1) Marah "Kids from Philly" (E Squared/Artemis)
I haven't heard a band sing so convincingly from the inside of a bad neighborhood since the Youngbloods' "Four in the Morning," and that was a long time ago. Marah works with a small, tight sound, as if they have nothing they can afford to waste, but they're far-seeing. Their best pieces seem at once cramped -- as cramped as the room the singer rents -- and infinitely expansive: You have no idea how far the songs will go before they'll let go of you. For a moment you might wonder why the Vietnam tune "Roundeye Blues" begins with castanets and a radio-familiar three-stroke drum pattern, but after that you're too caught up in the story to care. The sudden density of the music and the cruelty of the ideas inside it shoot up on the chorus, burning off the romanticism of some young guy's war fantasy. "Don't smoke the Bible," the singer warns. The last verse ends with a stinger; it's so harsh, so unpolished, you can't accept it as the last word. You want the story to go on. But by then the singer is trailing away, musing over the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," and you find out what those castanets and that drum pattern were for.
2) "Down and Out -- The Sad Soul of the Black South" (Trikont)
This extraordinarily sophisticated anthology focuses on obscure singers and strange records. It begins with George Perkins and the Silver Stars' 1971 "Crying in the Streets," a purposeful negation of Martha and the Vandellas' 1964 "Dancing in the Street" and a eulogy for the Civil Rights Movement. "I see somebody marching," Perkins cries, but he doesn't; he's crying in the street because all he sees are ghosts. Then there is Bill Brandon's "Rainbow Road," a generic voice telling a generic tale, but with such pathos it seems that without the existence of a genre, which allows men and women to disappear into anonymity, some would never have the nerve to speak at all. And there is Dicky Williams' "The Wrong Motel," an adult version of the Rays' 1957 "Silhouettes," where a guy comes home from work and behind the shade of his big picture window sees his wife kissing another man -- except it isn't her, because he lives in one of the new subdivisions where all the streets and houses look the same and he's "on the wrong block." This time the guy's out of town in a motel with thin walls; he's just settling down for a lonely night on the road when he picks up the sounds the man and woman in the next room are making. "Oh," he says in a way you wish he wouldn't, "I got so tired of hearing my woman scream." "I am a forgotten lover/That is, if you have time to hear," Virgil Griffin and the Rhythm Kings sing so modestly from Greensville, Miss., speaking not only for everyone here but for the genre itself.
3) "Sinners and Saints (1926-1931)" (Document)
Early commercial recordings of pre-blues song survivals, from the T.C.I. Section Crew's very smooth railroad-gang number "Track Linin'" -- a cappella gospel in form, a day's first cup of coffee and train whistles inside of it -- to the Nugrape Twins' odes to a drink that will make you a better person and bring you closer to God.
4) Sarah Dougher "The Walls Ablaze" (Mr. Lady)
Organist for the cheapo-punk trio Cadallaca, Dougher sings and plays out of doubt here, dropping hints all over the place that happy endings are elsewhere. The women in her songs might be kin to the character Samantha Morton plays in "Jesus' Son," all brains and fatalism, contemptuous of the obligation to explain herself even as she does exactly that.
5) "Down to the Promised Land -- 5 Years of Bloodshot Records" (Bloodshot)
There are more gems among these 40 previously unheard tracks by bands on or about the Chicago country label than the Handsome Family's cover of Bill Monroe's "I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling," Rico Bell and the Snakehandlers' bitter "Money to Burn" or Hazeldine's dark, damned "Unforgiven." That's merely all I've found so far. But if there's anything better than Amy Nelson and Eddie Spaghetti of the Seersuckers mooning about what they did on the floor I'll be surprised.
6 & 7) J. Bottum "The Soundtracking of America" (Atlantic Monthly, March) & Philip Roth "The Human Stain" (Houghton Mifflin)
There are many reactionary propositions in critic J. Bottum's manifesto -- notably the idea that there was once a common "belief in the intellectual coherence of human beings and the world," that "Music used to have a purpose: to express and, indeed, to perpetuate this shared sense of coherence." Now, that coherence is lost and music has no purpose. It is empty, nothing more than a soundtrack, interference, static, aural caffeine.
What this actually means is that once upon a time only certain people needed to be taken into account as "human beings and the world" -- that's what's gone. Any future shared sense of coherence will have to be based on something more than the hegemony of a single, and singly gendered, ethnic group. But Bottum doesn't hear it this way. He hears only the emptiness of music as such, the muteness, and with the great goal of social coherence -- or, in reality, social domination -- missing, he hears the danger of music. Bottum hears it as an irrational art form; it cannot contain ideas. It grants false but overwhelming credence to sentiments of utter vapidity and banality: "Even in, say, Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' -- in, that is, a deliberate effort to make music express something rational -- the ideas it takes 45 minutes to convey amount to little more than winter is cold and summer is hot." Music convinces us we know what we don't, understand what we've never thought about. Worst of all -- my characterization of Bottum's thesis, not his -- music makes ordinary people feel heroic, as if they can do anything and be anyone. But it's all a lie: "What can a genuinely tragic folk song tell us, except that we no longer know what to make of tragedy?"
As Sgt. Joe Friday used to say to his partner in the Mad magazine "Dragged Net" parodies, "How's your mom, Ed?" Coleman Silk, in Philip Roth's new novel a 71-year-old classics professor, can explain. Banished from the college he once transformed, he's caught up in a transforming affair with a 34-year-old janitor. Now every Saturday night he tunes in the local Big Band show and, he says, "Everything stoical within me unclenches and the wish not to die, never to die, is almost too great to bear. And all this from listening to Vaughn Monroe." He goes on: "Let anyone born in l926 try to stay alone at home on a Saturday night in 1998 and listen to Dick Haymes singing 'Those Little White Lies.' Just have them do that, and then tell me afterwards if they have not understood at last the celebrated doctrine of the catharsis effected by tragedy." Who do you trust, a real-life critic or an imaginary professor? One whose true demand on art is that it offer not ideas but arguments, or one who believes that music less contains ideas than finds them in those who hear it, and then says what those ideas are worth?
8) Melvins "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Ramblin' Man" from "The Crybaby" (Ipecac)
Buzz Osborne of the Melvins was Kurt Cobain's first mentor in punk, so he has as much right as Tori Amos to cover Cobain's best song. Hey, it's a free country, so he even has a right to ask '70s flesh-crawlingly rock-bottom teen idol Leif Garrett to sing it on the Melvins' "Featuring" album. Fruit of perhaps the most perverse singer-to-song match since Bert Parks sang Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" in "The Freshman" (and he was great), the track begins so pristinely, with such punch, it suggests a terrible possibility. What if Garrett, currently heading a band called Godspeed and looking like the sort of person who'd paper his walls with pictures of the sort of person he used to look like, rises to the occasion? What if he's good? The world remains on its axis; Garrett is completely effete. You can hear all the words, and without Cobain's mumbles, his swallowed lyrics, the fear of being understood, there is no music. Then Hank Williams III takes his grandfather's spookiest tune. The hesitation in the way the melody opens up -- the curling finger, then the fading smoke, of the first notes on the steel guitar -- make it Williams' most cloven-hoofed. The band never pushes the song, and never loses it, but after two verses the young singer falls behind, which only makes the drama more believable.
9) Common "Like Water for Chocolate" (MCA)
If the cover art -- a 1956 Gordon Parks photo of a young black woman in Alabama, dressed for church, drinking from a "Colored Only" water fountain -- is the music, and the record's title the words, nothing on the record itself comes close. I don't know what would, though.
10) Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band "Land of Hope and Dreams" (Crystal Cat bootleg, Barcelona, April 11, 1999)
It's stirring to hear the old sanctified train that don't carry no gamblers turn into a train that carries whoever most needs a ride: "Losers and winners, whores and gamblers, broken-hearted, souls departed." And it's stirring to hear them all lift their glasses together and sing their own song. Caveat emptor: The fans in Barcelona couldn't clap on the beat to save their city from Franco.