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Note: The article that follows was written by my good friend and west coast correspondent, Richard Birt. Richard is an avid music fan with a distinctive point of view. For those of you that own The Jimmy Buffet box set, Richard is the “lobster man” pictured in the booklet.
2001 will be remembered as one of the landmark years in music. As I am writing this year-end report, I seem to want to focus less on my yearly listing of songs and bands, and instead, talk on the sea change of events that is profoundly reshaping the landscape. I am reminded of the fable of the four blind men and the elephant, each not knowing what the bigger and complete animal looks like. And like the elephant, this story is big, gray and ugly.
First and foremost, the record industry has finally had to face a brutal reality of competing in the digital world. Even though Napster was ordered out of business in a landmark ruling, the MP3 format and file swapping continues to maintain mind-share, especially with the teen and college bound segment. With recorded music’s share-of-wallet competing with movies, DVDs, fashion, and computer gaming, the record companies now place a poor fifth in the pecking order for the discretionary income of America’s youth. We have created a computer savvy Gen Y, which is now reshaping the market dynamic. Not content to pay $17 for CDs, they understand how to “go online” and effectively steal music. Similar and more discrete file-swapping services continue to flourish and the major labels have yet to establish a pay-per-download format that exists as an alternative force that serves the needs of both fan and artist.
Secondly, the music industry is now posting weak to negative growth, with the artists, labels and major retail chains equally struggling. From the artist perspective, no genre now dominates the charts. Rock (Dave Mathews), Urban R & B (Alicia Keys), Teen Pop (Britney Spears), and New Metal (System of a Down and Staid) equally shared the charts this year. Many of these albums shifted millions because of strong singles, but they are the exceptions. In an effort to find hits, the labels are allowing the artists and their output to become increasingly faceless and disposable. Producers figure more into the equation than the stars. For every Mary J Blige, Missy Elliot, and Macy Gray, there is Rodney Jenkins, Timbaland, Dr. Dre and the Neptunes behind the mixing board. But this is no guarantee. Major hyped albums by Mariah Carey, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson quickly went bust in 2001.
Whether it is fickle fans, digital piracy or just bad albums, the recording industry is in a tailspin. Los Angeles and New York is shedding thousands of jobs at a rapid pace. Tower Records is $200 million in debt and may go out of business in 2002. A sluggish economy since September 11th has continued to slow even concert attendance, which had been the one growth area within the music industry. Leaders within the record industry would argue that this is still a multi-billion industry, so it is not all “gloom and doom,” only that they are caught under a cyclical economy. I beg to differ, and think this downturn points to a deeper issue of diminished relevancy, which is now overtaking the maturing economics of the situation. Even the artists know where their bread is buttered. This is why formally edgy artists are seeking out other alternative income sources before the tables are turned: Nissan/the Who, Microsoft/Madonna, etc. Moby managed an industry first by licensing every song off his last album to advertisers here and in Europe.
Lastly, there is one promising new development--a quiet revolution going on that is finally bringing the Rave Nation to the mainstream in a global way in 2001. The previous Zen Tens have always featured artists from the Electronica genre, including such noted groups as Air, Basement Jaxx, Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, Groove Armada, Moby and the Prodigy. What has happening now is the emergence of the DJ as star.
Starting in Detroit, Chicago and NY in the late 1980s, America DJs pioneered the techno and house music that is now in vogue in clubs around the world. German and British youth adopted it and made it their own. The U.K. now sports six large outdoor festivals that routinely drew 35,000 to 70,000 clubbers in 2001. Their super clubs Cream, Ministry of Sound, and God’s Kitchen have quickly branded themselves as club properties, recording labels, publications, touring festivals in the islands and abroad. You can see their respective DJs grace events in Tokyo, Sydney, London, Los Angeles, Ibiza or Buenos Aires.
America has been slow to join this movement. Moby launched a multi-city tour this year that prominently featured club music. Americans and Canadians are just now joining their Euro-trash friends club-hopping in Ibiza and Cyprus during July and August. Ibiza alone now sports two clubs, Space and Amnesia, which can hold up to 10,000 patrons nightly during the Summer Season. DJs Paul Oakenfold, Peter Tong, Sasha and Digweed, Paul Van Dyk and Timo Maas are now global superstars, in demand for both live club or festival dates and major “remix” or compilation CD efforts. Madonna and U2 have always sported remix versions of their songs; now these DJs command six and seven figure engagements to score movies or “juice” a track to give it “Street Appeal.” This Zen Ten will survey numerous songs that point out both the robustness and diversity of these efforts.
Laguna Hills, 12/6/01
1) Radiohead, “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box.”
I have been a big fan of the band since 1993. Their first three albums redefined classic guitar-driven progressive rock. Radiohead were complete originals, peers to Oasis, Blur or Nirvana, yet often drawing comparisons by the critics to Pink Floyd and REM. “Creep” and “High and Dry” were songs unlike anything that Britpop offered up during its mid-decade rise, featuring fragile and beautiful vocals by Thom Yorke and wiry guitar lines by Jonny Greenwood. “OK Computer” cemented their reputation as Britain’s best band and could easily have lead to U2 arena-like aspirations.
Yet Radiohead did the unthinkable: retreating into the country and reshaping a sound that echoed Picasso’s muse: you have to destroy to create again. Like looking at sketch books of any artistic genius, the follow up albums “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” suggest a path of both renewed energies and broken down barriers, a collision of ideas such as banished guitars, abstract jazz and ambient electronica. The songs are meant to keep the loyal fans guessing and critics re-evaluating their greater body of work. This song, like the “Amnesiac” album it was selected from, draws equally from Miles Davis (“Black Satin”), Kraftwerk (or any other clanking Krautrock band), and the ambient work of Brian Eno. In a world of faceless bands, it was amazing to think that a record executive green-lighted both works. Amazing still, both albums debuted at top of the charts.
2) Elton John, “Original Sin.”
This song is included under the heading “HOW TO GROW OLD GRACEFULLY.” While Bob Dylan may be ending up on every publication’s year-end survey, and Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney are presently slogging their new albums on the Xmas-buying Public, their respective new efforts remain a pale shadow of their best 1960’s work. To their credit, it is a very high water mark; yet their vocals seem tired, the song-writing stale and the playing not inspired. It was surprising to me to stumble onto this song, which recalls Elton at his early 1970’s best. The piano playing is sparsely beautiful, the lyrics strong and well developed, his voice rich and his spirit renewed. There are not many love songs that would dare sing the joy of homosexuality and sobriety, yet it is all here and more.
3) New Order, “Crystal,” (Lee Combs Remix)
New Order came back after a nine-year hiatus with a solid album, brimming with euphoric emotion and anchored by a new sound that brings together rock guitar riffs and tribal dance grooves. Gone is disco filtered through blue lights, drum loops, and post-punk bass lines (a la “Blue Monday”). While many bands may rest on their “lost hero” laurels after this length of inactivity, this album smacks rather of the assured progression of new ideas, rather than some desperate 401K-padding ploy by a band past its prime. While not as strong or vital as their peak 1980s work, this still has a natural contemporary feel that is lacking in many other “come back” albums this year, including Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson. New Order released this single to some of the hottest DJ re-mixers, including Lee Combs, Bedrock and John Creamer, and the diverse results anchored many a DJ set this Fall. Welcome back.
4) Weezer, “Islands in the Sun.”
Pure ear candy, with an even better video featuring stunt animals by Spike Jones, who directed their earlier, classic Happy Days rip-off for “Buddy Holly” in 1994. The Best Geek Rockers ever from Los Angeles, unless you count Sparks during their New Wave days.
5) Missy Elliot, “Get Yer Freak On.”
You just knew this would be big after the first listen. It has spawned a half dozen bootleg remixes in the U.K., yet the original Timbaland groove is the best.
6) Gorillaz, “Clint Eastwood.”
Originally a side project between the Blur’s Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, this pop collective and their resulting songs quickly became greater than the sum of their parts when they brought in SF hip hop producer Dan Nakamura to supply the beats. One of the few Hip Hop/Rock hybrids that work, “Clint Eastwood” draws upon classic Blur, reggae dancehall toasting, Ennio Morricone and the Beastie Boys.
7) Angie Stone, “Brotha.”
Angie Stone’s sophomore effort defines the best qualities of the Nu Soul movement, featuring old school beats layered against a commanding voice. The lyrics capture womanhood with all its ups and downs. You would have to go back to Aretha in the 1960s to capture the soulful ness found here. While Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, and Macy Gray have been getting all the press of late, Angie is quietly doing her “thang.” Only Mary J Blige has as much presence. Sometimes you need a horse and not a pony—Angie appears to be the real thing, with a strong stage presence to boot. She just opened up for Maxwell last month here in LA and critic reviews said she blew him off the stage, no pun intended.
8) Oxide and Neutrino, “Nuff of Dem Watch Me.”
Dance music is ever evolving into sub-genres: House, UK Garage, Hard House, Techno, Trance, Breaks and Beats, Hip Hop, Urban R & B, Jungle, Drum and Bass, Downtempo and Leftfield are among the current reigning styles. UK Garage is the new sound of South London, driven from the lower class Black neighborhoods there. It mixes up Jamaican dub, raw beats and dirty bass lines.
9) Zero 7, “Destiny.”
Funk and soul stand as immediate influences here, yet there is also the lush, dreamy influence of Air’s Moon Safari, the great French chill-out album from three years ago. “Destiny” features the sexy vocals of Sophie Baker; in a relaxed emotive musical setting so laid back it is almost vertical. The album, Simple Things, is the perfect accompaniment for a Sunday Morning-reading the paper in bed, or better yet still, nursing Saturday Night’s worse hangover. This was my album of the year.
10) The Avalanches, “Frontier Psychiatrist.”
Song of the Year: One of the most creative efforts to come since Beck’s Odelay, the Avalanches’ album, Since I left You, packs more samples per song in recent or distant memory (I counted over 40 on this song alone), framed with some of the happiest compositions this side of Brian Wilson. This Melbourne-based dance six-piece appear to have gone on a six month road trip of Australia visiting every used vinyl shop within its borders, the Holden burdened down with crates of hundreds of disparate sounds. The album, with 18 tracks, plays like one big, funky sound collage—always warm and vibrant, never smug in its cleverness, always leaving the listener with new insights. John Lennon would have been proud of “Frontier Psychiatrist.” Check out the stellar video for the song as well.