Jay Farrar -- Sebastopol (Artemis Records)
Jay Farrar's first solo project, Sebastopol, seems as good a place as any to call a symbolic end to the "alt-country" movement. Farrar was a reluctant founding father of "alt-country" with his early 90s band, Uncle Tupelo, and a standard-bearer with its offshoot, Son Volt. But with Sebastopol, Farrar now takes his place along side Wilco, the Jayhawks, Joe Henry, the Old 97s and other fellow travelers in the genre's evolution away from its roots.
Thematically, Farrar hasn't changed his spots: Only the road provides escape from our urban nightmare. But on songs like "Vitamins" and "Voodoo Candle," you're more likely to hear a synthesizer than you are the lonesome whine of a pedal steel. The success of this switch has a lot to do with Farrar's associates on the album. John Agnello, co-producer along with Farrar, has credits that range from the Breeders to Earth, Wind and Fire. The Flaming Lips' Steven Drodze plays keyboards on five tracks, while members of indie stalwarts Superchunk and Centro-Matic make their presence felt, too.
For a traditionalist like Farrar, Sebastopol is a quantum leap into the modern world, akin to a Luddite ordering sledgehammers over the Internet. Luckily, his message is timeless enough to survive the demise of any genre. -- JS
Jay-Z -- The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella, Island/Def Jam)
Jay-Z has the perfect flow to match his big-pimpin' lifestyle -- a laid back, vaguely Afro-British brogue paired with the snob-like tone of a Michelin food critic. He's passed through his "thug" phase for the most part, and now has entered that rarest of rap worlds: Like Puffy (er, P. Diddy), he now may rap about his riches, and pay people to do his "dirty work" for him.
Strangely enough, it works well enough. After the short, obligatory intro (he hasn't passed through that stage yet, evidently), he launches into "Takeover," featuring a song-long sample of The Doors (!) cut "Five To One." Jim Morrison never sounded more down. "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," the first single and current radio hit, isn't about much of anything in particular, but will bump the trunk pretty well, which is probably the point anyway. Other standouts include "Jigga that N***a" and "U Don't Know," more-of-the-same tales of his Stan Smith vintage kicks and orange watches and diamonds and Rocawear (Jay's own clothing line, in a store near you). Such Mr. Blackwell-type ranting only works here because the beats are as similarly elegant as Jay's laundry list of luxury.
Sure to be the track that draws the most attention, "Renagade" (sic) features a duet with Eminem, who again shows he can kick up some mind-twisting verbal runs at the drop of a Kangol. Along with Em, Jay is likely one of the most talented rappers we have. With Slim Shady, though, you have the feeling he stands for something, even if you're not quite sure what it is. Jay's stands seem to come only when it's time to get fitted for a new line of clothing. -- TD
George Jones -- The Rock -- Stone Cold Country 2001 (BMG)
Like the most recent release by Merle Haggard on Epitaph, or the last few John R. Cash records on American Recordings, The Rock shows that while you can't always teach an old dog new tricks, sometimes you can make him remember the old ones. Like most of the best of The Possum's work, it sounds best with a beer and a smoke (strong coffee and a greasy hamburger at bare minimum). Jones' voice sounds as smoke-cured as it did 30 years ago, and he seems fully invigorated entering into this, what may well be his fourth or fifth decade in the business. Standouts: "I Got Everything," "The Rock," "Beer Run" (with Garth Brooks, natch) and "Wood and Wire." Nashville's ass is still grass, and the Possum is indeed still the lawnmower. Comeback of the year? -- TD