The Year in Music

Shakira = the New Elvis?
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 19 2006 6:12 AM

The Year in Music

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Hello erudite pals,

Posting last in this conversation is hard. So many interesting thoughts compelling me to jump for the rebound. But that was the year in general—Jody's right on, it seems inevitable that a working critic will miss entire genres. Hell, I'd never even listened to the Knife until two days ago, and now I'm hooked to their little electronic beaks!

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My New Year's resolutions are twofold: get a handle on country, and return to exploring world music. It's funny, one of those genres is, as Carl sez, the only commercially robust scene going, and an obsession of many New York critics, while the other seems to have receded in the discourse. Last year we had Amadou and Mariam (whom I saw this year in Hollywood, what beaming joy) and Konono No. 1; this year, there was Ali Farka Toure's introspective final album, but what else? And where is the critical interest in Middle Eastern music right now? Isn't that something we should all be tracking, in the name of cultural diplomacy, if nothing else?

Perhaps we're all just more preoccupied with what's at our own borders. In Los Angeles, that's obviously narcocorridos, Tijuana rock, and whatever's hot on 96.3 FM ("Proud to Be Latino!") on a given day. Learning Spanish, finally, is my other huge resolution; in the meantime, I groove the totally awesome bilingual loca motion of Los Abandoned and await next year's long-coming Ozomatli release. Curious what on-the-ground multiculturalism is flowering in all of your outposts.

I'm preoccupied with localism in general not only because this year I moved from one incredible music city to another (and BTW, Carl, you wanna see a grassroots teen scene? Check out Seattle's incredible all-ages action, city-funded no less!), but because it seems the deepest ontological division affecting music fans right now is the split between the virtual and the physical.

It's endemic to the pop experience, based around the complementary pleasures of listening to "records" (or whatever we call them this epoch) and rocking out/rocking it live. As we spend more time connecting across cyberspace, what happens to our beat- and noise-craving bodies? I get a lot from the blogosphere, but for me there's still nothing like a roomful of people united in connection to sound moving through space.

My favorite music moments this year happened in tiny clubs, dusty old theaters, and popcorn-scented basketball arenas, as I returned to the exhausting, inspiring beat of a daily newspaper critic. I basked in the warmth of New England's adorable neo-hippie collective Feathers as they spun out iridescent meditations one late night at the El Cid, rotating instruments every number. I got swept up in Comets on Fire, the Bay Area's absolute meltdown of a rock band, who played the very last set of the Arthur Nights Festival in downtown L.A.—I know it's old-fashioned, but I'll never stop loving that testosterone surge of boys rocking out transformationally, just blowing each other's minds. (Thanks to Jay at Arthur for both of those experiences, BTW—Jody, wanna get in touch with psych-folk, start there.)

I decided Shakira was the new Elvis after seeing her command the Staples Center stage with no back-up dancers, no stupid skits, and no shout-outs to celebrity friends. And I knew Barbra was the old Elvis after seeing her use all of those old tricks (well, that's if you consider the casually strident himbots of Il Divo to be dancers), and making me think about none of it but her still-glorious voice.

And then there was Joanna Newsom. Last week, she played the El Rey theater with a band that reconfigured her exquisite compositions for some kind of raggle-taggle gypsy dream, with Ryan Francesconi's tambura subbing mightily for Van Dyke Parks' swoony strings, and vigorous harmonies plumping out the Elfin One's sugar-dusted singing. Best of all, drums! I love Ys, it's my album of the year, too, but boy, with a beat, do those opuses rock. And "Sawdust & Diamonds" is pure sexy, I mean Emily Dickinson-level sexy.

I love live music. I also love record stores. Am mourning Tower, of course—as a baby music nerd stamping price tags on Springsteen box sets, that's where I learned about musical eclecticism (I still have my imported On-U Sounds reggae vinyl and Brian Eno box set) and also where I first met the big hearts who'd devote their lives to pop even if it meant working some shitty minimum-wage-plus job. (My obit for the chain is here—and I have to say, it hit some chords. I got about 20 letters from fellow Tower lovers.) At the same time, as a working mom I'm so hungry for convenience that I don't even like downloading that much—give me a music stream! If most people are as lazy as I am, it seems inevitable that within a few years, the only record store with regular customers will be inside a cell phone.

Oops, as usual I've written long and barely begun. Let me just add my voice to the chorus of Lil Wayne admiration, foreshadow Carl's thoughts on metal by raising my metal horns and yelling, "MASTODON," and be gone until the next round.

Ann