Music News

That's a Wrap-Up

Musically, the pallindromic 2002 was much like any other, just with slightly different outfits and different purty colors flashing on MTV. There was some really great stuff released, as well as some truly awful dreck. Most of the hundreds of thousands of CDs released in the world fell somewhere in between. For every Flaming Lips and Sigur Rós, there was a Kelly Osbourne and an Our Lady Peace. That's just nature, and we know better than to try to fight nature.

Still, we prefer the good stuff. Here's an exhaustive, but by no means comprehensive, guide to some of the year's best music.


Neko Case
Neko Case has dropped her boyfriends but not her pals: Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and Kelly Hogan are among those who contribute to Blacklisted's large and luminous sound. But it's Case's show -- and she sounds more assured and inspired than ever. The honey-voiced singer-guitarist wrote most of this effort, and in her compositions, one finds world-wizened ruminations on childhood, love and the vast interior of the heart. Swirling lap-steel sounds and rural images tether Case to her alt-country affiliation, but Blacklisted also demonstrates how well she's learned the pop craft. Her take on "Runnin' Out of Fools" even suggests she could be a formidable force in the soul realm. If the blacklist is full of artists as good as this, we hope someone will name names. -- Laura Bond

Kasey Chambers
Barricades & Brickwalls
(Warner Bros.)
Critics of current country music are often sticklers for authenticity: They have severe doubts about anyone plowing this field who has never plowed a field. By these standards, Kasey Chambers comes up short, since, as an Australian, she picked up C&W (and her attendant twang) secondhand. But Barricades reveals these preconceptions for the prejudices they are. There's more guts and grit in the best of Chambers's songs -- like the scorching title track and the closing "I Still Pray" -- than in a dozen examples of prefab Nashville merchandise. She may not be another Hank or Tammy, but she's preventing the essence of their music from going the way of the passenger pigeon. In that sense, she's the genuine item. -- Michael Roberts

Dixie Chicks
(Open Wide/Monument/Columbia)
Most country performers move closer to pop with every album, but the Dixie Chicks did just the opposite on Home. Embracing the acoustic newgrass sound of Alison Krauss, with top-notch songs by Darrell Scott, Patty Griffin, Tim O'Brien, Bruce Robison and others, the Chicks show off their superb vocal harmonies. They even manage to breathe new life into Stevie Nicks's "Landslide." It's heartening that Home has sold more than three million copies; maybe there's hope for mainstream country after all. -- David Hill

Jim Lauderdale
The Hummingbirds
Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Lost in the Lonesome Pines
Contemporary yet firmly rooted in tradition, The Hummingbirds is pop-country the way it should be: smart, tasteful, original and a little twangy. Even better is Lost in the Lonesome Pines, Lauderdale's second collaboration with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. With his quirky, George Jones-meets-Greg Allman voice, Lauderdale sounds as if he were born to sing mountain music. His songs, written by himself or with partners like Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, seem to come from some ancient, dust-covered songbook. After listening to these two fine albums, you can't help but wonder: Is there anything that Jim Lauderdale can't do? -- Hill

One of the things that made Uncle Tupelo so good was that it butchered country music -- fucking up its cornpone conventions with the edginess of Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and the Soft Boys. Lucero seeks to do pretty much the same thing, though of course it doesn't sound quite as novel now that "alt country" has been officially canonized by the music industry. This Memphis band takes hard-core punk's immediacy and intolerance for bullshit and laces it with rustic twang and a hoarse, raw-hearted sensitivity that's equal parts Steve Earle and Jawbreaker. Piano, dobro and lap steel make some songs gently weep, while others shudder with tense, distorted guitars. But like Uncle Tupelo, Lucero knows how to plant a good, sad folk tune like a stolen kiss in the middle of all the uproar. ­ Jason Heller

Buddy Miller
Midnight and Lonesome
Buddy Miller's known by highbrow country cognoscenti for having contributed to albums by Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams and other artists whose reputation is bigger than their bank balance. But his own albums remain criminally underappreciated -- and unfortunately, Midnight and Lonesome hasn't done much to change that. Those who manage to track it down will be rewarded for their toil with exemplary guitar playing, warm singing and smart arrangements, especially on the Everly Brothers staple "The Price of Love." Best of all, the CD contains originals by Buddy and his wife, Julie Miller, that are capable of transporting fans to honky-tonk heaven (the utterly winning "Wild Card") or relationship hell ("I Can't Get Over You"). Either way, it's quite a ride. -- Roberts