By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Forest for the Trees, Forest for the Trees (Dreamworks/SKG). The year for this collection of polyglot influences--rap, Celtic bagpipes, and an entire globe's worth of flavors, studio wizardry, Eastern mysticism, and pure pop structure--will probably be 1998, but this densely packed album by the man behind the success of both Rap-A-Lot Records and Beck's "Loser" grabs the ear with such force that it bears mentioning now, if only so we get credit for noticing.
Retrograde, Friends of Dean Martinez (Sub Pop Records). This atmospheric album manages to cop the same kind of emotional theater that made Gene Pitney ("Town Without Pity") so popular in the '60s, then match it with a thoroughly modern--and no less lovely--sense of detachment.
Habana, Roy Hargrove's Crisol (Verve Records). Yes, yes, to hipsters the Afro-Cuban movement in jazz was over before Eartha Kitt was Catwoman, but anyone who's ever eaten anything out of an Easy Bake oven knows there's a world of difference between done and done well. This is the latter: sharp, direct, skillful, and passionate.
The Will to Live, Ben Harper (Virgin Records). Singers have long posed as pilgrims. Ben Harper swam below the surface of the blues for quite a while before he pulled himself into a new flow. Conscious hip-hop folk blues? Whatever it was, it came at just the right time to capitalize on hip-hop's trend toward melody, spiritualism, and traditional song structure. His blend of gospel, blues, beats, and samples forms the soundtrack to the spiritual searches in his lyrics, producing music that is not for the ears but the head and heart.
the neighborhood is changing, Tom House (Checkered Past Records). No drum machines, no samples, no loops, and no singing through a megaphone--the national debut by Nashville outsider Tom House is nothing but poetry and a direct songwriting style that's straight out of the Appalachians. With images considerably more immediate and real than anything rolling around Tim McGraw's head, House paints a picture of modern life intruding upon old patterns and produces what may be the best album of the year.
Most Things Haven't Worked Out, Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum/Capricorn Records). More polished--and palatable--than Fat Possum (and North Mississippi) stablemates R.L. Burnside or T-Model Ford, Kimbrough is nonetheless a chunk of the blues from much closer to the bone than most of our urban stylists. Still raw and rural, the mournful pride and dogged resilience that animate Kimbrough's music are undiluted and unbowed.
Poison Love, Buddy Miller; and Blue Pony, Julie Miller (both on Hightone Records). A husband-wife team who share a long association with Emmylou Harris (Buddy plays guitar with Harris' road band), the Millers' two 1997 albums were high watermarks in the burgeoning (commercially, at least) Americana movement. Writing and arrangements as sharp as the point of a brand-new icepick present stories of keen desire, dully throbbing pain, love won, and faith lost in hardscrabble accents--all cushioned by Buddy's bizarre palette of mando-guitar tones--kept these two releases particularly noteworthy.
Smoochy, Ryuichi Sakamoto (Milan Records). Although technically a 1996 release, we didn't listen to it until 1997; so there. Smart and sophisticated, this hard-to-place combination of techno, ambient, classical, and pop has an awareness of (and more importantly, respect and affection for) the past, along with an eye on the future and all the tools of the present. Seemingly familiar modalities drift by, changing before they can be identified, and songs shift implication in mid-argument. Alternating between taut and playful, Smoochy has one thing that most electronic music lacks: soul.
Transplanting, Elaine Summers (Loosegroove Records). Excellent step out front by the backup vocalist and acoustic guitarist from Pete Droge and the Sinners. Summers takes a real person's sense of life and imbues it with rock's sense of heroic theater, creating in this case the kind of intelligent bar-band populism that Sheryl Crow tries so hard to capture and usually misses. Her gift is rock and roll's rarest treat: great songs that you think are about you.
Wu-Tang Forever, Wu-Tang Clan (Loud Records). Loud, sprawling, self-indulgent, and real, this album probably could've been cut down to a single disc. After just one listen, however, you know that the Clan's answer to such a suggestion would be "Why the fuck would a black man in America want to edit himself?" Repeated listens only make an appropriate reply more difficult.
Appointment with His Majesty, Burning Spear (Heartbeat Records). Reggae brought up to date without any loss of authority.
Acoustic Stories, R.L. Burnside (M.C. Records). Although many know and love Burnside for the spastic primitivisms that he indulges in when electric (no doubt to impress booster Jon Spencer), this acoustic album avoids such window dressing (it also isn't on Fat Possum, a label that seems to encourage Burnside's wild side) in favor of spare, direct communication. Essential to fans of the man, important to lovers of the genre.
Live at the Cimarron Ballroom, Patsy Cline (MCA Records). This live album, recorded in 1961 after a frightening car wreck in which she was seriously injured, shows Cline at her most real--earthy, live, a bit uneven but still full of confidence and power as she rides Leon McAuliffe's crack eight-piece around this popular Tulsa ballroom. A seldom-heard aspect of a great singer.