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Europe in Ten Questions
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Democracy and the War on â€¦
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Unions Must Tap Young Workers
2001 In Music
The Fruits Of NAFTA
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2001 In Music
After September 11, all forms of popular music seemed particularly out of sync with the times. There was the predictable upsurge of blind one-dimensional patriotism reflected in endless renditions of the national anthem, “God Bless America,” and “America The Beautiful.” The healing and unifying power of music was powerfully present in the “America: A Tribute To Heroes” concert telethon, with performances by Bruce Springsteen, U2, Alicia Keys, and Neil Young ringing prayers of peace and sorrow that could speak to and for all humanity. Beyond these options, one could find enduring relevance in Bob Dylan's “Masters Of War” and “With God On Our Side,” Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On,” U2's “One,” John Lennon's “Imagine,” and Bob Marley's “Redemption Song.” But from the Billboard charting pop in 2001, nearly everything felt trivial and narcotic.
Not a new story, of course. Pop music has been following a path of diminishing significance for decades now. But with corporate saturated marketing gearing nearly all strategies to sustain mega-trends of teen pop, Pearl Jam imitation hard rock, and prefab hip-hop, the year's pop mainstream seldom offered anything more than cheap thrill entertainment. For music giving a deeper sense of human reality and potential, listeners had to make an active and critical search beyond radio, TV, and advertising. From all over the music map, here are my top 40.
Dylan, Love And Theft
A stellar veteran band led by Texas guitarist Charlie Sexton alternates backdrops between sweet, rural swing and dirty, low-down blues as Dylan spews cynical and lusty observations on a world gone wrong. Full of razor-sharp humor, bold attitude, and acute wordplay, Love And Theft is Dylan in all his cranky glory.
2. Bjork, Vespertine (Elektra)
Wrapped in a quiet late night ambiance built out of lush, haunting electronica, Bjork opens to naked erotic and spiritual yearning. A remarkable singer with a sensuality too real for the hit parade.
White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The
Drummer Meg White and guitarist-singer Jack White play a twisted garage version of country, blues, and rock echoing bits of Hank Williams, Hound Dog Taylor, Cole Porter, and Ray Davies.
A quieter and more reflective record than Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, but another soul baring gem from one of the best songwriters in the country.
4. Manu Chao, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (Virgin)
With the Clash and Bob Marley as his primary rebel music inspiration, Chao is striving to bring street life concerns of Latin America and Europe to the youth of the U.S. Flowing rhyme in Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese and riding fusions of reggae, ska, rock, and Latino pop, Chao is an uncategorizable crossover dream.
6. The Coup, Party Music (75 Ark)
Out of Oakland, Boots Riley and DJ Pam The Funkstress make no bones about their socialist politics, even in the wake of the post-September 11 patriotic fervor. For the Coup, grooves and rhyme are the medium of political manifesto detailing class and race oppression within a critique of capitalist society as a whole. Plenty of infectious P-Funk driven bump and grind here, but this “party music” is a thowback to the politically conscious hip-hop of Chuck D and Kris-One.
Keys, Songs In A Minor
Pianist-writer-singer Alicia Keys exploded to stardom on this stunning debut release. Here and there formula production creeps in, and at times youth betrays a stretch for realism, but on Songs In A Minor, Keys displays awesome talent and enormous heart reminiscent of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.
8. Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Silvertone)
Finding inspiration in the raw, droning blues of the north Mississippi hill country, Buddy Guy confronts old age, mortality, betrayal, and race with fierce passion and incendiary guitar.
9. Buddy and Julie Miller (Hightone)
10. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony)
Buddy and Julie Miller play a roughhewn, heart-on-the-sleeve country music aching with deep emotion and hard truths. Each is a wonderful writer and singer, but their talents combined produce gorgeous Southern drawled harmonies, mournful Appalachian traditionalism, and knifing roadhouse guitar that make for a brilliant, idiosyncratic brand of alternative country.
Gillian Welch and her partner writer-singer-guitarist David Raw- lings hold to a more ancient acoustic blueprint of country, but with each album grow more at ease and original in making old-time sounds a natural setting for here and now concerns. Time (The Revelator) is their best to date.
11. Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol)
An extension of last year's Kid A. Another slice of brooding soundscapes and fragmented perceptions depicting the scary normalcy of everyday alienation.
12. Jill Scott, Experience: Jill Scott (Sony/Epic)
Stone, Mahogany Soul
With a live disc revisiting material from her superb 2000 debut album and a bonus studio disc introducing a batch of new songs, poet-singer Jill Scott gets the space to show off more vocal and word power. This is the one that really answers the question, “Who is Jill Scott?” Angie Stone's sophisticated neo-soul hues closer to the classic old school legacies of Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hatha- way, and Marvin Gaye. Like her influences, a messenger of bittersweet real life.
14. Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under The Influence (Bloodshot)
Jo Phelps, Sky Like
Broken Clock (Ryko)
Two singer-songwriters whose intimate, soul searching brand of song has earned wide critical acclaim and devout club audiences. Escovedo draws from his Mexican heritage, folk, rock, blues and classical to explore wounds of race, love, and family. Phelps' dark, meditative blues recall the troubled spirits of Skip James, Robert Pete Williams, Roscoe Holcomb, and Dock Boggs.
Various Artists, O Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack
The huge and unexpected commercial breakthrough of the O Brother soundtrack shows how “uncommercial” music can connect with a mass audience when given wide visibility and social context. Although Nashville reveals few signs of turning away from hat and hair acts, at least in the margins of the country music mainstream there is a little more light shining on the nation's rural roots.
17. D on
Byron, You Are #6: More Music For Six Musicians
Clarinetist Don Byron and trumpeter Dave Douglas are two jazz players who try to make the political implications of their music explicit. On albums such as Tuskegee Experiments (1992) and Nu Blaxpoitation (1998), Byron pointedly pushed listeners to confront the racist underbelly of American society. You Are #6 looks at the country through an Afro-Carribean perspective that questions America's comfortable apathy, makes light of John Wayne movie music, and taunts “Dub Ya.” Douglas's Witness has a more progammatic agenda—celebrating writers and activists confronting imperial power. Weaving moods through Arabic based soundscapes, Douglas honors “Women At Point Zero,” fantasizes “Kidnapping Kissinger,” nods to Seattle's WTO “Ruckus,” before settling into the extended centerpiece “Mahfouz,” a dedication to Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz that includes narration from Tom Waits.
Super Seven, Canto
This second installment of Los Super Seven moves beyond Tejano and traditional Mexican music to reveal a multifaceted panorama of Latin sounds from Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Peru.
Odetta, Looking For A Home
One of the great voices of American folk music gives a stirring tribute to the music and politics of Leadbelly (1889-1949). Ballads, blues, protests, and work songs make up the program, with Odetta infusing each tune with the drama and truth that once made folk music dangerous.
Haggard, Roots, Vol. 1
Parton, Little Sparrow
Haggard and Parton are being rejuvenated by a return to roots and influences. For Haggard, an easy swinging tour through the honky tonk songbook of the legendary Lefty Frizzell, and for Parton, the high lonesome sound of bluegrass and tragic stories of unwanted pregnancies, fatal attractions, and shattered dreams.
23. R.L. Burnside, Burnside On Burnside (Epitaph)
Taylor, White African
The 74-year-old grand master of north Missisisippi hill country blues gets back to basics on this live set recorded in Portland and San Francisco. Backed by his longtime guitarist Kenny Brown and grandson Cedric Burnside on drums, R.L. unleashes the most fierce and hypnotic sound in American roots music. Equally compelling are Otis Taylor's tales of racial violence and poverty. The oppressive historical soil that most modern day blues wishes to forget, Taylor puts in your face.
25. Orlando Cachaito Lopez, Cachaito (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Best known as the bassist of Buena Vista Social Club fame, Cachaito as bandleader shoots off into an adventurous contemporary fusion of Latin jazz, funk, and hip-hop.
Various Artists, Poet: A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt
27. Various Artists, Avalon Blues: A Tribute To The Music Of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard)
The year's most essential tribute albums. Van Zandt, the late great poet laureate of Texas singer-songwriters, gets his due through 15 deeply felt performances by a who's who cast of roots singer-writers including Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, John Prine, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, and Nanci Griffith. Likewise for the Peter Case-produced Avalon Blues. From the heart appreciations by folk, blues, and rock performers (Gillian Welch, Taj Mahal, Dave Alvin, Chris Smither, Beck, to mention a few) touched by Hurt's rural blues genius.
An avant-garde jazz player explores the blues through the varied musical weave of multicultural African America.
29. Ozomotli, Embrace The Chaos (Uni/Interscope)
30. Los Mocosos, Shades Of Brown (Six Degrees)
California's Ozomotli and Los Mocosos aim for a mind/body connection with Latino youth and anyone else who wants to come along for the ride. Ozomotli deliver overtly leftist politics through a captivating stew of funk, salsa, rock, rap, and world sounds. The Los Mocosos blend of rap and song leans heavy on the brown soul tradition of 1960's and 1970's bands such as Malo, Azteca, El Chicano, and War.
31. Dick Gaughan, Outlaws And Dreamers (Appleseed Recordings)
Scotland's great singer-songwriter offers inspiration rooted in Celtic tradition and working class struggle. Employing spare arrangements relying on only guitar, fiddle, and concertina, Gaughan sings tough and tender tales born of a committed life. Highlights: An especially elegant rendering of Phil Ochs' “When I'm Gone” and the powerful autobiographical title track.
32. Charlie Haden And Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Nocturne (Uni/Verve)
The extraordinary Cuban pianist restrains his pyrotechnic flair and acoustic bass master Haden supplies fat, lyrical eloquence on an exquisite set of Mexican and Cuban ballads. Guest saxophonists David Sanchez and Joe Lovano are icing on the cake.
Muldaur, Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain
34. John Hammond, Wicked Grin (Pointblank)
Muldaur's salute to blues of the 1920s and 1930s, and Hammond's knock-out interpretations of Tom Waits tunes brought the enduring power of the tradition into sharp focus. A great comeback for two underappreciated blues veterans.
Maal, Missing You
Lagbaja, We Before Me
Offering pleas for African unity and praises to love and life, Senegal's Baaba Maal has never sounded more impassioned. Soulful Islamic wailing, the righteous guitar of Monsou Seck, and a rich mix of tunes, rhythms, and moods make Missing You Maal's most dazzling recording to date. Nigeria's Lagbaja is led by a mysterious masked singer who aims to carry forward the musical and political legacy of Fela Kuti minus celebrity. The album title, We Before Me, calls for the needs of the masses over the needs of the elite and the 11-piece powerhouse band mixes fiery Afro-beat, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B stoking solidarity and resistance.
37. The Strokes, Is This It? (RCA)
The Velvet Underground /Ramones connection is obvious and the hype surrounding their debut is premature, but the Strokes penchant for matching catchy and crude guitar noise to the muffled yowl of singer Julian Casablancas generates some genuine madhouse fun. Time will tell if there's anything more to offer.
Since stepping away from his alt country outfit Whiskey-town, Ryan Adams' singer-songwriter muse has exploded all over the rock map. On Gold, Adams second solo album, country-styled heartbreak gets its due, but over the course of 70 minutes sonic references run from Neil Young to the Stones to the Who, Dylan, and Springsteen.
39. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Spirit Of The Century (Real World)
Six decades into their life's mission, The Blind Boys Of Alabama step outside the envelope of gospel to reconfigure tunes from Tom Waits, Jagger-Richards, and Ben Harper. The most astonishing and rewarding leap, however, comes on a mesmerizing melding of “Amazing Grace” and “House Of The Rising Sun.”
40. Charley Patton, Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues (Revenant)
Box set of the year. The hefty package includes five CDs covering all issued and previously unissued recordings of the Delta blues giant, one disc of Patton tunes recorded by peers, including Son House, Ma Rainey, and Lonnie Johnson, a disc of interviews, and a reprint of Revenant founder John Fahey's 1970 book on Patton. The attention is warranted and overdue. Recording between 1929 and 1934, Charley Patton's harsh singing, intricate finger and slide work, and vivid, haunted lyrics captured the dread and desire of his life and times with near overwhelming intensity. Z