Too Much Rock … and Then Some
I’m not gonna listen to another complaint about the State of Music. I don’t want to hear whining about boy bands and pop divas and one-record-company-owns-everything and I-hate-it-all tirades. The fact is, the same thing is true every year when it comes to music — the little guys rock. Indie bands, punk bands, experimental/noise bands, hard rock bands — that’s what matters. There was enough good new rock out there in ’01 to fill a third Amoeba, yet I’m supposed to whittle this list down to ten favorites, which means only two things: I’m gonna cheat and I’m gonna go way over quota. There were so many spine-tingling rock albums this year that it’s impossible for me to cork my excitement after naming fewer than a dozen of them — especially since most of these guys get somewhere between no press and a small buzz.
First off, a couple labels (and bands) that’ll be worth keeping your eye on in 2002 if you like the rock, the punk, and the noise: Sub Pop (Zen Guerrilla, Vue, Love as Laughter, Nebula); In the Red (The Screws, Dan Melchior’s Broke Revue); Sympathy for the Record Industry (the White Stripes); Small Stone (Men of Porn, Fireball Ministry); Lookout (the Pattern); Fall of Rome (the Sights); GSL (the Locust); Man’s Ruin (R.I.P., but they put out great discs this year from the Cutthroats 9 and Drunk Horse) … and, Jesus Christ, too many more for me to mention when I’ve still gotta narrow things down and not forget to mention my love for the Motley punk chick Crüe on Betty Blowtorch’s Are You Man Enough? and the dark indie sounds of Now It’s Overhead’s eponymous debut. So here it is, in alphabetical order, my list of bands that I’ll only give up listening to the day my neighbors stop blasting that same fucking Portishead CD from like 1994 (in other words, it’s not gonna happen).
The Black Halos: The Violent Years (Sub Pop). This pretty boy Vancouver band sounds a lot like the next wave of the Dead Boys — and I love the Dead Boys, so I love the Black Halos. The Halos signal their charge with high-energy slams of glam-spiked punk, and The Violent Years freight- trains one rock ‘n’ roll anthem into the next — the best one being the mock-tragic, us-against-the-world mantra of “We’ll show them all” on “Some Things Never Fall.”
Bottles & Skulls: Never Kiss the Wasp (Cheetah’s). These San Francisco punks have the ax-sharpened claws to shred rock ‘n’ roll threadbare. Never Kiss the Wasp attacks with brass-knuckled fists of dual guitar and trigger-happy lyrics. This album is fast, mean, and full of all kinds of rot — from nightmarish ex-boyfriends to nihilistic rages against booze and drugs. Excellent stuff whether or not you’re in the fighting mood.
The Cuts: The Cuts (Rocknroll Blitzkrieg). Garage bands that take their inspiration from the Nuggets box sets are something pretty special — until you hear every boy and his shaggy-haired brother’s covers of the Mysterians. The Cuts are definitely an exception to the uninspired masses, though. The Oakland act fits cozily in the psychedelic garage niche, but it spikes the punch with some ’70s NYC art rock, and the combo is a tighter package than the one filling Lou Reed’s pants. The Cuts is only available on vinyl, but well worth the extra effort.
The Dirtbombs: Ultraglide in Black (In the Red). Really two bands here: Both the Dirtbombs and Sympathy for the Music Industry’s the Detroit Cobras are from Detroit; both cover obscure old soul and R&B with a rock ‘n’ roll edge and a couple silk-throated crooners — Mick Collins is the Dirtbombs’ energetic star, while the Cobras, on their new release Life, Love, and Leaving, stake claim on Rachael Nagy, a punk chick with a voice that heats rock into lava.
The Faint: Danse Macabre (Saddle Creek). Although the band would probably cringe to hear it, this record reminds me of high school. Back in the days of hating everything and everyone, big industrial dance beats and visceral indie rock saved my ass. There are traces of bands like Front 242 and even early Nine Inch Nails on Danse Macabre, together with a spitting disdain for sellout suburbia and a frontline of forceful guitars.
The Hives: A.K.A. I-D-I-O-T (Gearhead). No offense to the other bands on this list, but the Hives top my favorite acts of 2001. The Swedish band is a five-pack of sonic explosives that bring down the building from the first track. Their spazzed-out, smart-ass singer has a voice that cracks and pops like he’s kicking and screaming his way through puberty, and the group covers hyperactive ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, snotty ’70s punk, and grimy ’60s garage in the course of one CD. While the Hives’ Veni Vidi Vicious has become the one disc I won’t even lend to friends, it came out in 2000 so I’m gonna have to go with A.K.A. I-D-I-O-T here. The A.K.A. EP originally came out on small Swedish label Burning Heart, and Gearhead recently rereleased it in the US. The record is the brash, messy little brother of Veni, proving that even when the Hives are at their sloppiest, they’re still a damn good band.
The Immortal Lee County Killers: The Essential Fucked Up Blues! (Estrus). Okay, so I’m going to cheat again. Sue me. The Killers and the King Brothers, on their new self-titled In the Red release, are gonna have to have to duke it out to settle who gets the distinction of craziest PBR (punk-blues-rock ‘n’ roll) band. Both groups accelerate through the blues like a condemned vehicle with no brakes and an asylum patient at the wheel, racing through red lights and screaming and hollering the whole way through. The difference is that Alabama’s Killers are a guitar/drums duo that hollers in English and leaves a thick trail of noise in its midst, while the King Brothers are a Japanese trio that barks like rabid dogs, stuffing mikes into their mouths, and yelling some kinda fucked-up, incomprehensible shit. Hell yeah!
Les Savy Fav: Go Forth (French Kiss). This CD hit me through the skull like a ton of emo bricks, all intense feeling and sharp, cynical lyrics about the dumb happiness of ignorance. This Brooklyn-based foursome cuts jagged edges of aggressive force with traces of early-’80s art rock, making music with enough melody that you could almost dance to it (if your moves approximate a giddy seizure). LSF is wound tightly to the point of snapping, with enough catchy rhythms to cover its tracks once it blows the fuses.
Murder City Devils: Thelema (Sub Pop). Murder City Devils frontman Spencer Moody’s melodramatic, gruff screams sound like they come from a man who’s been stabbed through the heart and is now begging for redemption. On the Thelema EP, Moody runs himself through the wringer for a confused love affair, identifies with a lonely Santa, and strictly warns, “You better outlive your mother.” Hands down, this was one of my favorite dark clouds of a punk band, mixing vivid visual imagery with a heavy-handed organ and tangled guitar growls. Sadly, the Devils were also one of 2001’s major casualties (along with At the Drive In); the band parted ways a couple months back.
Peaches: The Teaches of Peaches (Kitty-Yo). When it comes to musical turn-ons, Peaches works better than a porno/Spanish Fly cocktail. Her raunchy talk and dominatrix attitude took control of my libido from the opening lines of “Fuck the Pain Away.” The Teaches of Peaches is full of 3:00 a.m. one-night-stand demands, and this is one horny fuck of a record, with Peaches grinding away against a background of grimy whiplash beats. Makes me hot every time I hear it.
–By Jennifer Maerz
Despite the forlorn status of jazz on the major labels, which increasingly forgo any pretense of interest in the music, there have been numerous fresh, enthralling, and memorable jazz CDs released this year. Blue Note in particular continues to put out beautiful, challenging music, such as pianist Jason Moran’s bracing Black Stars with multi-instrumental legend Sam Rivers, Greg Osby’s trenchant jazz quartet/string quartet session Symbols of Light (A Solution), and Joe Lovano’s endlessly inventive Flights of Fancy: Trio Fascination Edition Two. On the Brazilian front, Gilberto Gil’s music from the film Me, You, Them is a deliriously ebullient tribute to the spirit of forró master Luiz Gonzaga, and Caetano Veloso’s Noites do Norte brilliantly grapples with the country’s legacy of slavery. This was a particularly tough year for sudden departures, and the loss of Billy Higgins, Joe Henderson, Susannah McCorkle, and Smith Dobson will be felt for a long time. When it comes to checking out new sounds, I’m convinced there’s no better strategy than to listen global and buy local, so these are my favorite Bay Area releases of 2001.
Graham Connah: Because of Wayne/ The Only Song We Know (Evander Music). The pianist/composer has been an underground force on the Bay Area jazz scene for more than a decade. But it was during his regular Tuesday-night gig leading his seven- and eight-piece bands, Sour Note Seven and Jettison Slinky, that Connah honed his dense, kinetic, and often wildly witty tunes. The first disc of this three-CD set, packaged in hand-painted boxes, features Sour Note Seven’s Because of Wayne, recorded live at Bruno’s by Jeff Cressman, and a two-disc album by Jettison Slinky, The Only Song We Know, recorded last year in a San Francisco studio. Between the two bands, Connah is drawing on many of the region’s most creative players, including clarinetist Ben Goldberg, saxophonist Rob Sudduth, trombonist Marty Wehner, guitarist Alex Candelaria, bassists Trevor Dunn and Dan Seamans, drummers Scott Amendola and Smith Dobson Jr., and vocalists Nancy Clarke and Jewlia Eisenberg, among others. What makes Graham’s music so rewarding is that he’s melded these superb improvisers into ensembles that embrace his compositional sensibility. His melodies swerve and slide, and he often stacks the horns so that they’re playing lines slightly askew of each other. Nothing else sounds quite like Connah’s heady concoctions. You’re unlikely to find this in stores, so check out www.evandermusic.com or contact Connah at [email protected].
Mimi Fox: Standards (Origin). Though her busy touring schedule keeps her out of town for much of each year, Fox is no stranger to Bay Area fretophiles. A prodigious guitarist with a fertile improvisational imagination, she combines jaw-dropping technique with a commanding sense of swing. As the title implies, Fox is exploring a repertoire of the usual suspects, including tunes by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Wayne Shorter, and Charlie Parker. Which isn’t to say this is a standard standards session. Following in the footsteps of her former mentor Joe Pass, who pioneered the solo guitar recital with his classic Virtuoso sessions on Pablo, Fox tackles the tunes on her own, alternating between electric and steel-string guitars. While she made her reputation as a burning bebopper, here she’s more concerned with exploring melodies and digging into the harmonic meat of each piece. Highlights include her graceful version of Coltrane’s “Naima,” a dazzling take on Shorter’s “Footprints,” and juxtaposed renditions of two Victor Young/Ned Washington gems, “Stella by Starlight” and “My Foolish Heart.”
Mark Levine & The Latin Tinge: Serengeti (Mark Levine). This quartet has quickly developed into the gold standard of small Latin jazz combos. Following up last year’s superb debut, Hey, It’s Me, Levine returns with his superlative bandmates Peter Barshay (bass), Michael Spiro (percussion), and Paul Van Wageningen (drums) for another long drink of clave. Besides the Brazilian groove of “Assum Branco” and the lovely interpretation of Osvalde Farres’ classic bolero “Tres Palabras,” the group mostly focuses on interpreting material not usually part of the Latin jazz repertoire. Levine has a gift for finding great jazz tunes that fit naturally in clave, like McCoy Tyner’s “Effendi,” Wayne Shorter’s “Angola,” Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar,” and Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge.” The combination of sizzling Afro-Caribbean rhythms and Levine’s savory keyboard work makes this album an important addition to the Latin jazz genre.
The Lost Trio: Live at Avalon and the Graves (Evander Music). Strictly speaking, the quartet on this two-CD set should have been called Lost Putanesca, since it combines the Lost Trio — featuring the remarkable saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, bassist Dan Seamans, and drummer Tom Hassett — with Trio Putanesca, featuring Greenlief, Seamans, and guitarist Adam Levy. Names aside, this is one beautiful album, a two-disc set recorded in Eureka during one of the band’s regular sojourns up north. Always looking to reimagine familiar material, the band has developed a book that ranges from the music of Hank Williams and Nino Rota to Irving Berlin and Billy Strayhorn. With his reflective solos and warm accompanying chords, Levy has never sounded better. And Greenlief’s pleasingly gruff, gusty tone is particularly effective on tenor. This is loose-limbed music, full of earthy humor, soaring lyricism, and an off-the-cuff poetic sensibility.
Bobby Matos & John Santos: Mambo Jazz (Cubop). A meeting of two Latin jazz giants, this album finds LA-based bandleader and timbalero Matos joining forces with the Bay Area’s great conguero and groove-guru Santos. The two bands first met in the studio and shared their books, leading to a cross-pollination that infuses the entire session. Many of the album’s high points center on the great percussionist Orestes Vilato, but it’s the surging horns that keep grabbing the spotlight, like the potent six-part arrangement on Matos’ churning son montuno “Oye Mi Querida.”
Los Mocosos: Shades of Brown (Six Degrees). Straight outta the Mission, Mocosos provided the soundtrack for the summer with the surging soulsa of their sophomore release. Whether celebrating “El Rey” Tito Puente in the eponymous tribute, revisiting vintage pop with a delicious cover of “Spill the Wine,” commenting on the impact of gentrification in “Mi Barrio Loco,” or calling attention to the serial murder of young women in Ciudad Juarez in “The Border,” Mocosos comes up with catchy melodies that insinuate a song’s message before the lyrics have fully registered. New lead vocalist Manny Martinez brings a big-bellied swagger to the table, and after a couple years on the road, the band sounds tight as a drum.
Mary Stallings: Live at the Village Vanguard (MaxJazz). In a meeting of soul on soul, Stallings sets sparks flying with Eric Reed, one of the most resourceful young pianists in jazz. For a while it seemed that this San Francisco treasure was once again destined for low visibility. It had been four years since she released the last of three superb Concord Jazz albums when she hooked up with MaxJazz, a label that established itself by recording excellent jazz vocalists. A little recognition is more than due Stallings, a veteran of the Basie band. Strongly influenced by Dinah Washington, she’s an old-school jazz singer with a voice that can transform just about any song into a treatise in soul. The album’s numerous highlights include her chill-inducing version of “You’re My Thrill,” a triumphant “Gypsy in My Soul,” and an extended rendition of “Lullaby of the Leaves.”
Claudia Villela & Ricardo Peixoto: Inverse Universe (Inside Out Music). The extraordinary vocalist Villela and guitarist Peixoto, her longtime collaborator, grew up within blocks of each other in Rio, but didn’t meet until 1984, on Villela’s second day in the US. Their partnership has continued along that serendipitous path, but this is the first album documenting their visionary approach to Brazilian jazz. What sets Villela apart from other Brazilian singers is her expansive conception of the country’s music. She uses many familiar elements, such as samba and bossa nova, but she also draws on older forms, including partido alto, a carnival beat, and baião, a highly syncopated 2/4 blues-like song form popularized by Luiz Gonzaga in the mid-’40s. Peixoto’s gorgeous arrangements provide lithe acoustic settings for Villela’s soaring voice. As the music draws freely from various Brazilian folkloric styles, the lyrics invoke the rich mythic world that surrounds everyday life. The potent combination makes this an album that draws you in deeper with each play.
Wayne Wallace: Echoes in Blue (Spirit Nectar). As a trombonist, arranger, composer, producer, and educator, Wallace is an essential part of the Bay Area music scene. Echoes is his generous offer of payback to all the musicians and sounds that influenced him over the years. Opening with the Afro-Cuban invocation “Koriomale,” the gathering is sanctified, and the elders are called in to be honored. In jazz you show respect by reinterpreting a piece with your own sound, so Wallace has applied various Latin grooves to a number of jazz standards, while also focusing on his own excellent compositions. He turns Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” into a sleek rumba, and transforms Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” into a vehicle for some serious Cuban funk. Throughout the session Wallace solos with power and tremendous feeling, while also putting the spotlight on such fine musicians as trumpeter John Worley, saxophonists Ron Stallings and Melecio Magdaluyo, and pianists Frank Martin and Murray Low.
Paula West: Come What May (Hi Horse). When it comes to exploring the Great American Songbook, West is simply the best young singer working on the Left Coast. Unfortunately, being based out West often means getting left out when it comes to national recognition, so for her third self-produced album West recruited a host of top jazz players, including wily old veteran saxophonists Frank Wess and Joe Temperley, clarinetists Don Byron and Ken Peplowski, vibes master Bobby Hutcherson, and drummer Victor Lewis. The results are consistently succulent. Opening with her impossibly dexterous intertwining of “Caravan” and “Night in Tunisia,” she just keeps setting the bar higher, from the cautionary tale of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “The Snake” to the haunting melody of the David Raksin/ Johnny Mercer theme “Laura” to the extended version of the Harold Arlen/Mercer classic “Blues in the Night.” An incisive interpreter of lyrics, West combines deft phrasing and a nimble sense of swing with a sultry contralto that’s as rich and plush as purple velvet.
–By Andrew Gilbert
Ready or Not
Raise your hand if you think that the Strokes album is this year’s answer to Get the Knack.
Bottles and Skulls: Never Kiss the Wasp (Cheetah’s). Let’s hear it for a total lack of planning and half-assed production! This SF band’s is raw and real, with a nod (though unintentional, apparently) to ’80s hardcore. The words are kinda stoop, but in the throat of singer Alpha Boozer they sound inspired. This may make the feminists twitch by calling a girl a straight-up bitch, but Boozer’s voice is so dirty and powerful that the listener is left, well, hating that goddamn bitch too. Unlike a lot of Bay Area punk, which bends away from the hardcore branch, Wasp is more Black Flag than Pink Flag, and it’s a welcome surprise.
The Faint: Danse Macabre (Saddle Creek). Finally, that new-wave goth record fused with Kraftwerk that you’ve always wanted (you know, the one you told yourself would help you finish priming your sailboat and begin that commercial fishing enterprise). It’s heavy on the creepy keyboards but with a fast punk sensibility and Duran Duran vocals, all held together with interesting time changes (no, not like Rush!). The coolest thing is that this band is from Omaha, not exactly a hotbed of gothic doom. The album does get a bit draggy in parts, but dang if you don’t find yourself singing those same draggy bits in the shower a few hours later. Really, the only downside to Danse Macabre is the image of black-lipsticked people carrying lunch pails that might dance through your head.
The Moore Brothers: Colossal Small (Amazing Grease). Perhaps the world is not ready for the Moore Brothers: tripped-out folk and rock with harmonies to shame the Everlys, combined with unpredictable song structures that luckily don’t veer too far off the map. It sounds corny, but these two really have a sweet give and take with one another, each writing his own piece before the two come together. Seeing them live is really magic; they can transform cynical folk-haters into tear-stained sissyboys. Scott Kannberg from Pavement saw them and licensed this album to his Amazing Grease label, gaining them access to a wider audience that still hasn’t really caught on … but it will.
My Morning Jacket: At Dawn (Darla). Apparently these guys are pretty big in Europe, but then again so is house music, and we can all do without that particular brand of syncopation. But My Morning Jacket is so extraordinary that it seems the Brits actually may be onto something. Like most indie bands these days, the group can be lumped in the Mojave 3, Tindersticks, and Slowdive category, only MMJ does it in a way that still seems fresh and original. Imagine melancholy and haunting indie rock from Kentucky sung with a sweetie-pie of a voice, what John-Boy might sing lying on his bed on the evening everyone forgot to say goodnight. Part of this album’s charm is its great production, which is mildly echoey. And we can even forgive them for the song that sounds like Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town.”
Operator/Generator: Polar Fleet (Man’s Ruin). At first glance, Polar Fleet looks like a piece of shit. With song titles like “Quaintence of Natherack” and lyrics like “an orgy in Lucifer’s barn,” it’s like all of the worst things in metal rolled up into one. Plus the cover looks like a Journey reject, with some weird space octopus taking over a pastel, airbrushed terrain. (The band does, however, have a wooly mammoth as a mascot, which is pretty darn cute.) But then you play the album, and it’s awesome — pummeling and well executed (death metal pun intended), with great songwriting. It’s lethargic and truncated metal from the Black Sabbath school of rock (they are on Man’s Ruin, after all), but without the predictable guest appearance of Satan on the mike that so many bands have adopted. The vocals are “normal,” but set back in the mix so they still sound — well, fiendish. Add a nod to regular ol’ ’70s rock, and it makes for a nice (albeit fugly) package.
Peaches: Teaches of Peaches (Kitty-Yo). She’s a gay Canadian slut. Madonna loves her. She shaves herself onstage. She uses more sexual metaphors than an AC/DC song. And her record is definitely off tha hizzy, even if it seems only hipsters like it (when asked what he thought of it, one hip-hop DJ summed it up thus: “Wack”). At first listen you think, eh, just another oversexed bullshit dance record, but noooooo. Peaches is deep, dude. Sure, in “Fuck the Pain Away,” she nonchalantly mentions sucking on her titties (“sucking on my titties like you wanting me/ calling me all the time like Blondie/ check out my Chrissy behind/ it’s fine all of the time”), but then she also instructs the kiddies to “Stay in school, ’cause it’s the best.” No doubt she will soon be on a law enforcement D.A.R.E. tour of our nation’s high schools. Then there’s the Chrissy behind line, which has inspired the debate of many discussion groups (is it a reference to Three’s Company? The Pretenders?). Needless to say, there is a lot here, and thankfully it’s all wrapped up in some fresh beats. Word.
Phantom Limbs: Applied Ignorance (Alternative Tentacles). Say what you want about Jello Biafra, but he’s got a great ear, signing the Causey Way and now the Phantom Limbs. Their music is completely original, with funereal keyboards, a screamy singer, and some kind of new wave punk-rock thing holding it all together. It’s been dubbed “circus punk” for its carnival/funhouse energy, but don’t worry — this ain’t no Ren Faire backup group. If you caught them at one of their first shows at the Stork Club, no doubt you stood agape at the skinny singer’s writhing around with the stoic band behind him, wailing about someone’s lost arms (you gotta love a band that makes reference to its name in a song). Seeing how this band progresses will be one of the great things about living in the East Bay.
Sigur Ros: Agaetis byrjun (Fat Cat). Pretentious and wanky yet weirdly beautiful, this record comes off like an unearthed Icelandic Neanderthal slowly thawing with an adorable-widdle deer licking his face. It’s reminiscent of old 4AD bands like the Cocteau Twins (especially since you can’t tell what the guy is saying) with Epic strings and subtle keyboards. Needless to say, in Iceland it’s the biggest thing since Björk, right up there with spearfishing. This is the band’s second record, and it’s apparently not as good as the first, which an infinitesimal number of people in the States have heard. Or it could be that that small throng just wants to say, “I knew them from their first album, peasant.” Having not heard the first one, let’s just say that this record is silky and pure, and one of the best accomplishments this year.
Tina & the Total Babes: She’s So Tuff (Sympathy for the Record Industry). When Sympathy for the Record Industry’s Long Gone John isn’t beaming with pride as he dusts his red-and-white swirly framed White Stripes 8x10s, he’s hawking his other favorite band, Tina & the Total Babes. He’s even landed some of their songs on a new Fox sitcom. Comprised of members of Minneapolis’ Short Fuses and Tina Lucchesi from the Trashwomen and the Bobbyteens, this band has put out one of the best party records in a long time. Tina’s stuff is usually way far in the back of the garage, but this album is more Kim Wilde than “Wild Thing,” with tight arrangements, a power pop sensibility, layered background vocals, and even keyboards. ‘Tis great.
The Velvet Underground: Bootleg Series Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor). This stuff might not exactly be “new,” but it is definitely noteworthy. Robert Quine is the guy who stuck a microphone in front of a speaker at some Velvet Underground shows in ‘Frisco and St. Lewie in 1969, then culled the best of his recordings into four hours of awesome reel-to-reel clarity and greatness. (He also formed Richard Hell & the Voidoids, his second greatest achievement.) Here we have the proverbial old songs that are new again, but this band was so far ahead of its time that these selections are head and shoulders above any contemporary Radiohead knockoffs (except, of course, Radiohead). The shows took place right after John Cale left and right before VU’s final record, Loaded, came out. By all accounts, Quine seems like the total annoying fan, not only taping their stuff but showing up backstage and playing it back for them after the show. (Geek alert! Geek alert!) He later played with Lou Reed, so maybe the story is really more All About Eve than I’m with the Band. Don’t be afraid of the sound quality; at many of the shows there was hardly anyone in attendance, and since Quine recorded right out of the speaker — and the band is kinda fuzzy sounding anyway — this set is a gem, sure to make any ’60s hipster squeeze her Mojo in delight.
–By Katy St.Clair
This year seemed like one big interlude, a time of waiting while something cool happened. Unlike previous years that began with excitement about a new genre or sound, 2001 was a year of experimentation and reflection, as producers searched for new ways to produce electronic music.
There was the rise of two-step, which made big inroads into the mainstream thanks to its combination of soulful R&B, house, hip-hop, and breakbeat. Craig David, who was first introduced to the US via the UK two-step duo Artful Dodger (which has already split up), helped bring the sound to the mainstream this year with his big hit “Fill Me In.”
The year also saw the advent of the fractured laptop sound, characterized by such terms as “microsound,” “microhouse,” or “glitch.” Whatever term you prefer, the style brought with it a newfound emphasis on intricacies, minimalism, and harshness that coalesced to lean toward a more technical sound.
Artists such as Matmos and Matthew Herbert explored the use of field samples such as the sounds of liposuction, laser eye surgery, and biorhythms in the context of creating music. I believe this is only the beginning.
Aphex Twin: Drukqs (Warp/Sire). Richard James is one strange fellow. The British producer does his damnedest to scare away potential listeners, but he still manages to command a sizable audience that hangs on every menacing metallic synthetic fragment, scattershot breakbeat, placid soundscape, and irreverent vocal he can toss up. While some critics, citing a lack of cohesion, have suggested Drukqs is merely James’ way of clearing out his hard drive of all his old material (and that may be true), I think the album’s multifaceted sides are more a reflection of the wide range of emotions James tackles through his music. This is by no means an easy or comfortable album. James’ penchant for hyper-hysterics runs rampant on several tracks. Yet there are plenty of tracks that consist solely of pensive piano playing and ethereal pulsars, reminiscent of his early work. The more I listened to Drukqs, the more I liked it.
Björk: Vespertine (Elektra). After waiting nearly four years for a proper full-length from the quirky Icelandic artist (Selmasongs notwithstanding), Björk returned with the hauntingly intricate album Vespertine. Decidedly more sedate and meditative than previous material and with no clear-cut dance-oriented tracks, Vespertine finds Björk experimenting with majestic orchestral strings, lush harps, a full-blown choir, and slithery beat and programming collaborations with San Francisco duo micro-glitch artistes Matmos (who toured with Björk), the UK’s Matthew Herbert, and many others. And then there’s Björk’s vocal range, which seems stronger than ever (check “Cocoon” to hear her hit those near-impossible high notes). Opening track “Hidden Place” is one of the most beautiful songs Björk’s ever written, an ethereal ride into the gossamer regions of her head. Gorgeous, heartfelt, dizzying, sexual yet technical, Vespertine is a highly personal and intimate album.
BRMC: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Virgin). Yeah, so BRMC sounds like Jesus and Mary Chain. When I picked up this record last spring, my friend exclaimed, “They sound like everything I’ve heard before!” Maybe so, but then again, who cares? Frankly, after spending years in the lofty clouds of electronic music, it was nice to hear a straight-up rock record that manages to kick your ass and keep you singing those catchy melodies. Indeed, the Bay Area trio has made a promising debut with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, combining whooshing, shrill guitars that fly over your head and saturate your ears with emotive, brooding vocals. There isn’t a bad song on the entire record, ranging from the head-nodding anthem “Red Eyes and Tears” to the aching fury of “Whatever Happened to My Rock ‘n’ Roll (Punk Song),” the blazing epic “As Sure as the Sun,” or the swooning album closer “Salvation,” which asks the question “Do you feel alive?” You should, especially if you grew up in the 1980s, as BRMC channels the alt rock sound of a foregone era. Whatever your age, BRMC’s melodic psychedelic pop-rock is damn fine.
Jack Dangers: Hello Friends (Shadow). Toasted, nicely toasted. Lifting a quote from Jack Dangers’ highly entertaining mix CD Hello Friends, toasted seems to be the best way to enjoy the fifteen-track opus from the legendary breakbeat master behind Meat Beat Manifesto. Though MBM isn’t quite dead, it’s clear Dangers’ attention has been focused on the dub leanings of Tino Corp. Hello Friends is comprised of previously released tracks on vinyl from Dangers, Tino, Ben Stokes’ DHS, and Mike Powell. The result, while not necessarily technically perfect, is a beat fiend’s wet dream, as Dangers slides effortlessly from the mambo-fused “Tropical Soul/Tino’s Beat” to the tongue-in-cheek head-nodder “Christmas in Hawaii” or the gleaming Latin groove of “Kick It Dub” (featuring a hilarious sample from Charlie’s Angels). Don’t miss Cuban maestro Tino and his amazing drumming abilities on the bonus video track! What a joy!
Richie Hawtin: DE9: Closer to the Edit (Minus/NovaMute). Richie Hawtin has been at the forefront of confronting new technology since debuting in the early 1990s with FUSE and his most well-known moniker, Plastikman. His sparse and mechanical sound influenced many producers, emphasizing space and substance over predictability by de-emphasizing melody. Yet his recent material has seemed more about technical skill than substance. But on DE9, Hawtin raises the bar for himself and all electronic musicians with a jaw-dropping mix CD that brings back the subtle funkiness of his early material with an intricate yet minimal 21st-century flair. DE9 is attracting headlines because of a new technology called Final Scratch, which enables the user to “play” a digital music file via a specially made blank vinyl record. Featuring 31 actual “tracks” from a slew of Detroit artists, the album actually contains hundreds of loops and snippets from more than one hundred tracks by such artists as Carl Craig, Theorem, Basic Channel, Stewart Walker, and many others. The result is an amazingly complex album that is still seeping into my brain months after its release.
Herbert: Bodily Functions (!K7/Soundslike). The trend of the year was taking sampling to the next level by using unconventional sounds such as surgery, random conversations, and breaking plastic. On Bodily Functions, Matthew Herbert marries unlikely field recordings with warm and inviting jazz arrangements (using such live instrumentation as piano, stand-up bass, clarinet, violin, flute, and trumpet) and thumping house beats amidst a recurring theme about human interaction. The result is one of the most uniquely satisfying albums of the year. Indeed, Dani Siciliano’s luxurious vocals provide the perfect counterpart to Herbert’s sensuous, propulsive music. If nothing else, this is a great way to introduce jazz snobs to electronic music. Tasty.
Prefuse 73: Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives (Warp). Prefuse 73 is one of the pseudonyms of Atlanta’s Scott Herren, a hip-hop head with a jones for cutting up beats and loops and rearranging them in a zig-zag aural patchwork that manages to make sense. Landing somewhere between downtempo hip-hop, IDM, and jazz, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives carves out a style all its own via fuzzy, fractured beats and chopped-up half-beats, rickety breaks and ticking percussion, wobbly horn loops, flatulent synths that burp and burble, and disorienting vocal clips. Contributors — including Mikah 9, MF Doom, Aesop Rock, and post-rock vocalist Sam Prekop — are blended into the mix, used as another aural component rather being the focal point. The vibe is fairly low-key throughout, but the multifarious, flickering groove manages to satisfy both hip-hop headz and laptop geeks alike. And when does that ever happen? If this is where hip-hop is headed, I’m on the right train.
Stacey Pullen: Today Is the Tomorrow You Were Promised Yesterday (Science). More than three years in the making, celebrated Detroit DJ Stacey Pullen moves away from his buoyant, soulful techno and house associated with pseudonyms such as Silent Phase and Kosmic Messenger. Here he comes into his own with this startling full-length debut. Melding the stark elements of Detroit techno (a hint of sadness and despair hangs over much of the album) with brisk percussive fills, rapid-fire snares, and dense beat arrangements that point toward jazz, the album is accented by a plethora of lush, sparkling keyboards that effectively set the tone throughout. Though associated with the recent proliferation of the nu-jazz broken beat sound popular in the UK, Today is more a reflection of Pullen’s desire to make an unique and experimental album from a jazz drummer’s perspective. Whether incorporating elements of opera (in the haunting “Vertigo”), subtle funk and R&B, or banging hard house, Pullen’s scintillating album delivers.
Ursula Rucker: Supa Sista (!K7). This was the triumphant year for spoken word goddess Ursula Rucker, as she moved from being a well-known talent in her native Philadelphia to a full-blown international star. Previously best known for her stirring and troubling poems that closed the last two Roots albums, Rucker eliminates a predisposed aversion to spoken word with the raw, emotive album Supa Sista. Combining forces with several producers (including 4 Hero’s Dego McFarlane, Jonah Sharp, King Britt, Alexkid, and Philip Charles), Supa Sista seethes with anger and fury as Rucker addresses tough social topics such as domestic violence, poverty, drug abuse, racism, and sexism. Her eloquent vocals are accentuated thanks to the album’s spare production, combining hip-hop, jazz, drum ‘n’ bass, and soul in a smooth style that never overpowers Rucker’s forthright intonations.
Slicker: The Latest (Hefty). The Latest, by Chicago’s Slicker (John Hughes, who also runs the Hefty label) is a crackly noise-trip of supernova proportions, set at armchair impulse power speed. Taking a side- door exit from the post-rock experimental world of his previous work, Slicker here gravitates toward a downbeat, abstract blend of digital and organic musical matter that fluctuates between IDM, glitch, and 21st-century jazz. Featuring guest appearances from the cerebral electronic duo Matmos (on the nimble “Swap Track”) and other Hefty labelmates, The Latest challenges the listener through a series of minimal shifts in time and tone, creating an aural atmosphere that’s refreshingly chilly and spatial.
—By Tim Pratt
It’s a frightening state of affairs when Clear Channel Communications, the entertainment corporation that controls much of the rock, R&B, and hip-hop heard on commercial radio, now also oversees the bulk of concert bookings in the Bay Area and beyond, having taken over the former Bill Graham Presents earlier in the year. Recent lawsuits allege that performers and record companies are forced to dance to Clear Channel’s tune if they want gigs and airplay. Even the major labels have lost the upper hand and now must pay the piper, via independent record promoters hired by stations as exclusive consultants. These business practices have all but wiped out musical diversity. Fortunately, record stores remain for the most part independent. Should such a monopoly ever come to dominate the retail end, serious music lovers might as well move to Tehran.
Kenny Barron & Regina Carter: Freefall (Verve). From the opening salsa strains of “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” fast-rising violin virtuoso Carter and piano vet Barron demonstrate that they don’t need no band to get a groove goin’. The empathy is uncanny as they move between original compositions and tunes by Sting, Wayne Shorter, and Thelonious Monk, among others. Carter’s classically shaped lyricism approaches that of the late, great Eddie South, while Barron displays a rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic command of the keyboard unequaled by most of his contemporaries. This is a truly breathtaking duo.
Etta James: Matriarch of the Blues (Private Music). Thirty-three years after journeying to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to cut her now-classic Tell Mama album with producer Rick Hall (recently reissued by MCA with ten bonus tracks), the original queen of soul reinvestigates similar Southern roots on Matriarch of the Blues. This time she traveled no further than the studio of her Southern California home, where sons Donto and Sammetto James served as producers, as well as played drums and bass, respectively, in a tight band that also included guitarist Bobby Murray and keyboardist-vocalist Mike Finnigan. James, whose vocal powers grow increasingly awesome, achieves a consummate balance between grit and grace on a well-chosen set of songs, from Bob Dylan’s “You Got to Serve Somebody” to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.”
Rodney Jones: Soul Manifesto (Blue Note). In demand for over two decades as a sideman with Dizzy Gillespie and others, more for his propulsive rhythm playing than for his solo work, Jones wisely places the emphasis on the groove for his first CD as a leader. And what fat, funky grooves he finds in the company of organ grinder Lonnie Smith, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and second-line drum master Idris Muhammad, with alto saxophonists Maceo Parker and Arthur Blythe alternating on top. Jones, whose own brittle-toned solos have a Grant Green tinge, has created perhaps the most satisfyingly syncopated soul-jazz album since Lou Donaldson’s Alligator Boogaloo, to which Smith and Muhammad also contributed.
Russell Malone: Heartstrings (Verve). Mood music may not get much respect, but it has long held a niche in the jazz world (Jackie Gleason’s easy-listening sets that wrapped Bobby Hackett’s trumpet in strings and Paul Desmond’s Desmond Blue being of special note). Georgia-born guitarist Malone’s latest ranks among the great ones. Unlike most straight-ahead pickers, he utilizes sustained feedback, achieving a B.B. King-like tone that’s sweet as a peach as it glides with sublime lyricism over a rhythm section fronted by pianist Kenny Barron and strings arranged by Alan Broadbent, Dori Caymmi, and Johnny Mandel on the Milt Jackson-penned title track and others, including “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and the Anne Murray chestnut “You Needed Me.”
Pat Martino: Live at Yoshi’s (Blue Note). If the Magnificent Montague had been in the house last December, he no doubt would have shouted out, “Burn, baby, burn!” as guitarist Martino, organist Joey DeFrancesco, and drummer Billy Hart scorched their way through a set of bop and blues, including Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” That Martino is among the most inventive pickers on the modern-jazz scene has seldom been disputed, but having a thick Hammond B-3 carpet on which to ride seems to lift him another notch, making this long-overdue return to his soul-jazz roots most welcome.
Liz McComb: Liz McComb (GVE/ LMC). Because it’s being marketed to blues and jazz audiences, you’re unlikely to hear the Cleveland-born singer-pianist’s first US CD on gospel radio, but the disc contains some of the most galvanizing sounds to come down the Pentecostal pike in years. Being based in Paris for the past two decades has freed McComb from the keeping-up-with-Kirk-Franklin quest on the home front, allowing her to go directly to the emotional core of her material — beginning with Dorothy Love-Coates and moving on to originals spiked with jazz and reggae influences — with organ, bass, drums, and her own pumping piano as the only support for her explosive vocals.
Ted Nash: Sidewalk Meeting (Arabesque Jazz). Ellingtonia, French impressionism, and klezmer traditions connect as Wycliffe Gordon’s Tricky Sam plunger-muted trombone and the cafe sounds of Miri Ben-Ari’s violin and William Schimmel’s accordion set the stage for Nash’s barking, big-toned tenor saxophone flight on Debussy’s “Première Rhapsodie,” the disc opener. Nash also plays clarinet and bass clarinet, and Gordon doubles on tuba, working in tandem with alternating drummers Jeff Ballard and Matt Wilson to give the music a nice bounce, particularly when second-line detours down Bourbon Street are taken. The concept, Nash articulates, “is about chance encounters in the street — people previously unknown to each other as well as old friends.” The result is a tango of kindred souls.
Kid Ramos: Greasy Kid Stuff (Evidence). Blues guitar players who don’t sing have always had a tough time of it in the record world. SoCal hotshot Ramos solved the problem by recruiting a bunch of singing harmonica blowers, including Charlie Musselwhite, James Harman, Rick Estrin, and Johnny Dyner. All are good singers, but none great, thus allowing the spotlight to focus on Ramos’ torrid guitar as he cuts through the old-time shuffles with incisive authority. The results, Ramos accurately explains in the booklet notes, are “like what Howlin’ Wolf was doing in Memphis or the early Chicago blues, when it was electric but you could still hear the dirt roads and pine tar in it.”
Jimmy Scott: Over the Rainbow (Milestone). The 76-year-old singer’s life story is filled with heartbreak and hope, qualities he expresses in highly personalized readings of material from the Great American Songbook. Over the Rainbow, his second CD for Berkeley-based Milestone, follows the pattern of last year’s Mood Indigo; producer Todd Barkan surrounds Scott with world-class jazz instrumentalists — this time including guitarist Joe Beck, bassist George Mraz, drummer Grady Tate, vibraharpist Joe Locke, and saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman — in a program of songs with which the singer has long been intimate. They include “Pennies from Heaven,” “P.S. I Love You,” and a reprise of his 1950 hit “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” Age may have taken a toll on Scott’s intonation, but he more than makes up for it with the profound soulfulness of his delivery.
Tierney Sutton: Blue in Green (Telarc Jazz). The definition of “jazz singer” has long been open to debate, though it’s generally agreed that it’s any vocalist who applies the type of spontaneous phrasing associated with jazz instrumentalists to tunes from the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway traditions. Sutton does some of those, but the bulk of her repertoire is drawn from the jazz tradition itself. Blue in Green consists entirely of songs composed by or associated with pianist Bill Evans, including “Waltz for Debby,” “We Will Meet Again,” “Just Squeeze Me,” and “Autumn Leaves.” The Milwaukee-bred vocalist approaches the imaginatively arranged material in a subtle, sustain-rich manner, recalling Ella Fitzgerald when she scats, and functions more as a member of a quartet (featuring the rhapsodic piano of Christian Jacob) than as a vocalist with instrumental trio accompaniment.
–By Lee Hildebrand
Fiddles and More
This year’s roundup includes the usual mix of traditional music and a few jazz entries. Some of this year’s artists made my list in previous Top Tens, and though I debated giving preference to others, I decided that my choices should reflect the records with which I’ve spent the most time. If Roswell Rudd, Mat Maneri, and the Herbie Nichols Project keep making great CDs, they’ll probably get votes from me again. So will the newcomers here. Some of these small labels may be hard to find, but our great East Bay stores will be glad to be tested.
Mick Conneely: Selkie (Clo lar-Channchta). It’s been a great year for Irish music, with veterans like Tony MacMahon and Seamus Creagh producing stunning discs rivaled by such newer faces as John Wynne, John Carty, and Johnny Connolly. I could argue for any of the above against my choice of Mick Conneely’s Selkie, but it would be hard going because this younger fiddler has done so many things right. He’s firmly rooted in the music, having learned from his father, who is heard here on a great set of duos. Conneely plays with an almost fierce attack but great melodic subtlety; while his style defies regional categorization, it still has a very old-fashioned feel. A good place to find this and other excellent small-label Irish recordings is http://go.to/copperplate.
Draupner: Draupner (Caprice). Traditional music is flourishing in Ireland at the moment, but Sweden and Norway are enjoying what may well be remembered as a Golden Age. After the folk revival got going in Scandinavia in the ’60s, it seemed to have taken almost a generation for younger players to develop backing styles appropriate for the fiddle music that was traditionally performed solo or duo. In Draupner, we have a working trio of very young players; they evince a deep feeling for tradition and an understanding of what is appropriate to add to the music they play. Draupner’s Tomas Lindberg has a very advanced approach to playing with fiddlers that goes beyond what could be called backing. This is a stunning program of achingly beautiful tunes, brilliantly arranged and played with feeling and fire.
Erisson, Nygards, Talroth: Klacklek (Giga). While Draupner plays music from one Swedish region, Halsingland, the musicians on Klacklek come from Dalarna, Varmland, and Stockholm. David Talroth’s approach is similar to Tomas Lindberg’s; both groups have very distinctive sounds. While Draupner is more regional in style, the trio is less conservative than Talroth’s. Anyone with any interest in or even curiosity about Scandinavian fiddle music should pick up both records without hesitation. The Giga release may be hard to find, but [email protected] will get the job done.
John Johnson: Strange Creek Fiddling 1947 (West Virginia University Press). West Virginia University Press only puts out one CD or so every year, but the three it’s issued so far are all spectacular, arguable choices for Top Ten of the year as well as serious nominations for Top Ten period, at least so far as old-time fiddling is concerned. The first two WVUP releases were dedicated to the legendary Edden Hammonds; this year’s entry features John Johnson, who as a young man traveled far from his native state and forged a unique style that combines elements from archaic players like Hammonds and the more modern “long-bow” style. Johnson’s only previous release recording is full of fun and fire, but these 1947 field recordings are breathtaking. A revelation for old-time fans.
Shujaat Khan and Tejendra Narayan Majumdar:Raga Lalit (India Archive). Western avant-gardists have the unfortunate tendency to underestimate the Indian classical tradition because it isn’t “new,” but for sheer beauty only the greatest jazz musicians can rival these improvisers. Sarod player Tejendra Narayan Majumdar is considered a creditable heir to the great Ali Akbar Khan, though one can tell that he has studied sitarists like Nikhail Banarjee and Vilayat Khan. The son of the latter is heard with Majumdar on Raga Lalit, perhaps the best classical duo recording that this writer has heard. The duo format is really contrary to the improvisatory nature of the music, and only real masters can make us forget the disadvantages inherent in the form, but Khan and Majumdar are more than equal to the task.
Charlie Kohlhase Quintet with Roswell Rudd: Eventuality (Nada). For a long time, Roswell Rudd managed only infrequent recordings, but the trombonist-composer has made up for lost time in recent years, reuniting with Archie Shepp, the New York Art Quartet, and Steve Lacy. This recording with Charlie Kohlhase’s group might slip through the cracks, which would be a pity, because it’s one of the best of all. Kohlhase, a Boston-based reedman, is a confident interpreter of a stylistic range reaching from harmonically advanced hard-bop to free form. Here he has to stretch further, as Roswell leads the group on a romp that covers everything from Dixieland and bluesy tunes to a hilarious version of “All of Me” with a bop head and a great Rudd vocal on French lyrics.
Mat Maneri: Trinity (ECM). Mat Maneri is perhaps the most impressive of the violinists searching to bridge the gap between free jazz and contemporary classical music. His playing often sounds like a series of unconnected feints and abstractions that begin unexpectedly and veer into silence almost as soon as they’re tracked by the ear. He strikes an uneasy balance between total abstraction and anything you could call melodic, masterfully maintaining the tension created in the process. The music on Trinity is stark and uncompromising, but listeners attuned to modern music will find it full of grace and compressed passion.
Herbie Nichols Project: Strange City (Palmetto). This most interesting of repertory groups is dedicated to the recreation of music by the great pianist/composer Herbie Nichols, who coincidentally was a mentor to Roswell Rudd in the early ’60s. Each Project record has surpassed the last, but this third effort sets a standard that may be hard to better. The focus here is on tunes that Nichols never recorded, though a few have been heard on Rudd’s Unheard Herbie Nichols CDs. It’s sometimes hard to envision what the composer had in mind from the lead sheets he left behind, but in the hands of the Herbie Nichols Project the music comes to life, offering new appreciation of a lost genius who may finally be having his day.
Taraf de Haidouks: Band of Gypsies (Nonesuch). If there is a better Gypsy band than Taraf de Haidouks, this writer hasn’t heard it. They have everything: virtuosic instrumental command, a rhythmic lift that has to be heard to be believed, and ensemble work that’s tight but never overly polished. They play impossibly complex, high-velocity sequences exactly in sync, without ever sacrificing the gritty texture that separates folk musicians from those who ply the restaurant trade. Their new release was recorded live, and it is, if possible, even better than their studio recordings. Though they don’t overtly push the limits of the music, they use every trick in the book to full effect, with great originality.
Doc Watson: Doc Watson at Gerde’s Folk City (Sugar Hill). The assertion that this 1962 engagement was Doc’s first as a solo act would seem inaccurate; my understanding is that Watson appeared in Philadelphia for a month’s run the previous year. But these recordings do document Watson at the beginning of his career, when his then-revolutionary approach was being defined. It’s interesting to realize how few traditional singers take the kinds of simple liberties with melody that Watson uses to excellent effect in his version of “The House Carpenter.” The well-conceived arrangements will fascinate specialists, but the masterful delivery will captivate anyone who’s not tone-deaf. Watson is a great vocalist and solid on the banjo; as a guitarist he’s as close to perfection as anyone who ever picked a flat-top.
–By Duck Baker
Maybe I’m jaded, or maybe I’m just naive. But after more than 25 years of concentratin on my main musical loves, hip-hop and elecctronic, music that doesn’t flip expecations in some semi-novel way makes no impression on me. Not that the selections on my 2001 list are avant-garde or even cutting-edge (that blade has swung all the way ’round by now — until a new genre pops up, no limbs remain to be hacked off). But if I can’t tell that an artist has questioned the tropes of his or her presumed scene even a little, the disc gets pitched on the sell-back pile. Perhaps a few of these records are relatively safe genre pieces — diversions are needed now more than ever — but most have a wee twist. Next year irony might be out, but don’t they say that every year?
Buck 65: Man Overboard (Anticon). There was a deluge of eccentric, polysyllabic whiteboy rapper records this year, and many of them were well worth the money. I do have reservations about the obscurantism that seems to motivate their lyrical approaches — too many WPMs (words per minute) and opaque references. Buck 65 gets my vote for enunciating clearly and making his clever wordplay meaningful. Any emcee who can eulogize his mother who died recently of breast cancer and not sound corny gets mad props in my book. He also scratches like a DMC champ, samples Metallica, and declares, “I can’t wait until the day I ride around in rocket cars/ wear short-sleeved shirts/ and all I eat is chocolate bars.” The Anticon label has been accused of making rap safe for the alternative rock crowd — I say bring on the thrift store sweaters and shoegazing. Emo-hop deserves its time to shine, and might prove to be the ideal antidote for victims of rap’s platinum-poisoning epidemic.
Fugazi: The Argument (Dischord). One of these kids is doing his own thing … every other record on my list relies heavily on computer sequencers for arranging its sounds; Fugazi is a real live rock band. Since Fugazi’s 1990 album Repeater remains on my all-time fave list despite my tastes becoming far more beat-centric since my teenage years, it’s one of the very few guitar-drums-bass groups I still check for. I’ve always thought Fugazi has been misclassified as punk/hardcore/emo when it’s actually a funk band with an attitude. Either way, The Argument displays a maturity very few fifteen-year-old outfits reach without scrapping the original charter. A very encouraging return to form after End Hits, which many read as the creative dénouement.
Gold Chains: Gold Chains (Orthlorn Musorks). “Gold Chains muthafukah, is knockin’ your lights out!!” Ever notice that every hard rocker has a secret cache of aggro rap tapes stashed away somewhere — especially Eazy-E and Public Enemy — and can chant every line right along with them? It’s because the testosterone-driven rhythms, plodding rhyme cadences, and vivid nature of the lyrics are right out of Slayer. Gold Chains spits verses and punches out beats in this long-forgotten and ignoble tradition. “Yeah, my headphones, they’re large/ my speakers are in charge/ cash advance on my vocal cords like a Visa card.” He’s utterly and completely spoofing hip-hop while utterly and completely paying homage to every one of its tenets. Another curveball: Techno abstractionist Kit Clayton shares production credit. So Chains is speaking literally when he boasts, “I just ordered 20 DATs and 50 Moogs, a couple of ARPs, five 808s, as I take over the pop charts,” which are references to old music machines drooled over by dance music knob-twiddlers. That last bit about the pop charts might be more honest than even he’s willing to admit — this shit is impossibly infectious, and with an accompanying video (I’d love to see that one), has TRL written all over it.
Interfearence: Take That Train (Ubiquity). I’m not sure how they made all of this stuff, but it sounds like acoustic disco to me. Flutes pick up melodies in place of synths, hand percussion supplants programmed thuds, and tribal/ devotional chants that don’t sound lifted from National Geographic specials echo all throughout the mix. But it’s not the novelty of the instrumentation alone that earns my vote — these two Londoners know how to whip the shindig into overdrive with toe-blistering tempos and savvy build-and-release dynamics. In the same constellation perhaps as the confounding and (in my opinion) overly flapped-about broken beat scene, but sans the yuppie snootiness and preoccupation with supposedly rarefied subtlety.
Marumari: Supermagoadon (Carpark). The image on this CD is “sampled” from Ray Bradbury’s existentialist sci-fi epic The Martian Chronicles. The artwork shows two stoic inhabitants of some distant planet sitting on an observation deck overlooking a windswept, rose-colored landscape. There is no other way to describe the music on the disc than as an exact 1:1 sonic rendering of that painting, with melancholy vocal smears and humming hi-fi equipment stirring up the same feelings of alien pastoralism and pastel-hued utopian colonies. An ambient/ downtempo masterpiece best enjoyed with headphones and cherry-tipped cigars.
Mr. Velcro Fastener: Lucky Bastards Living Up North (Statra). Electro, that homo erectus that both techno and drum-machine-based hip-hop descended from decades ago, continues to defy natural selection and show up its offspring with its technological sophistication. But it must be damn hard to market, because even most devoted electronic music devotees missed out on this apocalyptic dancefloor imploder (even with the free cutout robot toy included in the liner notes). Mr. Velcro Fastener is a Finnish group that understands electro is based on a certain insane impossibility: a system of angular machine rhythms, crystalline synthesizer cascades, and guttural vocoder moans that intermesh to create a stiff, menacing funk. MVF’s source sounds are so evil they should send people running for their mental stability.
The Parallax Corporation: Cocadisco (Viewlexx). Hailing from The Hague and named after a ’70s paranoid conspiracy film, the Parallax Corporation is the leading group behind the worldwide Eurodisco revival. Actually, it’s pretty much the only group, but its sputtering retro weirdness really should be the next contagion to take over clubland. (Never happen.) For inspiration, corporation chairmen I-f (best known for his underground anthem “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass”) and Intergalactic Gary mine the work of Italian electronic pioneer and film score master Giorgio Moroder (Blade Runner, Scarface), a truly deviant miscreant most contemporary house and techno producers try hard to forget. Juicy, throbbing basslines push these tracks into back alleys of cheap lust and bad drugs, exactly where dance music began and to which it will inevitably return.
Pep Love: Ascension (Hiero Imperium). Quietly, perhaps even conservatively, Pep Love has established himself as one of Northern California’s most feared secret weapons on the mike. And he couldn’t have made his ten-years-in-the-making debut at a better time — his Hieroglyphics crew is coming off a series of disappointing albums (Souls of Mischief, Del) and indie hip-hop in general is in a creative lull. Ascension is more than a classic rap album, it’s a tribute to the straightforward, gimmick-free beats and lyrics that put the East Bay on the map. Plus, Pep’s flow is absolutely his own, a rarity in this day of Eminem and Cash Money clones. Some reviewers fault him for being too wordy, which to me is like dissing a mathematician for using too many numbers.
Prefuse 73: Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives (Warp). Much ink has been spilled over the arranged marriage of bleeding-edge electronic experimentation and hip-hop, that laptop nerds like local media darling Kid606 and his Tigerbeat6 crew are influenced by rap, and that chartbusting R&B producers like Timbaland must listen to jungle. While music from both of these camps is satisfying in its own right, neither so far has arrived at a hybrid that can appeal equally to the other side. Enter Atlanta’s PreFuse 73, the first producer who could lure as many hip-hop fans as IDM followers (although the fact that it’s on techno heavyweight Warp probably means far fewer hip-hoppers found this awesome debut). The fact that glitched-up, creeping melodic undertones coexist so well with chopped vocals from lyrical sharpshooters Aesop Rock and Divine Styler suggests that the rocky honeymoon between these supposedly white and black musics might be moving into the sweet lovin’ stage.
Princess Superstar: Princess Superstar Is (Corrupt Conglomerate). My vote for the best hip-hop single of the year is the Princess’s “Bad Babysitter,” an über-raunchy rallying call for all the six-dollar-an-hour teenage laborers who put the kid to bed, invite the boyfriend over, and “know how nice it is to get laid while you’re gettin’ paid.” The comparison is really too obvious to make (she even puts it into one of her songs), but Princess Superstar is the closest thing we have to a female Eminem. Overwhelming lyrical dexterity, oodles of shock value, too much personal information, the whole platinum blond thing … the only difference is she doesn’t hate guys and takes herself less seriously. And the duet with Kool Keith should not be missed.
–By Darren Keast
All Grown up Now
2001 was a year of growing up. Not in a big, Newsweek thinkpiece, post-9/11 sort of way. No, I’m talking about a slower sort of maturity, one heralded by a pan-genre array of twentysomethings finally getting their shit together and putting out beautiful-beyond-their-years works of art. We had a young M Ward up in the Pacific Northwest release an album with the wrinkles of Elizabeth Cotten and the soul of Methuselah. Semi-local retro-electronica kids Figurine stopped laughing at themselves and put forward the year’s most credible argument for a synth pop revival. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, who is probably now old enough to drive (but not old enough to rent a car), sics a demon three-song folk EP on the world that finally justifies all the hype the poor boy has had to endure. And, finally, there’s Ryan Adams. More than anything else, 2001 was the year of Ryan Adams. The roots rocker shed both his “alt” and “country” in twelve months, releasing back-to-back rock albums with over 35 songs worth of material. If Adams and the rest of his twentysomething ilk are on productivity-enhancing drugs, I want some. And if they’re not, God help us all.
Ryan Adams: Gold (Lost Highway). In my dream world, Uncle Tupelo didn’t break up. Instead, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar decided to get married. And they settled down in North Carolina and raised a son named Ryan Adams who melded the whacked-out pop leanings of his dad Jeff and the dirt-old country-blues of his other dad Jay. And both dads would have been moved to tears this year to see their son release so much good stuff. On Gold, Adams is growing into his role as a brash pop power-hitter, one comfortable enough with his own voice to try emulating idols like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. Like most home-run hitters, Adams strikes out as often as he smacks ’em out of the park: The second half gets bogged down in classic rock’s tired musical machismo. The first seven songs, though, are more than enough to warrant the album’s precocious title.
Bright Eyes: Three New Hit Songs from Bright Eyes (Wichita). This British import EP finds Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst outgrowing the histrionic vocal tremble that marred so much of his earlier work. The result is dangerously affecting emo-folk, with Oberst’s bitter, heartbroken aesthetic honed to a razor-sharp point. On “Drunk Kid Catholic” and “I’ve Been Eating (For You),” Oberst effortlessly makes his wounds your wounds. Believe me, hurting has never felt this good.
Call and Response: Call and Response (Kindercore/Emperor Norton). When the Commission on Picnics and Barbecues announced Call and Response had swept the group’s Background Music Awards this year, they were only seconding what hundreds of Bay Area fans already knew: This sexy piece of bubblegum pop is as crucial to a party’s success as chicken wings and glitter. Call and Response’s featherweight lyrics sail along on some of the meatiest, most instantly lovable melodies crafted since the Jackson Five left Motown. The combo of Dann Judd’s staccato guitar and Terri Lowenthal’s rubbery, bouncing bass would be enough to get most people onto the dance floor; couple that with Jordan Dalrymple’s crispy drumming and the peppy, harmonied vocals of keyboardists/ organists Simone Rubi and Carrie Clough, and you’ve got a full-blown funk party on your hands.
Clairvoyants: Your New Boundaries (Wishing Tree/Badman). Clairvoyants’ main man Brian Dunn has good reason to be down: Last year, while still assembling players for Your New Boundaries, he was in a car accident that crushed his face and nearly cost him his left eye. Your New Boundaries was made with insurance money from the accident. Needless to say, the CD is pretty morose: Clairvoyants falls between downbeat Chet Baker and Songs:Ohia. But even the gloomy songs (and there are many) are buoyed by jazzy, open arrangements by Dunn’s superb list of guest musicians. With their help, his songs take on the ineffable radiance of empty late-night streets and glimmering, barbed memories of sweetness past.
Figurine: The Heartfelt (March). Figurine’s 1999 debut, Transportation + Communication = Love, was a deliberately dated synth-pop album, a recreation of a non-existent early-’80s classic that sounded like sensitive robots covering Depeche Mode songs. While the retro-tech bleeps and blips and Atari2600 kitsch were endearing, Figurine wisely allowed itself to explore a wider muical terrain on the follow-up, The result is a post-Kid – A masterpiece of wistful futurism and powerfully minimalist programmed beats. Boy singer/programmer James has the winsome nerdiness of the Magnetic Fields covering Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. And singer Meredith adds perfect notes of deadpan longing to the mix, transforming songs like “Stranger” and “Heartfelt” into exquisite visions of passion and loneliness in the digital age.
I Am the World Trade Center: Out of the Loop (Kindercore). While the press was having a post-Sept. 11 field day with the Coup’s retracted album cover and the Strokes’ hastily deleted track “New York City Cops,” no one made a peep about this Athens, Georgia band abandoning its suddenly glaring moniker. That’s probably the way the band wanted it: IATWTC, consisting of Kindercore Records co-owner Ryan Geller and singer Amy Dykes, have always been reluctant self-promoters, too humble to draw attention to their exceptional electronica/pop output. Out of the Loop is giddy, homemade techno that draws from De La Soul, Fatboy Slim, and the Stone Roses, pulling them together into a dancey, atmospheric package that’s received woefully little play in a woe-filled year.
Red House Painters: Old Ramon (Sub Pop). This CD languished in the major-label vaults for more than three years, a victim of industry consolidation and major-label apathy. Thankfully, Sub Pop did us all the favor of making sure it saw the light of day. Old Ramon is an effortlessly gorgeous album, a simple valentine to a precious world of sweetness and yearning. Delete the opener about singer Mark Kozelek’s cat and the indulgently long “River,” and this long-awaited CD is the best thing these local boys have ever released. Which, for a band this good, is saying something special indeed.
The Shins: Oh Inverted World (Sub Pop). Slavish musical time-travelers (hello, Minders) and museum-quality style mavens (cough cough, Beachwood Sparks) beware: The Shins have set a dangerously high bar for your retro ilk. A mix of Kinks-y rock and weirdo lyrics (think Neutral Milk Hotel writing sonnets to the desert), Oh Inverted World is one of those records that you don’t really like until the fifth listen, and can’t stop playing after the sixth. “New Slang” is the year’s best midtempo ballad, and the amateurish Quicktime video for it burned onto the CD ranks right up there with the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” for top honors in the field of charming videographic underachievement.
M Ward: End of Amnesia (Future Farmer). Don’t let his youthfulness and diminutive name fool you: This Portland singer/songwriter is one of the up-and-coming giants of the indie folk scene. With a croaky, weathered voice and sublime fingerpicked melodies, Ward bridges the ragged world of Neil Young and the more concise microcosm of Elliott Smith. End of Amnesia is a lyrical exploration of dreams and water, apocalypse and baseball, all recounted with the rocking-chair grace of someone who has lived far beyond his 28 years.
Whiskeytown: Pneumonia (Lost Highway). The lovely swan song from Ryan Adams’ defunct band follows the by-now-familiar mold of timeless classics cut with so-so filler. Pneumonia — recorded a few years back but unreleased until this spring — was the world’s first warning of Adams’ surprising ship-jump from USS Country to The Good Ship Pop. It’s an exhilarating transitional moment, clearly audible in songs like “Mirror, Mirror,” “Under Your Breath,” and “Easy Hearts.” The opener, “The Ballad of Carol Lynn,” is one of rock’s most poignant kiss-offs, not to mention the best song of Adams’ prolific career.
–By Chris Baty
Rain During a Drought
There were quite a few disappointments for new music this year, with a lot of questionable hype hovering over bland regurgitation. After the garage-rock, art-school novelty wore off the White Stripes, many people began to realize that this band has songs but needs a rhythm section. The UK music press (which loves rich kids in bands almost as much as piss-poor football hooligans) blew up the Strokes, but for some reason ignored the Vue (and it does that wiry East Coast thing so much better). And then Whiskeytown’s Ryan Adams unleashed his ego vehicle, fueling the engine with mediocre, money-polished songs — many of which made him sound like another bastard son of John Cougar Mellencamp. The Beachwood Sparks put cosmic country rock on the back burner to experiment with more smacked-out-sounding canyon-twee and a gimmicky Sade cover. Didn’t Ashley Park already happen? And not all the Scientologists in LA could save that new Air record (not even Beck). But fashion-rock aside, all true music lovers know that many times you have to use your ears to shovel through shit to find the true gems (for music journalists, this is an everyday job). And although we knew that some of these gems were going to shine anyway, there were still a few beautiful accidents and wonderful surprises.
Call and Response: Call and Response (Emperor Norton). This album is so pure and fun that even Gina Arnold might understand it. Not that CAR is simple, but it does have a talent for mixing complex song arrangements with mapped-out, three-part, male-female vocal harmonies in a way that sounds as natural as giant waves crashing on Ocean Beach. Songs like the wistful West Coast wonder of “California Floating in Space” fused analogue synthesizers with weepy pedal steel notes long before Stereolab tried it. And while it’s going to get tons of Stereolab comparisons, CAR’s harmonious East Bay, indie funk-pop sounds more like a Free Design, Michael Jackson, and Broadcast cocktail. Dismissing it as a twee band is a shortcut to thinking.
The Court & Spark: Bless You (Absolutely). Jon Pruett put it best when he said, “This album turned Court & Spark from a great local band into a great band.” Although the lead singer hails from Orange County, his outland voice and innovative Americana songwriting don’t seem an affectation. Haunting fragments of this masterpiece could be the soundtrack to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. If you dig Calexico or Red House Painters, you should really check out this album. And if you hate Calexico or Red House Painters, you should really check out this album.
Kings of Convenience: Quiet Is the New Loud (Source). Two innocent and sheltered young men from Norway coo love songs in magical harmony. Imagine what it would sound like if Simon & Garfunkel had kids with Belle & Sebastian. It’s not always easy to listen to this constantly lamenting album in its timid entirety, but the standout tracks are the lovelorn “Winning a Battle, Losing the War” and the midtempo melancholy of “Toxic Girl” (whoever directed the video for this song should win some kind of pointy medal).
Mark Kozelek: What’s Next to the Moon (Badman). The man with the prettiest voice (next to Neil Young) did something incredible. He took his favorite Bon Scott-penned AC/DC songs and deconstructed them. He kept Scott’s lyrics intact, but fucked with the arrangements to reconstitute them into dislocated folk songs that let you realize for the first time that Bon Scott was a sad-hearted poet who composed beautiful songs. After listening to these almost Nick Drake-sounding sonnets and laments set to Kozelek’s music, you can’t help but think that Scott must have been kind of bummed that he had to sing these beautiful musings over bone-headed power chords and jockish riffs.
Mercury Rev: All Is Dream (V2). This incredible magnum opus is kind of like the yang to the yin of 1998’s Deserter’s Songs. The members of Mercury Rev are masters at writing and recording the kind of epic songs that celebrate throwing in the towel. Sometimes Jonathan Donahue’s Jim Henson-esque voice can throw you off, but with each album he and his band figure out how to make the musical soundscapes behind his voice so beautiful that his Muppet-toned inflections become just another obscure instrument that help to get these enormous songs out of his head.
The Moore Brothers: Colossal Small (Amazing Grease). Sir Thomas Moore is a man for all seasons as well as a history scholar who has been known to smoke a workingman in his backyard conversations. He writes songs about things that you could only comprehend once you have listened to and understand the insect perspective. Gregory Moore is a working- man’s smoker and a soft-spoken ice cream clown with a heart full of flowering love and a cotton-candied head full of songs about that very love. He may live on the other side of the trolley tracks, but he radiates pure California soul. As individuals, the Moore Brothers each sing songs you wish you had thought of first. But together, their folky harmonies birth a magical third harmonic tone that lets you realize that they were put here by the gods of music to reward us for surviving this year’s sonic drought.
Mother Hips: The Green Hills of Earth (Future Farmer). The kids who still wear studded belts and who purposefully replace the white laces of their black Chuck Taylors with matching black laces will never understand the beauty of this band. All the helmet-heads and hooded-hoods still think that Mother Hips is a hippie band just because it formed at Chico State, where fisticuff-prone fratboys and blond-brained gals who overuse the word “random” became the band’s extended family. Mother Hips’ fifth album is chock-full of otherworldly vocal harmonies and sun-flared love songs that sound like the band was orbiting the West Coast in a spaceship with only a handful of early Bee Gees and Bread albums. Besides its comforting dad-rock, summer-pop sound, Mother Hips knows how to crank those Fender Super Reverbs and play the old-school rock ‘n roll like the ’80s never happened. Imagine a world without any Patrick Nagel prints or Diesel models.
Preston School of Industry: All This Sounds Gas (Matador). If PSOI really stands for Pavement’s Second Offspring Illusion, then BRMC must be an acronym for Band Relives Mary Chain. But you know what? Who cares? Who cares if this is really a solo project in the guise of a functioning band? Scott Kannberg writes good songs, even if he has to flat-out lie to the SF Weekly about arranging them all by himself. And with Jon Erickson and Andy Borger supplying his soulful rhythm section (and rounded album production), Kannberg’s new solo project can deceive almost anyone — PSOI actually sounds like a seasoned band. Could it be the new John’s Children? Of course it could not. But it still kind of rips.
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions: Bavarian Fruit Bread (Rough Trade). She’s reinvented beauty again. With Colm O’Ciosoig (My Bloody Valentine’s old drummer) and his buddies the Warm Inventions by her side, Hope Sandoval reveals a love and passion for good folk (gifted guitar genius Bert Jansch makes some guest appearances that take your breath away). But don’t pull out your Pentangle until you hear the soothing string arrangements, warming harmonica drones, and the kind of beautiful and womanly singing that you’ll just want to make babies to. Songs like the wistful “Suzanne” and the narcotic “Drop” (a fine Jesus and Mary Chain cover) will warm your mind like sun on your skin. Any musician discouraged that everything has been done before should listen to this exquisite collection of songs, especially the groundbreaking “Butterfly Mornings.” This album is a new classic.
Spiritualized: Let It Come Down (Arista). It’s easy to want to hate this album because Jason Pierce fired his old band, and they went on to form Lupine Howl and do we really need another Dandy Warhols? But Pierce once again set the bar high, this time approximating guitar vibrato with a string section playing the soft and wavering staccatos of a tremolo. Check out his heroic anthem for the apathetic, “Don’t Just Do Something,” complete with a choir of gospel singers and a lush backdrop of Nashville strings. It’s also endearing how Pierce tries so hard to come across as the penultimate slacker (especially when you realize that in order to make an album this grand, you really have to bust your ass).
–By Eric Shea