Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Between the Cracks

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Year-end album lists tend to concentrate on genres: rock 'n' roll, jazz, country, blues, reissues, and so on. But every year, much good music is released that falls outside these categories. As in past years, I'll continue a tradition of highlighting my favorite albums that defy narrow categorization. The best unclassifiable records of 1997 cover a wide range of sounds, from South American rhythms to Celtic fiddle to soulful Hammond organ fills.

  1. Susana Baca, Susana Baca (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) A star in her native Peru, Susana Baca sings with lilting sensuality over sparse, gently pulsing tracks built around hand drums and harmonic chanting. With rhythm as her muse, she bridges ancient melodies with modern arrangements--making music that's spiritual, earthy, and charged with lust and intelligence.

  2. Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, The Lonesome Touch (Green Linnet) Beautifully understated Celtic tunes played with tender feeling and grand technique by a fiddle-guitar duo. Hayes and Cahill are two of the genre's most sensitive interpreters.

  3. Various artists, Divine Divas: A World of Women's Voices (Rounder) An astounding three-CD collection, this look at world cultures through the music of its best female singers stands out from similar collections because of how well it threads so many disparate sounds into a cohesive overall statement. Familiar names abound, among them Alison Krauss, Ani DiFranco, Cassandra Wilson, Tish Hinojosa, and June Tabor. But the thrill comes with the discovery of Italian tambourine innovator Allessandra Belloni, Columbian vocalist Toto la Momposina, Finnish harmony group MeNaiset, and others. It's the kind of multi-artist compilation that will send listeners back to the record stores searching for more.

  4. Rebirth Brass Band, We Come to Party (Shanachie) Expanding on the New Orleans tradition, this high-spirited troupe draws on funk, Caribbean, and R&B rhythms while finding fresh energy in older forms. The pairing of the throw-down title song with a rousing rendition of "Jesus on the Mainline" is particularly inspired.

  5. Sharon Shannon, Each Little Thing (Green Linnet) Sharon Shannon creates modern Celtic music that's as irrepressible as a laughing child. Working within an acoustic setting, the button accordionist from County Clare draws from such unlikely melodic sources as Fleetwood Mac, Grace Jones, and tango master Astor Piazzolla. She transforms each song into an exuberant piece that sparkles with fresh ideas and bright arrangements.

  6. Zony Mash, Cold Spell (Knitting Factory Works) An avant-garde quartet interested in moving the body as well as stimulating the mind, Zony Mash is led by Hammond organist Wayne Horvitz, who combines grooves with pinpoint arrangements to create a highly evolved form of dance music.

  7. Astor Piazzolla, Libertango (Milan) In recent years, countless albums have been issued featuring (or honoring) the late Argentinean bandoneon master, who took tango music to a new level of artistry. This two-CD set from a 1984 concert in Piazzolla's hometown of Mar del Plata captures his famed quintet at the height of its lusty power.

  8. Burning Spear, Appointment With His Majesty (Heartbeat) Winston Rodney's best album in decades finds reggae's fierce lion settling into a quieter, more incantatory mood with great results. Not as dub-based as his early work, nor as horn-powered as his more recent albums, Appointment is instead a clear-eyed call to society to reconsider its values. Particularly concerned with reaching youth, Rodney suggests that we should search for something more meaningful than the materialism of modern times. The Majesty he seeks to meet, by the way, has nothing to do with royal bloodlines.

  9. Kenny Kosek, Angelwood (Rounder) A sublime master of various fiddle styles, Kosek plays with advanced precision and sweet emotion on this wide-ranging instrumental collection, which extends from a mournful Celtic solo workout to a rousing seven-piece swing tune.

  10. Luciano, Messenger (Island Jamaica) Most young singers trying to modernize reggae music end up sapping its vitality. Luciano, who sings with the tender masculinity of a young Teddy Pendergrass, manages to update reggae's sound and its message while maintaining its seductive earthiness. A deeply religious album, Messenger brims with compassionate songs that incorporate everything from salsa rhythms to the sounds of American pop. Luciano's forceful vision ties it all together.

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