The Gift Of Music

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Picking the top ten CDs in a given year is always an impossible task. In these days of 15,000 or so CD releases per year, there are bound to be many gems buried in the landslide of product. All one writer can do is talk about the ones he or she found and liked best. The most that can be said, and this is not inconsiderable, is that in this writer's ears, these CDs are in the top 1 percent of all that were waxed in 2001.

New Orleans' Los Hombres Calientes New Congo Square, Vol. 3 kick-starts this writer's Top 10 list. Led by young lion of the trumpet Irvin Mayfield and veteran percussionist Bill Summers, this jazzy world fusion outfit filters all the music of the African diaspora -- be it from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil or their native Crescent City -- through a cayenne-hot, booty-shaking percolator. New Congo Square was recorded on location in many of the above countries, with native guest musicians. This CD succeeded in its ambition to fuse Latin and American jazz much more seamlessly than Cubanismo's much more hyped offering, Mardi Gras Mambo.


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Also from New Orleans is Mem Shannon, the modern blues' greatest living songwriter. Like Los Hombres Calientes, his 2001 release has fusion at its core, though his is less ambitious if just as well conceived. Instead of marrying his New Orleans blues to foreign sounds, Shannon went to Memphis and recorded with many of the Bluff City's finest for a musical union of the Mississippi River's two most melodious cities. The highlight here is "SUV," the former cab driver Shannon's evisceration of the sport-ute phenomenon. The song already has broken out of public radio and onto mainstream airwaves in his native city, and needs only a little airplay to do the same across the country.

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Between New Orleans and Memphis lies Mississippi, home to some of the country's rawest blues. Bluesmen don't come much further stylistically from the cosmopolitan Shannon than the gutbucket R.L. Burnside. The Fat Possum mainstay's 2001 release, Burnside on Burnside, is by far his finest yet, and perhaps the best release ever from the label. Gone are all the studio gimmicks and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; this is Burnside's white-lightning-fueled Mississippi Hill Country boogie blues offered up neat. Recorded live in front of raucous crowds in Portland and San Francisco, Burnside is accompanied by the same band that he plays with back home in the cotton-field jukes: his longtime second guitarist Kenny Brown and grandson Cedric Burnside on drums. This rumbling, hypnotic drone of an album sounds like the train the devil drives.

Two great artists released concept albums in 2001 examining their younger days. One of them, Rodney Crowell, has been around awhile. The younger gun is Scott Miller. Miller's Thus Always to Tyrants finds the V-Roy ex combing the hills and hollers of his native Shenandoah Valley for a thrilling ride of Appalachian rock, country and what he calls "slacker hymns." With Tyrants, the 30-year-old Miller proves himself the leader of America's next great hard-rocking singer-songwriter generation, a new Steve Earle in the making. Miller brings his native Virginia to life much as Bruce Springsteen has done with his "Joisy" musings for the last 30 years. Crowell's The Houston Kid is if not the first, then certainly the most successful concept album about the Bayou City. Crowell's Houston -- the hardscrabble, tough-and-rumble Anglo East End -- is all but gone, at least in its ethnic makeup. But the one that once was is memorialized perfectly on this album, and especially on the song "Telephone Road." The Houston Kid was made most welcome by the Houstonians of today, as it was voted Album of the Year in the Houston Press Music Awards this year.

Crowell's near-contemporary Lyle Lovett is also looking back this year, and though Lovett's is a greatest-hits compilation (with extras) rather than a concept album, it's still cause for celebration. "Cowboy Man," "God Will," "This Old Porch" and "L.A. County" are collected together for the first time, and augmented by new material like "The Truck Song." The last of these contains a line that sounds as if Lovett has at last found his essence: "I went to high school / I was not popular / Now I am older /And it don't mat-ter." As Crowell captures 1950s Houston with his lyrics, so Lovett has managed to forge a fusion of jazz, country, folk and blues into a patented Bayou City sound.

English pop/proto-punker Nick Lowe's The Convincer lives up to its name, at least inasmuch as it ranks on this critic's Top 10 of 2001 list. The last in a backward-looking trilogy of albums that started with 1994's The Impossible Bird and continued through 1998's Dig My Mood, The Convincer finds Lowe chopping out various rough-hewn American styles like vintage country and Southern soul and burnishing them with a fine English pop sheen. Lowe has demonstrated beyond a doubt than he is more than just a clever songwriter who can make people laugh out loud. He's also a lyricist and singer who can weave gold out of the dross of the uglier emotions like regret and sorrow as well.

Many of those ugly emotions are on display on Brooklyn/Boston-based am-bient alt-country punks Clem Snide's The Ghost of Fashion. Lead singer Eef Barzelay's cryptic explorations ("From /the corner of my eye/The Chinese baby cries/for you /It sounds like / Boo-hoo/Booo-hoooo") of jealousy, vanity, and inadequacy and God knows what else can leave one scratching one's head in puzzlement for days. The music on Ghost is much easier to comprehend, though every bit as complex. The Ghost of Fashion is as swellingly magnificent as any CD released in 2001, and its seamless structure from one song to the next makes this one tough album to eject.

Charlie Robison's Step Right Up was a failure commercially, and it doesn't take long to figure out why. Sony selected the only two relatively lame songs on the album and made them the singles, thus falsely advertising this outstanding album as a twangy collection of pop/ country NRBQ covers. In reality, it was the finest major-label album to come out of Nashville this year, ranging from Irish rave-ups ("John O'Reilly") to modern-day Texas outlaw anthems ("Desperate Times"). But the real centerpiece here is his duet with Natalie Maines on the stoic weeper "The Wedding Song," which, simply put, is one of the best country music songs you'll ever hear. First it makes you laugh, then it makes you cry, and finally you just sing along. Anyone married or long-shackled to a significant other will find plenty on this Robison-penned masterpiece to chuckle and/or bawl over.

If Robison's downfall has been major labels foisting material inferior to his own off onto his albums, Toni Price's has been the opposite. "When," finicky fans want to know, "is Toni Price going to write her own material?" The answer is never. She simply doesn't believe that she has to write the songs she sings, so get over it. And who can argue with her success? No, she's not a national household name, but she doesn't want that. She is the queen of Austin, though, and Midnight Pumpkin offers us another justification for her seat on the throne. Ranging from torch songs through Caribbean lilters and Appala-chian styles (but never straying far from her blues bedrock), Price and her impeccable pickers prove that not all from Austin is overhyped and merely pretty good. This is a great album, and if a bridgekeeper like the one in Monty Python and the Holy Grail were to put it to me to name my favorite of 2001, on pain of death, this would be the one.

No, wait a minute. As for Christmas CDs, the older the better. This is a holiday about children and memories of childhood, and whatever tickles your nostalgia bone the most is the one you'll want to buy. Perhaps the ultimate holiday CD, the one that has probably seemed nostalgic since its release in the 1950s, is Nat "King" Cole's The Magic of Christmas. This is the one definitive nucleus that every yuletide CD collection should revolve around. Some may prefer Bing or Sinatra, but Cole's is the best. As a bonus, there's Cole's spoken-word Christmas card to his listeners, alone worth the price of the disc.

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