Critics VS 2002: Rebuilding From Ash

2002 spent the year in a 9/11 hangover. Through the confusion, notable and amazing works still arose

Henry Cabot Beck:

Right off the top: It was the year of the geezers, with reissues, reunions, tributes, collections and some reemergences. There are a couple of dynasties-in-the-making, furthered by Hank Williams III and Femi Kuti, son of Fela, but mostly the geezers take the point, at least from my dashboard POV.

1. And no living American monument had a better year than Johnny Cash. There's a fine collection of essays, Ring of Fire, a brand-new CD, American IV, his fourth collection of originals and covers (Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"), a spectacular armload of old and improved reissues, and two top-of-the-line all-star tribute collections, all of which made the Man in Black a Cash crop.

2. Solomon Burke has achieved redwood status as well. Burke, who taught the Stones some soul-rock lessons back in the early '60s, brought forth a new collection, Don't Give Up on Me, full of original tunes by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits. A clean, well-lighted disc, with terrific E-Z instrumentation, the album is beautifully produced and smart, like Burke himself.

3. Speaking of Waits, Tom Waits' Fassbinder-on-acid double-CD release, Alice and Blood Money, either fills a void or creates one -- with Waits, it's sometimes hard to tell. And even though some of the unreleased material was a little dated in places, those in need of a musical through-the-looking-glass horror show combined with large doses of menacing oompah, a parade of Francis Bacon grotesqueries and some achingly beautiful ballads will find it all here.

4. Sicily's 20-member, twentysomething Banda Ionica has plenty of oompah, and their second disc, Matri Mia (Dunya Records, available as an import), includes funeral marches, traditional tunes and originals done up in true Euro-eclectic fashion. This one grows more charming the more time you give it, once you accept its innate eccentricities.

5. Tito Puente: The Complete RCA Recordings, Vol. 1 & 2, each containing six CDs, include arguably some of the best material the king of Afro-Cubano-Bop ever recorded. Cut during the '50s and '60s, these discs are loaded with great Latin music -- jazzy, swinging, smart and wild, most of it recorded for audiences who couldn't get enough mambo and cha-cha at the time, though there are also great standards here, and some fairly far-out exotica. RCA might have done a better job of putting these collections together, but the music stands on its own, and both volumes are equally wonderful.

6. Hank Williams III, Lovesick, Broke & Driftin': A lot of great country music trickled out of Americana this year, besides Cash -- Alan Jackson, Dixie Chicks, Merle, Dale Watson, the Webb Pierce tribute disc Caught in the Webb, Laura Cantrell's sophomore effort When the Roses Bloom Again, Jim Lauderdale's two releases, Elizabeth Cook's Hey Y'All, the Flatlanders reunion record, to name a small handful. So it's hard to pick one or two that stood out. Having said that, Hank No. 3's album is a stunner. This guy has tapped the family vein in an uncanny fashion, and there's a bit of whiskey, gravel dust, mud and sour coffee in every track.

7. Red Hot & Riot is a tribute to Nigeria's late, great Fela Kuti and the latest in a series of spectacular collaborations made for the Red Hot AIDS-awareness organization. Kuti, who mixed western funk, soul jazz and African music, was a political figure and pop star, and this collection brings his son, Femi, and other African musicians together with a number of American jazz artists and hip-hoppers, including progressive faves Blackalicious.

8. The soundtrack to Arliss Howard's film Big Bad Love meshes a handy sampling of Fat Possum blues artists such as Asie Payton, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford and others, with some interesting new tracks by brilliant Television guitarist and producer Tom Verlaine, including a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet.

9. Charlie Christian didn't just invent electric jazz guitar, he remains one of the genre's all-time great players, even though he died at 25 in 1942. What is surprising is how progressive Christian's thinking was, throwing bop notes and notions all over the place at a time when bebop was still a baby. It also didn't hurt that Christian was embraced so warmly by Benny Goodman and his group, who really swing here. The four-CD boxed set is a nifty exploration.

10. The Blasters got their due this year with Testament, a two-CD collection of their Warner material on Rhino, and Trouble Bound, a live recording from their recent reunion tour on Hightone. Maybe the Blasters are the sole band that marks the difference between alt-country and Americana. Maybe not. Whatever the case, the Alvin brothers were more than the sum of their trials, tribulations and talents, and they moved around inside American musical idioms like no one else.

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