2003: Top Ten (Plus Plus)
The annual top ten list ritual comes as a break in the everyday rhythm
of record reviewing. The regular grind is: get a record, play it, write
something about it, repeat. Sometimes it's fun; sometimes it isn't: one
web wit advertises the slogan "we listen to bad records so you don't
have to." You get into this gig because you want to hear more and more
good records: we commonly take the word "critic" to imply negative
and nasty, but in fact only nymphomaniacs ever apply -- and romantic
ones at that. But once a year some editor comes along and orders up
a top ten list, and that's when you have to break the everyday rhythm,
look back at what you've learned and endured over the past twelve
months, and make comparisons. Top ten lists are hopelessly quantized:
there's only ten slots, and if you've been working hard during the
year you have 50-100 records you'd like to compliment. But in the
end you knock then down to a bare, raw ten, and while they're not
strictly speaking the best -- how can you really be sure when you're
sorting apples and kumquats and periwinkles? But you feel like a
real critic in the end, and not just because you've just summarily
dismissed dozens of worthy contenders. Rather, because doing so makes
you more consistent and dependable, and ultimately more useful to
your readers. Who in the end might take a flier on one or two of
your discoveries, and perhaps be as delighted with them as you were.
At least that's how it works in principle. However, like Captain Kirk,
I'm reprogramming the test below. The following are several overlapping,
interrelated lists, which should provide a somewhat more comprehensive
picture. After all, I've worked really hard this year, so why not show
off a bit, and share the fun?
The Top Top-Ten List
- Buck 65: Talkin' Honky Blues (WEA Canada):
He's the unchallenged genius of Halifax hip-hop, with as many records in
his catalog as Jay-Z, and making such inexorable progress that Warners
may even release one stateside in 2004. Meanwhile, yanks in the know
have been smuggling his records in on their Canadian drug runs. He has
a knack for wordplay that constantly surprises you -- "I run with the
bulls, and swim with the pool sharks" and "like a martyr I keep trying
harder and harder" are just two that I jotted down. And he's never made
his beats sound more organic or ineluctible -- they defy description
because they are tailored so well to his delivery. Two records back
he said "I could be big, but I doubt it" -- today both clauses seem
truer than ever. Reports of people who've seen him live make me suspect
that he's not just a rapper and dj -- he's also a performance artist as
unique as Laurie Anderson. At one point in this record he opines, "a
home run every time would start to get boring," so I expect he'll move
on next time. But when he's old and gray, he's gonna look back on this
one as a come-from-behind, bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam.
- William Parker Violin Trio: Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear):
The violin belongs to Billy Bang, whose amplified instrument startles
with the steel-cutting sound John Cale perfected in the Velvet Underground,
but is deployed with the finnesse of a master of the entire tradition of
jazz violin. But it's Parker's simple, soulful melodies that hold this
together -- and the absolute mastery of Parker's bass and Hamid Drake's
- Kelis: Tasty (Star Trak/Arista):
She thanks the Lord for bringing all of the right people into her life,
and by the time you've sorted out all of the producers and guests you
start to wonder whether she's onto something. She doesn't oversing like
those other r&b divas, but she's not just legs either -- she's the
center around which all the fuzz bass and funk beats and hook phrases
whirl. You may chalk this up as my list's token smash hit, but I figure
this to be one of the rare chances the masses are given to show just
how weird and wonderful they can be. I call it Hippie-Hop; sometimes
I even call it Hope for America.
- Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba (Honest Jons):
These long lost mid-'70s recordings trace the progress of a Jamaican
saxophonist who refused to let his primitivist rastafarianism keep
him from dubbing Horace Silver, or pairing "Satta Massa Gana" with
"Nobody's Business." This is the Jamaican equivalent to South Africa's
sax jive -- richly folkloric yet transcendently modern. It sounds so
fresh you'd never guess how far back it reaches.
- Lyrics Born: Later That Day . . . (Quannum Projects):
The telephone skit in the middle of this underground rap extravaganza is
so great you inevitably remember it over the subtle, methodical work that
surrounds it. Painstakingly assembled by one of the hitherto fringe talents
from the UC Davis cauldron that gave us DJ Shadow and Blackalicious and
others worth seeking out, I love the funk beats and the vocal play, and
I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten anywhere near the bottom of it all yet.
- King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (Shanachie):
Classic as in old: older than the three wonderful albums Ade cut for
Island in the '80s, older even than the Nigerian LPs that enterprising
American critics touted as the real thing when the Islands came out, as
old as the invention of juju -- the bright, sweet, vibrant successor to
highlife. Marvelous guitar, ethereal chants, dazzling rhythms piled deep
in counterpoint: the sweet innocence of youth and unsullied privilege
just before the horrors of Nigeria's wrenching civil war.
- Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear):
In what was touted as the year of jazztronica's coming of age, the one
clear success came from the guy who brought the hippest djs and the
most badass avant-jazzbos together in the first place. Shipp's Blue
Series released a half-dozen CDs during the year -- cf. Thirsty Ear's
The Shape of Jazz to Come sampler -- but Shipp's own album
was the flagship, with his piano doing double duty on melodic themes
and as his most compelling percussion engine, and Khan Jamal's vibes
complementing him as surely as Milt Jackson elevated Monk.
- Amy Rigby: Til the Wheels Fall Off (Signature Sounds):
She's moved to Nashville, which doesn't suit her any more than New
York did, but at least cuts down on the cost of living and gives her
access to first-rate musicians, and makes giving the drummer some
optional -- not that you ever had any reason to doubt that she was
only going to do it her way, no matter how hard it gets. This is her
fourth album going back to 1996 -- each is chock full of wonderful
songs, and this is as good as any. Lucinda Williams has only cut
four albums going back to 1992, which are little if any better.
Iris DeMent just has three going back to 1992. Those are Rigby's
only peers, and Rigby sounds like she'd be a lot more fun.
- Akrobatik: Balance (Coup D'Etat):
Beatwise and rapwise this reminds me of a great 1991 album by Downtown
Science -- more specifically, it reminds me that it's been a long time
since I've heard a rap record so sensible and sane and smart, with such
an surefooted beat.
- When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven
With the Republicans eager not merely to repeal the New Deal, but to
scratch Franklin Roosevelt's face off the dime in favor of their poster
boy Ronald Reagan, it's worth thinking about what the Great Depression
really meant -- not least the pain and sense of futility for those who
suffered it worst. However much economists like Paul Krugman analyze
the growing chasm between rich and poor, it takes a song like Bob
Miller's "The Rich Man and the Poor Man" to bring the point down to
The Not-So-Esoteric List
Originally I called this my "Circuit City" list, because I wanted to
restrict the list to things that were readily available, and Circuit
City's selection is basically Wal-Mart without censorship.
- Kelis: Tasty (Star Trak/Arista)
- Warren Zevon: The Wind (Artemis): Having resisted the
deathbed hype and sentiment, I finally succumbed to the professionalism
of his most consistent release ever.
- Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West): Last time
they came to praise Lynyrd Skynyrd; this time to bury them.
- NOFX: War on Errorism (Fat Wreck): The kids love punk
rock, and the pundits could learn a thing or two too.
- Al Green: I Can't Stop (Blue Note): After years of
getting right with God, he returns to his true calling.
- Ludacris: Chicken-N-Beer (Def Jam South): Gives Bill
O'Reilly more credit than he deserves, but not more respect than O'Reilly
- Timbaland & Magoo: Under Construction Part II
(Blackground/Universal): A bag of producer's tricks, because that's
Timba's business; a bunch of guest shots, because they owe him.
- Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears (Lost Highway):
Getting past her perfectionism, the rough edges sounding more like
personality than product.
- Electric Six: Fire (XL): Hard rock disco clichés,
played for laughs, I think.
- Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around (American):
What becomes a legend most.
The Jazz List
I don't cover new jazz consistently enough to be able to say that these
are the really the best -- it usually takes several years before I can
sort that out.
- William Parker Violin Trio: Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear)
- Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear)
- Paal Nilssen-Love/Ken Vandermark: Dual Pleasure
(Smalltown Supersound): Great drummer, great multi-reedist, just let
them duke it out for an hour of amazing improv.
- Michael Hashim: Green Up Time (Hep): The Kurt Weill
songbook, with strings and/or accordion only when appropriate, and the
finest repertory saxophonist working today.
- Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble: Exile
(Enja/Justin Time): Jewish popsongs done Arab-style, the new "one state"
- The Bad Plus: These Are the Vistas (Columbia): Punk
jazz, not because they slum on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- because
they tear into it like Charlie Parker.
- Miroslav Vitous: Universal Syncopations (ECM): A rare
case where a supergroup plays like it, perhaps because it's the bassist
who's in charge.
- Roy Haynes: Love Letters (Eighty-Eights/Columbia):
Still young (by Max Roach standards), he gets better work out of John
Scofield and Joshua Redman than they've put on their own albums in
- Dino Saluzzi: Responsorium (ECM): Bandoneon, guitar,
bass -- a touch of tango, haunting moods, beautiful details.
- David Murray Latin Big Band: Now Is Another Time
(Justin Time): Big band, big rhythms, and a saxophone colossus who
towers above it all.
I've mostly written about old music this year, which I can divide roughly
into things that have been rediscovered (or in some cases just discovered)
and things that have merely been repackaged. These are my picks among the
- Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba (Honest Jons)
- King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (Shanachie)
- When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven (Bluebird)
- Gene Ammons: Fine and Mellow (1972, Prestige): Drop-dead
gorgeous saxophone from one of the most distinctive players in jazz history.
- The Guitar and Gun: Highlife Music From Ghana
(Stern's/Earthworks): Not the first time, nor the last, where a war-torn
land salved its wounds with improbably beautiful music.
- Hillbilly Boogie (Proper): Four discs, 100 songs, all
with "boogie" in their titles, almost all utterly delightful -- a fad,
a craze, an era.
- High Explosion: DJ Sounds From 1970 to 1976
(Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD): The origins and innovators of dancehall, the
Jamaican revolution that turned monotonous into mesmerizing.
- The Big Horn (Proper): The big box of primeval juke
joint jump blues.
- Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
(Columbia/Legacy): All the scraps, all the dirt, all the glorious noise.
- Trojan Box Set: Nyahbinghi (Sanctuary/Trojan): Roots
music of the Jamaican hills -- primitivist rhythms and flutes, chants
and nursery rhymes, from Count Ossie to Ras Michael.
These legendary items speak for themselves.
- James Brown: In the Jungle Groove (Polydor)
- Duke Ellington's Far East Suite (Bluebird)
- Al Green: I'm Still in Love With You (Right Stuff/Hi)
- Sam Rivers: Fuschia Swing Song (Blue Note)
- Bill Withers: Still Bill (Columbia/Legacy)
- Ben Webster: Soulville (Verve)
- Parliament: Mothership Connection (Mercury/Chronicles)
- Lee Konitz: Motion (Verve)
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Reactor (Reprise)
- Black Uhuru: Red (Island/Chronicles)
Note that while most of them are packed with "bonus cuts," I haven't
listed any single albums pumped up to doubles. But note that the
second disc added to the "Expanded Edition" of Donna Summer,
Bad Girls (Mercury/Chronicles) is the best summation
ever of her remarkable career -- the caveat being that if you care,
you probably have it all already, just not packaged so neatly.
Again, these speak for themselves:
- Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band
- The Incomparable Mildred Bailey (Columbia/Legacy)
- The Essential Dave Brubeck (Columbia/Legacy)
- Bill Monroe: Anthology (MCA Nashville/Decca)
- Count Basie: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years
- The Best That Ever Was: The Legendary Early Blues
- Merle Travis: Hot Pickin' (Proper)
- Lou Reed: NYC Man: The Collection (RCA/BMG Heritage)
- Humphrey Lyttelton: Snag It! (ASV)
- The Stanley Brothers: The Complete Mercury Recordings
I could easily do a few more shorter genre lists -- probably not top
tens, but three-to-seven record lists. Some wonderful albums not
mentioned above include: Chris Knight, The Jealous
Kind (Dualtone) -- my country album of the year; Triple
R, Friends (Kompakt) -- my favorite dance album, not
that it's clear to me how you might dance to it; Abdoulaye N'Diaye,
Taoué (Justin Time) -- split schizophrenically between
its Senegalese artist credit and producer David Murray's quartet;
Bettye Lavette, A Woman Like Me (Blues Express)
-- a nonpareil throwback to classic '70s soul; James Blood Ulmer,
No Escape From the Blues (Hyena) -- a jazzman's rockin'
uptake on blues repertory; McEnroe, Disenfranchised
(Peanuts & Corn) -- the second best rapper in Canada; Kimya
Dawson, My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess (Important) --
folk music as child's play for grown-ups; Bill Cole, Seasoning
the Greens (Boxholder) -- avant-jazzist world fusion with
I could list more, and I'm sure there's many more that I can't list
because I haven't discovered them myself. Anyone who thinks there's
a shortage of good music these days just hasn't been listening. Or
can't afford the monopoly pricing. Lots of things I've only heard
because people sent them to me. And while I buy far more CDs than
most people do, I know that I can't afford to buy something just
to find out what it sounds like -- especially something that I have
reason to think I might not love. The one thing that the downloading
bubble proved is that there are lots of people who would listen more
and take more chances with their listening if they could afford it.
That's a tough problem: economics, after all, depends on scarcity,
and scarcity (especially for product with near-zero cost to reproduce
and distribute, as is the case with downloading) depends on denying
people access. As a critic I figure part of my job is to mediate,
which is what my reviews and lists try to do. But try as I do, I'm
just one data point in a vast and increasingly unmanageable world.
But this is what that world looks like from here.