letter/The Book of Life (Universal)

No, he doesn't reinvent the rap game again--MCs are still catching up to his moves from '86. But rather than pad a single disc's fruits into a disappointing double disc (c.f. Wu-Tang), he collects his seminal hits on The Book Of Life, and uses them as a basis of comparison for his latest (The 18th Letter). It updates his relentless rhymes with ever greater and more subtle permutations, with the best tracks abetted by the very best East Coast DJs, including Premier and Pete Rock.

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