THE BEST OF 1997
BY SANDY CARTER
As I've mentioned before in this space, the world of pop music is more than dreary these days. Accordingly, I find myself listening to more and more music that stands little chance of becoming a mainstream blockbuster. I still appreciate music that aims for a wide audience and several hits from the past year are reviewed below. But for the most part, the offerings of college and non-commercial radio, indie labels and upstart newcomers sounded "the best" to me in 1997.
The following short reviews cover my Top 20 favorites of the past year. They come from all over the musical map, but most of them were made with the hope of reaching a general audience. The listings after these reviews, are other good ones, but mostly music aimed at a small market, genre specific audience.
Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)
One of the few rock albums from the past year that manages to fuel authentic rebellion without sacrificing accessibility and a sense of fun. The voices and guitars of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein invent a raw magic of noise, rage and sisterhood.
Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind (Columbia)
Sounding like a cross between Howlin' Wolf and Dock Boggs, Bob Dylan floats on the edgy grooves of slow pulsing late night blues and delivers an alienated drifter's take on his and our aimless lives in the American wasteland. Not as earthshaking as his great records of the 1960s, but every bit as true and disturbing.
Greg Brown, Slant 6 Mind (Red House)
The most prolific, consistently good and underappreciated singer-songwriter in the country, lays down yet another gem. Employing loose, sensuous country blues arrangements colored by the textures and solos of guitarists Bo Ramsey and lap slide phenom Kelly Joe Phelps, Brown etches a multi-faceted portrait of life in the rural Midwest. Like Dylan, Brown sees and feels the rot all around. But he also penetrates life deeply enough to find its humor and grace. As a result, you come away from Slant 6 Mind with recharged faith in humanity.
Ani Difranco, Living In Clip (Righteous Babe)
As an audio documentary of Ani Difranco live, Living In Clip is about as good as it gets. In concert the charisma, rebel stance and artistry of Difranco slaps you into an inspired state of bliss. Her best studio records give only hints of this power. So wisely, Living In Clip programs 2 CDs to display the range of moods and song material characteristic of her live performances. Reference points flash--Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Chrissie Hynde, Pattie Smith, Courtney Love, but never quite add up. Ani Difranco is one of a kind, and short of seeing her, this is the best proof available.
Erykah Badu, Baduizm (Kedar/Universal)
On her striking debut, Erykah Badu pushes aside the cliches of female R & B balladry to pursue a silky blend of cool jazz, hip hop and slow swinging retro soul. Vocally Badu brings to mind early Billie Holiday. But in her songs, she reveals a point of view that is altogether personal and contemporary. Whether she's detailing the life of a dope dealer's woman, talking back to her man, or proclaiming Afro pride, Badu is clearly here and now and brilliantly distinctive.
Patti Smith, Peace and Noise (Arista)
Patti Smith is now back in full gear. After exorcising her grief over the loss of loved ones on last year's Gone, she moves out into the world with a raw, basic bass-drums-guitars sound to support an intense collection of visionary rants about the state of the world. Peace And Noise holds a mirror to the evil and ugliness of our times and then challenges it with a call to compassion, and yes, revolution.
Radiohead, OK Computer (Capitol)
Pavement, Brighten The Corners (Matador)
Bellyache rock and roll has become pretty boring and formulaic since the demise of Kurt Cobain. But the complain and moan of Radiohead's Thom Yorke captures the angst and fears of youthful lives in a way that is truly provocative. Wedding lurching tempo changes, dissonant guitar explosions and arty studio effects to Yorke's eerie, complex melodies and anguished commentary, Radiohead paint a very spooky picture of hi-tech capitalism. The dazzling sonic layers pull you into a dismal world that offers no way out or up.
In contrast to the polished experimentation of Radiohead, Pavement rocks with a ragged, lazy elegance that has words and emotions drifting in and out of focus. Oddly tuned guitars and languid arrangements are part of a self-conscious attempt to steer clear of the mythology of the rock world and the conformity of society as a whole. On the band's fifth album, however, singer/writer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus moves the group toward a tighter, cleaner sound that should allow a wide audience to hear the deep poignancy of a tired and frayed sensibility.
Joy Harjo, Letter From The End Of The Twentieth Century (Silver Ware)
Native American poet Joy Harjo has created one of the great fusions of spoken word and music on the angry and compassionate Letter From The End Of The Twentieth Century. With her band Poetic Justice blending strains of jazz and reggae with African and Native beats, Harjo honors the struggles of indigenous people against genocide and oppression with a steady low-key attack on The Western Way. History, critique and haunting imagery melded to a burning world pulse.
Jesus Alemany/Cubanismo!, Malembe (Hannibal/Rykodisc)
Buena Vista Social Club, Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Without watering down anything for North American tastes, these two albums are leading the current breakthrough of Cuban music in the United States. On Malembe, Trumpeter Jesus Alemany and his band Cubanismo (raved about in Z Dec. 1997) follow their 1996 release, Cubanismo!, with another explosive session of modern red-hot Cuban dance music. By contrast, Buena Vista Social Club is a Ry Cooder assembly of some of the greatest living practitioners of Cuban compesino music. Recruiting surviving son masters such as 90 year-old singer-writer Compay Segundo, 77 year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez, 70 year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer and 50 year-old singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa to record a collection of classic sones, Cooder sparked a spontaneous down home revival of folk ballads and dance tunes dating back to the 1920s. Son, an Afro-European mutation that emerged in rural southeastern Cuba around the turn of the century, is to salsa as blues is to rock and roll. And at this magical happening recorded in Havana, listeners get a delicious taste of this pure, soulful sound connecting so many African and Latin musical traditions.
Steve Earle El Corazon (Warner Bros.)
El Corazon's opening track "Christmas In Washington," a quiet plea for the rebirth of radical spirits such as Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, is one of my favorite songs of 1997. Though nothing else on this album is quite so inspiring, country rock renegade Steve Earle still manages a solid collection of hard-edged stories about racist violence, poison lovers, wrong turns and defiant rebellion. And "Ft. Worth Blues," his touching ode to the late great Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, is true heartbreak.
Richard Buckner Devotion And Doubt (MCA)
Ron Sexsmith Other Songs (Interscope)
These two quiet albums capture human vulnerability with a grace and sensitivity that is rare in popular music. Buckner's Devotion and Doubt is a haunting country flavored masterpiece expressing the tormented obsessions of faded love (see Z Dec. 1997). Ron Sexsmith leans more in a pop direction, crafting spare, delicate musical backdrops for melodic "little songs" that zero in on the mundane experiences of everyday life. Influences such as Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies, The Beatles and The Beach Boys circle around Sexsmith's songs, but his quavery tenor and gentle sensibility radiate a glowing warmth that is all his own.
Jacky Terasson & Cassandra Wilson Rendezvous (Blue Note)
Henry Threadgill Where's Your Cup? (Columbia)
Bill Frisell Nashville (Nonesuch)
Though the boundaries of jazz are fluid and inherently open to redefinition, adventurous players always raise the question: "Is this jazz?" On her last album, Bad Moon Daughter, Cassandra Wilson cracked the pop market and broke new ground in the jazz world by drawing song material and instrumentation from country, rock and blues traditions. On Rendezvous, she returns to something seemingly more conventional, a duet date with pianist Jacky Terasson covering standards. The collaboration of these two young mavericks is so fresh and free, however, that it will still cause stomach upset to the jazz police.
Composer/multi-reed player Henry Threadgill is another thorn in the side of neo-conservative dogma. His music takes in the entire history of jazz, as well as blues, rock, world influences and anything else he runs across. Where's Your Cup? is his latest eclectic experiment, this time drawing in Cajun spiced accordion, elements of tango and explosive electric guitar passages to a dramatic, moody soundtrack offering up surprise after surprise.
Like Threadgill, guitarist Bill Frisell is so uncategorizeble that his music is often labeled avant garde. Nevertheless, Frisell's tasteful fusion of jazz and country on Nashville is so melodic and emotionally accessible that it should open minds and hearts of music listeners of all tastes. Using mostly quiet acoustic arrangements textured with mandolin (Adam Steffey), banjo (Ron Block), harmonica (Pat Bergeson), dobro (Jerry Douglas) and occasional vocals (Robin Holcolm), Frisell discovers the essential heartache of The Grand Tradition through a fine balance of craft and improvisation.
Portishead, Portishead (Go! Beat/London)
With their 1994 debut, Dummy, London's Portishead gave birth to a sound tagged as "trip-hop." Wrapping the sounds of vintage instruments, tape loops, radio static, odd bits of B-movie soundtracks and '60s soul, throbbing bass and crackling drum beats around the dark torchy vocals of Beth Gibbons, the group created a mysterious noir-ish world simultaneously scary and enthralling. The follow-up is an adventurous extension of the group's sound and vision. Surreal, angst-ridden and thoroughly innovative.
Susana Baca, Susana Baca (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.
Until the 1995 release of Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul Of Black Peru (Luaka Bop), singer Susana Baca was virtually unknown outside her native Peru. The response to her one track on that stirring collection, however, encouraged the David Byrne run label to showcase her smooth, distinctive voice on her own full-length album. On her U.S. debut, Baca sings with gorgeous melodic and rhythmic restraint as she introduces music and stories dating back as far as the 15th century. A beautiful recording giving us a window into the struggles and vitality of Afro-Peru.
Various Artists Anthology Of American Folk Music, Edited By Harry Smith (Smithsonian Folkways)
Box sets are a big investment and too often bloated with material that should have stayed in the vaults. But this 6-CD package is so historically significant and full of real life drama that it is an absolute must for anyone interested in the authentic roots of American music. Compiled from commercially released 78-rpm recordings by folklorist/filmmaker/record collector Harry Smith and originally issued in 1952, Anthology Of American Music provided the essential soundtrack stirring the folk and blues revivals of the late '50s/early '60s. Among those indelibly marked by the 84 song Anthology were Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez.
Culling lost and forgotten records from the 1920's and 1930s, Smith set out to capture the voices of the impoverished, homeless and oppressed and found them in now legendary figures such as Dock Boggs, the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Clarence Ashley, Charlie Patton, Uncle Dave Macon and Mississippi John Hurt. Although his mighty Anthology failed to represent all strains of the country's indigenous music (no Mexican conjuntos, no Native American chanting, few women), it did document the raw heart of rural blues, folk, hillbilly, cajun and gospel. Now repackaged with Smith's original notes and art, and additional essays, photos and multimedia info, the Anthology is remains an awesome revelation. By uncovering and dignifying these expressions, by showing their many varied connections, Harry Smith gives us a real and imagined America that still disturbs and inspires.
Kelly Joe Phelps, Roll Away The Stone (Rykodisc)
With his smoky vocals and breathtaking lap slide guitar, Phelps reinvents country blues.
Long John Hunter, Swinging From The Rafters (Alligator)
Rockin' Texas styled barroom blues.
Robert "Bilbo" Walker, Promised Land (Rooster BLues
Mississippi juke-joint madness that stirs a little C & W in with the yowling vocals and reverb distorted guitar.
John Mooney, Dealing With The Devil (Radio Bremen)
Son House is Mooney's master, but his Delta rooted singing and guitarslinging moves into territory that is all his own.
13 Featuring Lester Butler (Hightone)
Think of the raucous Muddy Waters ensemble sound mixed up with nasty Sonny Boy Williamson (a.k.a. Rice Miller) singing, fiery Little Walter harp blowing and a healthy dose of rebel attitude.
Luther Allison, Reckless (Alligator)
Allison was at the top of his game when he died this past year. This incendiary blues/rock album ranks right up there with 1995's marvelous Blue Streak.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Gate Swings (Verve)
A return to the swinging jump blues of his youth. Solid, urgent performances from beginning to end.
Deborah Coleman, I Can't Lose (Blind Pig)
Colemam sings with a let-it-all-hang power, but its her ferocious guitarwork that really grabs the ear. A fat Albert Collins tone and flamboyant, burning solos mark her as one of the leading up-and-comers of the younger blues generation.
Dale Watson I Hate These Songs (Hightone)
Fred Eaglesmith, Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline (Razor & Tie)
Robbie Faulks, South Mouth (Bloodshot)
Watson, Eaglesmith and Faulks play country music with all its rough edges and blunt honesty. About as far as you can get from the slick "new country" of Nashville.
Alison Krauss & Union Station, So Long So Wrong (Rounder)
Rickey Skaggs, Bluegrass Thunder (Rounder)
Super fiddler and soulful singer Alison Krause continues her bluegrass crossover success, while Skaggs returns to his high lonesome roots and lets the sparks fly. Led by Dudley Connell and James King, Longview is a bluegrass supergroup in the making.
Martin Simpson, Cool & Unusual (Red House)
The brilliant guitarist continues to rework Celtic and blues traditions, this time adding a few world influences.
Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill The Lonesome Touch (Green Linnet)
Solas, Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers (Shanachie)
The guitar-fiddle duo of Hayes and Cahill play a quiet, blue set of Celtic tunes with understated passion and stunning technique. The Irish American group Solas presents a program of reels, jigs and ballads featuring seamless ensemble work and wondrous solos.
Ornette Coleman, Colors (Live From Leipzig) (Harmolodic/Verve)
A relatively straightforward duet with German pianist Joachim Kuhn offering versatile harmonics for Coleman's inspired melodic solos.
Sonny Simmons, American Jungle (Quest/Warner Bros.)
Alto saxophonist Simmons molds Coletrane, free jazz and blues into a haunting cry from the streets.
Abbey Lincoln, Who Used To Dance (Verve)
The great jazz writer/singer paints a low-keyed, introspective beauty. Her take on Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" is, by itself, worth the price of admission.
Steve Lacey, Five Facings (FMP)
Soprano saxophonist extraodinaire works out with various pianists in a set that covers an anti-Viet Nam war suite, Monk tunes and Japanese colored blues.
Marilyn Crispell, Connecting Spirits (Music & Arts)
Crispell's volcanic piano prowess joins multi-reed player Joseph Jarman to play Coletrane's "Dear Lord" and a mix of thunderous and meditative originals.
Tarika, Son Egal (Xenophile)
This Madagaspar based group led by Hanitra Rasonaivo sing of civil conflict and the government's exploitation of Senegalese workers. Nevertheless the music soars and spirits rise.
Cesaria Evora, Cabo Verde (Nonesuch)
This follow-up to her U.S. debut brings us more examples of Evora's mastery of the bittersweet romantic sound known as morna.
Orquesta Aragon, Cha Cha Charanga (Candela)
Cuba's Orquestra Aragon have been supplying the swinging charanga (a dance music fueled by jazz flavored fiddle and flute lines) to the island nation's dancerooms since 1939. This recent release sizzles with rhythm, swirling strings and percussive piano. A sound that has earned the band the status of legends.
Ray Charles, Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino)
The definitive compilation of hits and unsung masterpieces spanning five decades worth of gospel, soul, blues, jazz and country. The title of this package says it all.
Charles Mingus, Passions Of Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1956-1961 (Rhino/Atlantic)
The composer/bassist was a singular, larger than life human being whose music roared and cried the contradictions of life in the USA. Of all the jazz giants, his creations seem the most restless and disturbed. The passion, complexity and intensity of his music is unsurpassed.
Al Green, Anthology (Hi/The Right Stuff)
This 4 disc set opens new possibilities for box collections by mixing up hits, rarities, live cuts, interviews and preaching. The result is an all sided, classic portrait of one of the great voices of Southern Soul.
Phil Ochs, Farewells & Fantasies (Elektra/Rhino)
A much needed memorial and overview of a topical singer-songwriter who embodied the activism and idealism of the 1960s. Most of his work seems out of character with the mood and sensibility of our time, but his message endures. When the next wave of popular dissent rises up, you can bet many will return to this box set for inspiration. (For more, see Z, Nov. 1997). _