Critical Mass

RFT music critics offer a cut-and-paste compendium of the year in music. Everyone's wrong. Everyone's right.

The overhyped, overrated album of the year? That's easy: Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile, which consists of the same angst-ridden song playing for two hours. Bart Simpson said it best on the "Homerpalooza" episode of The Simpsons: "Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel." (DD)

Best fucking-around-with-Americana: Trailer Bride's Whine de Lune and the Barkers' Burn Your Piano. (RSS)

Best Proof that There's Life in Them Old Rockers Yet: Elvis Costello backed by the Beastie Boys on Saturday Night Live's 25th anniversary. It's been about 20 years since SNL was new and exciting, and half as long since Costello buzzed and howled under the influence of heat, but at the tail end of an overlong, self-indulgent wankfest, Declan stepped up to the mic and re-created his own interrupted broadcast of "Radio, Radio" from SNL's glory days. The Beasties rushed the stage and played the part of the Attractions terribly, but it was the terrible that made punk great. They staggered through the song with zest and gusto, and when the instrumental break came, they teetered on the edge of falling apart, but Horowitz's one-finger keyboard technique somehow got everybody back on beat and they galloped to the finish line. Costello has been exploring lush melody and lyricism for years now, and his work with Burt Bacharach is either apogee or nadir, depending on where you stand: Isn't it about time he rediscovered the Attractions for an album or two? And aren't the Beasties due for a return to their punk-rock roots? Couldn't they release an album of power-pop gems instead of another hip-hop history lesson? Please? (PF)

Beck: His Midnite Vultures is gloriously ridiculous and derivative.
Charlie Gross
Beck: His Midnite Vultures is gloriously ridiculous and derivative.
Macy Gray: The best songs on Macy Gray's debut sound like they're cribbed from Sly and the Family Stone or the Staple Singers.
Stephane Sednaoui
Macy Gray: The best songs on Macy Gray's debut sound like they're cribbed from Sly and the Family Stone or the Staple Singers.

Best reinvention of self: Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm, Norman Blake (Shanachie). Blake might have called these spare instrumentals and desolate original folk songs Bergman's Bluegrass. Doc Watson's greatest inheritor, Blake has written and played in a lonesome vein before. Now he sounds as if time is running out and he's not about to let it off the hook. (RK)

I love music that's playful, that feels the urge to be mischievous. That's why I turned the radio up every time I heard Shania Twain's "That Don't Impress Me Much." It's full of sass, from the rhythm track on up to her vocal, especially when she stops the music to speak lines like "OK, so you're Brad Pitt" before revving up again to the title chorus line. Then there was Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger," from the Austin Powers soundtrack. This is Madonna, mind you, whose forte has always been contemporary dance music, singing a psychedelic, '60s-influenced pop song that wouldn't have been out of place on a Zombies record. (SP)

Most Unlikely (Yet Successful) Mack Daddy: Beck, whose Midnite Vultures, though ridiculous and derivative, was gloriously so. It's the best funk album of the year, a blast of party music crammed with whim and wham, drivel ("running buck wild like a concubine/whose mother never held her hand") and gold dust. This is the shit, filled with Paisley Park punch, West Coast bounce and Detroit dirt. Who cares that Beck's white and his music is black, that his pose is a bit too postmodern, that his funk is bunk? Pop this fucker on in a crowded room and step aside, Junior. The room lights up. Oh, and it also contains the nastiest/sexiest line George Clinton never wrote: "Keep your lamplight trimmed and burning!" Had I a lamplight to keep trimmed, it'd be burning for Beck. (RR)

Best old discovery: Os Mutantes, a Brazilian band from the '60s whose retrospective compilation CD Everything Is Possible disorients and delights. (RSS)

Best "This Is on a Major Label?" Record: Mexico City's Cafe Tacuba generously offered us the transcendent, genre-splitting double CD Reves/Yosoy. Released on Warner Bros., the damned thing is a study in sound, one of those records on which every song sounds like a different artist. Actually two records -- bound, it seems, only by the shrink wrap -- Reves is the more "accessible" of the two; it's got actual songs and singing on it, pop melodies and masterful hooks. Yosoy is the masterwork here, though, an instrumental excursion that moves from freaky acoustic examinations to electronic beat-based poundings to gorgeous string-quartet compositions (the best of which is performed by the Kronos Quartet). (RR)

Best Release by a Washed-Up Has-been: Neil Diamond's Neil Diamond Collection. For years, Neil has been tagged "the Jewish Elvis," but let's lay it on the line: Elvis never wrote a song in his life; he stank up the screen in a slew of terrible movies; and he was Michael Jackson's posthumous father-in-law. Neil, however, wrote a passel of great songs, only starred in one terrible movie and had nothing to do with Michael Jackson. So who's really the pretender here? Shouldn't Elvis be known as "the Gentile Neil Diamond?" It was Elvis, after all, who covered one of Neil's songs ("And the Grass Won't Pay No Mind"), not the other way around. "Grass" is included here, as are a bunch of Diamond classics. You get "Song Sung Blue," "Sweet Caroline" and his masterpiece, "I Am ... I Said." Laugh if you will, but stay up all night and then listen to "I Am ... I Said" when you're tired and alone and your defenses are down, and try not to cry, tough guy. You also get some pompous liner notes and some hot photos of Neil from his mid-'70s hair-farming days. Ah, it was a very good year. (PF)

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