Rap, rock and reggae are among the year's best albums

ON POPULAR MUSIC

December 29, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Generally speaking, pop in 2005 wasn't as conventional as it had been the previous year. But it wasn't entirely thrilling, either. In 2004, pop audiences mostly gravitated toward full, warm productions with echoes of the past.

Alicia Keys' unabashedly old-fashioned The Diary of Alicia Keys and Ray Charles' tepid duets album, Genius Loves Company, were huge hits last year. But the best musical moments of '05 achieved more with less. The usually rowdy Ying Yang Twins, for instance, literally brought things down to a whisper on the nasty "Wait (The Whisper Song)." Spitting hushed, sexually graphic rhymes over a muted, finger-snaps-accented beat, the Atlanta duo scored one of the year's strangest, most irresistible club smashes.

Two of the year's biggest chart singles - Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and Chris Brown's "Run It" - were insanely catchy, if not too adventurous. Through Jamie Foxx, West channeled Brother Ray, and Brown de-crunked Usher's "Yeah!" an inescapable smash last year. (Hands down, the best part of "Run It" is Juelz Santana's rap cameo.)

The Music Story of 2005 is Mariah Carey's comeback. The Emancipation of Mimi restored the pop superstar's hit-making status by playing up her yearning, melismatic vocal style as heard on the ubiquitous "We Belong Together." But the album as a whole felt overly calculated and, at times, insincere. The most notable CDs of the year were generally free of lyrical and musical pretensions. They filtered old ideas and toyed with some; they stripped things down to the funky essence. The music kept pulling you back and, with repeated listens, revealed something fresh and sparkling. In no particular order, here are my picks.

Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall

When the best jazz recording of 2005 was actually made in 1957, what does that say about the music these days? Well, the vibrant club culture where jazz artists like Miles, Monk and Coltrane shaped their craft is virtually nonexistent today. Jazz is all about transcendence, stretching and creating in the moment. And what better way to do that than in a live setting?

By the time the legendary pair made this recording, which was accidentally discovered in the Library of Congress' tape archives last spring, Coltrane and Monk had played tirelessly together for months at New York's Five Spot. In that time, saxophonist Coltrane had grown more assured, absorbing the complexities of pianist Monk's brilliantly quirky music. Monk and Coltrane shine throughout this set, especially on the opener, "Monk's Mood," and "Crepuscule With Nellie." But the accompaniment of drummer Shadow Wilson and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik can't be overlooked. Both anchor Monk's piano and 'Trane's sax with inspired playing that brightly and imaginatively accents the groove. Check Wilson's brilliant cymbal work on "Epistrophy." The album is a gem.

M.I.A Arular

This Sri Lankan beauty loves to shake her thing. But don't get it twisted: She's not just another video-ready hottie with irresistible beats. M.I.A makes smart, bold dance music with a bulletproof spirit. Underneath the barrage of beats and cacophony of percussive noises, the artist born Maya Arulpragasam sings-raps about political revolution. She also alludes to the violence of her childhood. Glints of Southern crunk, B-more club music, Jamaican dancehall and U.K. garage glimmer throughout the set. This isn't easily digestible dance music. It's in-your-face, urgent, raw - all the things that unnerve mainstream folks.

Bettye LaVette I've Got My Own Hell to Raise

This was probably the biggest critical hit of the year from one of the most overlooked soul singers in the industry. Since the early '60s, the native Detroiter has toiled away on the underground circuit, playing small clubs and festivals, amassing a strong international cult following along the way. The 43-year singing veteran received the most mainstream press she's ever gotten with Hell to Raise. Released on the independent Anti label and sensitively produced by Joe Henry, the CD is a covers project of songs written by women. LaVette incinerates Lucinda Williams' "Joy" and injects gritty gospel nuances into Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." You wish Aretha Franklin would record something as stripped and daring as this. But with her lived-in, take-no-mess vocal style, Bettye LaVette does the job just fine.

Raul Midon State of Mind

With little more than his magnificent voice and complex skills on the guitar, Midon's major-label debut feels like a demo. But Arif Mardin's no-fuss production wisely focuses on the artist's gifts. On this shimmering set, Midon performs with a warmth and unbridled passion rarely found in pop-soul singers these days. His expansive voice enlivens his wide-eyed tunes of universal and romantic love. The record reminds me of the days when male singers weren't afraid to be emotionally naked in their music.

Damian Marley Welcome to Jamrock

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