The Boston Phoenix
December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

[Music Reviews]

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The right stuff

Pop -- year in review

by Matt Ashare

Album of the year: PJ Harvey, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island). In a year when music took a big back seat to technology (Napster) and politics (Backstreet Boys versus 'N Sync, Britney versus Christina, Eminem versus Everlast, Gore versus Bush, and the perennial us against them), Polly Jean Harvey was, as Iggy Pop might put it, a passenger. And since making a connection that didn't involve a modem of some kind linked to anything resembling a cultural mainstream was more or less a lost cause for a rock artist, it made sense that 2000's best album was one that didn't strike any real contemporary chords or plug itself into any important trends like the angry women in rock and grungy grrrls of '94-'95 or the Lilith Fairies of '97-'99. (Indeed, if Harvey's stories brought to mind any parallel, it was the young Patti Smith of the early to mid '70s, whom Polly suddenly started to sound an awful lot like.) Instead, PJ spent some time in NYC, fell in and out of love, and reported back from the front lines of her own life on an album that captured the rush and range of mixed emotions that come with living life instead of just getting through it. And in a year when a lot of music fans were happy just to get through, Stories was a welcome respite from wave after wave of kiddie corn. That Harvey was also generous enough to give Radiohead's Thom Yorke a real song to sing -- something he refused to do in his own band -- was a nice little bonus.

Artist of the year: Napster creator Shawn Fanning. While everyone sat around wondering how the Internet and e-commerce were going to impact music retailing and what the next generation of technology might look like in the realm of music-delivery devices, an inventive 19-year-old named Shawn Fanning caught everyone by surprise with a simple yet elegant answer: electronic file sharing among a community of users all hooked into a central virtual location where MP3 music files can be freely traded back and forth among hundreds of thousands of subscribers. No other single artist had such an enormous impact on the music industry in 2000.

At the Drive-In Scene/subgenre of the year: emocore. The failure of Jimmy Eat World to capitalize on their Capitol deal last year did not bode well for emocore's potential as a mainstream commercial force. And that may have been the best thing that could have happened to this tuneful, emotionally explosive cousin of hardcore punk and indie rock, because rather than seeing the door get opened to a major-label signing rush that almost certainly would have led to a wholesale co-opting (and cheapening) of emocore signifiers by commercial interests, the scene remained underground, which is where bands like At the Drive-In, a high-energy El Paso outfit with a couple of MC5-style Afros and the guitar firepower to back them up, thrive. Relationship of Command, At the Drive-In's debut for the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label, was just big enough in 2000 to inspire the next wave of alienated kids to fashion a punk rock in their own image without creating the kind of major-label feeding frenzy that kills off bands like At the Drive-In.

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock
local punk and metal - nonfiction - queer - pop
protest - theater - tv

Hip-hop album of the year (tie): OutKast, Stankonia (La Face/Arista); Jurassic 5, Quality Control (Interscope); Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (Epic). If the '90s ended with white rockers raiding hip-hop for everything from DJs and sampling to gangsta attitude and baggy fashions (see Limp Bizkit for the prototype) in an effort to recapture a young suburban audience that had long been adopting rap as the soundtrack to its coming of age, then perhaps it wasn't such a bad sign to see the pendulum swinging back in the other direction in 2000, as rappers like LA's Jurassic 5 began fighting back in an effort to cross over to a rock audience the way, say, De La Soul did in the late '80s and early '90s. With its emphasis on the old-school priorities of beats and rhymes backed by a funked-up groove, J5's debut, Quality Control, brought to mind the good vibes (if not quite the experimental edges) of 3 Feet High and Rising, which was a OutKast good thing. (Touring as an opening act for Fiona Apple, on the other hand, might not have been the greatest idea.) Meanwhile, by virtue of continuing to defy easy categorization while bringing on the heavy funk, OutKast reaffirmed hip-hop's capacity to be avant and pop at the same time, as well as their own ability to navigate a stoned course to the top of the charts without paying tribute to gangstas in NYC, LA, or New Orleans. And then there's the RZA, whose undiluted production genius was back in full force on Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele, a hip-hop album so slyly soulful that it samples Solomon Burke. Let's see if Fred Durst can appropriate any of that.

Bogus controversy of the year: Eminem versus the world. Yeah, his hateful, paranoid, and -- let's face it -- puny world view makes Axl Rose look like a worldly, enlightened man of letters. And, yes, his mike skills put every other white boy who's ever taken on rap to shame and, as Dr. Dre points out, compare favorably with those of some of the best black rappers too. That this unfortunate confluence of characteristics in the body of one Marshall Mathers should cause so much critical consternation is, well, kinda silly. Because no matter how you slice it, Eminem's talent doesn't excuse his views any more than those views diminish his talent -- talent and being a good person have never gone hand in hand. What's most alarming about Eminem is the degree to which he reflects an acute backlash against political correctness that may be making misogyny and homophobia seem attractive as a form of rebellion to the suburban young and bored. Which means that trying to discredit Eminem only makes him appear more subversive. We'd all be much better off just ignoring the guy, especially since he'll probably either be dead or in jail by the end of next year.

Gimmick of the year: Pearl Jam's "Euro Bootleg 2000" series. On September 26, Pearl Jam made history by releasing 25 double albums -- that's 50 CDs in total -- all at once. The "Euro Bootleg 2000" series documents every date of the band's 2000 swing through Europe, beginning May 23 in Lisbon and ending June 29 in Oslo, and it was one of the more positive things to come out of a tour that ended tragically on June 30 with nine persons being trampled to death during a Pearl Jam set at the Roskilde festival in Denmark. But you didn't have to be a Pearl Jam fan to appreciate the irony that while Metallica were trying to put Napster out of business, Eddie Vedder and company were busy proving that even in the age of free MP3 trading there are plenty of ways for a band to forge a relationship with their fans -- for instance, offering them the chance to buy into being part of something that transcends music. Because, let's face it, the fun is in collecting all 25 albums, not in just having the digitally encoded sounds on them.

Concept album of the year (tie): Everclear's Songs from an American Movie Vol. One: Learning How To Smile and Songs from an American Movie Vol. Two: Good Time for a Bad Attitude (both Capitol). Art Alexakis has always been a bit of a confessional songwriter. But divorce and a touch of the old midlife crisis disorder that begins to affect most men in their late 30s -- especially in the wake of a ruined relationship -- inspired not one but two of Alexakis's most confessional and most gripping Everclear efforts to date. Vol. One is the poppier one, with Art branching out to include looped hip-hoppity rhythm tracks and a couple of samples (as well as a full symphony orchestra playing Mort Lindsey charts). Vol. Two is a return to the overdriven guitars, pounding drums, and punctual bass playing that were the foundation of Everclear's grunge-derived sound from the band's start. Neither one's pretty -- at least not if you listen to what Alexakis is singing -- but that's sort of the whole point.

Comeback of the year: Merle Haggard. Okay, so as far as the folks in Bakersfield are concerned, he never really went away. But Haggard's new alliance with the Epitaph-sponsored Anti label in 2000 inspired his most affecting, open-souled songwriting and gutsy playing in years on If I Could Only Fly. Songs like "Wishing All the Old Things Were New," with its salient semi-rhyme "Watching while some old friends do a line/Holding back the `want to' in my own addicted mind," were a reminder that, in a way, this guy was rebel enough to belong on a punk label. And by introducing himself to a whole new audience, Haggard helped broaden the definition of what might rightly be considered "punk" and opened a world of great music to a new generation of rebellious spirits.

Comedy album of the year: tie: Kool Keith, Matthew (Threshold); MC Paul Barman, It's Very Stimulating (WordSound). The prolific Kool Keith was once again present in a variety of guises in 2000, but his most amusing album, Matthew, came out under the Kool Keith moniker and found him taking amusing, well-aimed shots at major-label hip-hoppers, wanna-be playas, and commercial rappers of all shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, New Jersey's finest, MC Paul Barman, set a new standard for self-depreciating rap in the usually egotistical realm of hip-hop on his Prince Paul-produced It's Very Stimulating, a debut EP that positioned him as a kind of anti-Eminem, worldly enough to allude to Krzysztof Kieslowski and wise-ass enough to rhyme it with "pissed-off jimbrowski."

Best album you probably didn't hear (tie): Kasey Chambers, The Captain (Asylum) -- Lucinda Williams from Down Under?; Grandaddy, The Sophtware Slump (V2) -- indie-rock psychedelia for overachieving underachievers, and for those of us who wish the Flaming Lips would hire a real drummer; Superdrag, In the Valley of Dying Stars (Arena Rock) -- dropped by Elektra, these alterna-popsters get even by making their catchiest album yet; Eszter Balint, Flicker (Scratchie) -- Eva from Jim Jarmusch's 1984 cult hit Stranger Than Paradise grows up to make skewed and haunting folkish pop; Sarge, Distant (Mud/Parasol) -- a fond farewell from indie grrrl-punk greats and the start of a promising solo career for frontwoman Elizabeth Elmore; the Handsome Family, In the Air (Carrot Top) -- morbid, literate country music from the best husband/wife songwriting team since John and Exene; Amy Rigby, The Sugar Tree (Koch) -- Hoboken's answer to Lucinda Williams?; Free the West Memphis 3: A Benefit for Truth & Justice (Koch) -- Steve Earle, Supersuckers, Joe Strummer, Nashville Pussy, and a bunch of other rock rebels unite to raise money and awareness about three Memphis kids questionably convicted of "Satanic" murders; Gimme Indie Rock, Vol. 1 (K-Tel) -- yes, indeed, the same K-Tel that used to advertise alongside the Pocket Fisherman and Ginsu knives on late-night UHF has gotten into the underground game with this two-disc collection of indie-rock classics.

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