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Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Trotting out the clichťs for a year-ender piece

If you've ever read one of these jive-ass year-enders before, you'll know that (insert year here) was full of plenty of Ups and Downs. That for every (insert major star here) that joined that great rock and roll band in heaven, we said hello to an (insert flavor-of-the-month chart-topper here) that brought us exquisite teenage angst with his or her quintessentially Dylanesque tour-de-force of an eponymous debut. That for every (insert big-budget, heavily hyped turd of a CD) that washed up on the shoals of indifference, there was a (name-drop some breakout hit or other in this slot) that took America by storm. That in retrospect, (insert ignored blast-from-the-past record that suddenly sounds cool today) was really a "seminal" record, even though it was at odds with its contemporary zeitgeist. In fact, was (X) years ahead of its time!

And, as we did three years ago, we'll learn that the year belonged to OutKast, who cemented their hold as the kings of American music and helped keep Atlanta in the first tier of American music cities.

Which brings up a real point. Usually, American pop-song forms start in the South and then get hijacked by the coasts. Think of jazz, blues, rock and roll. Hip-hop, on the other hand, has reversed this tried-and-true formula. Through most of the '80s, virtually all of the rap you heard was from New York. Rap was an urban music, and a style that saw black people stray farther from the church than ever before. The South, as the least urban and most religious region of America, took the longest to catch up. Toward the end of the decade, the major labels discovered that there was also rap in Los Angeles. And after the success of the Geto Boys and Scarface, the Dirty South started to take over, a slow infiltration that culminated this year.

Today, Jay-Z, 50 Cent and others notwithstanding, Atlanta is officially hip-hop's hub, and it's an up-and-coming rival to New York, Los Angeles and Nashville as a national music industry hot spot. OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is the critical and commercial smash of the year, and mark our words: Before it's all over, it will prove to be a landmark album in American music history. After all, Andre 3000's "Hey Ya" is the first hip-hop tune to crack playlists at alternative rock radio -- and that's a trend you can expect to continue if that format intends to survive. Meanwhile, other ATLiens had us playing a nationwide game of Simon Says. We all jumped when Ludacris commanded us to "Stand Up," and we all got down when Lil Jon barked at us to "Get Low." Then Big Boi told us that he liked the way we moved.

And 2004 could be Houston's year. Last year wasn't quite it, but local rappers did pretty damn well, especially in light of the January demise of key local resource Southwest Wholesale. Lil' Flip turned in one of the year's most memorable guest shots on David Banner's "Like a Pimp." Big Moe enhanced his rep as the most musical of the Dirty South rappers with "Just a Dog." Beyoncé's collabos with Young Hova and Sean Paul were omnipresent on the airwaves, and her softcore videos were all over MTV. Most interesting was the national smash success of Baby Bash and Frankie J's "Suga Suga," the first salvo in the oncoming barrage of "new urban Latino" music.

There was also a volley of albums from high-profile artists with local ties. Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, ZZ Top, King's X, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt and Kenny Rogers -- in other words, almost every member of Houston's folk, rock and country old guard -- checked in with albums this past year, as did younger heavyweights Carolyn Wonderland and Blue October. Best of the bunch was Crowell's Fate's Right Hand. Kenny's über-schmaltzy Back to the Well was the worst. But you knew that already.

A few CDs you might not have known about but should:

1. Little Joe Washington, Houston Guitar Blues, Dialtone. Blues albums that sound this raw and urgent are as rare today as new quality sitcoms. Amid a blues year that was often as stale, formulaic and tired as a Three's Company marathon, Little Joe stood tall. Jazz, R&B and down-home blues collide in a patented H-town gumbo that plays like a live set from Shady's Playhouse circa 1962.

2. David Brake and That Damn Band, Lean, Mean Texas Machine, Westerland.A diverse mix of honky-tonk, hard rock, blues and lounge sounds, Brake's Texas Machine was the most surprising local invention of the year. Intelligent lyrics, quality musicianship, memorable melodies and vibes from bock-pounding rowdy to staring-into-your-whiskey regret pack this debut.

3. Baby Bash, Tha Smokin' Nephew, Universal.Too many rappers offer up half-baked albums to back up hit singles -- not so with Bash. Tha Smokin' Nephew promises many a worthy successor to "Suga Suga" in velvety new single "Shorty Doowop," the Meters-like wake-and-bake anthem "Early in the Mornin'" and the been-there-done-that message rap "Oh Wow."

4. Linus Pauling Quartet, C6H8O6, September Gurls.The world's only six-piece quartet offers up oft-humorous heavy psych rock, a little punk-garage and even a lengthy Kraftwerk cover. Don't believe them when they tell you they suck.

5. Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Get Knifed, Estrus.A half-hour-long, Tim Kerr- produced paroxysm of serrated-steak-knife guitars (courtesy of Press contributor Brian McGuilloteen, né McManus) and the snide and snotty vocals of Shawn McGuilloteen, Get Knifed sounds like a chain saw in need of a lube job ripping through a giant redwood. And that's a good thing.

6. Panic in Detroit, Panic in Detroit, Silverthree Recordings. Those who think the guitar solo dead and buried in modern rock ought to check out this top-notch little EP for proof positive of the contrary. Catchy as the flu, Panic in Detroitis the best power-pop record to come out of here since, well, what was the last great power-pop record out of Houston? While you debate the answer to that question, we'll be sitting here waiting for the Panic in Detroit full-length.

7. Jimmy T-99 Nelson, Cry Hard Luck: The Kent and RPM Recordings, Ace.At last, a lengthy, well-constructed set of local blues shouter Nelson's early work. Though Nelson's songwriting genius -- and today it is that -- had yet to develop back in 1952-54, when the bulk of these recordings were made in L.A., his voice was in fine form, as were his sidemen. If you're a fan of the double-entendre lyrics and swingin' blues/R&B sound of Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner and Roy Brown, Nelson's Cry Hard Luck is a must-have.

8. Chingo Bling, The Air Chingo Mextape, Big Chile. "Ask Rick Perry who runs the border," Chingo demands on his biggest and best CD to date. "Welcome to Big Chile -- may I take your order?" Elsewhere, Chingo reveals the Ja Rule-50 Cent-style feud that simmers between him and his rooster Cleto and tears apart tracks by Scarface's "Guess Who's Back," Lil' O's "Back, Back -- Gimme 50 Feet" and G-Unit, whose "Stunt 101" becomes Chingo's "Lonche 101." Baby Bash, Lucky Luciano, Rasheed, Fade Dogg and Twin Beradaz guest.

9. Various artists, Songs from the Meat/BAR. This soundtrack to an Infernal Bridegroom Productions play is a sweet epitaph for the gone-but-not-forgotten early-1990s local rock and bar scene. Crack a cold one or two with this one in the changer. You'll fuckin' love it, man.

10. Opie Hendrix, San Jacinto, Def-Texan. A sprawling mess of a "maximum" C&W record for a sprawling mess of a city, Hendrix's San Jacinto is a monument to nocturnal bad behavior, love and Hustler-level raunch, highlighted by the keening steel guitar of Susan Alcorn, the wailing fiddle of Marty Starns and Hendrix's world-weary singing and old-school lyrics. Sounding by turns like a record from Appalachia, Bakersfield and Texas, not to mention one visited by the spirits of Tom Petty and Billy Idol, this collection of hard-living anthems for the Jack-'n'-blow set could have come from nowhere but here and from no one but Opie.

Honorable mention: Clouseaux, Clouseaux; Mark Towns with Hubert Laws, Passion; various artists, Texas Soul Sisters; Arthur Yoria, I'll Be Here Awake.

A few other images in the rearview mirror:

In memoriam: Locally, blues/jazz guitarist Kinney Abair, former KPFT host Liselotte Babin, folk singer Colleen Cade, heavy-metal singer Anthony "Twisted Tony" Harless, blues guitarist Joe Guitar Hughes, blues saxophonist A.J. Murphy, jazz drummer Rick Porter, rock and country bass player Pat Sullivan (Opie Hendrix and the Texas Tallboys).

Also, the 66-year-old scandal that was record producer/child pornographer Roy Ames breathed his last in August. In my harsh obit on the man, space didn't permit me the luxury of detailing the scope of his evil. So here it is: In addition to ripping off virtually every member of the Houston blues community, he also slimed a bunch of country and rock and roll musicians as well.

On the national scene, we also lost Maurice Gibb, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, Barry White, June Carter Cash, Celia Cruz, Elliott Smith and 86 Great White fans.

Scandal sheet: There were quite a few of the "Imagine that!" variety. Who could ever have conceived that Michael Jackson's predilection for little boys would land him in the soup -- again? Or that R. Kelly's alleged cavortings with underage girls would land him in the docket -- again? Who'da thunk that unsullied angels like Scott Weiland and Courtney Love would be accused of dabbling with drugs -- again, or that delicate genius Ryan Adams would have a very public meltdown -- again, or that Bobby Brown would exercise his prerogative to get into trouble -- again and again and again? Locally, who would ever have expected an Alex Lozano-promoted rock fest to end badly?

Thanks for the memories: While thousands rent their garments, mortified their flesh and ripped clumpfuls of hair from their scalps over the death of the Summit (just kidding -- has there ever been a music venue that passed with less lamenting than that shed?), Racket did the same over the much more obscure Montrose studio/performance space/Net radio station/perpetual party Earthwire.net. Well, we didn't actually bloody ourselves over its death, but we did pour some of a Busch tallboy on the ground in its honor. Where else could you watch a live sports talk show, a Dubtex set, a poetry slam and Los Skarnales in one night, all while munching on a communal brisket and knocking back communal brews?

So that was 2003. It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. We took the good with the bad and rolled with the punches. But tomorrow's another day, and next week's another column. And we promise that one won't be a year-ender.

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