Judged by the music charts and commercial radio, 2001 was a rather average year for music. There were a few long-term items (Linkin Park and Alicia Keys most notably), but there certainly wasnít enough new music to keep one listening to commercial radio. No doubt part of the problem stems from the consolidation of radio formats as illustrated by Clear Channel Radioís 1200 stations awhich are all centrally programmed from Covington, Kentucky. Another reason stems from the record companiesí response to the downloading of music and to Internet radio. While the major record companies did do Napster in, these majors failed to see that the public wanted new music and would seek it out virtually any way possible via downloading or listening to the new net radio stations which are all over the web. So instead of constructing a venue to "get the music out", the major companies basked in their victory but failed to give the listeners a vehicle in which to hear new music through a reasonably cheap downloading procedure or through supporting web radio. My mild prediction is that within a year or so the major labels will get weaker and less influential once internet music becomes massively accessible, that is, as soon as the major software and computer companies truly address the issue of music distribution (Microsoft and AOL are rapidly heading in that direction as we speak).
But with these thoughts aside, here is a partial list of recordings released this last year that received scant air-play but are worth seeking out.
Four years ago Smith produced a world-class pop recording entitled XO. The songs were mature and catchy. The sonic display of Smith voice and the shimmer of his acoustic guitar were ear catching and well produced. Smithís latest tunes are still accessible, but his production work and arranging skills have made great steps. Now his tunes are placed within a production frame that highlight his lyrical themes and interesting musical ideas, thus making a recording that holds up to repeated listening and ultimately leaves one humming Smithís strong tunes.
I had very little doubt that Dylanís latest record would receive a Grammy award for best recording of the year. Itís clearly one of the best of the year. While not getting a lot of air playóDylan never hasóthere isnít a bad cut on this recording. Although the styles shift and wander a bit, I donít think there has been a more enjoyable and consistent Dylan recording since his "Blood on the Tracks" masterpiece from almost 30 years ago. The reason seems to lie in Dylanís new confidence in his music and arranging. Of course the lyrics are ever-strong, but now Dylan seems to be letting his earlier music works interact with larger "American" musical idealsótunes from the dancehalls, the deep rural honky-tonksóresulting in a record that is diverse yet consistent. In this recording, Dylan has found a ground that easily embraces the rough edges of the blues and the fine ends of tin pan alley. In this combination Dylanís recording becomes powerfully listenable and important and worth every nickel.
There simply are some artists who cannot make a bad recording. With Williams this is because of her great melancholy voice and a lyrical sense second to none. Not to suggest that every recording of Williams is a masterpiece or that every cut is superlative, but Williams does possess a gift for imagery and song structure that can be heard in virtually every tune she writes. On her opening tune "Lonely Girl" Williams sings "Heavy Blankets, Heavy Blankets, Heavy Blankets cover lonely girls." This extraordinary image fits perfectly with Williamsí vocal support and the haunting arrangement of her laconic music. The result is a musical impression that grabs the listeners and makes them see Williamsí point of view, which is always the point of extraordinary music.
It might be argued that guitar-based pop music is as much at the center of rockíníroll as the blues. No doubt the blues has given rockíníroll its structure and form, but Iím convinced that guitar pop is the vehicle many songwriters choose to display their lyrical talent. Certainly Dylan has used this genre many times, and there are many artists who similarly live by this style: Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, The Wallflowers and a slew more. The point is that very often rockíníroll only becomes massively popular when it is musically connected to guitar pop music. Producer, song writer, multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion clearly understands this and has produced a rip-roaring pop recording that should be sought out. Each tune is catchy and powerful, full of interesting musical hooks and lyrical catches, all forcing the listener to pay attention. This record sounds great particularly on the quirky and interesting pop masterpiece "Walking Through Walls," and "Ruin My Day."
Where guitar pop gets the nod on Jon Brionís excellent work, alt-countryóthat mix of Americana themes, guitar rock and matter-of-fact lyricismóalso rightly deserves a nod. No doubt Dylan with his work with the Band owes much of its legacy to the genre (or should it be put the other way around?), but this genre made up almost exclusively of ballads and in-your-face rockers often defines American music as much as the blues does. And Eef Barzelay, the lead songwriter, singer, arranger of Clem Snide clearly understands this connection. On "The Ghost of Fashion" not only has he written some powerful tunes, but also he has augmented them with some super sonic production elements and musical arrangements that move a good recording into the great category. This recording is sonically stunning and consistent across tunes. Listen particularly to "Moment in the Sun." Like the record as a whole, it is excellent.R
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