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Most Known Unknowns

Four Albums That You Didn’t Buy in 2005—But Should Have

By Jess Harvell | Posted 1/4/2006

Every year, there are the albums and songs you can’t get away from—in the pop charts, in mainstream magazines, in Best Buy ads and bus stations and office parties. And every year there are albums that, for good or ill, pop critics wield like shields and swords. The general populace gets terrorized with Black Eyed Peas. Rock-mag readers and online seekers get terrorized with Sufjan Stevens.

And yet there’s more music than ever, new stuff and reissues alike, which means more chances for good music to slip through the cracks. So with that in mind, as we usher in the new year, here are four albums that very likely passed you by in 2005, through no fault of their own. Keep them in mind when exchanging that ugly sweater or duplicate George Foreman Grill.

 

Robert Wyatt and Friends Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974 (Hannibal) This astounding concert found English singer Robert Wyatt at the height of his powers. It would be one of the last times he ever appeared onstage. The period between June 1973 and July 1974 marked two major events in Wyatt’s life. One was a drunken fall from a fourth-story window that left him permanently in a wheelchair. The other was the release of Rock Bottom—his masterpiece—an album of lunar keyboards and Wyatt’s sea-spray voice, a tribute to his nurse and muse, wife Alfie.

Wyatt is associated with progressive rock—his friends here include Mike “Tubular Bells” Oldfield and members of Pink Floyd and Henry Cow—but not really of it. The concert’s music soars beyond rock, with fuzzed bass rubbing against swinging jazz drums and blazing brass. Rock Bottom is performed in its entirety—some of the most moving songs one lover has ever written for another.

Wyatt’s voice may be an acquired taste—he frequently breaks into wordless scat and often sounds as if he’s singing into his overcoat—but when his falsetto hits the “right” note it wracks the body with shivers. It all climaxes with the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” Wyatt and Julie Tippetts straining over the horns, the perfect cover for a genius Stalinist ex-drummer for whom a broken back was just another bump in the road.

 

Mannie Fresh The Mind of Mannie Fresh (Cash Money) Coming in just under 2004’s wire, The Mind of Mannie Fresh was championed by a few critics and spawned a minor hit in “Real Big.” Mannie is a genius behind the production deck and a sly if silly presence on the mic, but his genial, pleasantly plump persona hardly cuts an imposing 50 Cent-piece profile. And at nearly 80 minutes—30 of which are skits (like Petey Pablo’s “Great Moments in the Ghetto” public-service announcements) or interludes (like “The D.J.,” a Mantronix-style megamix)—The Mind of Mannie Fresh is as flighty and sex-obsessed as the title implies.

Like a satyr in a white tee, Fresh promises “no merkin, no killin’” on his record, just a lot of doofy single entendres and chunky-boys-need-love-too pleas. “Chubby Boy” is his anthem, and the album hits the club running on a mixture of ’80s hip-hop stabs, punchy drums, oily R&B melodies, R. Kelly samples, and Fresh’s own fly guitar playing. A lot has changed in the 12 months since The Mind was released—like Fresh losing his New Orleans home in Hurricane Katrina—but it’s that pall of tragedy that makes the all-smiles vibe of the album such a tonic. “Some people think sex is overrated,” as Ludacris says on that new Jamie Foxx single. “But they just doing it wrong.”

 

David Last The Push Pull (The Agriculture) New York’s David Last makes ambient music for an era when hip-hop heard through the wall of the apartment next door and other commonplace urban noises are the new soothing ocean sounds to help you sleep. Unlike most modern electronic ambient, which parades a simple keyboard melody over an equally simple beat, Last’s The Push Pull is all about the rhythm. A more nuanced beat programmer would be hard to find, as he fillets dancehall and repatterns reggaeton with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step.

Unlike the inner-city blues making rap and reggaeton cats holler, Last’s songless rhythms get by on his charming melodic sensibility and lighter-than-air atmosphere. “Posca Kid” parps along to a reggae skank, with tiny blurps and blorps spiraling off the main beat, before Last unfurls a slow, mournful, but still jaunty accordion line. It’s as far from Jamaica as it is from France, and the juxtaposition is delightful and unexpected. A lot of mediocre mood music has been made in the name of “Fourth World” hybrids of East and West, but Last is perfect for a generation equally at home with Beenie Man as with the Orb.

 

Anthony Hamilton Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ (Arista) Sneaking out in the last days of December, this is a bit of a cheat, as Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ may yet become a hit in a similar slow-burning manner as Hamilton’s 2003 breakthrough, Comin’ From Where I’m From. It’s already debuted in the Billboard Top 20, suggesting that maybe people are a little sick of the shirtless embarrassments and oleaginous keyboards of Omarion and Trey Songz. And with a cover that looks like a Bill Withers album and a sound more wood and leather than synthesizer preset, Ain’t Nobody is undeniably a throwback. But it’s also an album you’ll want to listen to front to back.

The obvious star of the album is Hamilton’s rough-with-the-smooth voice. It sounds as if it has been aged in a vat and cooked with pain and experience, a rarity in an era when kids whose balls have barely dropped are mewling about lost love. Producers including Mark Batson, James Poyser and ?uestlove of the Soulquarians, and the perennially underrated Raphael Saadiq provide the velvet lining for Hamilton’s wounded vocals, which, despite what the title says, sound like he’s worryin’ quite a bit. Ain’t Nobody occasionally veers toward whole-meal blandness, but the astounding heartbreak songs, like “Where Did It All Go Wrong” (whose title says it all), will scald anyone who has spent a late night wondering that very thing.

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The Unseen (11/5/2008)
Catherine Pancake and Jai Brooks Capture a Slice of Black Baltimore Lesbian Life in Jay Dreams

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