Ani DiFranco
Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up
Righteous Babe

On Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up DiFranco expands her palette by adding Julie Wolf, a remarkable keyboard player whose organ and piano work add considerable weight to DiFranco's already phat sound. And on this outing, DiFranco's 11th effort since 1990, her band rediscovers the riff, and the gritty funk that's often implicit in her work takes a great leap forward, producing rhythms as tough as her lyrics. "Jukebox," "Know Now Then" and "Hat Shaped Hat," a 13-minute-long, freeform, Clintonesque (that's George, not Bill, y'all) jam full of playfully disjointed images, open with ear-grabbing hooks and bubble with infectious, funky energy.

DiFranco is also exploring new territory with her guitar work. She still tosses off power chords that'll knock you flat, but she's using more crystalline fills to complement her always impressive vocals, while drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Jason Mercer continues to find subtle ways to accent the rhythms without overwhelming the boss.

At the same time she explores the pop possibilities of her music, DiFranco renews her commitment to the folk sounds that inspired her. "Angry Anymore," a thank-you letter to her parents for the pain they endured on her behalf, is as sentimental as the Appalachian ballads it echoes. "Trickle Down," a portrait of a steel town that's been decimated by factory closings, is as chilling a protest song as any written by a mine worker or union activist. Like all good poets, DiFranco sums up the situation with a few well-chosen words: "Now that the air is fit to breathe, no one lives here anymore."

With Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up DiFranco cements her place in the ranks of elite artists such as Dylan and Prince, prolific writers who are able to turn out a prodigious amount of compelling work in a brief period of time without burdening fans with outtakes or half-realized efforts.

-- j. poet

Black Crowes
By Your Side

Do you need a rock record? Yes. Should it have lots of guitar solos? Yes again. Slide guitar solos? Sure. Wah-wah guitar solos? Definitely. Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones-type horns? Yes. Would it include gospel-y female backup singers? Certainly. A Hammond organ would be a nice touch, don't you think? Yep. Might as well put some barrelhouse piano in, too, huh? Agreed. Let's have some Stax/Volt vibe in there. Surely. Well, if we're gonna do that, there has to be some harmonica. Yeah. Now, let's talk about the lead singer. Rod Stewart is pretty lame now, but with the Faces he was pretty kick-ass, so let's get some of that. For sure. But he better have some soul influence as well, and he should have some of that "Southern rock" swagger. Positively. And he has to look good in leather pants. Oh, totally.

So what can we do to keep it from sounding by the numbers? Well, the brothers in the Black Crowes have occasionally been feuding brothers, like the Kinks, but they fight because they are passionate. Enthusiasm is contagious, and the Crowes' fifth record is full of the fire that has been lacking in their past couple of platters. Returning to the straight-forward rock fold after getting a little hippie/jam band-y, Atlanta's finest rock revivalists are back with 11 songs, all of which fall in between the 3 1/2-minute and 4 1/2-minute marks, so you know that they mean business. With singer Chris Robinson reaching deep into his leather and singing from his, er, gut, and his sparring/songwriting partner, his brother Rich, finally delivering on the Keith Richards/Ron Wood promise he has been making for the past decade together, By Your Side is the rock record to start the party with. And didn't you say that you needed that?

-- David Simutis

Greg Trooper
Popular Demons

Not all songwriters from New Jersey want to grow up to be Bruce Springsteen. Some, such as Greg Trooper, move to Nashville hoping their songs will get into the canon of country music. Trooper has been around for quite a while, having spent time in Austin; Lawrence, Kansas; and even Brooklyn before making the move to Music City about four years ago. Not surprisingly, when he got there he joined the circle of writers who rely less on cliche and standard formulas and more on where their hearts take them. Trooper's songs have been recorded by Steve Earle, Vince Gill and Maura O'Connell, not your average everyday group of hat acts. His latest compact disc, Popular Demons, is a stirring journey taken through Trooper's passionate eyes and pensive spirit. Songs such as the fiddle-driven roots rocker "Halfway," "Bluebell," a touching duet with Emmylou Harris, and "21st Century Boy," a country-tinged ode to his newborn son, are among the most rousing and heartfelt of the past 12 months. He hooked up with Buddy Miller, who has worked with Earle, Harris and Jim Lauderdale and is a fine songwriter on his own. Miller brought in some fabulous sidemen and friends to give Trooper's songs the organic feel they needed without overwhelming them with gimmickry. Trooper's live performances tend to possess a little more grit and sweat than his records, though. His last pass through Texas had his audiences stomping in the aisles and screaming for more.  

-- Jim Caligiuri

Vern Gosdin
The Voice

While this record isn't exactly new -- it was released in September -- it surely qualifies as an overlooked gem from the past year. Vern Gosdin has been called "The Voice" of country music for good reason. His deep baritone and bent-note phrasing are a perfect match for both deeply emotional tunes of heartache and high-stepping, fast-moving honky-tonk. Here he teams up with legendary producer Barry Beckett (Hank Williams Jr., Alabama, Etta James, Delbert McClinton) for a set of all new music that demonstrates his prowess as both a vocalist and a songwriter. Of the 12 cuts on The Voice, he co-wrote ten, including collaborations with such famed country songwriters as Max D. Barnes, Hank Cochran, Buddy Cannon and Dean Dillon. The results are pure country magic, the kind that doesn't rely on the drum machines or lyrical cliches like what Nashville's Music Row has been pumping out lately. When Gosdin smoothly moans his way through "Maybe Then I'll Be Over You" and "Baby That's Cold," you believe he's feeling the pain he's singing about. Then there's the endless joy in his performance of the aptly titled honky-tonkin' "Back in the Swing of Things" and the high-spirited tribute to Hank Williams Sr., Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones, "Chip Off the Chip Off the Old Block." Gosdin has been making memorable country music for more than 30 years, has had countless hit songs, Grammy nominations and gold albums and even won the Country Music Association's Song of the Year Award in 1987. Yet, as evidenced by his stunning performances on The Voice, he's still in peak form.

-- Jim Caligiuri

Tim's Bio: From the Motion Picture Life
from da Bassment

Most rap impresarios are content to be the king. In the rascally court of rapper/producer/Virginian splackavellie Tim "Timbaland" Mosley, he's the king, wizard and jester. The man who helped Aaliyah smolder into womanhood (and brought her out from R. Kelly's shadow) on 1996's One in a Million, who turned an obscure, doughy songwriter named Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott into one of hip-hop's most charismatic entities with 1997's Supa Dupa Fly, and who even transformed himself into a ghetto superstar, along with rapping partner Magoo, on Welcome to Our World drops another sonic boom with the enigmatically titled Tim's Bio: From the Motion Picture Life from da Bassment.

What sets Timbaland apart from other hip-pop masterminds like Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and Jermaine Dupri is that he's determined to craft original, prismatic beats without sampling other songs much. (When he does sample something, it's usually, as on this album, a campy artifact such as the TV themes to Spider-Man and I Dream of Jeannie.) You can immediately spot a Timbaland-produced song from its first note, and he's not a hog when it comes to the mike. Although this is billed as his "solo" debut, he doesn't show up much on vocals. And even though you can take or leave his lyrical flow's quiet-storm DJ style, he's content to pump out those playful, bass-heavy beats.

The guest list on Tim's Bio is impressive. Along with Aaliyah, Missy and Magoo, rapper-of-the-moment Jay-Z shows up to saddle Timbaland's sonic whimsy on "Lobster & Scrimp." Kelly Price adds her hefty voice to "Talking on the Phone," yet another my-best-girlfriend-did-me-wrong affair. Rookie emcee Ludichris helps Timbaland out with "Fat Rabbit," a song that's sure to displace "Ill Na Na" as the top rap euphemism for the female genitalia, and proteges Ginuwine and Playa also show up for a couple of pantie-dropping R&B numbers. But, of course, Tim remains the star of the show. His bouncy, fast-paced, no-additives-no-preservatives beats are exuberantly refreshing, with the kind of frisky energy you don't get from sample-encrusted hip-hop. It's no wonder R&B stars are starting to try to pull off second-rate riffs on his style. In Timbaland's kingdom, imagination reigns supreme, and familiarity is sent to the dungeon.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo
Gee Street/V2

Method Man
Tical 2000: Judgement Day
Def Jam

It seems like every other week there's a new release from a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, or someone on their Wu-Tang label, or someone associated with the Wu-Tang Clan, or someone who's creepin' with one of the Wu-Tang Clansmen's babies' mamas. And every time you switch on MTV, Kurt Loder is gleaming with joy over Ol' Dirty Bastard's latest arrest. Is the world's most dangerous thug-rap crew on the brink of overexposure? Two of the most well-known Wu-Tangers, Method Man and producing mastermind RZA, have new high-profile albums out, and luckily they are putting fans' worst fears to rest.  

Assuming the guise of a techno-loving, analog-hating superhero named Bobby Digital (the album claims to be a soundtrack for an upcoming movie), RZA proclaims himself a sonic wunderkind for the next millennium on Bobby Digital in Stereo. His loud, rambunctious flow, complete with pop references that would make Dennis Miller have seizures, saddles his studiously heavy backbeats. More of a subversively assaultive orchestration than an experimental step beyond, most of the album's tracks carry his signature gangsta rap-meets-Ennio Morricone veneer. But he opens up new avenues of sound here, too. "My Lovin' Is Digi" has a dark, retro feel, and he goes at it slow and funky on the romantic (well, by RZA standards) "Love Jones." He's even hip enough to sample Portishead on "Kiss of the Black Widow," where he lets his frustrated pal Ol' Dirty Bastard speak his grievances on the opposite sex. "Domestic Violence" is a mercilessly funny, insanely vulgar rant where RZA and a female vocalist tear at each other's throats; if you're not offended, you'll be bawling with laughter. Complex, convoluted and oddly inspiring, the album shows that he's not afraid to go progressive.

Method Man plays dress-up, too, on the cover of Tical 2000: Judgement Day. But don't let the apocalyptic facade fool you -- he spends the album maintaining the smooth, beer-swigging iconoclasm that's made him one of rap's favorite ruffnecks. With producers like RZA and Erick Sermon, Meth holds his own, diligently maniacal. And, like RZA, he takes some less traveled sonic roads. "Retro Godfather" finds Meth uncharacteristically going the disco-nostalgic route, and he pulls off a turn-off-da-lights number, "Sweet Love," with the help of Cappadonna and Streetlife. He goes for a full treatment of caustic beats on tracks such as "Party Crasher" and "Suspect Chin Music," where he sounds off on rap poseurs ("bandannas and bad grammar don't make you a thug"). There are even some snippets from the HBO documentary Pimps Up, Ho's Down. And, believe it or not, there's a twinge of a Brian Eno influence on "Big Dogs." Where RZA's a troublemaker of the snarky, subversive kind, Method Man is the kind of hip-hop ne'er-do-well who'd only raise hell if the keg tap were empty. He's yin to RZA's yang, Chris Farley to his David Spade, and we love him for it.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

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