BEST OF 2005 INTERNATIONAL

Pull of the people

by Philip Brasor

My album of the year was M.I.A.’s “Arular,” for a number of reasons. First, it’s a party album whose energy and imagination never flag. Second, it’s utterly distinctive: Maya Arulpragasam’s nursery-rhyme rapping style doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. Third, it’s a work of art whose local specificity, namely the inner-city public housing in London where the Sri Lankan-born M.I.A. grew up, can be understood by a wider world of the dispossessed.

This last reason has nothing to do with M.I.A.’s misunderstood position as the daughter of a Tamil Tiger and everything to do with the way hip-hop has become the de facto “world music.” Rap was born and bred in American neighborhoods where opportunity was scarce and pride often had to be willed. The thematic focus has always been on boasting and loyalty to one’s neighborhood.

These themes were also addressed on two of the year’s biggest-selling hip-hop albums, Kanye West’s “Late Registration” and 50 Cent’s “The Massacre,” though, given the money these two artists make and the image-sculpting their music attempts, they’re about as local as the WTO — and their grasp is every bit as far reaching.

“Pull up the people/pull up the poor”: M.I.A. singsongs as if her audience were a handful of people dancing along with her in her living room. That’s as local as you can get, and the message reaches out, echoing the U.K. grime scene, Brazilian favela funk, Miami bass, Caribbean dancehall, South African kwaito . . .

There’s no better evidence of the power of hip-hop to move people beyond their stations in life than the comment made by that French politician who blamed rappers for the recent riots in France. No one demands you approve of it, but you’re dead meat if you don’t try to understand it.

M.I.A. will play Feb. 7 at Ebisu Liquid Room, Tokyo; Feb. 9 at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka; and Feb. 10 at Nagoya Club Quattro. For more info see Creativeman’s Web site: www.creativeman.co.jp

Rock gets religion

The original complaint about rock ‘n’ roll was that it was the work of the Devil, but there’s no doubt that its ecstatic roots were in spiritual music. We now think of pop as a secular endeavor that accommodates spiritual ideas when it’s convenient, so when Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch quit the band to devote all his time to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, it sounded like an overreaction in a business where Christian rock, even Christian punk, are bona fide genres.

Last year, Beck admitted to more than one interviewer that he is a Scientologist; a revelation that shouldn’t have been surprising given that both his parents were once members of the self-styled church and may still be. The confirmation of his specific form of spiritual nourishment provided critics with something that they thought explained the relative mediocrity of his latest album, “Guero.”

The hot Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu is more direct: everything about his music is connected to his faith. Matisyahu concerts are reportedly rather intense. People who couldn’t care less about his yeshiva schooling are impressed by the depth of his passion and the reach of his skills, though on record his music often sounds too collegiate (he was and still is a devoted Phish-head).

Obviously, religious convictions do not always guarantee transcendental music, but what about Sufjan Stevens, a devout Christian whose album “Illinois” was one of the most moving and sophisticated records of the year? One has to dig to find any overt Christian imagery on the album. What gives the songs their special grace is Stevens’ humanity, not his spirituality, though he might argue they are the same thing. As an artist, Stevens is strict about maintaining his integrity. Despite his success, he still insists on playing only small venues and limits the prices of his CDs and concert tickets. It’s what Jesus would have done.

This year’s model

The success story of the year was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the Brooklyn-based five-piece whose self-released, self-titled debut album, which came out in early summer, had sold 25,000 copies in the United States as of early December based on nothing except Internet buzz.

The group has gone through a complete career cycle in six months: big media coverage, high-profile shows attended by the likes of David Bowie, and the inevitable backlash — Pitchforkmedia.com, which was instrumental in creating that buzz, included one of the band’s songs on its list of worst tracks of the year.

The album is the sound of current indie rock boiled down to its essence: idiosyncratic vocals, strong melodies, crescendo-based structures, no soloing. The template is Modest Mouse, whose influence on everything indie in the ’00s is arguably as significant as The Pixies’ was in the ’90s. The state of indie ensures the band’s staying power past its overnight-sensation status, if only because as a categorical description “indie” no longer carries with it an image of smallness. The seminal Austin-based indie band Spoon, for example, sold more CDs of its excellent album “Gimme Fiction” this year than Michael Jackson did of his latest greatest hits collection.

The whole distribution and promotion model is changing, and where only 10 years ago indie was the last resort of losers, the preferred domain of deciated iconloclasts, or the final resting place for major-label discards, it’s now the most logical way to go, both artistically and commercially. Even Jackson Browne started an indie label this year after having fulfilled his contract with Warners.

The indie grapevine, once confined to small clubs and college radio stations, has found its perfect medium in the Internet, more so than major-label music, whose gatekeepers don’t trust the Web. What’s heartening about the success of CYHSY this year and The Arcade Fire last year is that they are both very good groups whose quality was acknowledged directly by the public, without the benefit of the usual PR devices that still rule commercial pop but are destined for extinction sooner rather than later.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will play Jan. 24 at Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo. For more information, see Smash’s Web site at www.smash-jpn.com.


Editor’s choice

Hidetsugu Ito is editor-in-chief of Cookie Scene, a Japanese-language bimonthly pop and independent music magazine. His top three albums of 2005 are:

1) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah)

This eponymous debut shares the same characteristics that made Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” a great album, which I might have included even though it actually came out in 2004. CLYSH take all the best bits of Talking Heads.

2) Maximo Park — “Apply Some Pressure” (Warp)

Part of the new wave of British post-punk from this year. I’d also include a band like fellow Brits Arctic Monkeys — I might have chosen them, although their album hasn’t even come out yet. Or even, though they are from New York, LCD Soundsystem’s debut album.

3) Animal Collective — “Feels” (Fat Cat)

The highlight from the psychedelic-freak folk scene that also saw excellent albums this year from Devendra Banhardt.

Honorable mentions to Boards of Canada and Anthony & the Johnsons.

Visit Cookie Scene’s Web site at www.bekkoame.ne.jp/ha/p-market