The Year in Music

Learning To Love the Dixie Chicks
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 20 2006 1:37 PM

The Year in Music

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Before I get to Southern California, my locale now—and thank you, Carl, for aiming us local, because it allows me to posit that our little panel reps the only slightly yesterday, today, and tomorrow of rock 'n' roll (if not poptimism …). But first, I have to get to a few issues raised:

Daughtry: Good on that, Jon. I wrote a little half-paean to Chris myself recently, mostly on the tip that he's the only one of these Home Depot-rock dudes who isn't a blatant misogynist. Nickelback's Chad does have that sensitive ring in the baritone, but I'm not forgiving him for that line about wanting her pants around her ankles. And Hinder … don't get me started. Their well-meaning publicist sent out the band's "Holiday Wish Lists," and virtually all of them involved back-door action and/or threesomes. It's like Nirvana never happened.

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But Daughtry, whatever he might do in his personal life (it's always different than the persona implies), wears his commitment and caring beautifully. The drama of his American Idol fall vaulted to the stratosphere when his wife, Deanna, had an emergency hysterectomy the week he got voted off, and his post-Idol triumph is all tied up in the saga of their relationship, now immortalized in dull, fatally compressed modern-rock songs played by the most generic band on earth. (Best lyric here.) Snobs were shocked when Daughtry charted so high out of the box, better than any Idol debut since the Claytonator; people forget that 38-year-old moms of teenagers like to rock, too.

Those moms adore Idol because it's family entertainment that still slips in a few "outlaw" moments that feel like, if not classic rock, at least a superficially naughty night in (or out, if you attend one of the Idol tours, whose audience is entirely made up of 8-year-olds and their guardians). You gotta love a show where the lech is a woman, where the tears of middle-aged dads of contestants constitute emotional porn, where the final three include a would-be Sarah Brightman, a nice Jewish boy with horrendous teeth, and Bill Clinton. I mean, seriously—do the MySpace antics of Fall Out Boy have anything next to the sublime tackiness of this?

I know way too much about Idol because I'm a daily music critic in Los Angeles, where music execs matter way more than writers, and smart, powerful people really care about the cultural mainstream. (More so, dare I say, than in New York, no matter how many poptimists hold the top critics' chairs.) It was in Los Angeles, too, that I learned to love the Dixie Chicks, partly because, as my colleague Geoff Boucher has pointed out, they're an L.A. band now, but also because they made a great record this year, one likely to make as few critics' best-ofs as that Hinder CD.

It's their fourth studio album since Natalie joined the band, and Rick Rubin doesn't make a whit of difference: It's as country, and as exurb, as the last one. But what makes Taking the Long Way great is the story it tells, not of defiant politicos riding out Operation Shit Storm, but of the regular sorrows women over the age of Carrie Underwood endure. Infertility, marital stress, ailing parents, the loneliness of not conforming when you're no longer young enough for it to be cute—that's what these songs communicate. And, open adoption advocate that I am, how could I resist one of the only songs I've ever heard told from a birth mother's point of view?

As for Carl's comment that alt-country is what really takes the boot from us these days, I totally agree and mostly kick along. But I must note that women working in this genre are still breaking ground, personally, if not on some grand, convention-shattering scale. I wasn't as hot on Neko Case's latest as my husband and many year-end listmakers (including Amazon) were, but I admire the beauty of "That Teenage Feeling" and am just delighted that this former upstart is growing up so gracefully. My crush is on Jenny Lewis, whose "Rabbit Fur Coat" started the year off smartly with a set of songs not quite as perfectly Costello-esque as her last round for Rilo Kiley but still stunning in their clear-eyed craft and unpresuming insights. The title track plays for melodrama, but even after a year of listening, its story of mother-daughter fatalism haunts me. But then, I have a tiny one in my house who prefers her alt-country from Sally Timms of the Wee Hairy Beasties, so no wonder mama-baby stuff slays me right now.

But wait—localism. Southern California. Oh dear, maybe next post, but let me just tantalize with a tidbit: At one point in making my year-end calculations, I realized that it was possible that with no plan whatsoever, I might be constructing a list consisting entirely of Californian artists. Maybe it really does matter where you live, after all …

Ann

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