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

  1. 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.

  2. 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 drums.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven (Bluebird): 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 earth.

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.

  1. Kelis: Tasty (Star Trak/Arista)
  2. Warren Zevon: The Wind (Artemis): Having resisted the deathbed hype and sentiment, I finally succumbed to the professionalism of his most consistent release ever.
  3. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West): Last time they came to praise Lynyrd Skynyrd; this time to bury them.
  4. NOFX: War on Errorism (Fat Wreck): The kids love punk rock, and the pundits could learn a thing or two too.
  5. Al Green: I Can't Stop (Blue Note): After years of getting right with God, he returns to his true calling.
  6. Ludacris: Chicken-N-Beer (Def Jam South): Gives Bill O'Reilly more credit than he deserves, but not more respect than O'Reilly gives us.
  7. 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.
  8. Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears (Lost Highway): Getting past her perfectionism, the rough edges sounding more like personality than product.
  9. Electric Six: Fire (XL): Hard rock disco clichés, played for laughs, I think.
  10. 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.

  1. William Parker Violin Trio: Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear)
  2. Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble: Exile (Enja/Justin Time): Jewish popsongs done Arab-style, the new "one state" solution.
  6. 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.
  7. Miroslav Vitous: Universal Syncopations (ECM): A rare case where a supergroup plays like it, perhaps because it's the bassist who's in charge.
  8. 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 years.
  9. Dino Saluzzi: Responsorium (ECM): Bandoneon, guitar, bass -- a touch of tango, haunting moods, beautiful details.
  10. David Murray Latin Big Band: Now Is Another Time (Justin Time): Big band, big rhythms, and a saxophone colossus who towers above it all.

Ten Rediscoveries

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 rediscoveries:

  1. Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba (Honest Jons)
  2. King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (Shanachie)
  3. When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven (Bluebird)
  4. Gene Ammons: Fine and Mellow (1972, Prestige): Drop-dead gorgeous saxophone from one of the most distinctive players in jazz history.
  5. 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.
  6. Hillbilly Boogie (Proper): Four discs, 100 songs, all with "boogie" in their titles, almost all utterly delightful -- a fad, a craze, an era.
  7. 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.
  8. The Big Horn (Proper): The big box of primeval juke joint jump blues.
  9. Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Columbia/Legacy): All the scraps, all the dirt, all the glorious noise.
  10. 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.

Ten Reissues

These legendary items speak for themselves.

  1. James Brown: In the Jungle Groove (Polydor)
  2. Duke Ellington's Far East Suite (Bluebird)
  3. Al Green: I'm Still in Love With You (Right Stuff/Hi)
  4. Sam Rivers: Fuschia Swing Song (Blue Note)
  5. Bill Withers: Still Bill (Columbia/Legacy)
  6. Ben Webster: Soulville (Verve)
  7. Parliament: Mothership Connection (Mercury/Chronicles)
  8. Lee Konitz: Motion (Verve)
  9. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Reactor (Reprise)
  10. 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.

Ten Repackagings

Again, these speak for themselves:

  1. Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird, 3CD)
  2. The Incomparable Mildred Bailey (Columbia/Legacy)
  3. The Essential Dave Brubeck (Columbia/Legacy)
  4. Bill Monroe: Anthology (MCA Nashville/Decca)
  5. Count Basie: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years (Columbia/Legacy)
  6. The Best That Ever Was: The Legendary Early Blues Performers (Yazoo)
  7. Merle Travis: Hot Pickin' (Proper)
  8. Lou Reed: NYC Man: The Collection (RCA/BMG Heritage)
  9. Humphrey Lyttelton: Snag It! (ASV)
  10. The Stanley Brothers: The Complete Mercury Recordings (Mercury/Chronicles)


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 didgeridoos.

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.