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The Class of '03

Grab your gift certificates and trade in your white elephants -- here's what you really wanted for Christmas

5. Similarly, a couple of DJs sought and found eclectic lineups to join in on their mix sessions. The following may sound corny as hell, but it's the truth: DJ Spinna's Here to There made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. A big part of that came from Spinna sharing his musical talents with a bevy of diverse artists including rapper Jean Grae, Soulive's Neal Evans and Eric Krasno and UK dance singer Shaun Escoffery. Slightly less warm, but still all-around fuzzy, is Here Comes the Fuzz, Mark Ronson's debut. The New York DJ who handled most of the production on Nikka Costa's Everybody's Got Their Something came with a relentless party mix tape that had everyone from Rivers Cuomo to Q-Tip to Freeway to Costa herself throwing in their two cents.

6. You want really alternative R&B? Look to Europe! Although there have been some dandy black music imports coming out of the Continent this past year, let's focus on a couple that you can actually pick up at a commercial record store. Micro-soul trio Spacek finally had a chance to shine on this side of the pond with their elegant, techno-torch song-packed U.S. debut, Vintage Hi-Tech. Georg Levin also made a sweet splash stateside with Can't Hold Back, a collection of classy and jazzy retro R&B numbers. Oh, did I forget to tell ya that Levin is a white boy from Berlin? Hey, if he's cool enough to work with Jazzanova, he's cool enough for us.

7. It just doesn't pay for a mature black soulstress to release a third album. Two onetime "it" girls of pop music released junior discs that were tragically lost amid the deluge of discs by one-named flavor-of-the-minute R&B divas. Erykah Badu's World Wide Underground found the Texan solidifying her position as the soulful, sensual revolutionary of the neo-soul movement, while Macy Gray once again reveled in her shaggy, eccentric brand of homespun R&B with the aptly titled The Trouble with Being Myself. These ladies aren't ashamed of making soulful noises for mature audiences. Too bad mature audiences are on the endangered species list.

8. A couple of DJs introduced highly evolved brands of beat science. In San Francisco, licensed mixologist J. Boogie released J. Boogie's Dubtronic Science, a burbling stream containing rivulets of lounge, dub, jazz, hip-hop and soul. Over in Detroit, John Arnold came with some knowledge of his own: Neighborhood Science, to be exact, filled with theorems and postulates derived from house, techno, broken beat and, once again, soul. Both albums showcase the music of the artists' residencies more than the artists themselves. Dubtronic is a consistent valentine to Frisco's boho beat, while Neighborhood reminds listeners that no one should count out Detroit as a potential site for an underground dance hall of fame. Who knew science could be this much fun?

9. A couple of hip-hop adventurers danced with ambitious concepts, but only Philadelphia's King Brittcould release an album that's part MC showcase and part musical treatise on the decaying of Mother Earth and human civilization. And intend for it to be listened to by Martians. But that's kinda what his Adventures in Lo-Fi was all about. As guys like Dice Raw and Capitol A dropped in to rhyme and flow, hip-hop's space cowboy wove it all together for an interplanetary audience. Meanwhile, Prince Paul released another concept album, Politics of the Business. Sadly, many people -- including many critics -- didn't get Paul's multilayered joke about how rap music has become so programmed and predictable that a trailblazer like Paul could make an album full of subpar beats and have old pals like Guru, Chubb Rock and Biz Markie just slumming rhymes.

10. For the second year in a row, the best MCs are white -- and they don't give a fuck if you think they're the best or not. Okay, this always gets me in trouble with the rap fans who can't believe I could possibly call any pale-skinned MC the best when cats like Jay-Z and Nas are still walking around, but those people probably haven't heard Aesop Rock's Bazooka Tooth. If they had, they would be forced to admit that the guy is on some otherworldly shit -- Bazooka Toothis a full-length attack on the senses, a wild, weird marvel that'll make anybody who listens to it play it again -- if only to try to figure out what the hell Aesop is talking about. And while Atmosphere did drop another gem this year with Seven's Travels, I really dug Brother Ali's sharp, ferocious debut, Shadows on the Sun. In addition to being Atmosphere's Minneapolis pal, Ali is physically the whitest rapper of them all -- he's an albino. And did we mention he's also a Muslim and a family man? That's about as far from a pimp as you can get. -- Craig D. Lindsey

Irony Loves Company

A married Muslim albino MC is a paradox. Next we turn to irony, that attitude -- or is it a sickness -- that will eventually destroy us. Of course, I don't really mean that. In these media-saturated, hopelessly self-aware end-times, we've developed a deep suspicion of sincerity. We dislike rock stars who mean what they say, which explains why most hipsters wouldn't piss on that Dashboard Confessional guy if he were on fire.

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