Piss and Moan
Death to Corporate Record Stores

Yeah, I know, I’m late. You should see the first draft.

I’m a bit angry this week, and I feel that it’s important to get these feelings out while they’re still fresh. I find that if you let these little frustrations bottle up without spewing them out in some (hopefully) harmless way, then they fester inside and cause bleeding ulcers and painful, early death. It’s crucial, I feel, that one finds an outlet (like, say, a weekly column) through which to vent these venomous, bitter emotions.

Like I said, you should see the first draft.

What’s got me upset? At the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, corporate America. Here’s my stupid story.

As I promised last week, the new Jonatha Brooke album, Steady Pull, came out yesterday. I live in a town with two music stores, so I thought I’d call both of them a week in advance and ask, quite nicely, if they’d order me a copy of the album. Both stores (corporate-owned mall-type stores, by the way) said they’d have it on the release date. Neither of them did.

A trifling annoyance, you may say. To me, though, this is indicative of a larger problem, one that I don’t want to overstate, but which seems like a big deal to me. People talk about the increasing availability of music these days, what with MP3s and Napster, but the truth is that most people still go to the record store to buy CDs. Like most things, the record shops are becoming more and more corporate, with larger chains overtaking the smaller stores and driving them out of business. This is bad because the corporate owners don’t give two rat’s butt cheeks about music, just the financial bottom line.

This attitude extends beyond the ordering process. One thing that I’ve always loved about small music stores is that the owner(s) almost always work in the shops themselves. You don’t start your own record store unless you really like music. Just as you’d expect the staff at a car dealership to know more than a little bit about cars, I expect the staff at a music store to have more than a passing interest in music. In smaller stores, the owner(s) do the hiring, and they base their decisions partially on knowledge of music. That just makes sense. If a customer has a question about an artist or an album, the customer service rep should be able to answer it.

Not so in huge corporate chain stores. If you have a pulse and can work a cash register, you can work in a huge corporate chain store. This is because, if a particular title doesn’t sell eight million copies in its first week and get three-times-an-hour rotation on MTV, the huge corporate chain store doesn’t care about it. Not only did neither corporate store have the disc I specifically requested, not a single staff member of the four total that I talked to knew who Jonatha Brooke is. Now, while I wouldn’t call Brooke mainstream, I certainly wouldn’t call her underground either. She has six albums, two with the Story, and four of those are major-label releases. If you know who Aimee Mann is, you probably know who Jonatha Brooke is.

I should mention that I finally tracked down the album. I called Bull Moose in Portland, Maine, a small chain that’s privately owned (and where I worked for a few months). I spoke to Katie, who not only knew who Jonatha Brooke is, but knew her whole history. Bull Moose had several copies of the album on their hit wall, and sold me one over the phone. I patronized Bull Moose for eight years while I lived in Maine, and I’m afraid they’ve spoiled me against other music stores. If I wanted something, they ordered it. If I had a question, they could answer it. If more stores were like Bull Moose, Amazon.com wouldn’t be nearly as profitable.

The truth behind corporate conglomerates is that quality of service doesn’t matter as much as quantity of profits. There are people, believe it or not, who don’t care about Jennifer Lopez’s ass or which Backstreet Boy has the best-primped hair. There are albums, believe it or not, that are still incredible works, regardless of how miniscule their sales figures turn out. There are artists, believe it or not, who go 30 years without selling what Britney Spears does in an afternoon, and yet have the ability to change the world with one note and one turn of phrase.

There’s no doubt that I get too worked up over this stuff. I just wish the good stuff was more readily available. Ah well. Let’s see how hard it’ll be for me to get the new Orb album in two weeks.

I wanted to mention the Oscars, because I’m terribly disappointed. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Best Picture nomination was a welcome surprise, and even though I haven’t seen Traffic (my town’s one multiplex hasn’t opened it yet, even though they’re still wasting theater space on What Women Want), I’m glad it got nominated. No, I’m disappointed that the best movie I saw this year, Almost Famous, didn’t get a nod. That means it won’t get a re-release, and those of you that haven’t seen it will have to make do with the video and DVD release in March. I highly, highly recommend it.

There was one nomination I heard about this week that gave me a warm feeling all over, though, and it had nothing to do with the Oscars. One of the best comic book novels I’ve ever read, Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me, got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. (The only comic ever to win was Art Spiegelman’s Maus.)

Pedro and Me is Winick’s examination of his time on The Real World in San Francisco, focusing on the life of AIDS educator Pedro Zamora. This has left him open to charges of exploitation in crafting this book, and if he needs any vindication (which those who’ve read the book can attest that he certainly does not), the Pulitzer nomination provides it many times over. Pedro and Me is one of the warmest, most human, and most accomplished graphic novels ever published. It’s hard to believe it’s Winick’s first novel. You can get Pedro and Me at any bookstore (or comic book store), and of course, I recommend that you do.

This is gonna sound familiar, but next week, it’ll either be Jonatha or controversy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Miscellaneous
I Refuse to Use the Word "Miscellaney"

I had this great dream the other night.

I dreamed that there were five (count ‘em, five) new flavors of Trix, and that they were these indescribable, intergalactic-sounding fruity flavors, and that I could try each one, and the world was a much better place. Then I woke up to find that I was still stuck with generic, boring old one-variety Trix. Life has just been like that lately.

I had two things to talk about this time, and each feels like a large enough topic to fill a column by itself. One is controversial, one is not, and as much as I’d like to think I’ll get to one this week and one next week, I know that the new Jonatha Brooke album is coming out next Tuesday (2/13), and I’m sure I’ll want to wax something or other on that. For some reason, I’m not feeling all that controversial tonight, so I’m going to discuss VH-1’s latest exercise in debate-starting, the 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

As I’ve said previously, I like lists. I like the idea of rating one artist against another, and I also like seeing how people view their art. Everything’s subjective, and no one’s opinion matters any more than anyone else’s. (In fact, one could make a strong case that in matters of art, no one’s opinion matters at all, but for obvious reasons, I’m not going down that road.) When a semi-official source claims to have ranked the top 100 anything, though, a certain weight is added to that opinion. Take, for instance, the American Film Institute’s naming of Citizen Kane as the best film ever made. That film is 60 years old at this point, and the idea that no one’s topped it is debatable, but people for some reason paid attention to the AFI list as if it were gospel.

Here’s something I learned in Dr. Kasper’s religion class: even the Gospel is debatable.

These lists, nifty as they are, should in no way substitute for your own opinion based on your experience. If you watch Citizen Kane and all you see is murky black-and-white images acting out a boring plot about some newspaper guy, you’re entitled to that. If you think Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo is a finer film overall, you’re entitled to that, too. Many people (myself included) would tell you that you don’t know shit, but if that’s what you like, you shouldn’t let us culture snobs sway you.

That said, we culture snobs love artistic debate. An argument over music, film or any other form of artistic expression usually consists of one-upmanship in terms of knowledge and ideas. For instance, if you know that Citizen Kane was the first film to use deep-angle lenses to keep the foreground and the background in focus at the same time, you’ll likely be off to a decent start in the above debate. The merits of any given art form are, at this very moment, being dissected and argued relentlessly by lovers of that art form everywhere, right now, and will continue to be dissected and argued about until art is banned by the government, and even then we’ll do it in whispers in back alleys where they can’t find us.

There’s nothing like an “official” list of the best of anything to start such debate, and the first step down that road is realizing that VH-1’s opinion is worth no more than yours. Or, for that matter, mine. To prove that, I have a few issues with their list. Feel free to jump in at any time with your own gripes. (If you haven’t seen the list, it’s available at vh1.com, and can be seen, oh, like ALL THE TIME on their channel.)

Gripe number one is obvious, but glaring: OK Computer deserved to be higher on the list. In fact, any slot below 40 or so is too low for the best album produced in the last 20 years. Yeah, I mean that. The ‘80s and ‘90s have been surprisingly low on the creativity meter, except for Radiohead’s masterpiece. It’s a compositional and emotional stunner that pisses on everything after 1979. If we’re rating the absolute best, as opposed to the most popular or the highest selling, Radiohead needs to be ranked higher.

All in all, VH-1 did a decent job of not falling into the popularity trap. You’ll see no Elvis Presley on their list, thank Jesus, and some critical favorites made the list that on some lists get overlooked. The Velvet Underground and Nico is a good example, as is the Stooges’ Raw Power. They even did the service of including Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the first jazz album to incorporate rock styles and to acknowledge rock ‘n’ roll as a musical force.

It’s also telling that the Beatles don’t show up until the top 10. I can’t exactly argue with Revolver’s place at number one. It’s a terrific album, and every song on it can still be heard regularly on radio stations everywhere. I think they’re wrong, though. In my humble opinion, the best album of rock ‘n’ roll can be found six slots down on their list: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Here’s my argument. Revolver is a great group of songs, no question. In fact, up until that point, albums were just that: groups of songs. Even the wonderland of brilliance that’s at number three, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, is just a group of songs. Sgt. Pepper, released in 1967, was the first album of the rock era that was meant to be heard from beginning to end. Sgt. Pepper introduced the album concept, songs linked thematically and sonically to form something greater than the sum of its parts. The Beatles not only rewrote the rules of pop and rock songwriting, they also created the rulebook for album sequencing, a book that people are still stealing from to this day.

With Sgt. Pepper, the Fab Four presented the studio record as a work of art to the general public for the first time, refusing to tour and release singles so that the focus would be squarely on the album as a whole. If Citizen Kane is the best film ever made because filmmakers have been pinching ideas from it for 60 years, then Sgt. Pepper more than deserves top honors in the rock album category. Not only have artists been stealing from it for more than 30 years, they still have yet to catch up to it. Revolver is marvelous, but it’s definitely a prelude to the three albums that came after it, starting with Sgt. Pepper. (The other two, by the way, are also on the list: the “white album” and Abbey Road.)

Still, I can’t really complain about Revolver hitting the top spot. No, my big (and I mean big) complaint lies with the number two choice. If you’re gonna call your list the Top 100 Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll, people are going to assume you mean the 100 best. By “best,” people are also going to assume you mean the albums that stand out in terms of composition, delivery and production. In fact, most of VH-1’s list bears this out. So what the bloody blue hell is Nirvana’s Nevermind doing at second-best?

Nirvana was a sensation, no doubt. They threw the doors open for heavy, guitar-based music on the charts, no question. At best, though, they were a typical three-piece grunge-pop group, and one that fell far behind their peers (Soundgarden, Alice in Chains) in terms of ability. Nevermind is largely accepted (even by the band members) as the group’s worst effort, it being far glossier than Bleach and far less musically advanced than In Utero. No, it just happened to be the most popular. Listen up, folks: the voice of a generation can’t necessarily carry a tune.

Its presence on the list would be bad enough, but at number two? Think about that. VH-1’s panel of judges thinks Nevermind is a better album than Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland, Exile on Main Street, and (yes, I have to say it again) OK Computer. As John Travolta says in Pulp Fiction, that’s a bold statement. If eight million of you hadn’t bought the album and Saint Cobain hadn’t ventilated his own head, I promise you, you would not see Nevermind on this list. That’s a lot like the above example of rating Deuce Bigalow above Citizen Kane. Sure, you’re entitled to that opinion, but good luck backing it up.

Of course, that’s just what I think.

I love these debates, and I love the big, stupid lists that often spark them. Kudos to VH-1 for even undertaking this project, and for doing a decent job at it all around. Of course, they forgot Frank Zappa entirely…

Okay, I’m all out. Next week, Jonatha or controversy, depending on how I feel.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Nevermind? Bollocks! Where’s the Beatles?
The Dangers of Doing a Top 100 Anything

Funerals are weird.

Especially if they’re the funerals of family members. I feel as though I just spent a week away from my own life, in a strange parallel dimension where time remained in motion, yet suspended. The wake and funeral of a close family member means a week or so in an odd sort of haze, where you’re not expected to do anything but grieve, nor be anything but a griever. The odd part is, you still are the same multitude of things you’ve always been, and you still do the multitude of things you always do. If you happen, however, to collapse in the middle of a room and cry, for that one week, no one will hold it against you. You’re not expected to do or be anything else.

My Nana was 91 years old, which is pretty damn amazing, considering she wasn’t supposed to live past 50 or so. She contracted polio at 14 months, and had it her whole life. (The vaccine hadn’t been discovered yet in 1909.) She never grew past four-foot-one, and she never walked without the assistance of crutches, but that never stopped her from doing anything she wanted. I found it hard to feel sorry for Nana, because she never once felt sorry for herself. Sure, her passing was sad, but that was tempered with the joy that was her life, and the feeling shared by all present at her funeral that somewhere, right now, she’s dancing on the strong pair of legs she never had down here.

My sincerest thanks to everyone who sent condolences via e-mail, and to those who came to her wake. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have made friends with all of you.

We’re still in the post-Christmas dry spell, even though I thought we’d be out of it by now. Both Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon and the Orb’s Cydonia were pushed back to mid-March, and it looks like the first big release of the new year will be Dave Matthews Band’s Everyday on February 27.

Two weeks before that, though, is a release that I’m looking forward to more: Jonatha Brooke’s new Steady Pull. Brooke’s the latest artist to go the Aimee Mann route and start her own label up, which she did in reaction to MCA’s unbelievable bungling of her second solo album, 10 Cent Wings. I’m telling you, I haven’t seen a bigger case of a label not knowing what they had in a long time. There were four (at least) top 10 singles on this thing that no one ever got a chance to hear. “Because I Told You So” is the most criminally underpromoted song of the last five years. No kidding. Just a tiny marketing push behind this moving tune and Brooke would have been on her way to a very promising major label career. But no.

I’ve heard a bit of Steady Pull online, and it doesn’t sound as promising as 10 Cent Wings, but I don’t want to sell it short before I hear the whole thing. You can check both albums out at jonathabrooke.com, where you can also pre-order an autographed copy of the new record for no extra charge. If you’re into that sort of thing.

2001 might very well be the year that female performers drag the industry back to the heights of 1999 and before. There’s that new Bjork (called Domestika) coming in May, Amy Ray’s Stag hitting on March 6, and a new Shawn Colvin (she of “Sunny Came Home” fame) on March 27. That one’s called Whole New You. I’m most excited, though, by this bit of news that I picked up last weekend. For those of you (like me) who found it somewhat odd that Ani DiFranco remained uncharacteristically silent throughout 2000, especially after releasing a record three full-length discs in 1999, get ready. On April 24 the little folksinger that could releases a 28-song double disc called Reveling/Reckoning. Naturally, the songs are divided into those two categories and separated on two CDs. Still, each of her albums has been remarkably cohesive, especially lately, and even her bad ones (Up Up Up etc.) are fascinating. She’s evolved from a minimalist acoustic artist into a studio wizard, and Reveling/Reckoning should be the biggest-sounding thing she’s done.

In other scattered news:

I had the privilege of watching Aerosmith shame themselves on national television, appearing with musical talents the stature of ‘N Sync, Britney Spears and Nelly. (Tick, 14:58… tick, 14:59… I’m sorry, that’s your 15 minutes, Mr. Nelly, now go the fuck away.) The new single, “Jaded,” rips off David Bowie in both sound and stutter, and I have very few hopes for the quality of the album, Just Push Play, out on March 20. As for the Super Bowl haftime show, to quote Ben Stiller, it ‘N Sucked.

There are rumblings that this year could see the release of The Soular Return of Terence Trent D’Arby. The album’s reportedly been done for more than two years, and has been sitting about in a warehouse somewhere. You remember Terence Trent D’Arby, right? Heir apparent to Prince’s throne, equally funky one-man band, soul machine, strange cat? Come on, sure you do…

Tears for Fears fans (meaning you, Liz), rejoice, because Roland Orzabal’s solo album, Tomcats Screaming Outside, will be released on March 19. Hopefully it’ll sound nothing like its title. TFF has been, for all intents and purposes, an Orzabal solo project for three albums anyway, so the solo thing shouldn’t be a major change. Incidentally, I dug out my copy of Tears’ 1995 album Raoul and the Kings of Spain recently, and was surprised at how much I liked it. “Sketches of Pain” is a terrific song.

In other solo album news, Glen Philips, vocalist/guitarist/lyricist for Toad the Wet Sprocket, will release Abulum (not a misspelling) on April 10. Reportedly, the album returns to Toad’s acoustic roots, which they sadly abandoned on their ho-hum final album, Coil.

Rumor control: We finally have a release date for the new Rufus Wainwright album, the long-awaited Poses. It’ll be in stores on April 17. Naturally, that’s as subject to change as the last four release dates we’ve been given for that album. Also on April 17 comes the new Tool studio disc. Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, I have it on good authority that the album will be called Systema Encephale. I think that’s bastard Latin for “the workings of the brain,” but don’t quote me.

Oh, and one more bit of info: the new R.E.M., slated for May, is called Reveal.

I wanted to mention one more thing before I go. There’s a movie coming out on February 9 directed by Ridley Scott and starring Sir Anthony Hopkins in a reprise of his most famous role. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. Well, in preparation, I spent five hours reading Thomas Harris’ book, and all I can say is that I want my five hours back. Hannibal is a piece of feces. I took some time to think of ways the book could have been a bigger betrayal of Harris’ readers, and I couldn’t come up with a single one. There are frequent posters to Hannibal Lecter message boards (what a strange thought) that seem to know Harris’ characters better than he does. The final 50 pages are a backhanded stab to the kidneys of not just his characters, but everyone that made his characters famous. I’m not sure how much they paid Stephen King to call it “one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time, the other being The Exorcist,” but it was probably less than the 10 million Harris got to spew this thing out.

Let me try to approximate how poorly written, poorly researched and all-around sad this thing is:

We see a man, covered in shadows. Smell of oranges. Dripping cavern somewhere. Dare we move closer? It is Dr. Lecter. He ate a brain from a llama. Dr. Lecter has always liked the brains of llamas. Did you know that llamas are indigenous to the island of Crete, located off the shores of Italy? Slurp. A sound from somewhere else. Dr. Lecter turned his head, and sees… but no. Let us move on to another chapter. They are only four paragraphs each. Slobber.

I’m serious, it’s that bad. If the movie sucks as much as the book, the stink factor will be HUGE. As for those of you who already suffered through Harris’ mangled prose, I say we march on his house and demand our rightful share of that 10 million.

Next time, I’ll probably have something to say about that 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll nonsense. Yeah, it’s good to be back.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Cover This – We Dare You
Dream Theater Keeps Prog Alive

If any of you out there still harbor some doubts that rock ‘n’ roll is dead, I invite you to tune in to The Osbournes on MTV this spring.

You may have heard about this. MTV decided to give Ozzy “Where’s my rabies shot?” Osbourne his own sitcom, a standard single-camera laugh-track-laden effort that’s reportedly irony-free. Ozzy stars with his real-life wife, Sharon, and they share the comic misadventures that befall the home of one of rock’s more colorful figures. The joke is, apparently, that behind the makeup and stage persona, Ozzy is just like the head of any normal sitcom family. Aren’t you laughing? Isn’t it hysterical to see the former lead singer of Black Sabbath reduced to a middle-aged putz who forgets to bring home the two-percent milk?

And oh, next month Marilyn Manson is appearing on Sesame Street, and Rob Zombie is guest-starring in a very special episode of Yes, Dear. I swear to God, if Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes ever gets his own TV show, it had better be on Showtime, and it had better consist of nothing but drinking, swearing and fucking groupies.

End of rant, but the mention of the Black Crowes does bring up an interesting question. Is any musical art form dead if there’s still at least one band practicing it to the hilt? The Crowes are almost the only band on Earth still playing balls-out sloppy rock ‘n’ roll. As a social and cultural movement, evidence would seem to support the theory that rock is, indeed, dead, but as a musical force, does it still count if only one band is keeping it alive?

For instance, there’s an L.A. band called Danger Danger that poked its head up sometime in the late ’80s, playing a typical brand of hair-metal that garnered them a couple of hits. That band is still carrying on in the same style, putting them in a class of one. Said class is downstairs, past the boiler room, in a forgotten corner of the school, but still, it’s in session, and students are attending. Danger Danger has a grand total of seven CDs now, which someone must be buying. There are hair-metal websites all over the ‘net, too, so I ask you, is it really a dead art form?

And here’s another one: progressive rock. You remember the smarter-than-you bands of the ’70s, right? Songs that stretched beyond the half-hour mark, distinguished by unique instrumentation and a display of musicianship that was about as exhausting to listen to as it was to play? For a while there, prog was the style of choice for young bands, due largely to the imaginative freedom it offered. Somehow, though, it got associated with pretension and snobbery, and the major prog bands of the ’70s (Yes, Genesis, Rush) turned into goopy pop acts in the ’80s.

But there is one band who remembers the thrill of composing giant, epic songs that few other bands could play. That band is Dream Theater, and if you scan the credits of the more modern prog bands, you’ll find their members participate in most of them. Between the impossibly complex work they’ve done with Liquid Tension Experiment, Platypus, Mullmuzzler and Transatlantic, to name a few, it’s a wonder the DT boys ever find time to record and tour with their main band.

Surprisingly, though, these five amazing musicians work very quickly. Their last album, the epic concept album Scenes From a Memory, was composed and recorded in something like six weeks. (Which is nothing for these guys – both Liquid Tension Experiment albums were put together in seven days each.) Even though new Transatlantic and Mullmuzzler albums just came out, Dream Theater is back with their longest, most ambitious and most impossible-to-play album yet, the two-disc Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

If prog is dead, someone forgot to send the memo to these guys. Every ’70s prog band eventually got around to making their magnum opus, their multi-part suite. Genesis had “Supper’s Ready”, Rush had “2112”, Jethro Tull had “A Passion Play,” Yes had…well, half their catalog, really. Six Degrees features Dream Theater’s, the 42-minute title track that takes up all of disc two. Similarly, almost every prog band eventually made their Grand Statement double album. Yes had Tales From Topographic Oceans, Genesis had The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and Pink Floyd had The Wall. Dream Theater’s 96-minute album effectively kills both birds with one stone.

Ambition, as Ed Wood could probably tell you, means nothing if you don’t have the talent to back it up. That has never been Dream Theater’s problem. They were doing 11-minute epics back in 1992, and have somehow weathered 10 years of changing musical climates on the same major label. With the addition of former Dixie Dregs keyboardist Jordan Rudess in 1999, the band finally gelled, and they’ve attained an entirely new level on Six Degrees.

Not content to just release a 42-minute epic, Dream Theater have also filled disc one with five lengthy, jaw-dropping tunes that tackle a variety of spiritual concerns. Six Degrees is almost entirely concerned with spiritual enlightenment, sending the protagonist of the 14-minute leadoff track, “The Glass Prison,” on a quest for knowledge that the remainder of disc one’s tracks explore. “The Glass Prison” is also the hardest-hitting collection of jackhammer riffs this band has ever assembled, despite its gentle opening.

“Blind Faith” and “Misunderstood” soar like the best ethereal prog always has, and both contain thoughtful treatments of spiritual content. “Misunderstood,” particularly, finds its protagonist in a humbled state: “I turn from a thief to a beggar, from a god to God save me…if I seem superhuman I have been misunderstood.” Both the music and the theology gets muddled by the end of disc one, with “The Great Debate” borrowing bits of Tool’s sound for 14 minutes on stem cell research (!), and “Disappear” sticking to one tone.

The real treat, though, is the title track, a triumph of sustained musicianship that rivals anything that came out during prog’s heyday. Subdivided into eight (not six, for some reason) parts, “Six Degrees” tells the interconnected story of a sextet of mental patients and their various methods of coping. The sweeping overture sets the tone – the music throughout veers from manic to depressive, symbolizing the “inner turbulence” of the title. The lyrics are typically banal – there’s a moment halfway through where singer James LaBrie has to softly croon the line “Those bastard doctors are gonna pay” over sparse, lilting accompaniment – but who cares about them anyway? As any connoisseur of prog can tell you, the words are not the important thing.

The important thing is the mind-expanding journey “Six Degrees” takes you on. Rudess has fully integrated himself with the group now, sharing the melodic weight with LaBrie and guitarist James Petrucci, and their interplay is a wonder to behold. “Six Degrees” never stops moving and changing, melodies and tones shifting into one another at superhuman speed. There’s barely a breath between the full-on assault of “The Test that Stumped Them All” and the sweet ambience of “Goodnight Kiss,” which in turn morphs into the acoustic pop of “Solitary Shell.” The whole thing builds to a grand finale, fittingly enough called “Grand Finale,” that ends with (what else?) the crash of a gong, fulfilling the final requirement for a classic prog epic.

The simple, brutal truth might just be that prog as a movement has died because there just aren’t many musicians these days that can pull it off. This is demanding, technical music that requires mastery of your own instrument and near-telepathy with your bandmates. Even Tool, much praised for those very qualities, can’t touch Dream Theater. Entertainment Weekly, in their favorable review of Six Degrees, praised the band’s cultural chutzpah for ignoring every musical style invented since 1976. While that’s not entirely true, Six Degrees does indeed, for 96 minutes, recall a time when aspiring to this level of musicianship and skill was considered cool.

Hopefully Wednesday I’ll check in with the Chemical Brothers.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Napster Rant
Don't Blame Me, I Was Sick

I saw a guy pissing into his car this week.

Now, I know I must be wrong about this. Who would piss into his own car? No one. But I swear to you, this guy was pulled over to the side of the road, standing in his own car doorway and urinating. That sort of added a surreal tint to my day.

Hello, everyone. I’m sick as the proverbial dog this week (an expression I’ve never understood – dogs have always struck me a perennially healthy creatures) and so my scattered ramblings might be a bit more scattered and rambling than usual. I’m just trying to keep my eyes open. There are a few things, in lieu of any actual new recordings to review, that I wanted to discuss, though, and they primarily deal with the vast musical resource that is the internet.

It’s taken me a while to formulate my feelings on Napster, and I don’t think I’m done yet. Napster is evil, but it’s just so damn cool. I think I’ve decided to use it every once in a while and then feel bad about it, sort of like prearranged guilt. One rationale that I’ve come up with for myself is that I now live in a part of the country where big hats, boots and songs about your truck are prerequisites for being played on the radio. It’s all country, all the time, which makes it harder to hear certain new releases without downloading them.

Take the new Dave Matthews Band song, “I Did It.” God forbid any radio station down here play this tidbit, the first single from their new album Everyday, to be released February 27. In order for me to hear it at all, I had to utilize Napster, but it’s okay because the band themselves authorized its presence there. There’s an enthusiastic announcement right on the title page of the site. And so, feeling justified, I took the 20-some minutes to download, and pressed play.

Right away, the song sounds unlike any DMB tune before it. The guitars are big, loud and electric, and the groove is fairly monstrous. It’s too bad the band was counting on the groove to carry the whole song. It doesn’t really go much of anywhere, and its slick sound makes me kind of leery of the new album. (Oh, and Boyd Tinsley raps…) In a way, though, the fact that I’m disappointed with it brings out what I like about Napster, especially when it comes to the big name groups. If you’re a major label act, your song will show up here. There’s no getting around it. That puts the onus on the band to sell their own product. If your song sucks, and it ends up on Napster a few weeks prior to your album’s release, your sales will most likely take a hit.

If, on the other hand, your song is good, hopefully it will help your album’s bottom line to have the single readily available to everyone. A case in point here might be Semisonic, whose sweet second album Feeling Strangely Fine brought them a whole new audience. They’re returning on March 6 with a new album called All About Chemistry, and the single is waiting for you to point and click. I dug this song, mostly because it didn’t try to do anything different. It’s a bouncy pop number that sounds just like most of Feeling Strangely Fine. Which is, strangely, fine.

Singles are one thing, but my personal Temptation Island is the complete album available for download. I have a CD burner, you see, so I can, theoretically, press my own copy of said album and never buy it. I know, deep down, that this would be wrong, but lo and behold, the complete new Radiohead release, Amnesiac, is just sitting there waiting for me. All of it. After the disaster that was Kid A, I’m a bit wary of tossing more money away to purchase something that may be awful. So far, I’ve resisted the temptation, but should I break down, I’ll let you know.

I’m actually going to cut this short this week to let Nick Allanach start downloading, but there is one other thing I wanted to mention. I found out this week, via the ‘net, that dada broke up. They were a great band with an inconsistent catalog, and if you know them at all it’s probably for their 1992 novelty single “Dizz Knee Land.” You can, of course, download dada tunes, and I recommend anything from their first and third albums (Puzzle and El Subliminoso), especially “Dorina,” “Posters” and “No One.” Then, after you fall in love with what you hear, go buy the albums, of course.

And that’s it. I’m going back to bed, to quote Pete Abrams.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hip Hop Nation
Four New Rap Albums Bring the Diversity

Still no computer, and people just keep dying.

Lately it seems that the universe is trying to remind me that, should I live the normal, expected course of my life, I’ll probably survive long enough to see every artist I admire die. For starters, I know Woody Allen is pretty high up on the list of expected expirations, and so I go see every Allen movie with the thought that it may be his last. Then there are those artists attempting lengthy works, like Dave Sim on Cerebus, which concludes its 300-issue run in March of 2004, unless some untimely death befalls him.

Neither of the most recent artists to shuffle off the mortal coil really affected me in any deep, genuine way, but their passing served to remind me that the same fate will eventually befall everyone I like, love, hate or ignore. I dunno, death has been on my mind lately, so here’s a cheery start to a late column: a pair of brief eulogies.

Ted Demme only made one movie I love, but I really love it. Beautiful Girls was released during the Miramax Renaissance that also gave us Pulp Fiction and Clerks, so I sort of ignored it in favor of the higher-profile stuff. Thank God for my friend Ray Tiberio, who nagged at me for years to see this film. It’s a delight, a sweet and funny examination of men and their tendency to idealize women. It also introduced me to the phrase “retard sandwiches,” which has crept into my vernacular like a tapeworm. Demme died of a heart attack (they think), and he was only 38. His most recent film, Blow, was one of his best as well.

The ’90s lounge culture owes everything to Juan Garcia Esquivel. He invented the very idea of space-age lounge music that groups like Combustible Edison went on to perfect. Like a lot of people, I first heard Esquivel’s work on the soundtrack to Four Rooms, and collected from there. Esquivel was in his 80s, and reportedly he died peacefully. Expect tribute albums to start coming out soon.

* * * * *

And now, your regularly scheduled silly music column.

Hip-hop really asserted itself as a musical force in the ’90s, gaining a voice, a language and a style all its own. Whatever you think of the musical merits of rap or the cultural necessity of its attendant style, you have to admit that it’s not going anywhere. Thankfully, the music has broken out of its origins and taken the basic concepts of beats and rhymes to new places over the last two decades.

The best analogy is the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, which all relied on the same chords and meters and a similar lyrical structure. Basically, it all sounded the same, much like early rap. Look at how far rock has come as a genre, and in fact as a series of subgenres, all of which have distinctive sounds. Rap made huge strides toward that kind of diversity throughout the ’90s. While the basic structure remains the same (beats and rhymes), an examination of four recent rap records should draw into focus just how imaginative the music has become.

The producer made himself felt throughout the ’90s as the backbone of rap. In its early days, the division of labor was equal between MCs (the rhymers) and DJs (the beat merchants). With the advent of studio technology, however, the producer can now craft oceans of sound around the MCs, changing the entire tone of their lyrics with a few well-placed tones. Repetition is the bread and butter of this music, but a good producer knows how to vary the sound without drawing the focus away from the rapper. In many ways, though the MC gets the most attention, rap as a musical entity now belongs to the knob-twiddlers in a way that very few other musics do.

Most rappers keep their options open by employing many producers for an album. Take Busta Rhymes, for example, whose fifth album, Genesis, utilizes 12 producers on various tracks. This is nothing new for Rhymes, who often puts his cartoony growl in the hands of inexperienced and often inept beatmeisters. His last album, Anarchy, ran about 80 minutes and felt cheaper than the cellophane it was packaged in. Genesis is a step up, but not a big one.

If you go by just his album titles and covers, Rhymes has been crafting a cycle about the end of civilization. You’d expect those apocalyptic overtones to carry over into the music, but you’d be wrong. Every Rhymes album is filled with the same empty hip-hop boasting that you can find on dozens of unimaginative recordings from the likes of Jay-Z, and it’s almost an impressive feat that not an ounce of cleverness sneaks in. Add to that the Casio-quality beats and synth tones he seems to think are propulsive, and you have very little to recommend his work beyond the voice of Rhymes himself.

And what a cool voice it is. He snarls, he growls, he spits and above all, he injects his pitiful productions with the bile and character of which they’re otherwise bereft. Most often, Rhymes can’t overcome the plastic cheapness of the music blipping behind him, but on a few tracks on Genesis, he does it. It’s just too bad that those standout tracks are buried under an avalanche of posturing and pre-’80s production values.

The funniest thing about Rhymes is the posture he’s adopted. It calls for unwavering belligerence and attitude, which often forces Rhymes to sound like he’s willfully ignoring the awfulness of the tracks he’s rapping over. It’s like he’s daring you to point them out. Hell, it makes me laugh.

While Busta Rhymes gets the magazine covers and the notoriety, many other rappers languish in relative obscurity, producing superior product. (Sound familiar?) Nas is one of those, although thanks to a public feud with Jay-Z, that obscurity is slowly going away. Nas’ first disc was called Illmatic, and was an examination of his life in Queensbridge, New York. Since then, he’s put out a series of better-than-average releases detailing his alter-ego’s rise in popularity and social conscience.

To cap all this off, Nas has returned to his old stomping grounds and made a fully New York album called Stillmatic. This is quite a decent disc, and a smart pullback from the drama of I Am and Nastradamus, his pair of 1999 albums. Even though he opens with “Ether,” the next salvo in the Jay-Z brouhaha, he sticks pretty close to home throughout, discussing childhood, his neighborhood and the state of the state of New York.

While I used to find sampling abhorrent, tantamount to pure thievery, I now see it for what it is: the technological next step in what artists have been doing all along. As Todd Rundgren once said, “Louie Louie” is “More Than a Feeling” is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” forever and ever amen. A rap producer sampling is akin to a jazz artist making an entirely new song out of a John Coltrane progression, for example.

I mention that because there are two well-used and recognizable samples on Stillmatic that work quite well. The first is from Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” better known as the theme to the Sopranos, on “Got Ur Self A…,” a propulsive tale of inner city violence. Another great theme song (for Dennis Miller Live), Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” is put to good use on “Rule.” Musically, Stillmatic is a winner, re-infusing the stylistic life that seemed to bleed out of Nastradamus.

Lyrically, Nas has come home, and though his concerns remain the same, they’re couched in smaller and more intimate settings. It’s like he went out to see the world and brought back those experiences to his old neighborhood, which in a nutshell is Stillmatic‘s message. It unifies his catalog in a way that Busta Rhymes’ depictions of apocalypse never could.

Even though his album sounds like a whole work, he employs the same number of disparate producers as Rhymes. There are some hip-hop acts who see this as heresy, however, preferring to stick to one producer and one sound. The most obvious example is the Wu-Tang Clan, brainchild of the RZA, one of the most gifted producers in rap. Despite his clan’s strength-in-numbers credo and artful boasting, RZA’s work possesses a hushed intimacy that some mistake for laziness. In truth, his productions are finely crafted works of minimalism that strike just the right off-kilter notes.

No rap outfit makes records quite like Wu-Tang, and they’ve made another good one with Iron Flag, their fourth. The quality has dropped slightly from last year’s wonder, The W, but not significantly. If anything, Iron Flag is fuller and more beat-oriented, which ought to please some of the group’s critics. In polishing some of the rough edges, though, RZA has lowered the quirkiness quotient that has marked Wu-Tang’s finest efforts.

Still, though, Iron Flag holds up. I don’t know where RZA finds some of his samples, but in some cases he sounds like he’s raiding Fatboy Slim’s record collection. He’s one of the few producers that can integrate several samples into fresh new wholes. He even makes interesting use of “Jingle Bells” (really) on the album closer, “Dashing (Reasons).”

For all his sonic splash, Iron Flag ends up being about not much of anything, unfortunately. Even a first-verse mention of the World Trade Center in the amazing “Rules” peters out into a standard hip-hop throwdown. How many more rap songs do we need titled “Y’all Been Warned”? If you look past the sometimes clever, often useless rhymes of his cohorts, though, Iron Flag stands as another decent disc from a great producer. Hopefully next time, he’ll deliver something as haunting and memorable as The W.

While it’s true that no one’s making records quite like the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s also true that no one will ever make hip-hop albums like the first three De La Soul discs. Under the guidance of producer Prince Paul, De La made a slapdash trilogy that stands as the quirkiest and most original run in the music’s short history. The high point, 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, is the most successful melding of jazz and rap ever made, and listening to it, you just know that they will never make another one like it.

De La have definitely moved on from there, but after severing ties to Prince Paul, they unfortunately settled into a fairly typical groove. Last year they announced their intention to release a triple album called Art Official Intelligence in three installments, a truly ambitious undertaking. Sadly, they began with Mosaic Thump, the saddest, most boring album the trio has ever produced. It was crowded with guest stars, honed to a showroom sheen and indistinguishable from the hordes of MTV-ready crap clogging the airwaves.

But wait, all is forgiven. The second installment of AOI, called Bionix, is quite simply De La Soul’s first great album since the original trilogy. It’s a laid-back, quirk-filled affair that doesn’t quite ascend the heights of their heyday, but at least makes the attempt. Tracks like “Simply,” “Watch Out” and “Am I Worth You” announce themselves quietly and effectively. Produced almost entirely by De La and Dave West, Bionix holds together as an album instead of a collection of disconnected songs like Mosaic Thump.

De La brings their quirky social conscience back to the fore on this one, as well. “Baby Phat,” the swell first single, is a diatribe against the pop culture image of beauty that manages to be uplifting without being mawkish. The same trick is pulled off on “Trying People,” which features the first effective use of a children’s chorus I’ve ever heard. Best of all, however, is the epic “Held Down,” which is sent into the stratosphere by an ethereal gospel choir. That song is worth the whole disc by itself. De La seems poised to reclaim their former glory, and if installment three of AOI is as good as installment two, they just might do it.

Rap as a genre makes room for all of these different styles, and many more. There’s the live instrumentation of the Roots, the clear social unrest of Dead Prez, the mish-mash melding of Black Eyed Peas, and the spiritual yearning of P.M. Dawn. We’re right now in the early ’70s of rap’s evolution, when the innovations have been laid out for anyone to grab hold of and ride. If commercialization didn’t ruin rock, then it won’t ruin rap. Like any other form of music, the good stuff is out there.

Next week, new stuff. The week after that, Dream Theater makes an early bid for the Top 10 list.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Grammys Suck
But This Year They Suck Less

I take it all back.

Really. Every word. I take it back. Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP is in no way the best record of the year, and I’ll deny ever saying that, even under oath. He’s not perpetrating a grand act of satire, he’s just a mildly retarded white boy who curses a lot and gets off on shock value. He has to be crap, you see, because he’s the odds-on favorite to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and there’s just no way that any singular talent or new voice would ever be recognized with that prize.

Of all the possible ramifications I’d imagined when I named The Marshall Mathers LP the best of 2000 (including but not limited to several of my long-time friends never speaking to me again), I never thought I’d be faced with agreeing with the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. But there it is, under Album of the Year, and it’s up against some pretty creaky competition.

Beck’s Midnite Vultures? Despite being released in 1999 (a common problem caused by the Academy’s weird eligibility window of September to September), it’s more of a retro funk party than a serious statement, and even his fans consider it a minor achievement. Paul Simon’s You’re the One? Great album, and my second favorite on this list, but second doesn’t cover it. In fact, Academy members are more likely to give the top prize to his 1986 album Graceland. Again. For the third time. Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature? Um, what? Honor two has-beens for sounding like they always have? Pass. That leaves Radiohead’s Kid A, which I think is only on this list because Academy voters look at the Emperor’s naked ass and see Armani.

Poll after poll insists that Marshall Mathers is going to walk away with it, a possible decision that I would, again, blame on the overall lousiness of the year. Plus, the Academy’s gotta be smarting from constant remarks about how out of touch their choices are. Voting Eminem would be a way to seem ahead of the curve, when in actuality it’s only because of the album’s alarmingly high sales figures that most of the Academy knows who he is at all.

In fact, the same can be said of most of this year’s nominees, a list that, for once, is surprisingly diverse. Oh, it’s still inept and just plain wrong in so many ways, but it’s quite a nice, broad selection this time. That U2 could get in for Record and Song of the Year and not Album is pretty mystifying, as is Macy Gray’s nomination for her song “I Try,” released in mid-1999. In all, though, I have very few complaints. Well, a few.

Staring with the compliments, though. It’s good to see Aimee Mann’s name on this list for Best Pop Female Performance. Who do you think she’ll lose to, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Macy Gray? Speaking of incongruity, dig these nominees for Best Male Rock Performance: David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Lenny Kravitz and… Nine Inch Nails? Huh? I dig the presence of De La Soul in the Best Rap Duo or Group category, though I don’t think Dr. Dre needs to be there twice. I also love that Billy Bragg and Wilco’s decent Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2 is nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

What I don’t dig are three strange choices, and I’ll leave it at these, because everyone knows these awards aren’t worth bitching about. Still, look at the nominees for Traditional Pop Album. I’m not even sure what this category means, but if the best we can offer up is “standards” tortured by the likes of Bryan Ferry and George Michael, don’t you think it’s time to retire this one? Second, nominating Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Sound Collage for Best Alternative Album is just plain lazy. Yeah, he’s Paul McCartney, but anyone could stitch together traffic sounds for a half hour. There were other, better releases in the alternative (whatever that means) field.

Finally, I’d like to see the rules for Best New Artist. Every year they do something bizarre with this category. If it means the best artist to release his/her first album this year, then Papa Roach, Sisqo and Jill Scott certainly qualify. However, unless it means the best artist to change labels, make a shift in musical direction and garner the best reviews of her decade-long career, I just don’t see how Shelby Lynne belongs here. Just because you’ve never heard of it, that doesn’t mean it’s new. Got it?

Good. New subject.

I’ve got a list of releases for the next few months, and since we have no new music to talk about, I figured I’d just lay ‘em on ya. This is, of course, all information that anyone with net access can get pretty easily, but I’ve taken the time to lay it all out for you and send it right to your inbox. You’re welcome.

There’s three categories I’ve separated them into. The first is those with firm titles and release dates, and there are only nine of those through March. (Now, don’t cry, that just means that many projects just haven’t been announced yet.) Here they are:

Beck’s Perpendicular Crosstalk leads the pack on January 16. This is an album of B-sides and outtakes that’s only available, for the moment, on beck.com. When and if it’ll be released to record stores is anyone’s guess.

On January 30, we get the Orb’s new ambient work Cydonia, and Duncan Sheik’s long-awaited acoustic album Phantom Moon. (Let that Nick Drake influence just hang right out there, Duncan.) The following week, on February 6, we’ll get Tricky’s new EP, Mission Accomplished. After that, it’s a long wait until February 27, when Dave Matthews Band releases Everyday, the follow-up to Before These Crowded Streets, which almost won my Album of the Year in 1998.

March 6 is a good day. We’ll get Amy Ray’s solo album, Stag, as well as the new Kristen Hersh, called Sunny Border Blue, and the hopefully worthy new Semisonic, titled All About Chemistry. Finally, Sepultura, the world’s greatest metal band, returns with Nation on March 13.

The second category is filled with albums that will definitely come out sometime, but we only know the month they’re scheduled for. F’rinstance, Rufus Wainwright’s long (loooooong) awaited second album, Poses, is supposed to come out in February. Dig?

March should see new ones from Aerosmith, Orbital, Stabbing Westward and (get this) the reunited Van Halen, with David Lee Roth. (Jesus, guys, just give up.) April will usher in new ones from Tool and the Verve Pipe. Sometime within April or May, we should get the new R.E.M., Seal’s Togetherland, and the second half of Radiohead’s Kid A sessions, which is called Amnesiac, not, as widely rumored, Kid B. In May comes Bjork’s new full-lengther, Domestika, which I predict will have a lock on my Top 10 List, unless she somehow makes a false move, which she hasn’t yet. And finally, slated for a June release is (yeah, right) the new one from (tee-hee) Guns N’ Roses, called Chinese Democracy. We’ll just see about that one.

The last category is all rumor, although the rumors are probably largely true. These releases may come out, and they may not, but look for them during 2001 just the same: The Chemical Brothers’ Chemical 4, Perry Farrell’s The Diamond Jubilee, Peter Gabriel’s where-the-hell-is-this-album-that’s-been-done-for-two-years release Up, a new Alanis Morissette, a new Liz Phair (hurrah!), P.M. Dawn’s crudely (for them) titled Fucked Music, Prodigy’s Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, Stone Temple Pilots’ double-disc LP, Travis’ follow-up Afterglow, a new Weezer and yet another Wu-Tang Clan album, called WW2.

There. Happy shopping. Next week, I have no clue what I’ll babble about.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Phil Keaggy Has Two New Albums
And You Still Don't Know Who He Is

So what does it mean when the guy who hired you says, “Keep in touch”?

I got one or two angry e-mails (okay, one) about not sending a column last week. You’d figure, what with the holidays and all, people would have more interesting and important things to think about than my silly opinion column, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I should have mentioned that I’d be taking the week off. In fact, you can count on my taking the week between Christmas and New Year’s off every year, and the week of my birthday (June 5) as well. Oh, don’t cry, that’s still 50 of these things per annum, and if that’s not enough of my blather for you, I’d like to ask you to marry me.

Christmas was okay, the traditional parental tug-of-war notwithstanding. My best gift was a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I loved ‘em when I was 11, and so far, I love ‘em now as well. (Thanks, G.P.) I also got to see a few people that I won’t get to be around until July, which was great. Of more general interest, I caught Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of my favorite films of the year. It has everything the American moviegoing public could possibly want, except the English language, and that’ll probably be its undoing. I hope the Academy is warming up that fifth Best Picture slot for it, though.

So, happy new year. I’m still playing catch-up on the Year that Was, but considering the flood of new stuff doesn’t pass beyond a trickle until March or so, I feel okay with that. I have two new albums this time, and with them, I hope to plead the case of one of America’s greatest undiscovered treasures.

I don’t recommend you actually try this, but if you walk down any random street (even Beale Street) and find 10 random people and ask them to name some great guitarists, and you do that 10 times, I’d wager my sister’s life that none of the resulting 100 will come up with Phil Keaggy. Those that do know him, mostly in guitar player circles, consider him one of the best to ever hold the instrument. His career spans more than 30 years, and his two new releases are his 24th and 25th. So how come you’ve never heard of him?

Beats the hell out of me.

I’ve been a Keaggy booster since 1991, more than 20 years into his career, when I picked up the stunning acoustic instrumental album Beyond Nature. I wish I could go back and hear him play an acoustic for the first time again, ‘cause it felt like magic. There’s a certain miniscule school of players who can make full use of the 12-string guitar, and Keaggy numbers among them. The fact that he also composes intricate and yet hummable pieces for that instrument and then casts them in lights that even non-guitarists (like me) can fall in love with is a terrific gift.

If acoustic instrumentals were all Keaggy could do, that might still be enough, but his career has been amazingly varied. He’s done beautiful folk (Way Back Home, 1986), Beatlesque pop (Sunday’s Child, 1988), thundering blues (Crimson and Blue, 1992), electric instrumentals that would make Satriani weep (220, 1995) and full concerto music (Majesty and Wonder, 1998). After his unfortunately failed attempt at mainstream success (Phil Keaggy, 1997), Keaggy’s been concentrating on strange and beautiful concept projects. 1998’s Acoustic Sketches gave us a view of his process, and that same year he released On the Fly, perhaps his most complex instrumental piece. In 1999, he concentrated his efforts on Music to Paint By, a four-CD set of glorious moods and colors.

His pair of new discs follows that same experimental vein, which is pretty astonishing, actually. How many 50-something artists do you know who continually push at the accepted boundaries of their careers? Neither of these two discs are like anything Keaggy’s released before, and that alone gets him high marks.

The first is Keaggy’s first vocal project since his self-titled release. Originally conceived as a 22-track, two-CD set, Inseparable has been released by Word Artisan Records as a 15-track single disc. (The full album is available at philkeaggy.com.) Except for some drums on two tracks and a smattering of backing vocals, Inseparable was performed entirely by Keaggy. A lot of it is an experiment in electronic percussion and synth beds, choosing mood over structure, but thankfully never to the extent of Kid A. The first few tracks seem to meander, and it’s not until the title song that a real indelible melody sets in.

Inseparable, in fact, takes a few listens to really appreciate. It’s a long album (73 minutes) and its uneven nature makes it almost impenetrable. Still, there are gems to reward those who stick with it, especially “Contemplate the Moon” and “The Seeing Eye.” Plus, crammed amidst the instrumental interludes, reggae experiments and moody techno is an obscure Paul McCartney cover (“Motor of Love,” from his 1987 album Flowers in the Dirt).

I’ve glanced at the track listing for the 22-song version, and oddly enough, it might flow a little better than the single disc does. That’s not to say that those folks hunting down the 15-song version won’t be rewarded, though. Inseparable is an overlong, messy collection, true enough, but it sparkles with innovation and, of course, great guitar playing. Keaggy stretches his voice here like he never has before, and matches it with bizarre instrumentation the likes of which have never been heard on one of his records. Still, it’s so uneven that if it were his only new release of the year, I’d wonder why it took him so long.

Ah, but Lights of Madrid is the real keeper here. An instrumental cornucopia that was once called A Touch of Spain, this album finds Keaggy back on the acoustic and in wonderful Latin mode. This isn’t just some dabblings with rhythm and flamenco flourishes, though. It’s a fully formed work that just happens to bounce to a Spanish beat more often than not.

Every Spanish guitar cliche you can think of is explored in the title track, which leads off the album, and then they’re all thrown out as Keaggy demonstrates that no genre is foreign to him. When backed by percussion sections and violins, Keaggy’s compositions spring to rhythmic life, but it’s when he’s playing solo (or accompanied by another guitarist, as on “Corazon de Fuego”) that you can hear just how good this guy is. It’s a further testament that he makes a style in which he’s never recorded seem effortless for him.

There’s a version of “Praise Dance” (electrified on On the Fly) here, as well as one lone cover – the minute-long “Canarios” by Gasper Sanz. The whole thing reaches an electrifying climax with a 10-minute overture for guitar and orchestra that he’s cleverly titled “Overture for Guitar and Orchestra.” Lights of Madrid, despite its radical departure in tone and style for the guitarist, is Phil Keaggy’s most complete instrumental project since Beyond Nature. If you like the guitar at all, get them both. As for Inseparable, you might want to try some older works first, but it ain’t half bad.

Phil Keaggy’s never going to get in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (that takes fame first), and MTV is never going to put his middle-aged face in your living room. However, if you’re interested in a great musician with a towering catalog, I encourage you to hunt his stuff down. Incidentally, if you hadn’t gathered this already, he records at a prodigious rate – his third album of 2000, Uncle Duke, is now out as well. Keep ‘em coming, I say.

Next, well, who can tell. Hope I have a steady paycheck by then…

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The 2000 Top 10 List
And Why I Hate Myself For It

So Kramer was describing Newman on Seinfeld the other night, and he used a phrase that I think I want on my tombstone: “Portly, yes, but smart as a whip.”

As promised, this column contains my Top 10 List for the year 2000. I originally said I wasn’t going to do one, and even as I type these words I’m reconsidering, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. First, though, I’d like to point out that even though my readership has dropped by 95 percent or so, I still take this list very (almost painfully) seriously. I agonized over these choices, this year more than any in recent memory, not because I think people take my little opinion seriously, but because I love these lists. I love rankings and orders and pitting one artist’s merits against another’s. Believe me, I’d do the Top 10 List every year even if no one paid any attention to it. (In fact, I did it for many years before anyone paid any attention to it.)

There are rules, of course, and this year those rules kept out a few albums that should be here. The regulations are:

1) Only new studio albums are eligible. Cover albums, live albums and best-of packages need not apply. This first rule kept out Rage Against the Machine’s stunning Renegades, which would have been high on the list if not for the fact that it’s entirely cover songs. That album is still highly recommended.

2) Only discs that are widely available in the U.S. are eligible. If you can’t get it, there’s no point in my recommending it. I have, in the past, made exceptions to this rule for local artists, but they were extreme cases, and in both instances (Cerberus Shoal’s Homb and Say Zuzu’s Bull), not including them would have been a crime. Plus, my entire readership at that time could walk to the local CD store and get both discs.

3) While I can’t hear everything, I’ll at least try. That’s my own personal rule, just for me. I’m always disappointed by the Grammy Awards because the Academy doesn’t seem to keep track of the best music in a given year. It’s not that hard, honestly, and if I were a paid member of the Academy, I’d think I would try a bit more than those folks do.

Two albums caused me a great deal of consternation over their inclusion this year. The first is, reluctantly, not on the list. I chose not to include Peter Gabriel’s OVO, quite simply the best non-soundtrack work he’s done in 18 years, because it’s not available in the U.S. It’s only been released in Europe, and I got mine through a stroke of dumb luck. Plans for a U.S. release have, at this writing, been put on hold, which is a shame. The album is a great piece of work, thematically and musically, and it’s worth the import price to hear it. Should it be released stateside, it’ll get a proper review here, and will most likely end up on that year’s list. Until then, I can’t include it.

The other troubling disc sits at Number One, a decision that has found me arguing with myself, out loud, for a few weeks. I’m most likely going to eat up a ton of column inches discussing and defending its inclusion and placement, so I’d like to save it for the end and get to the honorable mentions first. There are, in fact, five of them, which surprised me quite a bit, considering how bad the year was.

And I’ll touch on this later, I’m sure, but the list you’re about to read only exists because 2000 was so awful. In no case here (except for Number One) is the album represented on this list the artist’s best work. The top five on this year’s list feel like the honorable mentions in years past. You’ll find nothing as striking as Radiohead’s OK Computer (and if I had a category for Biggest Disappointment, their follow-up, Kid A, would be a shoo-in), or Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, or even previous entries from some of the names on the list. It’s with that disheartening grading curve that this year’s top pick ascended the heap. It was the best partly because everything else was so lousy. In fact, you might say that the Top 10 and the honorable mentions comprise the only 15 discs really worth listening to in the last 12 months. It’s sad.

Honorable mentions for 2000:

Hip-hop emerged as the biggest musical force of the year, accounting for five of the 15, a full third of the list. Both Wu-Tang Clan’s The W and OutKast’s Stankonia came really close to the list, and both are pretty cool. Wu-Tang’s third is shorter, spookier and more artfully crafted than their double-disc from 1998, Wu-Tang Forever, and OutKast’s fourth is an out-and-out booty shaker, sort of like a long-lost P-Funk album.

I reluctantly bumped Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor from my list, but that’s not because it wasn’t good enough. Unfortunately, this haunting, surprising effort never saw a wide release. It’s only available through his website, kipwinger.com. I finally realized that if I had to reject Gabriel, I had to reject Winger as well, even though putting his name on the list would have been a thrill. Winger has made a remarkable transformation over three solo albums from ‘80s hair band frontman to serious, talented singer/songwriter. His stuff is also worth hunting down.

Michael Penn made a decent album early in the year with MP4, and while it’s not his best work, it’s still downright sparkly. Rounding out the honorables is Travis, whose lovely The Man Who made its sad, sweet mark this year. Call it Number 11, and again a special thanks to Joel for getting me into them.

God, look at how I’ve run on. It’s neat to have no space restrictions.

Here’s the list:

#10. Deltron 3030.

The most sonically original hip-hop album of the year, bar none. It’s a collaboration between Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, with of course a cast of thousands. It sends its layered beats and rhymes into the future and enacts a sci-fi world of wonders. After hearing this, you won’t chuckle at the term “progressive hip-hop.” It’s a neat trip. (Special thanks to Chad Verrill, without whom I might not have tried this disc.)

#9. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo.

As she has her whole solo career, Mann clocks ahead of her husband Michael Penn with this long-awaited slab of bitterness wrapped in sweet melodies. Every song reminds Mann’s admirers (which I count myself among) why they waited so long, and the album as a whole may be the most vitriolic letter ever written from an artist to her record company. It’s also melodically beautiful, and while it’s nowhere near the heights she ascended with 1993’s Whatever, it’s still a soft caress with a venomous bite beneath its surface.

#8. Paul Simon, You’re the One.

After his disastrous Broadway experiment The Capeman (the soundtrack of which made this list two years ago), Simon hunkered down and produced this little record of smaller tunes that’s as heartbreakingly elegant as The Capeman was dramatic. These songs are about growing old and looking back upon life, and it may be the most upbeat mid-life crisis ever committed to tape. The songs are also about playing the guitar, and it’s the lovely and understated work in this area that really makes the album stand out. It’s a testament to Simon’s skill that an album that followed his greatest failure doesn’t come off as a defiant pout or a groveling apology. It’s just a simple record of great songs.

#7. Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free.

I seem to owe thanks in spades this time, so a quick acknowledgement here goes to Mike Moore and Josh Douglas, who ganged up on me and made me listen to this. I stated earlier that only one artist placed his/her best work on this list. This one doesn’t apply, since Let’s Get Free is Dead Prez’ debut. And what a debut it is. This might be the finest political hip-hop album since Fear of a Black Planet. It’s single-minded in purpose, tone and style, and it retains that hit-with-a-battering-ram effect that the best of Public Enemy’s work engendered. Hopefully, this is just the opening salvo in a long, focused career.

#6. Elliott Smith, Figure 8.

Smith’s follow-up to his dazzling Dreamworks debut, XO, isn’t as immediately brilliant. In fact, it takes a few listens to sink in. That’s odd, though, because Smith hasn’t really changed a thing here – he’s just gone a bit bigger. Figure 8 gives Smith the biggest budget he’s ever worked with, and he spins a web of sound that sometimes hides, sometimes accentuates how angry and bitter he is. Smith’s greatest gift is as a melodicist, sending his tunes everywhere but where you’d expect them to go. By the third listen, though, they sound exactly right.

#5. Morphine, The Night.

It’s a shame that Morphine’s final album was so transitional. The late Mark Sandman was obviously bringing the group’s sound someplace new, and The Night was the first step there. It’s still a decent piece of work, layering in more sonic flourishes than any other in their catalog. The experiments here tend toward the spooky side, but then, Morphine always dwelled in the seedier areas of traditional rock. It was great while it lasted, and The Night is a fine farewell from a band that will be truly missed.

#4. U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

There’s no mistaking the sound of a re-energized U2. Their first truly grand album since 1988’s Rattle and Hum (okay, Achtung Baby was pretty good, too) is a sustained skyward shout, the exhilarating sound of a great band rediscovering what made them so great. The Edge plays his little heart out, and Bono, God bless him, takes his aged, cracking voice and really sings for the first time in far too long. There’s no weak link here – the band even sells the occasional trite lyric with conviction and fire. Welcome back, boys.

#3. The Cure, Bloodflowers.

If Robert Smith plays guitar on Bloodflowers like he might never play again, well, that might be the case. Smith has proclaimed this album the band’s last, and it completes a trilogy begun with 1984’s Pornography and continued with 1989’s Disintegration. The trilogy stands as the best work of the Cure’s career, three benchmarks capped off with this year’s ode to resignation and release. The songs are cathartic, powerful and sad, and yes, Smith plays and sings like he might never get the chance again. What better way to end than with a great album all about endings.

#2. Bjork, Selmasongs.

Bjork may just be the most innovative performer around, a title she more than earns on this tiny album of songs from Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, in which the elfin songstress stars. These seven pieces take the technorchestral elements from her last album, Homogenic, to the next level. Sweeping orchestrations rest atop bizarre, atonal electronic beds, and yet somehow the disparate elements result in letter-perfect pop songs. While this EP is maddeningly short (27 minutes), Bjork’s perfecting a style here, a style no one else is even trying. When she comes back with her fourth full-length project next year, it’ll no doubt be stunning. For now, this is an excellent little morsel.

And that brings us to Number One. I’m sure you guessed it by now:

#1. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP.

It’s true. There wasn’t anything released this year that topped Marshall Mathers in conception and execution. From first beat to last, it’s a perfect pop album, social satire and grand experiment. In a year weighed down by ballast, no one tried to do more with music than Marshall Mathers.

And I pretty much hate myself for saying so.

I’m heartened by the fact that other critics (especially Larry Katz from the Boston Herald) had similar thoughts this year. Katz wrote a lengthy explanation of his decision not to include Mathers on his list, even though it was the best record of 2000. Doing so, he said, would be an endorsement of the artist’s viewpoint, and since this artist’s viewpoint includes violent death, rampant homophobia and raping his own mother, I can see his point. I just happen to disagree with it.

Eminem’s conducting a social experiment in fame, free speech and this country’s misplaced role models. His alter ego, Slim Shady, is a pathological liar, a sublime parody of the modern gangsta rapper. With Shady, Eminem captures the fascination that modern white youth have with black culture and lampoons it. He’s “suburban white rage” personified, if there is such a thing, telling increasingly taller tales of his gang-banging exploits. He’s like a mirror held up to the “keep it real” Comptonites of gangsta, saying, “Yeah, my stories aren’t real, but if you buy theirs, why not mine?”

The superb irony of The Marshall Mathers LP is that people did buy his stories. His debut, The Slim Shady LP, sold through the roof, and people began to dress like him, talk like him and act like him. In a bold master stroke, Mathers used his second album to explain the joke while perpetuating it. He knows his place in the culture. He knows his influence. There’s no denying responsibility for his actions this time, and yet Mathers goes even further than its predecessor.

If you can think of a single more haunting musical moment this year than “Stan,” the story of an extreme Slim Shady fan, I’d like to hear it. In five minutes, Eminem delivers a stunning thesis on a culture that worships pop stars, and the perils of taking that too far. It’s a cautionary tale, and one with real bite. Counterpointing that on the album is “Kim,” a vicious, brutal, explicit drama in which Mathers kills his girlfriend. It’s bone-numbing in its directness and unbridled rage.

If that were all Mathers had going for him, his album might be a footnote, but he also strings together the most irresistible pop hooks on any album this year, and his skill as a rapper is currently untouchable. His internal rhyming structure sometimes approaches the mad genius level. His biggest asset is his ability to change his voice, often mid-word, into an entirely different animal. His three personalities (Mathers, Shady and Eminem) all have distinct voices, and demand different interpretations of the words they’re spewing. If you take “Kill You” seriously, for instance, you’re a lunatic, but you should believe every word in “The Way I Am.” Or should you? Like Edgar Allen Poe’s unreliable narrators, the threesome dart back and forth across this record, contradicting each other over and over. In the end, though, the master has complete control, and he does what any good rapper should do – he takes your hand and navigates you through the music with his words. In this case, though, you might want to pay attention to whose hand you’re holding, and which grin he’s wearing.

Yes, many of his sentiments are indefensible. In the same vein, putting him atop a list of the year’s best may seem equally indefensible. Here’s my standard analogy: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is widely considered one of the greatest achievements in early filmmaking. He pioneered techniques that are still used today. It’s largely considered the best film of 1915. It’s also filled with abhorrent images and pungent racism, telling in graphic and jingoistic detail of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t what he said, it was the dramatic new ways he found of saying it.

The Marshall Mathers LP fits the same mold. No one has this effectively satirized the culture they’re contributing to, ever. Eminem’s techniques are all new. The Marshall Mathers LP will be remembered most not for what it said, although that will probably be remembered as well, but for the jaw-dropping ways it said it. With great reluctance, I must call it what it is: the best album of the year. Nothing else was scary enough to best it.

If you have any thoughts on this (and where Eminem’s concerned, almost everyone has an opinion), I’d like to hear them. Write me – sourcil74@hotmail.com. Also, in keeping with tradition, I’d love to see your Top 10 Lists, if you have them.

Next time, whatever I get for Christmas. Have a merry.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.

Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades
Leading the Zeitgeist By the Nose

I’m pissed.

Angry. Frustrated. Spitting venom.

I’m in job limbo right now because the people who have ALREADY HIRED ME won’t return my calls. I reported for my first day on the job and was told to go home and wait for my editor/boss to call me. That was yesterday. I’ve left two messages that haven’t been followed up on, and I’m not even sure I want to work for these people any more.

On top of all that, Bush is president.

I am, you might say, enraged.

Which puts me in an excellent frame of mind to review the latest (and probably last) Rage Against the Machine album, Renegades.

I’m never angrier than when I’m angry at myself, especially when I’ve misjudged something, and here comes another old wound. In 1997 I lambasted Rage’s second album, Evil Empire, and went so far as to call their political stance “bullshit to make them seem relevant.” What can I say now but, oops? Rage have had the last laugh on me by remaining one of the most staunchly political bands this side of Midnight Oil, taking on cause after cause and staging some of the most effective protests in recent years. Band members have been jailed and beaten for their political ideas. They’re the real deal, and I can’t apologize enough for my rashness.

Another thing I responded to harshly was the band’s musical style, calling loud rap-rock their “one trick” and wishing for a Rage album full of acoustic guitars and flowers. What the fuck was wrong with me? Admittedly, this was when I still hadn’t developed a sense of hip-hop as a genre all its own, with a unique language both verbal and sonic that influenced other performers. I was into certain rap artists, Public Enemy chief among them, but I didn’t imagine beats and rhymes as a style others might try to emulate, especially if those others could play instruments.

Rage Against the Machine was several years ahead of me, and of the cultural curve. They took the basic elements of hip-hop and translated them to the Led Zeppelin lineup of guitar-bass-drums-vocals. They proudly proclaimed on each of their records that all sounds therein were made with those instruments, because at times it was difficult to believe it. Guitarist Tom Morello and bassist Brad Wilk were just as diverse in their sonic palette as the best DJs working in hip-hop, layering their songs with scratches, swoops, whistles and deep, heavy grooves.

Their best album, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles, changed my mind, but the sound had been there all along. I had just been too myopic to hear it. Behind Zach de la Rocha’s blistering vocals were one of the tightest and most original rock outfits of the time. They channeled the energy of one of rap’s true masterpieces, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and fueled it with the full-on power of 30 years of thundering rock bands. Rage were a true zeitgeist band. They grabbed hold of the musical climate they saw around them and forced it to change direction, and at the same time reflected our constantly merging culture by bringing disparate musics (and their fans) together.

What’s that old saying about not knowing what you have?

Two bombs have dropped in the last 30 days. The first is that Zach de la Rocha has left Rage. Who knows if they’ll continue, but they probably shouldn’t continue as Rage Against the Machine. The second is the final album by the original lineup, Renegades. I mean “bomb” in the hip-hop sense, not the sales chart sense. You know, as in “Renegades is the bomb.” (Quoth the white guy, nevermore.)

Renegades is a covers album, and therefore ineligible for the Top 10 List, but it’d probably be there if not for my pesky rule. It tackles the question of covering hip-hop tracks without doing unintentional send-ups (or intentional ones, like Dynamite Hack’s “Boyz In the Hood”). Since the production of a rap track basically is the music, how does one cover it? Well, if you’re a true fan of the genre, you realize that the words are what’s important and you throw out the music entirely.

Rage has crafted, in essence, a cover album of originals by writing their own music to the words of their influences. In every case, they’ve claimed these songs as their own in ways that other bands who’ve attempted similar things have not. The whole album is one surprise after another, even in the band’s choices of source material, and it creates an exciting sort of suspense as you wonder at what they’ll do to the next song.

Rage’s influences are no mystery, so starting off this album with Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” and Volume 10’s “Pistol Grip Pump” seems almost mandatory. Both songs are injected with new grooves and new power. The surprises hit when they tackle MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” (in a slow, thunderous rendition) and Devo’s (!) “Beautiful World.” The latter track is stripped of its ironic brightness and performed sparsely, so that the true pain of the lyrics can be heard. One might argue that this robs the song of its subtle venom, and one would be right, but Rage Against the Machine have never even pretended to be subtle. This rendition suits them better.

Rage trots out their punk chops with Minor Threat’s great “In My Eyes” and the Stooges’ “Down On the Street,” but it’s in the album’s least likely second half that the group shines brightest. After an amazing take on Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (a definite highlight), Rage tackles Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Followers of the band have heard this version before. While the Boss’ original is spare and acoustic, Rage’s rewrite hits like an army of jackhammers.

The last two selections seem to define Rage Against the Machine. They pulverize the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” by emulating, down to the last perfectly placed element, a throbbing techno track. The sonic range here is jaw-dropping, and Mick’s lyrics have never had a better foundation. They close with a slow-motion powerhouse rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” that highlights the anger hidden in the original. On both of these tunes, Rage has knowingly connected the musical fabric of the last 30 years. In fact, all of Renegades accomplishes a similar feat. It pays respect to three decades of political songwriters and wraps them up in a sound that crosses genres. Like it or not, Rage Against the Machine is the sound of the now, like almost no other band. More than that, though, they’re the sound of the future, pushing relevant, powerful music to new places while making sure that the past is not forgotten.

Renegades is one of the best albums of the year, and if it turns out to be the last to bear the band’s name, it’s a hell of a way to go out.

Okay, one last piece of music news before I go. On March 6, Amy Ray will become the first Indigo Girl to release a solo album. You know what she called it?

Stag.

That’s just beautiful.

Next time, the Top 10 List. I have the feeling it’ll be twice this length.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles