Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Mixing It Up

Modern musical flavors are commingling more than ever before

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  "I am hip-hop," declares Brooklyn rapper Mos Def on a song from his Black on Both Sides album. He then adds, "I am rock 'n' roll." For the rest of the song, the hip-hop stylist proclaims that black musicians have played an integral role in rock 'n' roll from its inception. He's right, of course, but he might as well have said that no form of American music begins, grows, or survives without absorbing influences from other genres.

That's true now more than ever: Musical cross-pollination has never been more rampant than in 1999. From bonehead hard-rockers to airhead vocal groups, all of the top-selling rock and pop acts of the year seemed to be bouncing to hip-hop rhythms. Meanwhile, rappers continued to furrow through all manner of musical idioms to mine fresh beats and turn catchy melodies into modern street tunes.

In a way, music-making of all kinds is wide open and fertile as we cross into year 2000. Sure, the pop charts have rarely been as hopelessly superficial. Sure, the music industry is in a shambles, leaving record companies to concentrate on marketing to a prosperous teen market because it's an easy sell. Nonetheless, those fans willing to sift beyond the airwaves and record charts are being richly rewarded.

My favorite music of the year includes the work of veteran musical alchemists like Cassandra Wilson, Edgar Meyer, and Me'Shell Ndegéocello, as well as some traditionalists who keep pushing forward into new sounds: the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Wilco, the Chieftains, Celtic fiddler Eileen Ivers. Several long-running favorites hit creative peaks, including Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Diana Krall, Jesse Winchester, Beausoleil, Los Lobos, and NRBQ.

This year I also became a fan of Macy Gray, David Mead, Of Montreal, The Katies, Andrea Parker, and studio magician Prince Paul. I eagerly anticipate each of these artists creating interesting music for years to come. Meanwhile, that idea of building a relationship with a favorite act was rewarded this year by such developing performers as Beth Orton, R.B. Morris, Ron Sexsmith, Ben Folds Five, The Roots, Gomez, and hometown rockers Shazam.

What surprises me most is how many of these performers aren't widely known. That's especially true when it comes to traditional songsmiths. If it were the '70s, singer-songwriters like Cheryl Wheeler, Lynn Miles, Lucy Kaplansky, Boo Hewerdine, the Continental Drifters, Clive Gregson, Bill Lloyd, and Jeff Finlin would be widely celebrated. These days, they exist as cult favorites, packing clubs instead of theaters and auditoriums.

Next week I'll list my favorite country and Americana albums of the year. For now, here are my favorite non-country albums of the year.

1. Julie Miller, Broken Things (HighTone) Julie Miller has an extraordinary ability to write about pain in a clear, direct way that transcends hurt to find hope in humanity and spirituality. The title song moved me more than anything I heard this year, and its heart-tugging depiction of a damaged soul finding strength in love is typical of what makes Miller's work so powerful. Whether confronting death, war, drugs, or lustful craving, she expresses the shared experiences of sinners and saints.

2. Macy Gray, On How Life Is (Epic) Ladling out old-school soul with just enough hip-hop spice to make it modern, Macy Gray soars on her debut by extracting an enormous amount of feeling from her scratchy, thin, thoroughly expressive voice. Inordinately funky in a relaxed, organic way that Beck wants to be but isn't, Gray slinks and shouts to intoxicating grooves that prove the match of Sly Stone or Prince. Giving it all substance is the story Gray has to tell: A former drug addict and abused wife, she exudes the buoyant determination of a survivor who now gets off expressing herself in all her confident, sexually charged glory.

3. Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Anti/Epitaph) It would be too simplistic to say that Waits' first full-fledged studio album in six years connects his songcraft of the '70s with his avant-garde noisemaking of the late '80s and early '90s. Nonetheless, Mule Variations features the most straightforward songs he's written in many years, and he shapes the clangs and squawks into somewhat conventional verse-verse-chorus forms. He's still an original, but now you can sing along again, and it results in his strongest album since 1985's Rain Dogs.

4. Handsome Boy Modeling School, So...How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy) The Roots and Mos Def received more critical acclaim, but the most wildly enjoyable hip-hop collection of the year came from veteran studio wizards Prince Paul and Dan the Automator. Delightful, hilarious, and funky as can be, the two leaders cast voices, samples, live instruments, and skits into a head-spinning collage that carries a surprise at every turn.

5. Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer with Sam Bush and Mike Marshall, Short Trip Home (Sony Classical) Once again, classically trained bassist Edgar Meyer proves that the distance between Wolfgang Mozart and Bill Monroe isn't as far as it may seem. In this inspired set, he brings together a classical violinist with two top-notch bluegrass players to create string music that merges performance-hall sounds with traditional folk themes. The result is funkier and wittier than expected, as well as beautiful and uniquely powerful.

6. Cassandra Wilson, Traveling Miles (Blue Note) One of the most incisive artists of the '90s ends the decade with another peculiarly potent collection. With a voice of smoke and amber, Wilson relies on intonation and stripped-down wordplay to create sumptuous, moody tunes that convey a heady sensualism. In this homage to Miles Davis, she sets her own words to tunes the late trumpet great made famous, then adds a couple of originals of her own.

7. Lucy Kaplansky, Ten Year Night (Red House) A psychiatrist who gave up her Manhattan practice for her acoustic guitar, Kaplansky has a keen sense of observation. As an acoustic artist, she also brings a sense of urgency to her songs, which manage to sound simultaneously energized and unrushed. She sings beautifully too, but in the end it's the recognizable drama of her scenes that makes her songs so unforgettable.

8. David Mead, The Luxury of Time (RCA) In a bountiful year of good pop-rock albums, the best came from onetime Nashvillian David Mead. He scores because he reaches for something more ambitious than catchy guitar-based pop tunes--even though he excels at those too. But he also proves he's capable of something much grander, creating a varied, intelligent album that incorporates a wide variety of sounds and styles.

9. Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Deconstruction/Arista) Orton manages to sound as plaintive and plainspoken as the best folk singers, yet she's an utterly modern artist whose voice has a melancholy, fluttery wholeness. Her writing is similar: Her honest and direct tunes are at once timeless and of their time, merging strings, acoustic sounds, and electronics into a textured tapestry that sounds like nothing else being created today.

10. Wilco, Summerteeth (Reprise) Who would have thought that Jeff Tweedy's most fully realized album would float in heady billows of pop experimentation rather than digging deep into earthy, traditional roots music? Nonetheless, the former member of Uncle Tupelo leads his capable band through a beautiful, buoyant mess of a pop album that soars in enough places to make it worth its occasional misdirected indulgences.

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