Tom Waits' "Mule Variations" and Randy Newman's "Bad Love" aren't necessarily the best albums these veteran songwriters have ever given us, but both collections deserve bonus points in a year in which pop music is awash in mediocrity.
Beyond the solid craft and abundant passion you expect from outstanding albums, the Waits and Newman CDs abound with individuality and character--qualities that are sorely absent in today's commercial scene.
The sad part is pop music started the decade standing tall and proud, thanks to the daring and independence of the alt-rock movement and the dramatic rise of hip-hop. However, pop artistry began stumbling in the mid-'90s as the alt-rock movement lost its way, partly because of the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and as scores of hip-hop heroes traded in their "keep it real" pledge for simply "keep it selling."
And pop found itself on its knees the last six months, surrendering the momentum to the sterile, robotic music of the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, Cher and Jennifer Lopez.
The record industry likes to see a silver lining in the fact that preteens have been hooked by some of these hollow hits--a sign that a generation hasn't been lost to video games and the Internet as once feared. The theory is that they'll eventually graduate to more substantial fare--like the ones on my list of the most compelling albums of the year's first six months.
The problem is the record industry doesn't seem to be developing young artists with independence and depth. That's why there is a distressing lack of fresh blood on the midyear list.
The year's most commanding albums:
1. Tom Waits, "Mule Variations," Epitaph. For nearly three decades now, Waits has disarmed us with some of the loveliest and most affecting ballads of the modern pop era, while at the same time often hiding behind a boho persona and often grating musical textures.
The lure of the "Mule" collection is that Waits somehow connects the dots between his various approaches, allowing us to get a more personal look at him without fully sacrificing the adventurous edges that add to his musical dynamics. In song after song, Waits conveys feelings of devotion, compassion and comfort in ways that not only put his art in better perspective but also elevate it.
2. Moby, "Play," Rave New World/V2. In the key moments of this frequently dazzling work, Moby finds a common ground between the electronic dance music world (of which he remains a guiding force) and the gospel-blues tradition at the heart of much of our most soulful and enduring pop.
Moby achieves this merger in some tracks by using voices lifted from the decades-old folk and blues field recordings of Alan Lomax, while elsewhere (such as the show-stopping, soul-baring "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad") he uses contemporary singers, notably the Shining Light Gospel Choir, for the same results as he explores questions of spirituality and faith in a restless age.
3. Randy Newman, "Bad Love," DreamWorks. Newman has given us songs so distinctive and rich in their mixture of commentary and humor that the word "Newmanesque" has become part of the pop vocabulary. The remarkable thing in Newman's first formal studio collection in a decade is that he gives us song after song fitting the definition of "Newmanesque" without once sounding self-conscious or recycled. Some tunes are hysterically funny, others among his most tender and personal ever.
4. Eminem, "The Slim Shady LP," Aftermath/Interscope. In the year's most controversial rap album and most commanding major-label debut work, Eminem weaves virtually every crude and rude element of '90s rap into a series of sketches that pushes shock-rap to its limits. In the process, he leaves most of his rivals looking like timid amateurs, with no place else to take the hard-core imagery. Some listeners are bound to be offended, but Eminem, unlike many rap stars, makes it clear most of the way that these are works of fiction, not battle cries or approved codes of conduct.
5. Public Enemy, "There's a Poison Goin On," Atomic Pop. Rap's greatest outfit ever continues to explore issues of black pride and socioeconomic exploitation (with special emphasis this time on exploitation in the record industry) in the latest in a series of albums that will someday stand in the history of rap with the same defining presence as Bob Dylan's classic '60s works do in the history of rock.
6. The Roots, "Things Fall Apart," MCA. This is smart rap, lyrically and sonically, that follows in the idealistic footsteps of Public Enemy so closely at times that you almost sense a baton being passed. The Philadelphia outfit offers an artful blend of street-driven energy and social commentary, often touching on the same sense of racial pride evoked by Public Enemy, though with less stringent political undercurrents.
7. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, "The Mountain," E-Squared. Don't think this is some casual career division just because the celebrated country rocker is working with a bluegrass band. The style may owe a debt to Bill Monroe, but the tales of struggle and salvation are in the gripping Earle tradition. If Earle had been born a decade early, you can bet he would have been the co-star with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at their outlaw festivals in the '70s.
8. Ibrahim Ferrer, "Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer," World Circuit/Nonesuch. Besides the lure of Ferrer's relaxed, caressing vocals, the remarkable thing about this collection, which was produced in Havana by Ry Cooder, is how it defies you to put a date on it. There's a timeless, almost magical quality to the CD, which not only seems immune to the pop fashions of the day, but also refuses to stay within the boundaries of the Grammy-winning "Buena Vista Social Club" package, which featured Ferrer.
9. Paul Westerberg, "Suicaine Gratifaction," Capitol. With his old band the Replacements, Westerberg chronicled youthful anxiety and desire in the '80s with an insight and skill that reminded you of a young Pete Townshend. In his third solo album, he has finally found the confidence to say goodbye to his rock 'n' roll security blanket and move thematically into more personal and mature subject matter.
10. Cassandra Wilson, "Traveling Miles," Blue Note. Here's a jazz singer with the instincts of a pop artist, both in her choice of material (she has recorded tunes by everyone from U2 and Neil Young to Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell) and in her tendency to value attitude and emotional impact over technique. She's not an accomplished writer (which is why she turns frequently to outside material), but she finds a way to make even her own tunes work nicely in this daring collection, inspired by Miles Davis.
Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org