1) Macy Gray "On How Life Is" (Epic)
An almost old-fashioned soul record, with tunes that draw from surprising sources ("Do Something" from the Wailers' "Kinky Reggae," "Caligula" from the Beatles' "Come Together," "Still" from the Rolling Stones' "Shine a Light") and a voice that recalls Eartha Kitt, Shirley Bassey and Tasmin Archer -- for that matter, Gayl Jones -- more than anyone on Atlantic or Motown. There's a thinness, a lack of glamour or costuming, in Gray's tone; you can imagine these songs as ordinary if acrid talk as easily as you can see them as performances. Soul music was about appearing to reveal all, and Gray is plainly holding back, but that's part of what draws a listener in. It's as if something has been beaten out of the singer, and the real goal of the music is to get it back without giving up anything else. But that's just a notion; there are mysteries here. Momentum builds in "I've Committed Murder" until you can feel the sound won't escape the song; the last cut ends with a banjo, which is to say in the 19th century.
2) Nik Cohn & Guy Peellaert "20th-Century Dreams" (Knopf)
Like their 1973 "Rock Dreams," cool fantasies of juxtaposition from writer Cohn, lurid realization from photo-collagist and painter Peellaert -- as in Federal Agent at Large Elvis Presley smashing into a Yale dorm room to bust doper law student Bill Clinton.
3) Cellos "Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman)" on "Bringing out the Dead: Music from the Motion Picture" (Columbia)
Doo-wop, and one of the most ridiculous records ever made. Plus, a backup singer revolts, stopping right in the middle of the song: "All you guys say the big things! All I ever get to say is, 'Ah he goes ...'" A hit in 1957, and hard to find ever since.
4) ZZ Top "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" on "XXX" (BMG)
Speaking of 1957, not to mention songs with parentheses, this cute Presley No. 1 was once described as Elvis "selling out to girls." Done here as a stripper blues, with new lyrics about cheetahs and rhinos, it's more like cash on the bed.
5) Laurie Anderson "Songs & Stories from 'Moby-Dick'" (Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, Calif., Oct. 29)
My friend Andrew Baumer reports on a show I couldn't make: "If I were as self-consciously clever and downright arch as Laurie Anderson, I'd probably say something like 'How can a supposedly respectful and intelligent revision of "Moby-Dick" manage to be completely devoid of any reference to Freemasonry, castration or buggery?' The Edith Ann chair was silly and the much-vaunted Talking Stick was just a digital rehash of her magnetic-tape violin bow, but she's really hooked up with a killer bass player this time: Skuli Svernisson, who, despite his birth in Iceland, not Kokovoko, played like he should be coated in full body tattoos and eat nothing but beefsteaks. The high point came 20 minutes in, when the astounding Thom Nelis, over a diabolical funk bass line, did a whirling peg-leg tarantella with and on crutches, all the time screaming, 'Have you seen the White Whale? He looks like NOTHING!'
"The oddest, and in retrospect most interesting, aspect of the whole performance was Anderson's unapologetically female take on this whale of a book. Maybe her ignoring the savage phallocentrism of it all in favor of celebrating the yearning, nurturing, healing elements I confess I'd ignored during my 20-plus rereadings throughout my adolescent and adult life might have been just a trifle disingenuous, and perhaps a teeny bit forced, in keeping with her elfin, ain't-I-clever persona, but so what. It never occurred to me that Melville's intention was to compose a meditation on the search for the secret love and beauty hidden within the human heart, but if Anderson sees it, it's obviously there."
6) Ann Hamilton "Myein" (1999) at the Venice Bienalle (June 13-Nov. 7)
As you approached the American Pavilion, crossing a flagstone courtyard, you noticed the stones were stained red, as if someone had spilled paint. The neo-classical building was small and low, with two rectangular wings coming off a dome. The place, a sign in the entryway said, reminded Hamilton of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, so she decided to orchestrate the place as an American metaphor. The sign explained further: the bumps you would see on the walls of the wings would be Braille renderings of poems from Charles Reznikoff's "Testimony," which were drawn from court records, while the whispering voice you would hear emanating from the ceilings would be Hamilton reciting Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address in "International Phonetic Code."
In the wings the information dissolved into mere suggestion, like the title of a song standing in for words you can't make out. The suggestion changed the dots on the walls from poems you couldn't read anyway into an abstract version of Lincoln's Second Inaugural as it's chiseled on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial -- because it was now that building, not Monticello, that the Pavilion matched. Hamilton's voice-over was precisely a song where you can't make out the words, weirdly done in the style of one of these female heavy-breathing discs -- Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourgh's 1974 "Je T'aime ... Moi Non Plus" was probably the first -- that's good for a hit every 10 years or so. The few identifiable words ("Oscar," "November," "Sierra," "uniform," "triumph") seemed not to belong to the Second Inaugural, even if one of them does. So there you were in this surrealist memorial, noticing the difference between Lincoln's and Hamilton's: Her walls were alive.
Down every wall, streams of dark pink powder fell to the floor, sometimes in slivers, sometimes in gushes, like the bleeding walls in "The Shining." The powder piled up on the floor, inches deep; as people walked through the rooms, causing drafts, the powder spread across the floor, and people picked it up on their shoes. When they left the U.S. Pavilion for those of other nations, they carried a trail of blood -- not, you could think, the blood of conquest, but of crime and punishment: "Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash," as Lincoln said of slavery in his Second Inaugural, "shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." The sign explaining the piece was neat, balanced, and formal; the thing itself was almost vibrating.
7) Bryan Ferry "As Time Goes By" (Virgin)
Bryan Ferry is a god. This is the most boring album of the year.
8) Rage Against the Machine "The Battle of Los Angeles" (Epic)
They have a victory strategy: Beat it to death.
9) Alanis Morissette in "Dogma" (Lion's Gate)
Typecast as God, she opens her mouth for a scream only dogs can hear and blows off Ben Affleck's head. As I recall, that's pretty much what happened every time "You Oughta Know" came on the air.
10) Levon Helm's Classic American Cafe (300 Decatur St., New Orleans)
Is this where the road ends? Here at this defunct restaurant-cafe, even the word "American" communicates like a lapsed trademark. A "Live at Levon's" poster has an insert of a Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks poster and a design spelling out "BAND" to remind you; a spring 1999 calendar lists Levon and daughter Amy Helm with the Barn Burners, Levon Helm's Classic Blues Band, Levon Helm with Allen Toussaint, Levon Helm with James Cotton, Levon Helm with Cork, Levon Helm with the Dirty Dozen Blues Band. The creepy stuff is on the menu: "I'm a Lonely Boy ... I Ain't Got No Home" Po' Boys; The Last Waltz Desserts; "Up on Cripple Creek" seafood -- and, too perfectly, "King Harvest Has Surely Come" salads. After the big "FOR RENT" sign, a red and white sticker under the menu pages in the window seemed like the last word:
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