The Third Annual No Depression Critics’ Poll
Whatever it is, there you are
A couple of letter-writers have chimed in to tell us they missed the old “alternative country (whatever that is)” tagline we finally decided to part with in September on the occasion of our tenth anniversary. To be honest, there’s a nostalgic side of me that was sad to see those words go as well (in part because my dad unwittingly inspired the parenthetical portion) — but in the end, we just didn’t believe there was sufficient reason or value anymore in describing ourselves as alt-country even in the broader sense.
The top vote-getter in our third annual No Depression Critics’ Poll serves as a prime example of why that’s the case. Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine encompasses a worldly range of sounds, styles, and cultures; as our contributing editor Joe Nick Patoski observed in his review in ND #58, the album is “a rich, bilingual, eclectic street opera peppered with English and Spanish sound bites, poetry, sampling, and even a UFO.”
To view such a project in terms of either “alt” or “country” just seems a nonstarter. Chavez Ravine does, however, reflect the expansive breadth and depth of American roots music…which underscores the point of our tenth-anniversary rechristening.
That Cooder’s opus finished atop our poll came as somewhat of a surprise, not that it isn’t plenty deserving. On the other hand, looking through the full list of records that received notice from our panel of 40-odd voters, what’s most striking is that none of them might necessarily have been top-ten or top-five shoe-ins. That’s in stark contrast to last year, when Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose was a foregone conclusion for the #1 slot, and discs by Buddy Miller, the Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle and Dave Alvin all were sure bets to finish high.
This year’s field was much harder to handicap. Mary Gauthier’s Mercy Now certainly had the quality to finish high, but it wasn’t quite the marketplace breakthrough Lost Highway might have hoped, so it was hard to tell how many folks had heard it. Bettye LaVette’s record was an indelible statement, but its #3 finish might not have been foreseen in these pages (further evidence of how wide our umbrella has opened).
The rest of the top ten seems a bit more predictable, a mix of erstwhile mainstream-country prodigal sons (Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell), left-of-center songwriters (Robbie Fulks, James McMurtry), roots-inflected indie-rockers (My Morning Jacket, White Stripes), and the token primal-force legend (Neil Young). Still, one would not have guessed, just a short while ago, that such acts would finish higher in our poll than the likes of Son Volt and Ryan Adams, both of whom turned in their best efforts in years.
Me, I’m finding myself feeling somewhat out on my own limb; for the second straight year, only two of my top-five picks (Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell’s Begonias, Lizz Wright’s Eyes Wide Awake) garnered enough votes to even appear on our list. I suppose I’m not alarmed that Charlie Sexton’s Cruel And Gentle Things didn’t show, as my guess is that most of the world outside of Texas still sees Sexton as an ’80s teen-wonder posterboy (though you’d think all those years with Dylan would’ve counted for something with the hardcore Bob-worshipers among our constituency). Regardless, I returned to Sexton’s record more than any other in 2005, mesmerized by the heart and soul in his music, and gratified at his transformation into perhaps the most talented triple-threat (singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, producer) in American music today.
It surprises me more that the indie-rock crowd which saw fit to swoon over the likes of MMJ and Sufjan Stevens — both deserving enough in their own right, I hasten to add — somehow missed the majestic triumph of Crooked Fingers’ Dignity And Shame. Nothing Eric Bachmann accomplished during his ’90s salad days with Archers Of Loaf suggested he was capable of making a record as refreshing and rewarding as this; indeed, as I watched Bachmann and his bandmates deliver those songs live on two separate occasions in 2005 (at SXSW in March and at a tour-finale homecoming in Seattle a month later), the thought occurred to me that we may have another Alejandro Escovedo in the making here.
Over on our reissues list, it was nice to see the historical value of the Charlie Poole set be acknowledged by a hair’s breadth over the more obvious No Direction Home pick of the aforementioned Dylanheads. Also nice to see unlikely kindred spirits Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson both in there — who’d have believed which one would still be alive in 2005? — but for me, nothing was more welcome than the five-disc Jimmy Webb box set. That, in and of itself, was reason enough to appreciate that past twelve months of music.
Let the hard times roll
For American music, New Orleans is ground zero — cradle of jazz, crucible of rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll. The devastation this summer of that uniquely American city left a hole in the heart of the culture. It wasn’t necessarily that the nation at large took the city that care forgot for granted, but how could anyone know how profoundly and painfully we’d miss New Orleans until it was no longer there? For it was unthinkable that a city with such a rich history, indelible legacy and vital spirit could all but disappear. Just like that.
Just as it was unthinkable, a few years earlier, that a city as mighty as New York could see its nerve center reduced to bloody rubble. After terrorists toppled the towers, what had been impossible to imagine became impossible to forget. Just like that.
Though 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina will forever be linked (in my mind at least) as American tragedies beyond the realm of nightmare plausibility, they seemed to leave very different countries — in fact, polar opposites — in their respective wakes. For those of us born after World War II, the UniteD States has never seemed more united than in response to the terrorist strikes, a bond forged of single-minded purpose and common resolve: One nation, under God, indivisible.
The floods of New Orleans washed away that illusion of unity, exposing the deep divides of race and class that remain all but synonymous as a source of national shame. Within a country that pays lip service to equal opportunity, our culture too often turns a blind eye to that chasm until disaster rubs our noses in it. We’ve become so accustomed to a perpetual underclass — circumscribed by race and ethnicity — that we don’t even notice it. Yet that great divide is as indelibly, essentially American as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those dynamics of race, class and geography are deeply embedded in our music. Within the pages of a journal such as this, one rededicated to “surveying the past, present and future of American music,” it’s all the more important that we recognize how the music reflects the country that spawned it, how it has been able to transcend the circumstances of despair, how it has translated harsh realities into art so rich and redemptive.
No American city has been more deeply imbued with the tragic sense of life than New Orleans, where the past is omnipresent, beauty and decay are inextricable, and the funeral parade celebrates life with a raucous affirmation. It’s the greatest party town in the country, the one that lets the good times roll all night long. New Orleans is also one of the most impoverished, crime-riddled and racially divided cities in America. At the fault line of the country’s class chasm, New Orleans was a tragedy waiting to happen; that this tragedy came as such a shock and surprise is all the more tragic.
We can’t divorce our celebration of the music we love from an understanding of the tensions that have shaped it. As a dark year ends and we hope for better times to come, we have to come to terms with what’s in the rhythm of this music, what’s in the blood.