Out with the new, in with the old
Not long ago, I read an argument in favor of the practice of art criticism. The essence of the critic’s job, it said, was to identify where a certain art music, film, literature, what have you was headed. I only wish I could remember where I read the damn thing, or in what context it was written. Alas … .Still, I was most pleased to read this because it had never been spelled out to me just what I had been doing with much of these past 10 years. And the idea that a critic’s work was to point the way toward the future intrigued me. More than anything, though, it seemed to explain a lot. Especially about why my annual list of favorite recordings was so at odds with everyone else’s lists, which seemed to have so much in common. Most every other critic, as I have complained before, seemed slavishly devoted to whatever was new or at least a rehashing of something old enough that, to a lot of ears, is sounded new. It puzzled me that other writers would rave about CDs by Nelly Furtado, Local H, Luscious Jackson and Radiohead, whose charms were mostly lost on me, while I wondered why they didn’t agree with my affection for G. Love & Special Sauce, Jeb Loy Nichols, Ernest Ranglin and Bruce Hornsby.Now I think I know. Those other critics were likely hip to the critic’s forward-looking task, and thus knew that the best CDs were the most innovative and up-to-date. Helping to confirm this suspicion is the fact that publications as diverse as The New York Times and Spin magazine always have some degree of agreement on what the best CDs of the year were. They’re all looking for that new thing. So young musicians this year, that includes 50 Cent, the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Beyonc, R. Kelly and the Bad Plus get lavished with praise, while worthy artists of a certain age are generally ignored.But what sounds really new this year often becomes fairly old by year’s end. Me, I’m just focused on what sounds good and will likely sound good 10 years hence. Most of the albums to make my best-of-2003 list are by musicians too old and moldy to be considered at the vanguard. But that’s OK. I’ve always thought myself more a fan than a critic.The Jayhawks, “Rainy Day Music”produced by Ethan Johns (American)Nodding back to the glorious harmonies and chiming acoustic guitars of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, the Jayhawks spin a pitch-perfect album of melancholy and beauty. The melodies and did I mention the harmonies? of short, simple songs like “Tailspin” and “Eyes of Sarahjane” never go out of style. I can listen to “Rainy Day Music” any day, and it will always brighten my mood.Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Everyone Deserves Music”produced by Franti (Boo Boo Wax)Michael Franti doesn’t just point out the world’s ills. He also empowers people to rise up and face them. So on “Everyone Deserves Music,” his first post-9/11 recording, we get not only “Bomb the World” (“We can bomb the world to pieces/But we can’t bomb it into peace”), but also “What I Be” (“If I were the rains, I’d wash away the whole world’s pain”). Franti wraps his words of comfort and confrontation in a mix of disco, funk, rock and reggae that is bound to uplift the spirit.Gov’t Mule, “The Deepest End”produced by Warren Haynes (ATO)Gov’t Mule, the jam-band world’s hardest rocking outfit led by singer-guitarist Warren Haynes, the planet’s hardest working musician took the opportunity of the New Orleans Jazz Festival to organize an unforgettable night of music. Joining Gov’t Mule on the stage of the Saenger Theatre on May 3, 2002 were over 20 guest players including 13 top bassists, a tribute to late Gov’t Mule bassist Allen Woody. The result is two CDs, one DVD, over three hours of music from hard-rock classics (“War Pigs,” Voodoo Chile”) to Gov’t Mule’s brand of funk, jam and guitar rock and not a moment of it uninspired. Oh, what a night!Lucinda Williams, “World Without Tears”produced by Mark Howard & Williams (Lost Highway)Here’s proof of my point. Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was the consensus best album of 1998. Her 2001 follow-up, “Essence” also received ecstatic reviews but wasn’t hailed as quite the achievement as was “Car Wheels.” And now comes “World Without Tears,” which makes hardly anyone’s best of the year list.The thing is that the three albums are separated by a hair’s breadth in terms of quality. It’s just that Williams was a new thing five years ago (not exactly new, but “Car Wheels” was clearly her breakthrough album). Now that she’s made her third extraordinary album in a row which, to me, makes her more noteworthy she is old hat.Making things worse, “World Without Tears” represents a big musical step away from the earlier albums. Recorded with Williams’ road band, it is grittier and more rocking than the two previous efforts. As always with Williams, it explores the hard side of love; songs like “Bleeding Fingers” and “Righteously” are rich with pain. As for her singing, I haven’t gotten Williams’ crooning of “Just play me John Coltraaane,” from “Righteously,” out of mind since first hearing it nine months ago.Rufus Wainwright, “Want One”produced by Marius deVries (Dreamworks)Orchestral and cerebral, catchy and fun, Rufus Wainwright’s “Want One” echoes the ambitious pop of the mid-era Beatles. Wainwright throws horns, strings, choirs, programming and even excerpts of Ravel into the mix.Tim O’Brien, “Traveler”produced by O’Brien (Sugar Hill)With consistently excellent albums of Celtic music, Bob Dylan covers and acoustic duets, Tim O’Brien has set the bar incredibly high for himself. So when I first heard “Traveler,” it was hard to be impressed. But as I heard various songs the fun “Kelly Joe’s Shoes,” the inward “I’ve Endured” separately on the radio, I was struck by how strong they were. With guest pickers Jerry Douglas and Bla Fleck, the musicianship is superb. The songs represent a huge variety of styles and tempos; the fact that all are tied together by the “traveling” theme makes this brilliant.Outkast, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”produced by Antwan “Big Boi” Patton & Andr “3000” Benjamin (Arista)This two-CD set by Southern rap duo Outkast is closer to two solo projects packaged together: Big Boi’s “Speakerboxxx” and Andr 3000’s “The Love Below.””Speakerboxxx” is fun, innovative hip-hop, with some really, really fast raps. But the real treat is “The Love Below,” a soul/rap/funk/jazz/spoken word amalgamation that never stops long enough to get pinned down. The changes in tone can be disconcerting, but when Andr 3000 focuses, the results are tremendous songs like “Hey Ya!” and “Happy Valentine’s Day.”Rickie Lee Jones, “The Evening of My Best Day”produced by Rickie Lee Jones and David Kalish (V2)Inspired if that is the right word by our current president, Rickie Lee Jones returns after a years-long break from songwriting. The caustic commentary of “Ugly Man,” directly about George W., is a new side of Jones. The message never swallows the music; in fact, the songs here are as solid as anything Jones has done since she burst forth in the late 70s. Often, the mix of diatribe and groove are handled in ingenious ways. On “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act),” Jones places her political commentary inside a hand-clapping gospel rhythm. Now, how do you argue against the gospel?Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Greendale”produced by Young and L.A. Johnson (Reprise)Leave it to old Neil. He begins with high concept: “Greendale,” which Young calls a musical novel, is a song cycle, stage show, DVD and a movie. Young, with his long-running garage band Crazy Horse, then takes the high concept and fleshes it out with raggedy, low-fi songs, employing such sonic devices as a bullhorn and ringing bass strings. But Young has rarely been so plain-spoken, compassionate or just plain interesting. In telling his tale of the Green family, Young addresses issues of the environment, the media and small-town American life. It makes for his most ambitious statement since “Rust Never Sleeps.”North Mississippi Allstars, “Polaris”produced by the Dickinson Brothers (ATO/Tone-Cool)You always suspected the North Mississippi Allstars would transcend the reworking of Cream-style jamming blues-rock that marked their first two albums. But to think they would progress so quickly and so dramatically to “Polaris” would be a major show of faith in their vision. “Polaris,” however, has the Allstars exploring soul and modern Brit rock without losing the enthusiasm for the roots they showed early on.The Next 10The Allman Brothers, “Hittin’ the Note”: The best studio album from the Bro’s in over 30 years is an unanticipated triumph of virtuosic blues rock.Daniel Lanois, “Shine”: The super-producer surfaces as a singer-songwriter, with warm, reassuring words to go with the familiar atmospheric sounds.My Morning Jacket, “It Still Moves”: Catchy, experimental pop-rock makes the young Southern young band worth keeping an eye on.Ry Cooder & Manuel Galban, “Mambo Sinuendo”: The guitarists reinvent Cuban music with an emphasis on fun.Bruce Cockburn, “You’ve Never Seen Everything”: Songs that tread the lines of hope and tragedy, with Cockburn’s amazing fretwork underneath.Gillian Welch, “Soul Journey”: The mistress of dark songs walks toward the light, and continues to impress.Dixie Hummingbirds, “Diamond Jubilation”: 75-year-old gospel group hooks up with members of The Band and Dylan’s road group to make heavenly sounds.Del McCoury Band, “It’s Just the Night”: Mind-blowing contemporary bluegrass from the best.Steve Winwood, “About Time”: Winwood returns with strong ideas about Brazilian rhythms and the B-3 organ.Warren Zevon, “The Wind”: A poignant farewell.And 34 more good reasons to learn to burn CDs this past year:Folk, bluegrass, country, Celtic: Sam Bush & David Grisman, “Hold On, We’re Strumming”; June Carter Cash, “Wildwood Flower”; Rodney Crowell, “Fate’s Right Hand”; Mark O’Connor, “Thirty-Year Retrospective”; Tony Rice, “The Bluegrass Guitar Collection”; Andrea Zonn, “Love Goes On”; Dan Sheridan, “Recycle”; Emmylou Harris, “Stumble Into Grace”; Solas, “Another Day”; Mike Marshall & Chris Thile, “Into the Cauldron”; Lyle Lovett, “My Baby Don’t Tolerate”; Mick McAuley, “An Ocean’s Breath.”Rock: Dan Bern, “Fleeting Days”; Jay Farrar, “Terroir Blues”; Joe Henry, “Tiny Voices”; Warren Zanes, “Memory Girls”; Steve Earle, “Just An American Boy”; John Hiatt & the Goners, “Beneath This Gruff Exterior”; Damien Jurado, “Where Shall You Take Me?”; Keller Williams, “Home”; Steely Dan, “Everything Must Go”; Jane’s Addiction, “Strays”; Kris Delmhorst, “Songs for a Hurricane”; Bla Fleck & the Flecktones, “Little Worlds.”Funk, soul, reggae, Cuban: Garage a Trois, “Emphasizer”; Burning Spear, “Freeman”; Roy Hargrove & the RH Factor, “Hard Groove”; Robert Randolph & the Family Band, “Unclassified”; Ibrahim Ferrer, “Buenos Hermanos”; Mike Mattson & Paul Olsen, “Scrapomatic.”Blues: Otis Taylor, “Truth Is Not Fiction”; Colin Linden, “Big Mouth”; the Black Keys, “Thickfreakness”; Robert Cray, “Time Will Tell.”
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