Friday, January 3, 2003

musical bests

‘Pop Artist of the Year’ | It was hard to pick only 12

Rapper and actor Eminem makes the Top 10 list for the best albums of 2002.

Eminem was
definitely ‘Pop Artist
of the Year’

Albums of the year and choice cuts

By Gary C.W. Chun

When talking about the top music releases of the year, there was still a bit of unfinished business called 9/11 that had to be addressed. This tragic national event has been dealt with -- most obviously -- in Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," an album sure to be on many critics' year-end lists.

Except mine.

Not that I'm short-shrifting the achievement of one of my all-time favorite artists. A little more than half of the songs on the album deal with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It's filled with the quiet lamentations of those who lost loved ones due to the actions of fanatics. But, with the exception of some stylistic changes here and there, Springsteen returns to his familiar formulas.

In trying to find a different musical angle on 9/11, I found a couple of songs on two of my favorite albums this year, Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and Sleater-Kinney's "One Beat."

Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy offers the oblique "Ashes of American Flags," which, though written before 9/11, could be now heard as a calm if steely questioning of all the American dream represents in light of the attacks. The song is an airy, dreamy and doleful midtempo country-rock song filled with random bits of noise that represent the Chicago band's new direction -- one that created tension and upheaval for its members and former record label (and documented in the film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart").

As the song winds down, Tweedy sings, "I'm down on my hands and knees / every time the doorbell rings / I shake like a toothache / when I hear myself sing / all my lies are only wishes / I know I would die / if I could come back new."

Over the sounds of an upright piano and chiming electric guitar, he sings the final verse: "I would like to salute / the ashes of American flags / and all the falling leaves / filling up shopping bags." The seeming abstract noise that follows that verse becomes frightening in its foreboding clarity. But the piano comes back in, giving a sense of grounding -- and then it is unceremoniously cut short, leaving in its wake a sense of unease. Overall, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is a brave step forward for one of the country's more inventive bands.

Sleater-Kinney's "One Beat" album is one of '02's best.

Cover art of 'Far Away' cd by Sleater-Kinney's

ON A more personal level, Sleater-Kinney's "Far Away" is a prime example of how much this Portland, Ore., trio has matured, and its take on 9/11 adeptly blends the personal and the political. The song has a jagged, unsettling immediacy, with a bracing vocal and instrumental arrangement by Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss.

Tucker sings, "7:30 a.m. nurse the baby on the couch / then the phone rings / 'Turn on the T.V.' / watch the world explode in flames / and don't leave the house."

The song's chorus is a masterful mix of her voice and her band mates' counterpoint, with simultaneously singing: "Don't breathe the air today / Don't speak of why you're afraid" and "Standing here on a one way road / and I fall down, / no other direction for this to go / so we fall down," before joining their voices on the kicker lyric "WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG WITH YOU?"

Then Tucker impassionately sings the final verse: "And the president hides / while working men rush in / To give their lives / I look to the sky / and ask it not to rain / On my family tonight."

Sleater-Kinney's album is as strong and uncompromising as Tucker's wailing vocal.

NOW ON to the rest of my selections for 2002:

Jack and Meg White, The White Stripes, made the Album of the Year, "White Blood Cells."

>> Rock Is Dead, Long Live Rock, Rock Is Dead ...

A lot has been made about the new generation of garage-rock bands this year, and the top of the lot, for me, is Detroit Rock City's the White Stripes. Jack and Meg White's "White Blood Cells" is my hands-down album of the year -- their third album and their crowning achievement to date, made with an honest and purposeful rawness. It's retro-rock made fresh and surprisingly popular, thanks to the album's breakout single "Fell in Love with a Girl."

cover art of 'Songs for the Deaf' by The Queens of the Stone Age.

The Queens of the Stone Age's "Songs for the Deaf," as I mentioned in an earlier review, is an entertaining hoot of a CD. Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri wear their influences proudly on their sleeves but avoid slavishly aping classic rock riffs.

The album's lead single, "No One Knows," is a prime example of how the band marries chugging rock riffs with sensitive, almost fey lyrics, making for a tasty sweet-and-sour mix. All this makes for one devilishly clever album.

>> My Beautiful Depression

Gone are the confused days of my youth (only to be replaced by the bitter years of midlife, but that's another story for later ...) and the times of hating every stupid love song I heard after heart-rending breakups. Too bad I never could convert those feelings into song. That's why I'm thankful for the Doves' "The Last Broadcast" and Beck's "Sea Changes."

The Doves' second album has been compared to Radiohead's "The Bends," due to its melancholy-euphoric soundscape, while Beck, sans goofy irony, addresses the breakup of his long-term relationship with a moving, luxuriant song cycle that's equal parts the Beatles and Gram Parsons. These are the most entrancing, gorgeous-sounding albums I've heard this year, sometimes approximating a widescreen, cinematic, arms-open-wide feel to them. It's perfect music to console yourself by.

>> I Confess

Speaking of irony-free, I can state that Eminem is the Pop Artist of the Year. "The Eminem Show," combined with his strong acting in "8 Mile" this year, made him even more of a force to be reckoned with. He's so much at the peak of his game right now that I think it's going to be hard for him to top himself on his next album, let alone reach the same level of rap excellence. Detractors are eagerly awaiting his fall.

While Eminem has been beating his chest for all the world to hear, Meshell Ndegeocello has quietly been putting together a choice repertoire of deep jazz, funk 'n' soul songs addressing the sexual, spiritual and political ramifications of being an African-American woman. Despite a commercial nod at album's end -- a Rockwilder and Missy Elliott remix of "Pocketbook," featuring guest vocalists Redman and Tweet -- "Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape" flows with a earthy richness. The woman's the real deal and it's time to give her her due.

Cover art of 'Blazing Arrow' by Blackalicious.

>> If it's from Quannum Projects, you know it's good! For forward-thinking and intelligent hip-hop, you didn't have to look further than Blackalicious' "Blazing Arrow" and "The Private Press" by DJ Shadow.

The duo of the Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel and the beat collagist share a common history as Bay area hip-hop enthusiasts and have been performing on each others' projects, first under the SoleSides imprimatur. Now they're side by side on the biggest corporate record label around, and it's afforded Blackalicious the opportunity to gather a formidable guest list. Friends and admirers like ex-Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zach De La Rocha, Ben Harper, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots, Gil Scott-Heron and L.A. collectives Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 all appear, but Blackalicious still makes the disc's sound its own, whether joining the verbal free-flow with old friend Lateef the Truth Speaker and the J5's Chali 2na on "4000 Miles," having DJ Shadow helping to produce and mix "Paragraph President" or showing off all their skills on "Release," parts 1 through 3.

Cover art of 'The Private Press' by DJ Shadow.

Meanwhile, the quiet DJ Shadow, of Davis, Calif., had a tough act to follow after his ear-opening "Entroducing ..." debut. His sophomore release, while not groundbreaking, is a solid representation of what instrumental hip-hop could be, with a sonic palette based solely on sampling obscure records. While he may not be as visible as Moby (nor does he choose to be), DJ Shadow always makes intriguing soundtracks for the 21st century.

Thanks for listening. And goodnight Joe, Joey and Arthur.

The best of the rest

"Veni Vidi Vicious," by the Hives (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph)
"Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz," by Nappy Roots (Atlantic)
"Source Tags & Codes," by ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (Interscope)
"An Illustrated History," by Puffy AmiYumi (Bar/None)
"Cybertropic Chilango Power," by Los de Abajo (Luaka Bop)
"Land (1975-2002)," by Patti Smith (Arista)
"Built from Scratch," by X-ecutioners (Loud)
"Arkansas Heat," by the Gossip (Kill Rock Stars)
"Fantastic Damage," by El-P (Def Jux)
"Lost in Space," by Aimee Mann (SuperEgo)
"Power in Numbers," by Jurassic 5 (Interscope)
"Belly of the Sun," by Cassandra Wilson (Blue Note)
"Eve-Olution," by Eve (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)
"Easy," by Kelly Willis (Rykodisc)
"Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," by the Flaming Lips (Warner Bros.)
"Blacklisted," by Neko Case (Bloodshot)
"Red Hot + Riot," by Various artists (Red Hot/MCA)
"Spend the Night," by the Donnas (Atlantic)
"Steal This Album!" by System of a Down (Columbia)
"Phrenology," by the Roots (MCA)


Critic’s choice: What a great year!

Albums of the Year

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," by Wilco (Nonesuch)
"One Beat," by Sleater-Kinney (Kill Rock Stars)
"White Blood Cells," by the White Stripes (V2/Third Man Records)
"Songs of the Deaf," by Queens of the Stone Age (Interscope)
"The Last Broadcast," by Doves (Capitol)
"Sea Change," by Beck (Geffen)
"The Eminem Show," by Eminem (Aftermath/Interscope)
"Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape," by Meshell Ndegeocello (Maverick)
"Blazing Arrow," by Blackalicious (MCA/Quannum Projects)
"The Private Press," by DJ Shadow (MCA/Quannum Projects)

Choice cuts

A generous mix of singles and album tracks

"Hella Good" and "Underneath It All," by No Doubt
"Rock Star," by N.E.R.D.
"Get the Party Started," by Pink
"Work It," by Missy Elliott
"Get Free," by the Vines
"All My Life," by Foo Fighters
"Turn Me On," by Norah Jones
"Hot in Herre," by Nelly
"Oops (Oh My)," by Tweet
"She Is Beautiful," by Andrew W.K.
"Take Me Home," by Concrete Blonde
"Lost Children," by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
"The Middle," by Jimmy Eat World
"Days Go By," by Dirty Vegas
"In My Place," by Coldplay
"Across the Universe," by Rufus Wainwright (from the "I Am Sam" soundtrack)
"I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)," by Joey Ramone
"Precious Lord," by the Blind Boys of Alabama
"Concrete Sky," by Beth Orton
"Rising Sun," by George Harrison

Chief Ragga makes it on "the best of the best" list.

There were so many good
local CDs last year, it was
hard to pick just 12

By John Berger

Maybe it was the stagnant local economy, or maybe the impact of music-stealing by downloaders and disc "burners," but viewed in terms of the number of titles released, 2002 was an off year for the local record industry. There were approximately 12 percent fewer new releases of all types than in 2001.

However, when measured in terms of quality, 2002 was such a good year that it proved impossible to come up with a list of "best local albums" that included less than 12 titles. Even then it was necessary to consider only Hawaiian and Jawaiian/"island music" artists and set aside noteworthy representatives of other genres such as Quadraphonix, Go Jimmy Go, the Prolitariots, Dan-o and local pop music princess Jennifer Perri.

Traditional and contemporary Hawaiian releases were selected for the quality of the performances, the production values and the supporting annotation essential for sharing and perpetuating knowledge of Hawaiian music and culture. Jawaiian/"island music" albums were selected for the quality of the performances, the production values and the artists' success in moving beyond stale "same old beat, same old skank" stuff and doing more than imitating Jamaicans and recycling old pop hits.

Here are my choices of the best Hawaiian music albums of 2002, in alphabetical order by title:

'Chief Ragga' album cover

>> "Chief Ragga" (Hobo House on the Hill)

Chief Ragga and Roni "H-Diggler" Yurong's Hobo House ohana took local rap to a new level of excellence with this long-awaited sophomore release. It was the Chief's first with Hobo House and a big step forward that reaffirmed his talent as a writer, musician, arranger and vocalist. The Chief's arrangements also set higher standards for local rap and island music as he moved beyond the stale formula of adding generic Jamaican rhythms to pop chart oldies and, instead, successfully interpolated fragments of older songs in new contexts.

'Don McDiarmid Jr. Presents Hula Records' Hits!' album cover

>> "Don McDiarmid Jr. Presents Hula Records' Hits!" by Various Artists (Hula)

Producer Don McDiarmid Jr. chose the 18 songs he felt best represented his work since he founded Hula Records Inc. in 1959. It's a discography that includes Genoa Keawe's "Alika," Kawai Cockett's breakthrough recording of "Beautiful Kauai," Tony Lindsey's "Blue Darling" and overlooked early recordings by Don Ho and Kui Lee. McDiarmid gives firsthand accounts of how each milestone recording was made. The result is the most significant anthology or compilation album released by any local record label last year.

>> "Ea," by Sudden Rush (Quiet Storm)

It took five years for Sudden Rush to follow up "Ku'e," but "Ea" proved well worth the wait. The title track is excellent political rap performed both in Hawaiian as well as English. Several of the other tracks are laced with more conventional Jamaican rhythms and Jawaiian cultural posing, but the least impressive songs on "Ea" are still better than most of the popular island music released in 2002.

The most challenging piece of all is a hidden track on which the group contemptuously dismisses local acts that do the "same old beat, same old skank, same old song," along with the radio stations that put those remakes into high rotation. "If you only do remakes, you're just a karaoke singer." Another stinging lyric goes, "If this song offends you, then it's you we're talking about."

Na Leo Pilimehana
Popular trio Na Leo made one of the year's better local albums in "Hawaiian Memories."

>> "Hawaiian Memories," by Na Leo (NLP Music)

The trio's fond tribute to the Hawaiian standards they grew up with is simply perfection personified. Many of the songs have ties to Hilo where Lehua Kalima Heine grew up listening to her father's group, the Hilo Kalimas. Nalani Choy and Angela Morales share their family favorites as well, and the sense of ohana culminates with a live recording by the group, family members and friends.

Song lyrics, translations and the trio's notes about the significance of each song make "Hawaiian Memories" a great introduction to Na Leo, as well as a collection of beautiful musical performances.

>> "Koi Au," by Makana (Makana Music)

Makana moved further into the world music genre with his second album while also exploring new ideas in modern Hawaiian music. He did this by fitting together an assortment of eclectic components in consistently interesting ways.

Makana distinguished himself throughout as an arranger and interpreter of other artists' work, as well as proving to be an articulate composer in his own right. Whether reinterpreting Hawaiian melodies or experimenting with instruments and musical ideas from distant cultures, Makana always comes up with impressive results. A beautiful booklet provides a visual counterpoint to the music, with artwork relevant to each song, as well as lyrics and English translations.

'Na Mele 'Auhau' album cover

>> "Na Mele 'Auhau," by the Kahauanu Lake Singers (Hula)

Hawaiian music doesn't come any better than this debut album made by the group under the direction of their mentor and musical arranger, Kahauanu Lake. Lake and his brother Tommy provided instrumental support as well on a collection of songs honoring his ancestors, family and cherished friends. The quality of these recordings was thus guaranteed, and the detailed annotation makes the album a valuable reference for anyone interested in traditional Hawaiian music.

>> "Origins," by 'Ale'a (Poki)

History repeated itself as 'Ale'a returned with a second album as perfect as the group's Hoku award-winning debut. It's a particularly remarkable accomplishment since the band had lost a member in the interim and "Origins" marked their debut as a trio (Ryan "Gonzo" Gonzalez, Kale Hannahs and Chad Takasugi) that proved as accomplished as the original quartet.

The music is crisply played, acoustic and traditionalist throughout. Hapa-haole standards and an acoustic remake of "Kiss and Say Goodbye" add English-language material.

'Pa'ina' album cover

>> "Pa'ina," by Ata Damasco (Ululoa)

The multitalented Damasco's second album for the Maui-based Ululoa label was an impressive step forward which emphasized his smooth falsetto singing with clean, synthesizer-free arrangements. Most of the selections are beautiful renditions of Hawaiian standards. Five originals offer fresh visions of contemporary Hawaii with stories of family, special places and a hula halau's victory in competition.

>> "Rascal in Paradise," by O-Shen (Hobo House on the Hill)

O-Shen's second album reaffirmed his place as an innovator in island music. There were no pop chart remakes, but there was a significant Melanesian pidgin ambiance to the album as O-Shen addressed romantic, religious and political topics with strong reggae/rap grooves.

'Sunday Morning' album cover

>> "Sunday Morning," by Jake Shimabukuro (Four Strings)

Jake Shimabukuro opened a new chapter in an impressive career with his first American album as a solo artist (a shorter solo album had previously been released in Japan). The contents displayed both his technical brilliance and broad musical horizons in equal measure. An imaginative reworking of Paganini's "Selections from Caprice No. 24" was the obvious standout, but Shimabukuro also offered up fresh perspectives on pop chart oldies "Sleep Walk" and "My Heart Will Go On," and pushed the electronic envelope on "Toastmaker's Revenge."

>> "To Honor a Queen," by Ozzie Kotani (Dancing Cat)

Slack-key master Ozzie Kotani opened 2002 with original solo arrangements of 14 of Liliuokalani's beautiful melodies. "Aloha 'Oe" was included, of course, but there were some relative rarities as well. Kotani did justice to all of them while indicating that he was also honoring her as a Hawaiian patriot who had struggled to defend Hawaii from haole subversion.

>> "Vol. 3," by B.E.T. (Galmiche Entertainment)

Papa T and J.D., a k a Big Every Time, have been a major presence in local hip-hop since their first album hit in 1998. Their third album reaffirmed their place as one of the more innovative acts in local music and documented their continuing success in exploring new ways of blending African-American, Jamaican and Polynesian music.

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