A Few Gems from Musical Slag Heap

For a few years now I've been doing this year-end round-up, and I'm beginning to sound like a broken record. You remember records, don't you? They're those 12-inch slabs of vinyl that would when scratched skip, playing the same snippet of music, unlike broken CDs that make bizarre wow and flutter sounds or just drop the music out altogether.

After 9/11 there was a brief flurry of political songs from the left, but two years later most of popular music has settled down into complacency, remaining foot soldiers for the weapons of mass distraction. We live under the most polarizing president since Richard Nixon -- who, for those of us living under Bush, doesn't look as bad as Nixon did when living under him -- and yet the popular music world continues for the most part to live as if we are not in dangerous times that call for action.

So as I have in the past, I'll carp about the distressing lack of topical and protest songs and genuine political commitment within the music world, and then try to hip you to a few good things I've heard this year. Some of them address the current world we live in, and some of them are just worthy artists and albums whose music offers quality listening in a time when too much music is conformist, unchallenging, uninspired and ultimately mediocre.

One shining exception to all my complaints is the English band A3, known as Alabama3 in their homeland -- yes, the hint to social and political prisoners is intended. They are also best known for "Woke Up This Morning," the theme song to The Sopranos. To my ears, their third album, Power In The Blood, is the finest listening experience of the last year. And the reason why is its genre-busting, modernist approach that grabs musical gems from across the range of contemporary music and strings them into a shimmering necklace that's actually something new and vividly different. Then they add sharp social and political commentary, and you can dance to it. Imagine Bob Dylan fronting James Brown's Fabulous Flames with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five along for the ride at an all night rave, and you get some idea of what A3 sounds like. If you have discophobia or fear of modern music, this one might not be for you. But if you'd like your musical and lyrical viewpoint to be challenged by creativity and vision, this is the album of the year for that.

America's most political artist remains rebel country rocker Steve Earle, whose Just An American Boy is a live album billed as an "audio documentary" (and is a companion piece to the DVD release of the film of the same name by director Amos Poe). Earle addresses the death penalty, 9/11, the current state of the nation and politics, labor issues and other important matters in song and stage patter with insight and courage, which makes him almost the last man standing when it comes to political rock. And by the way, he indeed rocks.

Earle's fellow country rocker and native Texan Rodney Crowell takes on middle-aged maturity with his new CD Fate's Right Hand, and delivers his best and most insightful set of songs ever. His ex-wife Rosanne Cash released The Rules of Travel this year after a far too long hiatus, and it's a warm and lovely listening experience rich with emotion and feeling.

Country veteran Merle Haggard's song "That's The News" may be his most provocative number since the still misunderstood "Okie From Muskogee." It's found on the masterful album Like Never Before, on which Haggard again proves himself the country poet laureate of the common man and one of the last genuine country music icons left standing.

Cogent social and personal commentary and observations are the stock in trade for acoustic rocker Ed Hamell, aka Hamell on Trial, whose Tough Love is a brilliant musical movie full of super-charged post-folk energy. It's on Righteous Babe Records, the label owned by Ani DiFranco, who continues to make superb 21st Century folk music on Evolve.

Folk rocker Lucinda Williams is back rather quickly (for her) after her subtly beautiful album Essence with World Without Tears, an unflinching set of tough modern blues-rock that may not have her best songs but does offer her most in-your-face performances. Wonderful singer-songwriter Patty Griffin boasts a beautiful and touching live album with A Kiss in Time, while veteran folk-rock humorist Loudon Wainwright III is in fine form with his live set So Damn Happy. (His son Rufus Wainwright's Want More is also a lovely and sophisticated work by one of music's best new composers.) Sadly, folk movement queen Joan Baez returned with an album of songs by contemporary songwriters, Dark Chords On A Big Guitar, that finds her once stunning voice in rough shape and simply doesn't hit the mark.

Yes, this was The Year of the Blues. But best to avoid the collections compiled to accompany the Martin Scorsese-produced series and dig into the classics, which have messages, themes and real music that are timeless. Some of this year's coolest sounds are actually from the gospel world: The star-studded holiday album Go Tell It On The Mountain from The Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Diamond Jubilation by The Dixie Hummingbirds are wondrously stirring works of spirit, faith and fine music. And for some very alluring neo R&B, The Soul Sessions by teenage English singer Joss Stone may help revive a moribund but essential sound.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

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