Getting a clue: the best CDs of 2004 |

Getting a clue: the best CDs of 2004

Stewart Oksenhorn

I apologize. Clearly I’m not doing my job.A part of my job is to track what is going on in the music world, and that includes searching out the best music released. And if you survey the critics’ picks, the best CDs of 2004 appear to be by Kanye West, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Iron and Wine and Interpol – all of which I managed not to hear one iota of. (And never mind that there’s a good chance you haven’t either; I’m the one who has it in my job description.) What puzzles me is not so much how, year after year, my tastes seem at great odds with those of my critical brethren. It’s how the other critics arrive at these consensus favorites.Is there a network of hip music critics where they all agree on which previously obscure act should be anointed this year? Is there an incredibly persuasive publicity machine behind these select CDs?I’ve figured there are something like 25,000 CDs, huge and tiny, released each year. (I’ve forgotten how I arrived at the number, so please don’t ask.) I spend about as much time listening to as many new CDs each year as I possibly can, from most all fields of music. (Smooth jazz and heavy metal are the only categories instantly dismissed without a chance of a listen.) Critics at big-city newspapers, I’m sure, receive a lot more than the 1,000 or so I get each year, but they still have, presumably, only as many hours to listen to them as I.So the question becomes, how do they know which CDs even to pay attention to for consideration of the best of the year? I have to confess, I haven’t a clue. Nor am I likely to find out – in over a decade of doing this job, I have yet to make friends with another music journalist.But I will peel away some of the mystery of my own music-reviewing process by including, with my picks for the best of 2004, a quick summary of how I came to receive and listen to each CD.Donovan, “Beat Cafe”Yes, that Donovan. And that Donovan, the ’60s folkie behind “Mellow Yellow,” has not been entirely absent for the last three-plus decades. In fact, he released an album, “Sutras,” in the mid-’90s that was good enough for me to pay attention when I saw he had poked his head out again. Also, Luke Nestler, the former Aspen Times delivery guy, KDNK DJ and very reliable source on good music, insisted that I seek this out.

On “Beat Cafe,” Donovan combines that otherworldly voice, which has only warmed and deepened over the years, with modern electronics, jazzy riffs and an excellent backing cast of drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Danny Thompson and producer-keyboardist John Chelew. It’s an improbably fine album for adults looking to update their tastes.Buddy Miller”Universal United House of Prayer”Buddy Miller’s name shows up in the company of some of my eternal favorites; he has been a key sideman for Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. That was enough for me to check out “Buddy and Julie Miller,” the 2001 CD Miller made with his wife.”Buddy and Julie Miller,” as well as 2002’s “Midnight and Lonesome,” both landed on my best of the year lists. Miller may have gotten only better with “Universal United House of Prayer.” It’s a quasi-gospel album: on spiritually tilted songs like his “Shelter Me” and the Louvins Brothers’ “Higher Power,” there are hints of a choir behind Miller’s alt-country sound. But Miller never approaches preachiness; the songs come off more as reminders to self to be grateful, peaceful and searching.Youssou N’Dour, “Egypt”Youssou N’Dour’s name became fairly notable when Peter Gabriel featured the Senagalese singer on the ’80s hit “In Your Eyes.” Nonesuch, the super-eclectic label for which N’Dour records, is known for sophistication and quality. (Wilco, Emmylou Harris, Buena Vista Social Club call it home.)On “Egypt,” N’Dour displays his phenomenal range. He abandons his usual Afro-pop and instead employs mainly string and wind players to make a devotional album stemming from his Sufi faith. “Egypt” is politically significant – N’Dour proclaims the tolerant side of Islam – and the music is thrilling, exotic and moving.

Camper van Beethoven”New Roman Times”Though I wasn’t a Camper van Beethoven fan in the ’80s glory years, I enjoyed Cracker, David Lowery’s countrified, post-Camper outfit. So I was intrigued by Camper’s reunion album. Additionally, Aspen Times managing editor Allyn Harvey is a Lowery-head, and when I heard that Lowery had a local date earlier this month, I sought out “New Roman Times.”Glad I did. The album represents one of the few times where a reunion album not only justifies the reunion, but even tops the previous output. “New Roman Times” is a concept album with an odd and elusive, but relevant storyline, about a soldier in the Fundamentalist Christian Republic of Texas. More important are the spiky, off-center sounds, and songs like “51 7” and the captivating “That Gum You Like Is Back In Style” that stand on their own.Madeleine Peyroux, “Careless Love”What Norah Jones was in 2002, just before her first record took off, Peyroux was in 2004. For a music fan of certain tastes, it was hard to overlook the buzz. Jazz Aspen’s Jim Horowitz has been talking of bringing Peyroux since before the album’s release. (Peyroux will make her Aspen debut Feb. 3 at the Wheeler Opera House.)And like Jones’ “Come Away with Me,” “Careless Love” warrants the talk. Apart from the stylish voice that seems to come from another time and place, the album has the inviting, ear-tickling production of producer Larry Klein. The material ranges from Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” to Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” to Peyroux’s “Don’t Wait Too Long,” and on all of it, Peyroux and Klein find a hip, catchy setting.Mos Def, “The New Danger”To be a well-rounded critic, I’ve got to listen to some hip-hop. Mos Def, who has established himself as a serious actor as well as rapper, seemed more intriguing than most.On “The New Danger,” Mos Def is in the company of Outkast, Jurassic 5 and the Roots, making hip-hop that is more bold and musical than the typical beats and boasts. In fact, “The New Danger” is as much about the guitar as anything, with riffs of funk, blues and rock peppering this wide-ranging album. For a mixture of life’s dark and light, check out “Sunshine,” Mos Def’s remix of “Let the Sunshine In.”

Béla Fleck & Edgar Meyer”Music For Two”If you follow music in Aspen, you’re aware of banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer. The two string experts, each the defining player on his respective instrument, first met in Aspen in the early ’80s, and have since made Aspen a regular stop for all their projects.”Music For Two,” recorded live between 2001 and 2003, finds Fleck and Meyer expanding on their unique brand of string music, and doing it better than ever. They make Bach swing, translate Miles Davis for string duo – and invent tunes like “Woolly Mammoth” that take classical sounds for a ride on the hi-wire.Loretta Lynn, “Van Lear Rose”How could you not be intrigued by the teaming of 69-year-old country singer and young producer-musician Jack White of the edgy White Stripes?The day-and-night pairing works brilliantly on “Van Lear Rose.” With Lynn writing almost all of the songs, and White driving them to a country-rock spot in the heart of old Tennessee – with just the right touch of new-school production – “Van Lear Rose” is a smash beginning to end. The songs are smart and touching, Lynn’s voice is a wonder, White’s production is just right – and it all comes together on the unforgettable “Portland Oregon.”

Tinariwen, “Amassakoul”The reliable Luke Nestler again. Luke insisted I hear the latest by Tinariwen, a group from the Touareg tribe of West Africa.On “Amassakoul,” Tinariwen combine call-and-response vocal chants, deep percussive rhythms, and mesmerizing electric guitar to a great, raw, bluesy effect. They are on my permanent radar.Chuck Prophet, “Age of Miracles”Chuck Prophet, along with Jules Shear and Jim Dickinson, was part of the collective Raisins in the Sun, which released one album, in 2001. That CD was enough to make me curious about the singer-songwriter-guitarist.On “Age of Miracles,” Prophet established the category of very-alt-country. The country aspect is faint, in the steel guitars and the song structures, and is mostly hidden under Prophet’s postmodern voice and elaborate productions. But the title track, and the dreamily romantic “You’ve Got Me Where You Want Me” transcend style to become plain great songs.The next 11Widespread Panic, “Uber Cobra”; Peter Rowan & Tony Rice, “You Were There For Me”; the subdudes, “Miracle Mule”; Drive-By Truckers, “The Dirty South”; Mark Knopfler, “Shangri-La”; Norah Jones, “Feels Like Home”; Leftover Salmon, “Leftover Salmon”; Elvis Costello & the Imposters, “The Delivery Man”; Ben Harper & the Blind Boys of Alabama, “There Will Be a Light”; Kieran Kane & Kevin Welch, “You Can’t Save Everybody”; Antibalas, “Who Is This America?”

And moreTributes: “Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon”; “Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster”; “Under the Influence: A Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd”; “Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo”; “Is It Rolling Bob: A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan”Box sets: “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: Bluegrass, 80 Years of American Music”; Grateful Dead: “Beyond Description”Acoustic: Willie Nelson, “It Will Always Be”; Railroad Earth: “The Good Life”; Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, “Brand New Strings”; Alison Krauss + Union Station, “Lonely Runs Both Ways”; Darol Anger & the American Fiddle Ensemble, “Republic of Strings”; k.d. lang, “Hymns of the 49th Parallel”; Rock, blues, etc.: Los Lobos, “The Ride”; Gomez, “Split the Difference”; the Gourds, “Blood of the Ram”; Mofro, “Lochloosa”; Steve Earle, “The Revolution Starts … Now”; Jackie Greene, “Sweet Somewhere Bound”; G. Love, “The Hustle”; Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “Funeral For a Friend”; Otis Taylor, “Double V”; Big Head Todd and the Monsters, “Crimes of Passion”; Charlie Musselwhite, “Sanctuary”‘ Blues Explosion, “Damage”‘ Dan Bern, “My Country II”; Wilco, “A Ghost Is Born”Live: Derek Trucks Band, “Live at Georgia Theatre”; Keller Williams, “Stage”; Warren Haynes, “Live at Bonnaroo”; North Mississippi Allstars, “Hill Country Revue”; Widespread Panic, “Jackassolantern”Recycled stuff: Bob Dylan, “Bootleg Series, Vol. 6, Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall”; various artists, “Dylan Country”; Jerry Garcia, “Lunt-Fontanne: Oct. 31, 1987”; “Lunt-Fontanne: The Best of the Rest” and “After Midnight: Kean College, 2/28/80″Thanks for listening.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is