David Bowie gets real with

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 12, 2003) – After drawing up the following list of my favorite albums of the last year, I reviewed it for a common thread tying them all together. While many of them betray some longstanding personal biases – for “classic” rockers, singer-songwriters, traditionalists – there are exceptions to all of those.

They are all tied together, however, by their distinctive voices, both in the literal meaning of the term – that the singers’ voices are all immediately recognizable, bordering on unique or unusual – and in the literary meaning of the term – that all of these songwriters have clear, strong identities of their own that come out through their composition, singing and arrangements.

If there is a preponderance of older or aging or baby-boomer acts on this list, it may be precisely because there is such a lack of original voices in so much of the music made by younger pop and rock acts. Indeed, there is a lack of voice, period, in so much new music, which tends to sound more manufactured than man-made.

That is why I can unreservedly recommend the following CDs that came out over the course of the last year or so. Above all, they are the work of artists who boast profound understanding and humanity. They also sing and write really good songs.

The best CDs of 2003 were:

1. David Bowie, “Reality” (ISO/Columbia): “These blackest of years that have no sound/No shape, no depth, no underground.” With lines like that and songs that rank with the best of his work in a style recalling “Scary Monsters,” David Bowie offers an epitaph for 9/11, for New York, and for our overcommercialized cultural wasteland. He also has never sung more beautifully.
2. The Pretenders, “Loose Screw” (Artemis)/ Liz Phair, “Liz Phair” (Capitol): Along with Lucinda Williams (see below), The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and Liz Phair upend macho rock posturing simply by singing and rocking as hard and as forcefully -- and with as much brash sexuality and more intelligence -- as any man. Along the way, they put to shame all the female teenybopper pop stars betraying their female teen-age fans with their not-so-subliminal messages of surrender. Chrissie Hynde and Liz Phair kick Britney-butt.
3. Warren Zevon, “The Wind” (Artemis): Long before he contracted a terminal illness, Warren Zevon was laughing at death in song – even naming a retrospective collection after his song, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” He waited to die until just a few days after the release of his best album since his heyday in the 1970s. Sweet dreams, Warren. Also, George Harrison, ”Brainwashed” (Capitol).
4. Lucinda Williams, “World Without Tears” (Lost Highway): Nothing less than her “Exile on Main Street.” Lucinda Williams has never rocked or sung so hard or so convincingly. See also, Kathleen Edwards, “Failer” (Zoe).
5. The Strokes, “Room on Fire” (RCA): Almost enough catchy hooks, funky rhythms and smart songcraft to make a believer out of a cynic who thinks rock is dead.
6. Jim’s Big Ego, “They’re Everywhere!” ( He combines the musical smarts and eclecticism of Beck, the wit of They Might Be Giants and Weezer, the pop songcraft of Fountains of Wayne, and the political backbone of Ani DiFranco. So why isn’t Jim Infantino more famous than you? No justice, no peace. Also, Fountains of Wayne, “Welcome Interstate Managers” (S-Curve).
7. Elvis Costello, “North” (DeutscheGrammophon): “It’s strange to finally find myself so tongue-tied….Someone took the words away,” are words you’d never thought you’d hear him say – or sing – but he does on this album of torchy piano ballads somewhere between art and jazz, with string and small ensemble arrangements. All this useless beauty, but beautiful nonetheless.
8. Yo La Tengo, “Summer Sun” (Matador): On this album, Yo La Tengo is to aging hipsters what Chet Baker must have been to their parents.
9. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “Greendale” (Reprise)/ Paul Westerberg, “Come Feel Me Tremble” (Vagrant): Grandpa and his bastard son, grandpaboy, show the young ‘uns how it’s done.
10. Various Artists , “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan” (Columbia): A concept born and bred in Williamstown more than a few years ago by native son Jeffrey Gaskill – to pair Bob Dylan’s gospel songs with traditional gospel artists including Shirley Caesar, Mavis Staples, the Fairfield Four and Aaron Neville -- finally came to fruition, but nobody could have predicted how terrific it would turn out – or that Dylan himself would have shown up for the party. With two Grammy nominations in the bag, now it’s up to the voters.

Bubbling under: Howard Tate, “Rediscovered” (Private Music); Steely Dan, “Everything Must Go” (Reprise); Belle and Sebastian, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” (Rough Trade); Wayfaring Strangers, “This Train” (Rounder); Northern State, “Dying in Stereo” (Star Time); Bob Dylan and Various Artists, “Masked and Anonymous: Music from the Motion Picture” (Columbia); Weak, “Weak” (Fang); Christopher O’Riley, “True Love Waits: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead” (Odyssey); Milagro Saints, “Sunday” (Moon Caravan); Erin McKeown, “Grand” (Nettwerk); Ray Mason Band, “Idiot Wisdom” (Captivating Music); Shelby Lynne, “Identity Crisis” (Capitol); Deb Pasternak, “Home” (Very Good, Debo); Stephen Clair, “Little Radio” (

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 12, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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