Our experience of recorded music, pop or otherwise, seems to change as often as your computer's software upgrades.
Less than a decade ago we took our PCs and Macs and "burned" copies of our favorite compact discs, or made our own "hits" collections----you know, dropping the boring filler on an album and keeping the good stuff. While some of us were also discovering deliriously cheezy "MIDI" instrumental files and program "streams" (either locally or from stations as far away as wwoz.org in New Orleans and wfmu.org in East Orange, N.J.), upset members of Metallica hipped us to mp3s and file-sharing to a degree that made the recording industry's lame 1980s ad campaign "Cassette Taping Is Killing Music" look like a Smithsonian exhibit. Has anyone ever found out if Metallica owned any shares in mp3.com?
For over three decades, from about 1949 to the early 1980s, a "record" usually meant either long-playing vinyl albums or 7-inch 45 rpm discs. Even during vinyl's heyday there were competing media in the form of cassettes, eight-track tapes, four-track tapes, reel-to-reel tapes and some cute tiny things called "Playtapes." Now there's even a word for recordings you can't find a player for: "dead media."
Vinyl is far from dead. The vinyl discussion continues into the current century as certain hipsters-in-the-know prefer and love vinyl, either as the original relic to be discovered and cherished in attics, yard sales and thrift shops----or in some of the finest quality vinyl albums still in production on specialty and import labels. Club DJs still use vinyl ... and punk bands do, too. So, how about that 4-inch square CD of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band? What about your dad's or older brother's personal copy on vinyl? Which is cooler? And just how do you put your hands on a digital file?
I notice some of my peers in the music critic trade long for obvious trends, or shifts in taste, or artistic achievements like Nirvana's Nevermind or Michael Jackson's Thriller. It's nice to have something as subtle as a 2-by-4 to demonstrate an ability at pop punditry. If the 1960s media analyst Marshall McLuhan was correct in his summation that "the medium is the message," then we have a little crisis here in the form of consumer activity that is essentially unmonitored. CD sales can be tracked, but file downloads, discarded files and CD-Rs burning into the night make up an avalanche of unmeasurable tastes and desires. Who knows what is truly "popular" in music outside of what MTV tells us?
This is some of the music that sets this year apart from others.
1. Dirty Dozen Brass Band Medicated Magic (Ropeadope/Atlantic) I once heard a disk jockey at WSHA-FM at Shaw University say he never thought he'd say his favorite bassist played a tuba----that's exactly the kind of newly found pleasures to be had with this excellent release. The Dirty Dozen take a pre-electric New Orleans tradition and give it a rock attitude. DJ Logic contributes, as does Dr. John and Robert Randolph.
2. Unsound Unreleased Album (self-release) Unsound is UNSIGNED to any label, large or small. But if you heard this on your radio or headphones, you'd stand and take notice----and head for some furniture to do stage leaps from. This Raleigh-based metal foursome unleashes a mighty storm with a subversive punk/pop sensibility bound, gagged and thrashing about in their cellar in songs like "From All Sides" and the irony-rich "Sunshine." www.unsound.ws or www.mp3.com/Unsound.
3. Robert Randolph & The Family Band Live At The Wetlands (Warner Bros.) Robert Randolph takes a regional African-American sound, pedal-steel gospel, and fronts a band that grooves in a way we've never heard before----the closest thing I can suggest as a comparison is Allman Bros. Live At The Fillmore.
4. Bandway Night Rock (Backburner) This album is so intensely get-drunk-and-bring-your-lighter-to-the-AC/DC-Def-Leppard-show-tonight school of stadium rock fandom, that it doesn't matter if this Raleigh-based twosome was trying to be funny or not. I play this disc any time I feel sad, old and lonely----and you know what? I kick ass, man!
5. Econoghost Anneu'ed! (www.125records.com) With bands like Ladytron nimbly mining the long-overlooked "Kraut Rock" vein of synth/drone/machine angst of 1970s Western Germany, Shalini Chatterjee (also of power trio Shalini) has raised the stakes with this warm and fuzzy collection of chrome-plated marvels. Pop this number into your car and it morphs into a 1974 Mercedes, and your commute becomes the Autobahn. Drawing her inspiration from early Kraftwerk and others, Shalini plays nearly all the instruments, ably assisted here and there by mentor-buddies Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. I wonder if Don ever imagined he'd ever master an album with this much drum machine?
6. Walter Clevenger & The Dairy Kings Love Songs To Myself (Permanent Press) When this Orange County, Calif. roots band made its first foray into the American Southeast at last year's Sparklefest at Local 506, no one knew how good they would sound. I was transfixed by Walter's songwriting, which is rock-savvy and country-sweet. This 1999 CD is their most recent, save for the extended-play CD they've just released as we go to press. Pop trivia fans will note that Kim Shattuck from The Muffs sings backing vocals on "Girl at the End of the Bar" and Jamie Hoover (The Spongetones, The VanDeLecki's) plays guitar on "I'll Return Again."
7. Interpol Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador) Founded in New York City in 1998, this nattily attired combo built up quite a following through simple hard work and a sparkly, aggressive sound that picks up on directions started by bands like Psychedelic Furs and Joy Division. I fancy the hard-charging "PDA," and its Warhol-inspired music video (is that a redundant phrase?) and "Stella As A Diver And She Was Always Down." Hopefully no one here will take the Joy Division tag too seriosly, as the Joy's Ian Curtis did hang himself ...
8. Drive-By Truckers Southern Rock Opera (Lost Highway) Why aren't more accolades being thrown at this two-disc, two-act opus? Originating in Auburn, Ala., The Truckers explore the "duality of the Southern thing" as they put it. As more than one writer has noted, we live in a region rich in story-telling and folklore, yet low in SAT scores. I was blessed with a live performance of the entire project at Sleazefest 2001 and I think the only thing keeping Southern Rock Opera off more lists is its length, certainly not its ambitious and long-overdue subject matter. Still worth your consideration in any case.
9. Glory Fountain The Beauty Of 23 (Lovejoy Records) Lynn Blakey's voice and layered songwriting is placed in an energy-rich, yet controlled pop/rock/folk environment. Partnered with John Chumbris, you'll encounter a duo that works together with all the passion of a couple and none of the mush. Covering Townes Van Zandt's "Flying Shoes" must've taken a lot of nerve for this Chapel Hill group, it's yet another jewel in this collection.
10. Daler Mendhi "Tunak Tunak Tun" (internet music video stream) This dancing Punjabi singing sensation has got it going on with his irresistable charm and techno-hooked "Bollywood" style pop. I have no idea what he's singing about in this surreal and luridly colorful video, but as World Music goes, Daler is fun, fun, fun. Most search engines will give you dozens of Daler fansites and links to his video, for example, go to www.sadclown.com/edfranklin/tunak.rm and see for yourself. (RealPlayer is required.) In a world still divided along cultural lines, performers like Daler can be ambassadors of good will----and gettin' down on your bad self.