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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2004

The sound of 2004

JT music scribes Philip Brasor, Micheal Pronko and Suzannah Tartan offer a selection of the year's best sounds

Rock and blues

Animal Collective, "Sung Tongs" (Fat Cat): An acoustic hootenany reinvented for the electronic era. Exhilarating, innocent of any apparent influence, and completely unlike anything else released this year (or maybe ever). (S.T.)

News photo

Bobby Bare Jr.'s Young Criminals Starvation League, "From the End of Your Leash" (Bloodshot Records): Another son of country royalty takes aim at the milieu that raised him, but with a more self-deprecating sense of humor and a surer grasp of the music that made the milieu in the first place. "Welcome to Music City" is the best song ever written about Nashville. (P.B.)

Ray Bonneville, "Roll it Down" (Red House Records): Bonneville's spare, lean guitar licks and rough-hewn voice are roots rock at its finest. This work strips his originals down to the basics, with juicy organ as the only embellishment. The catchy, down-to-earth guitar work sounds deceptively simple, but is as rare and refreshing as someone without a cell-phone in Shibuya. (M.P.)

Nora Jean Bruso, "Going Back to Mississippi" (Severn Records): Born near Clarksdale, Miss., Bruso moved to Chicago in the 1970s and has had a solid presence there since. "Blues great" will eventually be attached to Bruso's name, but for now, she's relatively unknown. When she sings, "I don't need no man, telling me what to do," you can be sure she means it. (M.P.)

Jon Dee Graham, "The Great Battle" (New West): Unpretentious roots rock with philosophical musings, Graham's tunes take simple metaphors and unfussy melodies, and spin them into rough-edged gold. Like meeting your best friend at a bar, this CD offers a warm, comfy atmosphere.(M.P.)

The Hives, "Tyrannosaurus Hives" (Interscope Records): Howlin' Pete Almqvist may not have anything new to add to the garage rock dialogue, but he sure has something to say, and he and his band of Swedish misfits say it with more variety and verve than any other guitar band. (P.B.)

Buddy Miller, "Universal House of Prayer" (New West): None of Miller's punchy, guitar-driven country rock CDs are as much as genuine cry from the heart as this one is. With titles like "There's a Higher Power" and "Fall on the Rock," Miller taps into the social polemics that gospel once provided in rural America, then revs up the amps, his guitar-playing ringing with a special anger and urgency. (M.P.)

Mission of Burma, "On Off On" (Matador/P-Vine): Reunion record by legendary post-punk group proves that middle-age guys can still make vital, inspired rock that, at times, transcends the genre. (S.T.)

Joanna Newsom, "The Milk-Eyed Mender" (Drag City): Quirky not by design but by temperament, which is why her poetry is so charming despite its surface opaqueness. Her little-girl voice and limpid harp-based melodies are completely transparent, however. You definitely take her or leave her, but once you take her you're hers. (P.B.)

Tony Joe White, "The Heroines" Sanctuary Records: Singer-songwriter White has been penning bittersweet lyrics and playing menacing swamp-blues guitar since the '60s, but his last few recordings simmer with heightened sensitivity and deeper earthiness. On this series of duets with Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, and Emmylou Harris, however, he comprises not a whit of his brooding sensuality and terse guitar work. Though, perhaps, he does add, in polite country fashion, just a dash of extra funkiness. (M.P.)

Jazz

Ben Allison, "Buzz" (Palmetto Records): Allison's "Medicine Wheel" brings together some of the best jazz musicians in New York for straight-ahead, satisfying jazz. These six musicians play together in a revolving collective dedicated to new music that reaches, rather than confronts, audiences. With pretty lyrical lines and strong soloing, "Buzz" is a fitting title. (M.P.)

Andy Bey, "American Song" (Savoy Jazz): Andy Bey has a stunning range, filled with warm inflection that makes these jazz standards come alive. With lovely, sparse arrangements and a superb small band, his readings of these lovely old ballads show how much depth they still contain. (M.P.)

Bill Bruford's Earthworks, "Random Acts of Happiness" (Summer): Though over-serious jazz fans might mistake Bruford's listenability for a lack of integrity, his music has a sincerity and intensity that more "serious" jazz groups often forget in their relentless pursuit of edginess. The quartet has a knack for continuously eloquent and engaging melodies. This former drummer for King Crimson has a broad visionary sense and tremendously accomplished musicianship. (M.P.)

Mark Murphy, "Bop for Miles" (High Note): Perhaps the hippest of jazz vocalists, Murphy is a jazz singer's singer. He's also a great listener and on this nearly lost European session in 1990, Murphy shows how much he has learned from other instruments. Murphy takes risks, but delivers nuanced phrasing and musical intonation on upbeat tunes Miles Davis made famous. (M.P.)

McCoy Tyner, "Illuminations" (Telarc): Forty years after Tyner burst onto the jazz scene in John Coltrane's band, he still keeps a raw flame burning. Of course, he now has a mellower side compared to that rough and tumble scene of hard-edged '60s jazz, but he knows the importance of surrounding himself with the best side-men around. He also reveals once again why he is one of the most influential, and intense, pianists of his generation. (M.P.)

World

Antibalas, "Who Is this America" (Ropeadope): The intense Afro-beat this band from Brooklyn lays down could easily be mistaken for that of its inspiration, Fela Kuti, the Nigerian originator. Antibalas, which means "anti-bullets," has its own new take on the rhythms, melodies and style, but they keep the same instrumentation (minimum 14 musicians at a time) and politics (angry and leftist). (M.P.)

Sekou Bembeya Diabate, "Guitar Fo" (Discorama): Diabate, the master of modern Guinean guitar and founder of the famed Bembaya Jazz, here wields all the magical influence he has had since the '70s. With a unique style of guitar blending elements of blues, swing jazz, Cuban and folk picking, Diabate's style is energetic, emotional and loads of fun. (M.P.)

Youssou N'Dour, "Egypt" (Nonesuch): In order to "praise the tolerance of my religion," Senegal's famous musical son explores his Muslim faith by wedding his West African melodic sense to the Sufi devotional music of the Middle East. Sublime and ecstatic. (P.B.)

Jorge Ben Jor, "Reactivus Amor Est" (Universal): Jorge Ben Jor needs no introduction to Brazilians, who know him as one of the elder statesmen of Brazilian rock. "Rock," though, implies an entirely different style from the funky, wild, and sexy approach of "Jorge." Though his lyrics (if you have a friend to translate them) are hilariously ironic and absurd, the infectious beats and catchy melodies appeal across a broad spectrum. (M.P.)

Mory Kante, "Sabou" (Riverboat Records): Kante's new release, "Sabou," returns to his roots, by replacing synthesizers and remixing with kora, flute, balafon and ethereal vocals. Like Youssou N'Dour's "Egypt," "Sabou," which means "the cause," returns to sincere musical values. Every song showcases not only Kante's soaring vocal art, but also his multi-instrumental skills. "Sabou" is an authentic homecoming and one of the best African releases of the year. (M.P.)

Caetano Veloso, "A Foreign Sound" (Nonesuch): The great Brazilian singer-songwriter redefines the Great American Songbook, which to his mind is inclusive not only of Gershwin and Berlin, but also Dylan, Arto Lindsay, Cobain, and Paul Anka .EE wait, he's Canadian. (P.B.)

Hip-hop/electronica

Automato, "Automato" (Coup De Grace): Slaves to a beat that's thick but nimble, these six nearly anonymous New Yorkers propose simplicity as the soul of great hip-hop Enot minimalism, but rather clarity of feeling and rhythmic purity. "I take my feet out of my socks and put a pebble inside/so even when I walk I got a rock in my stride." (P.B.)

Brooks, "Red Tape" (Soundslike): Disco a la Boy George meets decadence a la Marlene Dietrich in an emotionally wrought, beat-driven, meditation on coming out in rural Britain. (S.T.)

Cee-Lo "Cee-Lo Green .EE Is the Soul Machine" (Arista): Even when the former Goodie Mob member unleashes his inimitable rapid-fire raps, he does it in a musical way that makes everything gospel, though the aim here is classic soul. He manages to hit all the targets. (P.B.)

Hi Fana, "Fresh Push Breakin"' (Felicity): Electronica-cum-hip-hop unit skews and scatters beats with an inventiveness that verges on the giddy. (S.T.)

For other stories in our package on "The sound of 2004", please click the following links:

Camping out By Philip Brasor Bang a gong for . . . By Suzannah Tartan



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