For the Record

For national releases, 2003 wonked as much as it rocked.

3. The American Song-Poem Anthology, Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush (Bar/None)
These hastily made tracks are testament to a strange subculture that flourished mostly in the mid-'60s, when shadowy low-budget song factories advertised for "hitmakers" in the backs of comic books. Among laughable tributes to Richard Nixon and the first moon landing are over two dozen astoundingly peculiar recording sessions -- including a Motown-enhanced salute to the color yellow and a faux-country rendition of John Trubee's oddball classic, "Blind Man's Penis." We've all got a song in our hearts.

4. Nurse With Wound, She And Me Fall Together in Free Death (Beta-Iactam Ring Records)
Capturing the sonic equivalent of random, drifting thoughts has always been Nurse With Wound's stock in trade. When England's underground sound-muckers toss in a few erotic monologues read by squelching robots or an odd cover of Patty Water's "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," it only gets more bizarre. Nurse, isn't it time for my pill?

5. Various Artists, Angola Prison Spirituals (Arhoolie)
Recorded at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in the late '50s, this historical audio document gives a fascinating and vivid picture of the way black Southerners sang spontaneous, unadorned, spirituals and gospel songs -- behind bars, that is. Amid bottleneck sermonizing and field hollers are nearly two dozen grim but beautiful odes to faith and freedom. This ain't no Johnny Mathis.

6. Eric Idle, Eric Idle Presents the Rutland Isles (iMusic)
England's quintessentially anal-retentive travel documentarian, Nigel Spasm, explains the cultural relevance of killing for God amid exotic flora, fauna and sheep. Idle (Monty Python, the Rutles) breaks a long comedic silence as yet another pasty imperialist in shorts -- one fishing for compliments, diving for muff and researching man's early Stoned Age ancestor: Homo Semi-Erectus.

7. Cut-Out, Interlude With Fun Machine (Starlight Furniture Co.)
For fans of Optigan and Mellotron keyboards, the warm tones of ex-Pell Mell partners Steve Fisk and Bob Beerman explore minimal rhythm-box variations with an offhand sense of humor. From casual reggae and kitschy lounge to Kraftwerk-baiting abstractions, this diverse, all-instrumental album makes home organs sound super-cool all over again.

8. So, So (Thrill Jockey)
A mostly technical demonstration from symmetrical duo Eriko Toyoda and Marcus Popp (Oval, Microstoria) combines textured and airy tones with processed vocals of muted Japanese lyrics. Disquieting melodies and meditative dada drift into the nether reaches of musique concrete.

9. Vic Mizzy, Songs for the Jogging Crowd (The Vicster Records)
Veteran TV and movie-score composer Vic Mizzy wasn't exactly born with a golden larynx. But he plays a mean thesaurus. With a Jewish eye for detail (including sturgeon and a color chart from the Sears paint department), Mizzy spoofs Hollywood while trying to stay fit. Oy!

10. Candye Kane, Whole Lotta Love (Ruf Records)
Candye Kane distinguishes herself from run-of-the-mill blues singers two ways: She tilts the scales at two and a half bills and can play the piano with her boobs. Novelty aside, Kane's soulful and powerful voice lends itself naturally to matters of the flesh and songs of love, loneliness and food. Weigh in, lover.

The New Latin Classics
By Celeste Fraser Delgado

It's been an anxious year for the Latin music industry, as it has for the industry in general. The good news in a time of crisis: The crassest pop acts fade away, and the acts that survive are fired up by a personal vision. While some of the best albums of the year have received massive commercial success, notably Molotov's Dance and Dense Denso, most of these gems come from artists who would surely be making the same great music even if there were no one out there listening.

1. Café Tacuba, Cuatro Caminos (MCA)
Mexico City's avant-rock quartet Café Tacuba continues to explore the far reaches of the electronic ether without ever losing sight of what it means to rock out. Cuatro Caminos (Four Paths) veers from the raw energy of a street party to the interior murmur of private anguish, from the heady cacophony of a video arcade to heartfelt but never cliched confessions of love. There is no more complete -- or more satisfying -- road map for living in the digital age.

2. Chucho Valdes, New Conceptions (Blue Note)
One of the best albums yet by one of the all-time greats of Latin jazz, New Conceptions gives another twist to the longstanding fusion of African-American and Afro-Cuban traditions. Valdes opens with Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona and closes with an homage to Duke Ellington, revisiting Miles along the way -- but it is the pianist's own reinvention of all that has gone before him that makes New Conceptions so breathtaking. His compositions here, especially the achingly beautiful piano/cello duo "Nanu" and the experiment in rhythm that is "Sin Clave Pero Con Swing" ("Without Clave but With Swing"), prove that Chucho's name belongs in the company of those composers to whom he pays tribute.

3. Issac Delgado, Versos en el Cielo (33rd Street Records)
This is what romantic salsa could have sounded like had anyone bothered to make it well: inspired lyrics, creative arrangements, stunning musicianship and the unsurpassed voice of Cuban singer Issac Delgado. Politically untouchable on Latin radio in the United States, Versos en el Cielo (Verses in Heaven) is a collection of love songs by the greats of the island's Nueva Trova era -- most notably Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes -- set to sophisticated salsa arrangements that will thrill your soul and feed your mind.

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