Pretty Vacant

New Times' panel of critics searches for musical gems in a disheartening 2001

9. Renee Fleming/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Night Songs (Decca): American super-soprano Renee Fleming's buttery voice is enough to clutch the ears of even the most ardent of art-song naysayers, even those with little desire to know an aria from a hole in the ground. And pointy-headed musicologists will no doubt find much to debate regarding the finer points of Fleming's timbre and enunciation, not to mention her audacity for being popular enough for a profile on 60 Minutes. But those in search of a highbrow thrill couldn't ask for much more than these 26 accomplished yet approachable selections.

10. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part (Reprise): On which our hero, restrained as always by sidekick Mick Harvey, keeps his predictable melodrama and gothic fright masks to manageable levels and continues toying with the notion of subtlety, a concept he finally took to heart with 1997's The Boatman's Call. Cave juggles his John Cale and Tom Waits ambitions for most of these slow-going wordy tunes, and the results are as effective as anything the Seeds have produced. Secret weapon: Cave's simple piano lines that evocatively cut through the attendant excess. A nice place to start for neophyte Cave-dwellers.

Favorite Single: Jimmy Eat World, "Bleed American": Assured and combustible rock 'n' pop that shows this Mesa band's previous high points, most notably "Lucky Denver Mint," had little to do with luck. Next big things come and go, but JEW looks to hang around a while.

Favorite Reissues: Neu!, Neu! 2, and Neu! 75. The collected early '70s oeuvre of Krautrock odd couple Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger (with über-producer Connie Plank), who stopped bickering long enough to remaster and rerelease these wonders of rhythmic minimalism. A must for Faust fans and Kraftwerk devotees.

Favorite Soundtrack: The Royal Tenenbaums: Kudos to filmmaker Wes Anderson. Any excuse to expose the masses to Nick Drake ("Fly"), Emitt Rhodes ("Lullaby") and Elliott Smith ("Needle in the Hay") is a noble endeavor, especially if Ravel, the Ramones and the Clash are included. And the film's original music by former "Booji Boy" Mark Mothersbaugh doesn't suck, either.

Brian Smith:

1. Ian Hunter, Rant (Fuel 2000): A blazing, soulful, altogether ignored record that skewers entropy, with the grace to acknowledge that Mott the Hoople occupies but a modest nook on the grand map of pop. Dylanesque anti-Brit, anti-Yank ballads ("Death of a Nation," "Purgatory," respectively), witty, self-deprecating pisstakes ("Morons"), and the best rock 'n' roll song of the year ("Wash Us Away") -- whose arc connects the Faces, Dylan and Stones and Mott to the Upper East Side circa early 2001 with nary a trace of self-parody -- make this Ian Hunter's best since Mott days. It's funny; just when you might suspect him to be a backward-gazing yet clever old tosser, he'll toss off something like, "We're all dead now, in our boxes/Holding on to what little we've got left."

2. Ramones, reissues: Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin (Rhino/Warner archives): One night in 1977, Norman Mailer went to CBGB to see the Ramones. Mister Tough Guy Don't Dance had to stand on a chair to gain view over the heaving crowd. After the third song, he turned to a friend and shouted one all-inclusive word: "Heroic." Mailer, arguably one of the few men at the time qualified to utter such a word, called it like he saw it. It's funny; the term "heroic" hasn't applied to rock 'n' roll in some time. We forget that.

3. Rich Hopkins/Billy Sedlmayr, The Fifty Percenter (Hayden's Ferry): Without the ironic gloss on the tragedy of drug-addled abasement, Billy Sedlmayr, the deathly thin, prison-tatted, wholly unheralded songwriter, is the unlikely voice whose melancholic confessionals are underlined with a kind of yearning -- imagery that focuses less on the fantastic self-destructiveness of Sed's life than on gritty landscapes and personalities that inhabited it. The literate, narrative-driven songs brim with a sense of indispensability and offer salvation through the guitar work of Sidewinders/Sand Rubies/Luminarios founder Rich Hopkins that summons up generations' worth of ghosts -- from the Byrds and Love to Crazy Horse and Steve Earle.

4. Black Crowes, Lions (V2): Now seemingly under the radar. Too bad, they're the best rock 'n' roll band going.

5. Dictators, DFFD (Dictators Multi/Media): Bounced from the majors back before MTV, the 'Tators soldier on with this brilliant follow-up to 1978's Bloodbrothers.No one could accuse the 'Tators of simply worshiping primal forces, 'cause, they are the primordial pre-punk, white-trash ooze. What's more, both "Pussy and Money" and "I Am Right" define with eyebrow-singeing accuracy and hilarity ("So tell me pretty baby/Are you still talking about yourself") the long-lost idea of rock 'n' roll as effectual cultural reference point.

6. Dragons, Rock 'n' Roll Kamikaze (Junk Records): Here are four reasons the Dragons' fifth album is worthy of attention, despite untold indie-label level odds:

A). Semi-autobiographical info best not taken out of context: Singer/lyricist Mario Escovedo is a charismatic mix of Bukowski-ish bluster and confessional-booth chivalry, at once an unruly 4 a.m. drunk in need of "a kiss and a little company" and later, a quixotic family man who asks, "Can I make it up to you one day?" He's a Drinking With the Boys clubhouse chairman who's adult enough to admit he's in love, yet unwilling to give in to the workaday world. It's an honesty blueprint for agony, to be sure, but a futile dichotomy that makes for great rock 'n' roll songwriting.

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