"George Bush doesn't care about black people," declared tearful and agitated Chi-Town rapper-producer Kanye West during a televised Hurricane Katrina fund-raiser earlier this season. Even in a year of Bob Geldof's Live8 (a program more notable for its oddball duet between Sir Elton John and Babyshambles' junkie frontman Pete Doherty than erasing African debt) and the debut of Tamil refugee M.I.A. (the acclaimed Arular, which sparked political debate even among rock snobs), no statement from planet pop was as incendiary as that of the College Dropout.
West, "Hip-Hop's Savior," and Bob Marley's youngest son, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, delivered some of the most radical music of the year, with "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" and "Welcome To Jamrock," respectively. These young artists trumped U2's Bono at his own agitprop game, made a mockery of Michael Jackson -- the year's biggest pop story -- as relevant "black" male icon of the youth, and gave such Nashville outlaws as Steve Earle a run for their money in the protest genre gambit. Hip-hop has long claimed to be the "black CNN," yet here at last were some musicians wholly raised by the culture who looked outside the purview of bling, booty and blunts to address some dire issues with a universal stake.
Speaking of the Hip-Hop Nation, Houston may have started the year as the most important destination on America's musical map, but its glorious ascent was ultimately overshadowed by the devastating loss of New Orleans. Still, in my estimation, North Carolina's own Little Brother made the most significant rap release of the year. The Minstrel Show (Atlantic) was more than fit to rival West's Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella) and his fellow Chicagoan and client Common's fêted return to basics, Be (Geffen). The Minstrel Show's winking critiques of this era's hip-hop convention and excess were refreshing and vital in a time when a younger generation of black fans needs to become more politicized, in both the public and personal spheres. After all, their very lives -- whether on the frontlines in Iraq or food lines in Houston's beleaguered Astrodome -- are in the balance.
I remain utterly disconsolate about the Katrina tragedy; the usual rock-geek giddiness of year-end list-making has flown and has no place here but for my professional mandate to provide some for assorted publications. As a product and critic of Southeastern culture, it's been difficult to think of aught else but the haunting myth of New Orleans and the ruin of America's most African metropolis. So forgive my being unable to summon suitable snark about Jackson's and R. Kelly's legal circuses, Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of myspace.com and the retro-rock scandal of Kate Moss' and Doherty's drug woes. This is real time, a moment when the dead-eyed Sierra Leonean child miners of Kanye's video link across the African diaspora with the Jamaican ghetto youths of Marley's "Jamrock" clip and the fleeing victims of Katrina on the news, not to mention Charlotte's own profiled black teens down on Tryon Saturday nights.
And so, in the face of such hard times, it's either get washed away in the storm or take shelter where one can find it. In my case, that meant seeking refuge in the mysteries of the interior, in the dark-hearted meshes of Album of the Year: Stoned (Hacktone/Shout Factory) by British singer/songwriter Lewis Taylor. Taylor's reality as a Jew from North London in no way detracts from his status as the greatest living soul man on earth. Stoned -- the least of his efforts thus far and yet still sublime -- definitely has Taylor planting some blue-black in the Union Jack. Not only does his work reinforce the notion that much of the best music of the iPod Era is being produced beyond our borders -- see Brazil's Seu Jorge and Curumin, Nippon's TsuShiMaMiRe, and blind Bamakois couple Amadou et Mariam -- but its very depth, range of sonic expression and fearless display of male vulnerability reminds us of what most rock & soul no longer tends to offer.
The horrors of the Katrina aftermath lurk around Taylor's songs, though, as his complex and unclassifiable music radically expands the vocabulary of funk, New Orleans' great contribution to the world. (See particularly the title track and the season's finest/most urgent slow jam "Lovelight.")
It's rather besides the point whether the city of New Orleans rebuilds. With so many dispossessed residents refusing to return and ages of intangible history underwater, America's loss of its richest, most enduring musical and material culture is quite irrevocable. We can take small comfort from the eerily timely release of the Nawlinze sound documentary Make It Funky in September and the indomitable spirit of the city's premier ambassadors, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who recently graced our Queen City with their badass presence.
Well, here, now, as the strains of the Dirty Dozen's second line bacchanal fade from our consciousness, I offer a guide to some of the passing year's worthiest music -- Top 10 lists voted on by CL critics and CLT music luminaries, beginning with my own picks. Going into 2006, I will most keenly be watching to see whether the newfound conscience of scores of younger artists and their followers abides.
KANDIA CRAZY HORSE'S TOP 25 ALBUMS
LEWIS TAYLOR / Stoned (Hacktone)
SEU JORGE / Cru (Wrasse)
SHELBY LYNNE / Suit Yourself (Capitol)
RYAN ADAMS / Jacksonville City Nights (Lost Highway)
BETTYE LAVETTE / I've Got My Own Hell To Raise (Anti)
MERCURY REV / The Secret Migration (V2)
ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS / I Am A Bird Now (Secretly Canadian)
LITTLE BROTHER / The Minstrel Show (Atlantic)
AMADOU & MARIAM / Dimanche A Bamako (Nonesuch)
LIZZ WRIGHT / Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve)
STEVE SPACEK / Space Shift (Sound In Color)
MARTY STUART / Badlands (Superlatone/Universal)
DAN PENN & SPOONER OLDHAM / Moments From This Theatre Live (Proper)
BOBBY BARE / The Moon Was Blue (Dualtone)
JOHN DOE / Forever Hasn't Happened Yet (Yep Roc)
CYNDI LAUPER / The Body Acoustic (Epic)
CURUMIN / Achados E Perdidos (Quannum)
ROBERT PLANT / Mighty Rearranger (Sanctuary/Es Paranza)
THE DARKNESS / One Way Ticket To Hell...And Back (Atlantic)
THE KINGSBURY MANX / The Fast Rise And Fall Of The South (Yep Roc)
THE A.K.A.s (ARE EVERYWHERE) / White Doves & Smoking Guns (Fueled By Ramen)
BRAD PAISLEY / Time Well Wasted (Arista)
THE TALK / The Sinners of Daughters (MoRisen)
DAMIAN "JR. GONG" MARLEY / Welcome To Jamrock (Universal)
TSUSHIMAMIRE / Pregnant Fanstasy (Benten)
TOP 10 SINGLES
"Go With It" / SHELBY LYNNE (Capitol)
"Lovelight" / LEWIS TAYLOR (Hacktone)
"How Am I Different" / BETTYE LAVETTE (Anti)
"Welcome To Jamrock" / DAMIAN "JR. GONG" MARLEY (Universal)
"Diamonds From Sierra Leone" / KANYE WEST (Roc-A-Fella)
"Alcohol" / BRAD PAISLEY (Arista Nashville)
"I'll Be Your River" / CYNDI LAUPER w/ Vivian Green (Epic)
"The End" / RYAN ADAMS (Lost Highway)
"The Shape I'm In" / HOT APPLE PIE (Dreamworks Nashville)
"Wrong" / THE BARNETTES (thebarnettes.com)
BOX SETS / REISSUES
The Band: A Musical History / THE BAND (Capitol)
Keep On Truckin': The Motown Solo Albums, Volume 1 / EDDIE KENDRICKS (Hip-O Select)
Let the Music Flow: The Best of the Dillards 1963-79 / THE DILLARDS (Raven)
The Funk Anthology / JOHNNY GUITAR WATSON (Shout! Factory)
In Search Of A Song / The Rhymer And Other Five And Dimers / TOM T. HALL (Hux)