Best of 2000: Ben Varkentine

Best new albums

Michael Wolff, Impure Thoughts (Indianola Music Group)
Pianist Wolff holds African tribal, funk, Indian drone, jazz and even a bit of the rock musical up to the light to see what each throws into relief. The results are as strong an album, in any genre, as I heard this year.

The Mermen, The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show (Mesa/BlueMoon)
Featuring the beautiful guitar work of Jim Thomas, the guitarist, songwriter and producer who steers The Mermen. A true artist, Thomas plays thoughtfully and with great craft and spirit. Or as I said in my review: “This is an album to fall in love with, this is an album to mediate on, and this is an album to restore your faith.”

Kirsty MacColl, Tropical Brainstorm (V2)
She sang like an angel, she wrote like a dream, and she was gorgeous. She was worth a baker’s dozen plus of Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera, Faith Hill, Britney Spears, Toni Braxton, Dixie Chicks, and Pink. And what was “only” a powerful, skilled return after too many years away has now become a last testament from one of the music world’s great neglected treasures.

New Wet Kojak, Do Things (Beggars Banquet)
Sounding like a group that’s gotten into a particularly mellow wine, this absurdly deadpan record’s songs come back to one at the oddest moments. It may be alt-rock for those who have a little knowledge (which, as Scritti Politti said, is a dangerous thing), but it goes down a treat.

Joe Jackson, Summer in the City: Live in New York (Sony Classical)
Neither of his biggest hits, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” or “Steppin’ Out” appear on this in-concert recording. But that is the only thing that qualifies my suggestion of this album as the one to get as an introduction to Joe Jackson. Old songs, both Jackson’s and covers, stripped down to their naked selves by pianist/singer Jackson and rhythm section. You really get a sense of the varied talents of the man. And for those of us already familiar with the work, the matured version of “Hometown” would alone be worth price of purchase.

Slow Poke, Redemption (Intuition)
Can’t help but make you think of rainy mornings in the mountains, this good music. Leisurely, considered and sounding like a conversation with some thoughtful friends…music for films that haven’t been made yet, spacious and organic, compelling.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, BTTB (Sony Classical)
Technically, this probably shouldn’t be on a “best of 2000” list. I’m including it for two reasons: One, though originally released in Japan in 1999, I don’t believe it made it over here (and certainly not to me) till 2000. Second, it would be one of the most extraordinarily beautiful things I heard in any year, and I want to single it out for special attention. This was the music most likely to make friends ask “who is that?” when played for them. The multiple-award winning Sakamoto put together an incredibly warm collection of original solo piano pieces, which at times can be a chilly style.

Tommy Smith, Bluesmith (Linn)
A wonderful sax player leading a band of great musicians playing great music. What the hell more do you want out of life?

Stan Getz, My Foolish Heart: Live at the Left Bank (Label M)
Exquisitely impressive and charming.

Honorable Mention:
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Love’s Labour’s Lost (Sony Classical)
The Quincy Jones-Sammy Nestico Orchestra, Basie & Beyond (Qwest/Warner Bros.)
P.J. Perry, P.J. Perry and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (Justin Time)
Adventures in Stereo, Monomania (Bobsled)

Biggest Disappointments, New

Joe Jackson, Night and Day II (Manticore/Sony Classical)
The third album Jackson released in less than a year [his book, A Cure for Gravity was published during the same period, and he toured bookshops to promote it). I wish he had quit for the year while he was ahead. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the worst he has recorded in over 15 years, and quite possibly the worst of his career.

Don Henley, Inside Job (Warner Bros.)
Henley’s first solo album in over a decade (following domestic upheaval and eventual settling down, the Eagles reunion, and a legal problem or two) contains long, repetitive songs, lyrics that have lost their cleverness and revisit Henley’s themes while adding nothing to what he’s previously said on the topic. Some good song titles, but it’s whole judge/book/cover thing, you know?.

Various Artists, Piano Grand! (Columbia)
So concerned with honoring it’s subject with a self consciously ‘diverse” mix of classical, jazz and rock pianists that it chokes from lack of fresh air.

Best reissues or compilations of previously released work

Various Artists, Hollywood Swing & Jazz (Rhino)
Some of the greatest jazz players and singers of all time, many of them in performances separate for the first time from the films in which they originally appeared.

Various Artists, Heavy Flute (Label M)
“Cool and elegant like a James Bond theme, but with a sexy bottom, like…well, like a James Bond girl.” I put this in my CD player again just today as I write this, and my opinion of it has only improved.

Hank Crawford, Low Flame High Heat (Label M)
A wall of emotion.

Haysi Fantayzee, Battle Hymns For Children Singing (Razor & Tie)
1983 album re-released on CD with bonus tracks and remixes. Never a huge hit in the US, the group is best remembered by New Wave fans for the singles “John Wayne Is Big Leggy” and “Shiny Shiny”. Listened to with the benefit of hindsight, the album seems both seminal and very of it’s time; the cartoonish girl-boy duets and gimmicky production can be heard today in the likes of Toy Box and Aqua. A mostly smooth mix of electronic dance music, country and other elements.

Various Artists, Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre (Reprise)
Frank Sinatra’s concept of having Reprise artists circa 1963 (Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Keely Smith, others) record the scores of Broadway musicals is released for the first time on CD in this four-disc (Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific) boxed set after nearly 40 years out of print. The sense of camaraderie between the singers and reverence-even when irreverent-for the scores is palpable.

Honorable Mention
Various Artists, Orphée (Projekt)
Tadd Dameron, 1947-1949 (Classics)

Disappointments, reissues or compilations of previously released work

The Go Go’s, VH1 Behind the Music: Go Go’s Collection (A&M)
If you have any real interest in the band as musicians, the 1994 two-disc Return to the Valley of the Go Go’s is the retrospective to get.

Fixx, The Best of Fixx: The Millennium Collection (MCA)
It’s hard to say I was really *dissapointed* by this collection (it is the Fixx, after all), but as noted in my review there already are a couple of better retrospectives on the market — as with the Go-Go’s.

Miles Davis, Blue Miles (Columbia/Legacy)
On these cuts, Miles may be blue, but you’d be blue too if someone cut up your albums into sound bites and mixed them with your others.

Best souvenir from a bad concert date
Various Artists, The Bobsled Tour September 2000 (Bobsled)
I saw a bad stop on this tour showcasing Adventures In Stereo, the Waxwings and others on the Bobsled label. But this CD, sold only at the concerts, is not a bad sampler at all. Album tracks and demos from the above as well as labelmates Stereo Total (“Let’s go to the Holiday Inn…”)

Three CDs That In Hindsight I Wish I’d Given Better Reviews To, Because They’ve Grown On Me
My Favorite, Joan of Arc Awaiting Trial (Double Agent)
Optiganally Yours, Exclusively Talentmaker! (Absolutely Kosher)
Nightmares On Wax, DJ-Kicks (Studio K7)

Promising, though flawed debuts
Tjalkuri, Tjalkuri (Gadfly)
The Lassie Foundation, Pacifico (Grand Theft Autumn)
Monc, Virtual Reality Spacesuit Part 1 (Conglomerated Industries)

Saddest loss to music
Kirsty MacColl, 1959-2000. Rest in peace, Kirsty. We will remember you.