This was an immensely disappointing year for music, full of contradictions. It found every genre breaking some rules but no one consumer really took to anything this year. Not like in past years. So many of my purchases were old stuff (finally completed my Rakim and Brand Nubian collection…woo hoo…I digress).
However, some of the best work has been overlooked this year, in every genre, and I’m here to put in my two cents.
So without further ado:
BEST ALBUM – Mary J. Blige, No More Drama
It goes without saying that Mary is the premier singer of our times, but like most great artists, her albums are very good, but not quite perfect. No More Drama is her most consistently entertaining and soulful set since the seminal My Life. Miss Blige found a way to wrap up her newfound happiness and what I think is amazing clear-headedness in a stunningly understated soul package. From the heartbreakingly honest PMS to the thumping bass (and Mary rappin again) of Love to the soulful bombast of the title track, Mary is in better form than ever. Mary J. Blige has never had the kind of mainstream success of Lauryn Hill (even though she made it possible for Lauryn to break through and deserves it) and it has enabled her to grow and change and experiment without having to worry about the bottom-line. It has been a nice 10 years for Miss Blige and if you look at her body of work, you see a woman willing to put herself out there and be prolific and complex and not give a damn, leaving the music to speak for itself. And boy, does it.
#2. (tie) Jon b., pleasures u like and Usher, 8701
#3. 112, Part III
#4. Missy Elliot, Miss E…So Addictive
#5. Aaliyah, Aaliyah
#6. Foxy Brown, Broken Silence
#7. Angie Stone, Mahogany Soul
#8. Radiohead, Amnesiac
#9. Luther Vandross, Luther Vandross
#10. Blu Cantrell, So Blu
WORST ALBUM- Boyz II Men, NathanMichaelShawnWanya
It is saying something, something bad, when you say the best thing about an album is its running length. NathanMichaelShawnWanya is a terrible piece of work. It has exactly 4 listenable songs ( Pass You By, I Do, Never Go Away, and Thank You in Advance). This is not to say they are good or stellar, just listenable. For artists of their caliber, this is simply unacceptable. It is worth noting that Shawn Stockman is responsible for the best songs on the record. He has written all of Boyz II Men’s most impressive work ( 50 Candles and Doin Just Fine ). If they are gonna record another album, he should write all their stuff. And if they must collaborate, may I suggest Mervyn Warren again and any of the Crouches (they do gospel/soul better than anybody). Again, all I can really say about this is unacceptable.
#2. Macy Gray, The Id
#3. P Diddy, The Saga Continues
#4. Canibus, C True Hollywood Stories
#5. Jaheim, Ghetto Hymns
MOST DISAPPOINTING RELEASE – (tie) Destiny’s Child, Survivor
You know, it shouldn’t have surprised me, Survivor was a terrible song and I should have known better. It took me 6 months to even get up the courage to purchase the album (used…thank god for small favors) and I was right. Like I said in my review of the album here, Survivor is like those hollow chocolate bunnies you get around Easter. It is really tasty and rich on the outside, but ultimately there is nothing inside at all. Vocally, this is their strongest album to date, but the lyrics are self-involved, childish, banal, classless, irritating, ignorant, petty, stupid, selfish, depressing words that are beneath the potential this group has.
#2. Jill Scott, Who is Jill Scott?
#3. Michael Jackson, Invincible
#4. Janet Jackson, All For You
#5. Pink, M!ssundaztood
BEST NEWCOMER – Blu Cantrell, So Blu
Given the pettiness (and undeniably catchiness) of her lead single,Hit Em Up Style it is truly amazing that So Blu is as good as it is. I’m willing to forgive the lead single being a mainstream grabber, because what is so great about Blu Cantrell is that the woman can blow. Like the Kelly Prices and Mary Js of the world, she knows how to wring the emotion out of a lyric. She knows how to be understated and when to let it all go. She is a fitting addition to a growing pool of new soul/jazz singers that we have the distinct pleasure of hearing in between the NSYNCs of the world (who I do like, so don�t get mad, Kristina 🙂 ).
#2. Alicia Keys, Songs in A Minor
#3. Tank, Force of Nature
#4. India Arie, Acoustic Soul
#5. Gorillaz, Gorillaz
FULFILLMENT OF POTENTIAL…FINALLY!! – Foxy Brown,Broken Silence
The thing that always made Foxy so fascinating was the intelligence that lurked behind the image. What made us (the few who recognized the potential) pay attention was Inga, who she really was. The Foxy moniker, honestly, was (and is) a huge joke at poor Inga’s expense. She never truly seemed comfortable spitting Lil Kim-style bombast and foul hoe-filled lyrics. Her best work was always the stuff that let us see who she really was. Her debut was average at best, boasting at most five tracks written by Inga herself (fittingly the best tracks). Chyna Doll was an overlooked gem, featuring some stellar work ( 4,5,6 being the standout).
But I don’t think anyone was prepared for the completeness, the honesty, the level of complexity (rhyming and production), and the return to a rawness (few outside of Brooklyn had been privy to) that was Broken Silence . Broken Silence finds Inga striking a terrific balance between the underground and mainstream. It is one of the grimiest, most “street” albums to not suffer because of it. It is immensely listenable and literate and compelling. Tracks like the title cut, Na Na Be Like are among some of the best pieces of hip-hop released this year. I think everyone should at least give it a listen. Be warned, I’ve seen Foxy spit in Brooklyn and she has returned to her roots here, if you only like clean or mainstream rhyming, stay away.
MOST OVERRATED ARTIST – Macy Gray
I think because music, in general, is so commercialized we have a tendency to equate different with good. Different with talented. Different with worthy of an intelligent person’s time. Macy Gray is a testament to this theory. Sure, she’s quirky. So what? Sure, she’s unique and eclectic and weird looking. But both of her albums, particularly The Id are cacophonous pieces of drivel that unfortunately put her vocals at the fore, instead of the really good work of her band. She is one of those people who fronts a good band and as such, gets all the credit (Gwen Stefani anyone). Her voice is unique, but it is also devoid of tone, passion, pitch, and soul. I’m sure she can hit some notes, but that doesn’t mean that I have to suffer through countless images and news briefs from mainstream rags like Rolling Stone and MTV telling me that she is a breath of fresh air, when she isn’t.
#2. Jill Scott
#4. Linkin Park
#5. Ras Kass
MOST UNDERRATED ARTIST – MISSY ELLIOTT
It is fascinating that an artist like Missy Elliott, who has the support of just about every mainstream critic, still hasn’t taken off. Again, I say that Middle America is just crazy. Missy’s albums are the future of R&B;/soul music, people. She manages to sing passionately over Timbaland frenetic, complexly brilliant production and still move you. The latest single, Take Away finds Missy singing about what really matters to her and it is sublime. Everything about her is fascinating, honest, raw, and just plain infectious. She deserves to have people buying her albums. She is more that a clubbanger and she knows it. Miss E…So Addictive is her most seductive coherent and soulful work to date. Go get it.
#2. Foxy Brown
#4. (tie) Usher and Ginuwine
GUILTY OF SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION AND OVEREXPOSURE – TRL Artists
You know what the problem with MTV is? It is its smirking self-awareness. Every five minutes you will hear Carson Daly plugging MTV’s ability to turn artists like Blink 182 and Korn from gritty garage bands into TRL icons. It is insulting and a little fascinating, that the Carson Daly will stand in front of an audience of 13-18 year olds and make fun (and celebrate?) of his, and MTV’s, ability to warp and control their listening habits. TO THEIR FACES!! It is actually quite amusing if you think about it.
Unfortunately, the bi-product is the ubiquity of what is now called “the TRL artist.” If I see Fred Durst one more time, I’m gonna kill someone. If I see one of the members of Blink 182, lamenting the dilution of their sound and image, I’m gonna throw up. And if I see Beyonce one more time running around half-naked looking trashy like she just came of the Boulevard, I’m gonna personally call her mother and father to verbally pimp slap them for being so neglectful and manipulative in a shameless effort to pimp their daughter for money and TRL dominance. First, there was the show, which was a fascinating little piece of pop culture. Then, there was the domination of the NSYNCs and Britneys, before they had a chance to create anything worth listening too. And next was the tour and the CDs (and the tangential dominance of the NOW compilations which are evil incarnate). It needs to end.
#2. Michael Jackson
#5. Carson Daly himself
PROOF THAT POP MUSIC IS A TRAGIC PARADOX – NSYNC, Celebrity
It is almost fitting that Celebrity fell out of the top 10 within the first six weeks. It would be unfair if they were just as popular when they made good music as when they were recording other people’s trash. Say what you will, but much of this album was written and produced by the boys (well, actually JC and Justin, but do the others really matter?). And much of it was good, interesting even.Gone is the best single released in pop music this year. It is brilliantly understated, and despite Justin’s limited vocal chops, it is remarkably soulful. And that doesn’t even count the soulful brilliance of Selfish which I contend is the best song they’ve ever recorded. It is telling that the minute a pop group does their own thing, the audience becomes disenchanted, almost the very minute a pop artist embraces the forms it formally pillaged and raped, white girls and boys become disinterested. I mean, shit they wouldn’t even buy a 112 album or a Maxwell album, so why buy it from white boys who have finally decided to listen to the people that they imitate. It is sad, unfair, and indicative of a country that still doesn’t want to admit that the biggest force in the world, pop culture, is just the commodification, the dilution, and the commercialization of black culture.
GUILTY PLEASURE OF THE YEAR – Britney Spears, Slave 4 U
I’m sorry, but the Neptunes are brilliant. Only they could make Britney seem damn intriguing, three-dimensional even. But considering she can’t even articulate what the song is, makes the production wizards that much more responsible for the tempting pop morsel that Slave 4 U is. It is completely driven by the bass line and Britney’s coy little breaths. There are no verses to speak of, but it doesn’t matter, because the Neptunes are much more interested in bridges and key changes (oh, they’re there, she isn’t the strongest vocalist remember). It is a great song, and the only thing worthwhile on her terrible third album.
MOST SLEPT ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR – Jon B, pleasures u like
Jon b is one of those guys you love but don’t want the mainstream to discover. It would be unfair to loose such a talent to Middle America’s penchant for watering down. This white boy is straight soulful. His work is complex, timely (but not trendy), and consistent. pleasures u like is a great little piece of neo-soul. If anyone is keeping soul music alive it is Jon b. He has a command of song structure and just about every instrument in the world. But he is no showoff, the mixing of the tracks is among some of the best layering and complex stuff since the great defining studio work of Stevie Wonder (and later Teddy Riley). I mean that, even if you don’t like a lot of the material, it is incredibly musical in a traditional way. I suggest everyone get a copy right now.
#2. Bahamadia, BB Queen
#3. Foxy Brown, Broken Silence
#4. 112, Part III
#5. NSYNC, Celebrity
MOST WELCOME RETURN – Bahamadia, BB Queen
It goes without saying that Bahamadia is the best female MC of all time. She has a wonderful command of rhythm, timing, and ingenuity. Her work has always been good, but this album is the culmination of all her struggles to keep recording. If someone doesn’t pick her up (Hello!! Def Jam..are you there?) and make her a star somewhere other than in Philly, there is no hope for the quickly dying (read: commercialization) rap art form. But perhaps we should keep her to ourselves, black people. I’m not sure, we’ll see.
#2. The Isley Brothers, Eternal
#3. Luther Vandross, Luther Vandross
#4. Radiohead, Amnesiac
#5. Jamiroquai, A Funk Odyssey
MOST UNWELCOME RETURN – No Doubt, Rock Steady
I know people really dig Gwen Stefani, but her post 90’s Cyndi Lauper thing is tired, annoying, and unnecessary. The band itself is madd talented, but her banal self-involved lyrics are just boring. And her bouncing around in all the videos looking silly just undermines their credibility. Oh, and if one more person tells me that they are a true ska band, I’ma kill myself. They aren’t. They are just an American watered-down version of ska. Rock Steady is an exercise in calculated mainstream pandering and shallow superficiality. The best thing I can say for No Doubt right now is that there other albums were at least partially listenable. This one is trash. Period.
#2. Britney Spears, Britney
#3. Boyz II Men, NathanMichaelShawnWanya
#4. Sisqo, Return of the Dragon
#5. Jennifer Lopez, J.Lo
MOST DESERVING OF ITS CONTINUED SUCCESS – Usher,8701
The man who is currently doing Michael Jackson better than MJ himself is still in the top twenty and has been since 8701 was released. The album is remarkably consistent and complex. Vocally, Usher is stronger than he has ever been. He has never made a bad album (his self-titled debut is particularly strong), but this is a truly great pop/soul album. Everything from the percolating infectious I Don’t Know to the Spanish inflected How Do I Say this album finds Usher exploring love and sex and identity in a decidedly more mature and musically complex and experimental way. Gone are the overproduced production of most R&B; and the pointless rap cameos (except one from Puffy…which is definitely unacceptable but ultimately not in the least detrimental over all). I suggest everyone get it. It is subtle song craft so I won’t be surprised if y’all find it boring.
BEST REMIX – JANET JACKSON, Son of a Gun featuring Missy Elliott and Carly Simon remixed by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis
Despite the disappointing All For You album (it wasn’t bad, not even close, just average) Janet had a stellar year. She is finally starting to get her props and recognition (albeit for her image more so than her continued growth as a songwriter) for being the force and icon that she is. This song is among the better ones on the disk and addition of Missy is an inspired choice. The track is sped up and much more club-ready. And Jimmy and Terry remixed their own track. Inspired!! But what works is that Janet’s vocals are brought to the fore and it is great. The song itself is Janet and Carly Simon rappin over a interpolation of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain . Check it out. This is her best remix since Preemo’s remix of Together Again.
BEST VIDEO OF THE YEAR – DMX, Who We Be
I can’t explain to you how happy I was to see this video. DMX has been stale since his second album, but with this brilliantly introspective and penetrative song, we get X at his most open and complex. The video is a stunning black and white video that plunges us through every problem you could think of. It is harrowing, moving, and brilliantly realized.
#2. Mary J. Blige, No More Drama
#3. Gorillaz, Clint Eastwood
#4. Missy Elliot, Get Ur Freak On
#5. Janet Jackson feat. Missy and Carly Simon, Son of a Gun
That is my assessment of the year in music. I suppose I will get lots of comments and I welcome them. Overall, I was deeply disappointed with hip-hop’s representation. OutKast, while still a great group, have yet to attain the brilliance of ATLiens. And their eccentricities are nearly off-putting, nearly. Hopefully next year there will be better material. I will say that you should look out for my review of 2001 in films because we are having a stellar year (especially indie-wise).