1) Dido, "Thank You," from "No Angel" (Arista)
What's most interesting about the way this piece now emerges from Dido Armstrong's 1999 debut album is how completely its first minute and a half -- the material sampled by Eminem on his recent "Stan" -- now seems definitively appropriated. On "No Angel," an otherwise dulled record that begins in dance clubs in London and might as well be on the beach at Ipanema by its end, you're listening to a number about a woman with a hangover. The drifting, fatalistic quality of the melody seems all out of proportion to its insistently ordinary payoff -- with an insistently ordinary melody stretched over the remaining two minutes -- which is that the singer is grateful to her boyfriend, whose love redeems bad days. This does not quite match what Eminem does with Dido; using her music to place beauty in between the pages of an awful story, he makes her into the angel of death.
2) Dick Slessig Combo, presented by Jessica Bronson, "Rock Your Baby," at the Portland, Ore., Art Museum (July 7)
Carl Bronson, bass, Steve Goodfriend, drums, and Mark Lightcap, guitar -- the Dick Slessig Combo, as in dyslexic -- were playing on L.A. conceptual artist Jessica Bronson's internally lit bandstand for the Portland opening of "Let's Entertain," a motley assemblage of glamorous art statements first staged at the Walker in Minneapolis. They were at least a half-hour into a performance that would eventually cover 90 minutes before I realized the nearly abstract, circular pattern the trio was offering as the meaning of life -- it was all they were playing, anyway -- was from George McCrae's effortlessly seductive 1974 Miami disco hit. Or rather the pattern wasn't from the tune, it was the tune, the thing itself. Variation was never McCrae's point (the big moment in his "Rock Your Baby," the equivalent of the guitar solo, is when he barely whispers "Come on"); finding the perfect, self-renewing riff was. "I could listen to that forever," I said to Bronson when he and the others finally stepped down for a break. "We'd play it forever if we were physically capable," he said. The bandstand is empty now, but a 50-minute edit of the number will be running in the air above it, over and over, through Sept. 17.
3 & 4) Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue Vol. II" (Elektra) & "'Til We Outnumber 'Em" (Righteous Babe)
"Mermaid Avenue Vol. II" is Bragg and Wilco's proof that the light touch of last year's astonishing completions of lyrics Woody Guthrie never got around to making into songs was a fluke. Compared to the blanket of piety enveloping a Guthrie tribute from a 1996 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame conference -- featuring Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls and more, every speaker droppin' his g's (never has plain-folks talk sounded more affected) -- it's Little Richard's "Ready Teddy."
5) Shalini, "We Want Jelly Donuts" (Parasol)
The singer lives in North Carolina, and you can imagine her small songs, pushed forward in a flat, conversational voice, as a fantasy of knocking the acronym made by her title off the top of her local charts, where it means "What Would Jesus Do?"
6) "The Life Casts of Cynthia Plaster Caster: 1968-2000," Thread Waxing Space, New York City (through July 29)
New York Eye reports: "Though I've never liked the word 'groupie' and am not inclined to embrace my inner slut, I am a rock 'n' roll girl and it's not as if I don't appreciate wanting to sleep with rock stars. But up until a couple of weeks ago, I was only vaguely aware that there had been a Cynthia Plaster Caster -- I didn't know her name or even if she was fact or fancy -- so I was delighted to discover that not only is she real, so were her casts, and I could go see them. It seemed like a cause for celebration, that in the midst of ubiquitous 'Behind the Music' marathons, reissues, box sets, exposis, redolent praise and idealized recapitulation, autobiographies, celebrity gossip and endless reruns of 'Rock and Roll Jeopardy,' there was this little show that simply and without fluffy fanfare was exhibiting 67 actual rock people's plaster-casted cocks. I invited all my friends.
"Cynthia Plaster Caster never stopped casting, and many of the rigs are recent casts, but I think it's fair to say that the absolutely weirdest and most titillating among them -- and they're all weird and titillating -- must be the balls-attached, slightly off-kilter monument of Jimi Hendrix. Fun facts: Jimi, we're told, was uncommonly able to sustain his erection for longer than the required 60 seconds, and Cynthia, exuberant and impatient, prematurely burst open the mold, causing it to break apart. (It was later glued back together.)
"A guy friend asked if 'The Life Casts' was a fair sampling and I'd say it was. Identified and unadorned, often hilarious, perfectly plain white plaster penises belonging to people we know or know of, listen to and watch -- it was fun and it was art. I'm going back."
7) John Hiatt, "I Wanna Be Sedated" (KFOG-FM, San Francisco, July 16)
The singer-songwriter who usually doesn't trust rock 'n' roll, weird clothes or showmanship, from a 1996 live broadcast, just acoustic guitar, pounding, audience handclaps and a gleefully demented old-codger vocal. If he put this out he might not have to do those earnest PBS musician-interviews anymore -- or get away with them.
8) "Fall Time," directed by Paul Warner (Live Entertainment Video, 1993)
So obscure it's not even in Leonard Maltin: a sub-Coen Bros./Murphy's Law crime drama set in a small Wisconsin town in 1957, with Mickey Rourke, Stephen Baldwin, and David Arquette, but the point is Sheryl Lee as a mousy bank employee who turns out to be the only one with brains, and the only winner. Here as elsewhere, from "Twin Peaks" to "This World, Then the Fireworks," but perhaps most expansively here, Lee's more of a silent movie actor than anyone else of her time. "We had faces then" -- and they knew what to do with them, how to act from inside the face, and so does Lee. She says everything about doubt, longing, lust or worry in a single look, a look you can't read to the bottom; the only thing she can't do, hopping a freight with the money, leaving four bodies behind in a shack, is wistful. Probably because that was the one thing the director was able to tell her to do.
9) Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum, "Leaning," on "Oxford American Southern Sampler 2000" (included with the July/August issue of Oxford American)
A gospel song from the end of the 1955 "Night of the Hunter," and the ultimate battle of the bands: good vs. evil.
10) Slobberbone, "Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today" (New West)
Cover: Photo of "Dust storm approaching Spearman, Texas, April 14, 1935," and it's too late to run. That's the spirit of everything good from this Texas quartet: the big, loser blues of "Josephine," the title "Placemat Blues" (a protest song: "Where's the place at the table for folks like us?") and especially the back-country "Gimme Back My Dog." Feedback, a simple count on a banjo, a light sound except for the rough growl of Brent Best asking for his dog back. Then the stops come loose from the music: The dog, it turns out, is the singer's true self, there's almost nothing of it left after the years he's spent with the woman he's talking to, and the only way he can get it back, the only way he can look in the mirror and see anything at all, is to beg. Meaning every word, he never goes too far; he never says anything he can't take back. And no, he doesn't get his dog back either.