Always Darkest Before the Dawn

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."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax