Various Artists: MTV2 Presents: Shortlist 2004 Nominees

Various Artists
MTV2 Presents: Shortlist 2004 Nominees
Razor & Tie

For those not in the know, the Shortlist Awards were established three years ago to promote lesser-known artists of quality. Respected members of the industry nominate albums that they feel deserve mainstream recognition. The Shortlist Awards are kind of like the Grammys for indie music. The 20 or so list-makers this year included John Mayer, the Dixie Chicks, Josh Homme (from Queens of the Stone Age), ?uestlove, 3D (Massive Attack), Jack Black, and Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional. Each list-maker is asked to nominate 10 full-length albums by artists who have sold less than 500,000 copies in the U.S. The long list is then whittled down to 15 artists based on the number of nominations each receives. Then the list-makers convene to pick the most worthy winner.

You won’t need to go to the Shortlist website to verify your suspicions that the resulting long list ran the gamut of independent music. With such a disparate group making nominations, it is also unsurprising that none of the artists who were eventually selected for the Shortlist received an overwhelmingly large number of nominations. Thus, not only were many worthy artists snubbed, but the final list was comprised largely of hyped critical favorites. These are artists that many music lovers who read sites such as this have probably already checked out. Those looking for something genuinely new or out there, like the shrieking metal assault of Japan’s Melt Banana (nominated by Josh Homme), are going to have to look elsewhere.

This isn’t to take away from the spirit of the award, or the artists who were ultimately nominated. On this compilation, featuring the 15 final nominees, there is no shortage of great material, and the idea is a giant step forward in exposing important new music to the masses.

How to arrange 15 supposedly diverse acts on one record so that people will buy it? You want to pick the best of what each band has to offer, but you also want the compilation to flow — like the mixtape you gave out to girls to impress them with your savvy music knowledge and good taste. Given that the shortlist didn’t end up as insanely varied as it might have, an added problem was keeping similar artists apart.

Take the battle of the new wave buzz bands: Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, and the Secret Machines. All three bands ask you to get your ’80s groove on with upbeat, occasionally cheeky — occasionally cheesy — dance rock. Franz Ferdinand’s rockin’ “Michael” is the lead-off track. The Secret Machines appear toward the end with their equally upbeat “Nowhere Again”. But the Killers’ “Believe Me Natalie” is placed smack dab in the middle. The Killers ended up with the raw deal: not only is it one of their slower numbers, but it’s also one of the weaker tracks from their excellent Hot Fuss.

Next, we move on to hip-hop. I’ve never understood the hype surrounding England’s loopy Dizzee Rascal: I’m not of the mind that an unusual voice automatically makes for good hip-hop. I’ll admit that “Fix Up, Look Sharp” did begin to stick after multiple listens, but I credit that to its killer big beat and chorus, not Dizzee’s almost indecipherable rhymes. My vote for the outstanding hip-hop track here goes to Ghostface’s “Save Me Dear”, one of the feel-good jams of the year. Rapping over an entire sampled song (Freddie Scott’s “You Got What I Need”) may seem like a lazy play out of the P. Diddy handbook, but damn if he doesn’t pull it off with style.

A track that’s sure to garner attention is “Mrs. Leroy Brown” from Loretta Lynn, with the help of the White Stripes’ Jack White. What we have here is White playing Tarantino to Lynn’s Travolta on this enjoyable alt-rock-country ditty. Sadly, its inclusion is probably more a result of its indie star power, retro nostalgia, and rock production than the song itself. (Nancy Sinatra? This could be you next year.)

Ryan Adams and Wilco, two bands often given the alt-country label, finish the record off with their two melancholy numbers. Ryan Adams’ barroom crooner “Hotel Chelsea Nights” ain’t half bad at supplying the atmosphere it strives for, but it’s hardly groundbreaking. Stand this track next to Prince’s “Purple Rain” and it doesn’t stand a chance.

Wilco, on the other hand, deserve any nominations they may get. They’re a songwriter’s band and have never shown fear of experimentation — a band with much more in their arsenal than, say, Franz Ferdinand. Unfortunately, though, because they’re also an album-oriented band, a great melancholy track like “Hell Is Chrome” sounds terrific on A Ghost Is Born, but fades into the overall bombast of this compilation.

This fate befalls almost half of the tracks here. Songs by Jem, Café Tacuba, and Air are solid, but they don’t stand out in this context. And honestly, it’s unfair to ask them to. Albums were nominated for the Shortlist Award, not singles.

And who ended up winning the award? TV on the Radio, of course, and deservedly so. Of all the artists represented here, they truly are the most original. If it makes you feel better to call it post-punk or art rock because they use electronics and an indie aesthetic, go for it. But for me, this is straight-up soul music and may be a better representation of R&B than the so-called practitioners of that genre. If you are listening to this compilation and find yourself incessantly skipping to TVOTR’s “Staring at the Sun”, might I suggest that you go out and buy the TVOTR record? You’ll be skipping a lot less, I assure you.

In the end, this compilation really only serves as a recommendation, not as a strong record by itself. But if it leads a listener to newfound aural delights and puts some bank in the pockets of the participants, then its job has been well done.