Music

2001 -- A sound odyssey

It was a year for rocking, for boppig, for grooving, for moshing, for swaying and of course, for listening. Taking one last spin through the sounds of the past 12 months, our music writers tell us what they heard.

Believe the hype: The Strokes, The White Stripes

When The Strokes pulled out of this year’s Summer Sonic event, questions had to be asked: Does this New York band really exist outside the pages of glossy magazines? Are those cool guys in the photos just models? And is the music actually being made by some old guys who used to be in a band called Television?

If there was music, that is, because at that time, none of us in Japan could get our hands on one of their two alleged singles.

Then we had Detroit-based The White Stripes, touted as “the future of rock ‘n’ roll” by the British press even though they hadn’t yet played a gig there at the time.

These two bands were hyped to heaven and hell and back . . . and then their albums suddenly appeared in record shops here, and we snapped them up — and this is when it gets really weird. “Is This It,” from The Strokes, and The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells” were brilliant. The most-hyped rock bands of the year had actually deserved it. Tickets for The Strokes show at Shibuya AX next February sold out immediately. An extra show has been fixed for Shinjuku’s Liquid Room. It’s almost sold out, too . . . unless that’s just hype. (Simon Bartz)

A tale of two divas

Two female vocalists with very different backgrounds and musical styles dominated the J-pop scene in 2001. The divas in question, Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki, both released albums on March 28, but Utada’s “Distance” (her second) and Hamasaki’s greatest-hits set, “A Best” have little in common apart from that. Mainstream J-pop is no longer dominated by a single stylistic template.

Hamasaki is never going to rival Aretha Franklin, but the material she sings is melodically interesting, and she has developed a reputation as a thoughtful, introspective lyricist. Her music is very much a part of the kayokyoku tradition of homegrown Japanese pop music.

Utada, on the other hand, is a much more international artist, which isn’t surprising, given that she was born and raised in New York. “Distance” has much more of a yogaku (Western music) feel than Hamasaki’s work, partly because of the American production on some of the tracks, but also because of Utada’s compositional style.

Like so much American R&B, Utada’s songs emphasize groove and “feel” over melody, which is a radical departure for a mainstream J-pop artist. The interesting thing is that this has clicked with Japan’s music-buying public.

Which of these two artists has the staying power to develop a longterm career in the fickle J-pop world? I’d bet on Utada, if only because she’s not shamelessly churning out material like Hamasaki — but Utada doesn’t seem to be sure about her lifetime career. Once you’re on the J-pop merry-go-round, though, it’s hard to get off . . . (Steve McClure)

The ’60s live!: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen

What do these two gentlemen have in common other than the fact that they both record for Columbia Records? Well, they’re both over 60. They were also once considered pillars of the new folk music that emerged 40 years ago, even though they supported opposite ends of the movement: American Dylan with the country-blues/protest faction, and Canadian Cohen with the art song/romantic ballad faction. The two of them, independently, invented the singer-songwriter concept.

Another thing they have in common is that they both released albums in 2001 that were fresher than the vast majority of music produced in any genre this year. Dylan’s “Love and Theft,” a masterful mishmash of American roots music, is funny, sly, wise and deep. Cohen’s “Ten New Songs,” his first album of new material in almost a decade, is a collection of love songs so haunting and immediate that one can’t help but wonder what he was meditating about at that California Buddhist retreat he recently emerged from. Pop is the realm of youth, we’re told, but Dylan and Cohen sounded experienced beyond their years when they were in their 20s, so you can simply say they’ve finally caught up with themselves, temporally. (Philip Brasor)

The ’60s are dead!: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones

In the case of the former, I’m not thinking of the passing of George Harrison, though that sad event certainly can’t be discounted, but Paul McCartney’s new album “Driving Rain.” Following the death of Linda, Paul released an album of covers, “Run Devil Run,” that was the most enjoyable thing he’d done in many years, mainly because it returned to the basic instrumentation of the early Beatles and freed him from the stressful responsibility of having to come up with the amazing tunes he’s so famous for. The new album of original songs adheres to the same simple production principles, but the tunes seem to have finally abandoned him. More importantly, Paul doesn’t seem to have anything to sing about any more. Once the world’s main producer of silly love songs, he’s essentially been reduced to making up titles.

One doesn’t even have to listen to Mick Jagger’s new album, “Goddess in the Doorway,” to call for a worldwide ban on any further Stones reunions. There he is on the cover, standing on a pedestal. The first single is entitled “God Gave Me Everything,” which he co-wrote with Lenny Kravitz, who only wishes he were a ghost of the sixties. Irony minus imagination equals desperation. Why retire on your laurels when the bod is still in good shape? A better question would be: why not retire on your laurels? (P.B.)

And the winners (and losers) are . . .

The Most Precipitous Fall From Fame to Utter Obscurity Award: Singer Ami Suzuki was unofficially blacklisted by the entertainment industry after she had the audacity to sue her management company to get out of her contract. (S.M.)

The Best Comeback Award: Some music is so awful that it deserves to be banned, but the Taliban went a bit over the top when for five years, they banned all music and even confiscated musical instruments. That all ended in November with the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. A record by Farhad Darya was, reportedly, the first to be spun on Afghan radio since 1996. Darya, who combines folk with traditional Afghan music, has been in exile in the United States since 1990, but no doubt he’ll be planning a few Kabul gigs in the near future. (S.B.)

The Spinal Tap Award for Sevice to Rock Award: The music. The groupies. The bad hair. The worse smell. “The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band,” the autobiography of Motley Crue, spells out the glamorous highs and piteous lows of rock in all its absurdity. (Suzannah Tartan)

The Configuration of the Year Award: Male-female pairings, as in The Moldy Peaches (partners), The Handsome Family (married couple), Quasi (divorced couple), and The White Stripes (brother and sister or boyfriend and girlfriend, a confusion that lends them a subtext of taboo mystery which some bands would kill for). (P.B.)

The Funkiest Way to Have Fun Award: After years of strict genre segregation, the jam-band scene brings together funk’s bass lines, jazz’s improvisation and rock’s high energy. With visits to Tokyo this last year by Medeski, Martin and Wood, Soulive and Karl Denson, to name a few, the bar has been raised for live jamming. Tokyo jammers heavy on the Hammond B-3 organ — such as Kankawa, Tone Wheels and Aquapit — have already picked up the groove. For a real high-calorie treat, check out the Sugarman Three’s “Sweet Spot,” (Michael Pronko)

The Most Untimely Song Award: Agit-rockers Primal Scream were really proud of their new song “Bomb the Pentagon,” which they were playing at gigs this year. Until Sept. 11, that is. It seems unlikely they’ll be playing it again in the near future. (S.B.)

The Least Comfortable Realization Award: Michael Jackson’s “Invincible” is actually pretty good. (P.B.)

The Most Creatively Challenged Album Cover Award: “Monkey Girl Odyssey,” by Dreams Come True, which features a from-behind view of the trio, who are topless and sporting simian tails sprouting from their posteriors. Perhaps this means the album is the tail-end of their career (sorry). (S.M.)

The Best Jazz Renovations Award: With the opening of several new jazz clubs across the city, including the largish JZ Brat in Shibuya, and the re-opening of long-timers B Flat in Akasaka and Someday in Kagurazaka, there are now more chairs in front of more local jazz and more room to stretch your legs. Better yet, the monolithic Tower Records expanded its Japanese jazz section, and threw in a vocal section with a listening station. (M.P.)

The PR Gambit of the Year Award: Vincent Gallo’s two concerts at Orchard Hall on Dec. 25 and 26. In an interview in Metropolis in September, the prickly actor-director-model-musician said that he wasn’t necessarily interested in playing his new album, “When,” in front of an audience, which is understandable given that the songs sound like something he might play for friends in his living room. Orchard Hall, however, is one of the few venues in Tokyo suitable for grand opera. (P.B.)

The Most Perverse Show Award: Forget Marilyn Manson and Slipknot. The most outrageous show of the year was put on by Rammstein, insane German metal merchants. At Shinjuku’s Liquid Room, the singer flailed himself with a whip while his boots sprayed sparks and his gloves shot fireworks. His pregnant-pig-size chest was covered in coarse, black hair. In short, Gary Glitter genetically spliced with a mammoth. The show climaxed, literally, with a monstrous prosthetic penis, which the singer used to mock-rape the keyboardist then spray the audience with a milky liquid. After making the sign of the cross, he retired stage-right. (S.B.)

The Most Interesting Use of Musical Good Karma Award: Asa Chang has a fleshy face, wild afro and penchant for incense that recalls the Indian guru Sai Baba crossed with the Boredom’s Yamataka Eye. “Hana,” a strange melange of sitar, tabla and a drowsy, esoteric vocals was one of the most compelling singles this year.(S.T.)

The Best Millennial Angst Award: Just when the bright, shiny world of distracting commercial music was about to sweep back over the soul-searching potential of the turn-of-millennium blues, Joe Henry has put together a brilliant existential jazz-noir. Packed with downtown New York jazz players such as Brian Blade, Marc Ribot, Brad Mehldau and Ornette Coleman, the tunes are as insightful as they are engaging. (M.P.)

The Most Outrageous Display of Flagrant Self-promotion Award: The year’s charity gigs and releases mostly seemed to be designed to boost the careers of people who’ve ceased to be musically relevant. Did we really need Eric Clapton to tell us to give money to Sept. 11 charities? Are we so dumb we can’t dip into our pockets without first hearing David Bowie sing “Heroes”? You’d be a fool to buy “America: A Tribute to Heroes” or “The Concert for New York City” CDs, if only because the music on them is crap. Go out and buy cool stuff; I’m sure you’ll have a little money left over to donate directly to a Sept. 11 charity. (S.B.)

The If I Never Hear That Song Again It’ll Be Too Soon Award: “Ashita ga Arusa,” originally a hit for Kyu Sakamoto, was covered this year by both The Ulfuls and a one-off ensemble of Yoshimoto Kogyo tarento called Re:Japan. Hey, guys: There are lots of other great Japanese pop chestnuts you could cover . . . (S.M.)

The Appalachian Darkhorse Award: Spurred by the unexpected sales of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack album, former niche artists of Appalachian music, such as Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and Gillian Welch, have become stars in their own right. The “O Brother” record essentially leapfrogged the conventional country music establishment, which means people who normally wouldn’t be caught dead listening to country music have discovered the roots of rock ‘n’ roll without having to go through Garth Brooks. (P.B.)

The Nobody Has Ever Gone Broke Underestimating the Taste of the Japanese Public Award: Svengali/producer Tsunku, who keeps creating frighteningly successful spinoff units (Mini Moni, Country Moni, Tanpopo, etc.) from girl idol group Morning Musume. When will it ever end? (S.M.)

The Tin Ear Award: After the tragedy of Sept. 11, the U.S. Senate, in preparation for war, burst into a terribly off-key rendition of “God Bless America.” There should be a law against this kind of thing. How does the Afghan national anthem go again? (M.P.)