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Shelf Life

As the music industry struggles for secure footing in the loose gravel of the computer age, one thing remains certain: Quality continues to be overlooked, even at a time when artists claim they can better control their destinies by selling their own products over the Internet. While this is true, it's also not accurate. Radio play and marketing are still the main reasons albums sell; without either, many talented musicians remain adrift in the vast ocean of new releases.

But that's why we're here. The year 2000 may have been all about Britney and the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, but there were many other acts -- even some without personal trainers -- who deserved your time and attention. In alphabetic order, we'll tell you about 22 of them.

Aarktica
No Solace in Sleep
Silber

Jon DeRosa, the force behind Aarktica, creates soundscapes that evoke images of the frozen north: eerie stillness, the swirl of wind (listen to "Inebria") or pulsating waves upon ice. It's a meditative drone, the low rumbles of the earth. At its best, drone celebrates inventiveness: The clicking sounds on "Indie" mimic the rotation of a vinyl record. On the other hand, drone often fades to ennui with repetition and loops, but Aarktica simply arouses a centered peace. The music is quiet and slow, almost ambient. In this context, no vocals are needed. -- Sande Chen

Beach Boys
Sunflower/Surf's Up
Capitol

Sunflower and Surf's Up were two of the best albums of the '70s, but they were quickly forgotten by all but the most die-hard Beach Boys fans before being reissued last summer as a twofer. The sessions contain some of the group's most potent material: ballads, ethereal numbers no one else ever could have conceived, rockers that fit on any classic rock station and, of course, those oh-so-heavenly harmonies. The biggest misconception about the Beach Boys is that the group ceased to produce relevant and ambitious music after the failed Smile project in 1967. Sunflower/Surf's Up is 63 minutes of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. -- Paul J. MacArthur

Kasey Chambers
The Captain
Asylum

Kasey Chambers's solo debut, The Captain, earned a 1999 ARIA (Australia's version of the Grammy) for Best Country Album. The record was released stateside this fall and is one of those projects that makes your ears perk up immediately. It has none of the pop pretensions of contemporary country, yet it doesn't use its old-school influences (Hank Williams, a whiff of Loretta Lynn) as a crutch. Then there's that voice: equal parts Lucinda Williams grit and haunting Iris DeMent Appalachia. Add Chambers's precocious lyrics, and you've got a scrappy Aussie poised to kick Shania's glossy ass. -- Melanie Haupt

Corrosion of Conformity
America's Volume Dealer
Sanctuary

America's Volume Dealer is certainly COC's most "commercial" release to date. There are moments of full-on acoustic rock and funk. Each of the tracks stands up on its own, and complements both the number that came before and whatever follows. What's more, one doesn't have to listen for long to realize that even though the whole may be somewhat more accessible, the individual parts are still most definitely the same old COC. Ignore all of the alternative wanna-bes. This is still what guitar rock is supposed to sound like. -- Chris Smith

A.J. Croce
Transit
Higher Octave

There were plenty of surprised looks at the Mucky Duck last year when Croce and band performed in support of this record. Expecting the roots/blues sound of his previous efforts, the audience instead got a heavy dose of pure pop. Influenced by the Beatles, the Zombies and Squeeze, Croce emerged with a radically different and buoyant sound. Croce and David Zemen's piano/ multi-organ work swirl throughout, and his scratchy voice recalls a young Don Henley. Creative, yet criminally overlooked, Croce nonetheless made a record of which power-pop fans and even his late dad, Jim, certainly would be proud. -- Bob Ruggiero

D'Angelo
Voodoo
Virgin

Making soul records has become too easy. A synth beat here, a sample there, and -- presto! -- you've got the "Thong Song." Luckily D'Angelo has a flair for the old school, yet he doesn't overly rely on the sounds of yesteryear. His music, in fact, sounds like a new strain of funk. From the haunting opener, "Playa Playa," it's apparent that he's paving new ground. Primitive, stripped-down rhythms mesh with an uptown attitude, while ethereal voices meld with D'Angelo's erotic delivery. It's a hypnotic collection of primal R&B, loaded with fresh grooves and a rare sense of originality. -- Mike Emery

Earth Crisis
Slither
Victory

 

Coming out of the straight-edged hard-core punk scene, Earth Crisis didn't so much cross over into metal with Slither as expand its original approach far enough so that metalheads would get it. But the Earth Crisis message remains undiluted: Love your world or hasten its ugly, painful demise. "Biomachines," "Arc of Descent" and "Behind the Wire" all look at the present and near future and practically demand that you choose where you stand. The key to Slither is that the music is compelling enough that you might not even notice what on earth its composers are railing about. -- Chris Smith

Ghostface Killah
Supreme Clientele
Epic/Sony

Since the emergence of the Wu-Tang Clan, hip-hop's most respected crew, the rap world hasn't been the same. Countless albums have been made by Clan members, most praised by critics but usually dismissed by the public. Ghostface Killah's latest release, Supreme Clientele, is a perfect example. It contains some of the most impressive, head-spinning, eyebrow-raising lyricism ever, and yet most consumers didn't even notice. From "Apollo Kids" to "Cherchez LaGhost," Ghostface flows like champagne on New Year's Eve. -- Jake McKim

Guru
Guru's Jazzmatazz: Streetsoul
Virgin

In a year when real hip-hop made a comeback, the album that didn't get enough fanfare was the latest solo effort by Gang Starr front man Guru, the third (and hopefully not last) volume in his Jazzmatazz series. Instead of guest shots from weak-ass rappers who are there just to make the star look good, Guru recruited neo-soul chanteuses (Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, Amel Larrieux, Les Nubians) and a diverse group of black-music figures (the Roots, Isaac Hayes, Herbie Hancock) to enhance the album's boho eclecticism. It's the Whitman sampler of hip-hop albums, and it's worth every bite. -- Craig D. Lindsey

Dave Hollister
Chicago '85: The Movie
DreamWorks

It's rare for an R&B singer to utter the lines "Long gone / Are the days / When I ran the streets / Trying to get laid" without sounding like a damn fool. But Dave Hollister isn't a damn fool. The recently released Chicago '85: The Movie features the Chi-town native's world-weary voice sounding like he's summoning the spirits of such old-school masters as Lenny Williams, Bobby Caldwell and the gone-but-never-forgotten Donny Hathaway. Hollister pimp-rolls his way through a beyond-satisfying album that would've been Sisqo-ed all to hell if a more inferior performer were behind the mike. -- Craig D. Lindsey

Kittie
Spit
Artemis

These four Canadian chicks rock like few other metal acts. If you're into Slayer, Pantera or some other macho lunkhead act, take heed. Spit delivers some of the most honest accounts of teen angst ever captured. The combined effect of guitarists Morgan Lander and Fallon Bowman is suitably simplistic -- a barrage of quickened sludge that sounds like Sabbath on Diet Coke and Mini Thins. The real kicker is Lander's vocals. Most of the time she's pissed off and roaring like a beast. The effect is quite inviting. When she screams, "Stand the fuck away from me" on "Raven," you just want to get closer. -- Mike Emery

Marian McPartland
The Single Petal of a Rose: The Essence of Duke Ellington
Concord Jazz

Marian McPartland is taken for granted. Year after year, her Piano Jazz radio program stands out as a weekly lesson in harmony, composition and improvisation, while her albums and performances are consistently intelligent and artistic. McPartland fills some Ellington warhorses with unique twists and unearths some lesser-known material like "Everything But You," which she interprets beautifully. Throughout this session, McPartland's improvisations are fluid and logical, yet filled with emotional depth. In short, Single Petal is jazz piano interpretation at its modern-day finest. -- Paul J. MacArthur

Amy Rigby
The Sugar Tree
Koch

Who's the next female singer-songwriter that deserves the attention of the half-million or so folks who bought the last Lucinda Williams release? Try New Yorker-turned-Nashville-resident Amy Rigby. After exploring the vicissitudes of marriage (Diary of a Mod Housewife) and various comings of age (Middlescence), Rigby now delivers a smart collection of rootsy pop songs about the contradictions inherent in modern love. "Cynically Yours" sums up her canny mixture of head and heart, while "Balls" ("Wish I could grow a pair") is a number we're sure a few gals can relate to. -- Rob Patterson

Musiq Soulchild
Aijuswanaseing
Def Jam

With throwback artists such as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell garnering attention with their funky, classic soul sounds, many other artists are jumping on the, ahem, soul train. Musiq Soulchild is the latest of the stowaways. This Philadelphia native brilliantly fuses the greasy, funkalicious offerings of D'Angelo with the popular R&B sounds found on local urban radio stations. From the nostalgic "Girl Next Door" to the laid-back "Just Friends," this is an album that folks will keep spinning for years to come. -- Jake McKim

 

Ryuichi Sakamoto
Cinemage
Sony Classical

For more than two decades Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has been creating orchestral works of astounding beauty. Cinemage looks back on Sakamoto's brilliant soundscapes for, among others, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, which earned him both Grammy and Oscar awards in 1987. Sakamoto seamlessly blends modern elements, including an appearance by DJ Spooky on "El Mar Mediterrani," with a full orchestra while remaining accessible to audiences weaned on Bach and Brahms. While these pieces were written as incidental music for a visual medium, each is a freestanding, sumptuous homage to Sakamoto's ability to meld East and West. -- Elizabeth Taishoff

Martin Sexton
Wonder Bar
Atlantic

Troubadour Martin Sexton has been compared many times to Jeff Buckley, but he's no sensitive boy in a scratchy black turtleneck. Sexton is the preacher's fallen son, the one sipping hooch and throwing craps, but the one who surprises you with his tenderness in your moments alone. Only on Wonder Bar will you find such moments. Yeah, the sweaty party boy is there on "Angeline," but the soulful loverman pops up in the endlessly moving "Elephant's Memory." Come for the funkified folk-rock, but stay for Sexton's glorious pipes, which slide from controlled falsetto to sensual growl with little or no warning. -- Melanie Haupt

Southpacific
Constance
Turnbuckle

Nothing could be more glorious than a full submersion into Southpacific's surround-sound maelstrom of samples, guitar haze and electronica beats. A study in anticipation, Constance is a standout of this genre. After the album's many reverb-happy instrumentals, it feels like the lush layering of dream-pop couldn't get any more gorgeous, but then guitarist Joachim Toelke, bassist Phil Stewart-Bowes and drummer Graeme Fleming surprise you with "Built to Last," the only track with vocals. Waiting for the next note or harmonic shift becomes such an exquisite pleasure. Although Southpacific has disbanded, fans are already looking forward to Summerside, Toelke's newest endeavor. -- Sande Chen

Supa DJ Dmitry
Scream of Consciousness
TVT

Striking out on his own, Supa DJ Dmitry (Dmitry Brill of Deee-Lite) charges out with his first solo release. Sure to worm himself into the hearts of candy ravers and older tech-heads alike, Dmitry showcases the finest in current rhythms this side of the pond. In the United States, where thoughtful, hard-hitting beats are harder to find than a viable candidate for president, Scream of Consciousness delivers. Guaranteed to add life to any party, Dmitry has produced an edgy album that is, well, supa. -- Elizabeth Taishoff

Rokia Traore
Wanita
Indigo

Hearing Rokia Traore's swooping vocal bends and fluttering vibrato -- accompanied by acoustic guitar and the percussionlike balafon -- is to be transported to an intimate, rootsy Africa. Although Traore sings in her native Bamanan dialect, she connects on a deeply understated, emotionally direct level. Traore sings about women in African society as well as the importance of family and fraternity. Like Ali Farka Toure, Traore is part of the neotraditionalist Mali music movement that offers a different approach from Western-influenced Afro-pop. -- Aaron Howard

Various Artists
The Devil's Swing
Arhoolie

The release of the Arhoolie's 40th anniversary boxed set may have overshadowed this fascinating slice of Tex-Mex history. A collection of 19 corridos (ballads) from the Big Bend region, The Devil's Swing gleans from a rich, isolated folkloric tradition. The songs, by a variety of area performers, pay homage to local Robin Hoods from Pancho Villa to drug trafficker Pablo Acosta. Recorded on location to accompany the documentary of the same name, The Devil's Swing -- the title is taken from a local legend about the devil crossing the Rio Grande on a giant iron ball -- is a sampling of some of the most alluring music found on this continent. -- Rob Patterson

Various Artists
Musica Negra in the Americas
Network

Slavery brought Africans to every part of the Americas, and they, in turn, influenced European and indigenous music in ways that we're just beginning to understand. This marvelous world music set includes examples of African-informed styles such as Cuban son and Brazilian samba. But it is the lesser-known hybrids, such as the Afro-marimba of Ecuador's Carmen Gonzalez, and the punta of Belize's Andy Palacio, that are the real discoveries. This 33-track collection from 19 countries is the next step for anyone whose interest in world music was piqued by the Buena Vista Social Club. -- Aaron Howard

 

Warren Zevon
Life'll Kill Ya
Artemis

Forget Marilyn Manson. Warren Zevon is rock's real prince of darkness, with his literate/satiric songs populated by a freakish gallery of characters. These sparsely arranged tracks gleefully find inspiration in S&M sex, fat Elvis, religion and typically doomed love. Zevon's persona always has been more sarcastic novelist than self-confessional whiner, and only he can masterfully turn the innocuous "Back in the High Life Again" into a resigned dirge. Though he'll always be best known for a certain Anglophilic lycanthrope, Warren Zevon remains a grossly underrated presence -- and this record shows he's got plenty of half-empty glasses left to drink from. -- Bob Ruggiero


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