The best debut
albums of the year are a diverse bunch with one thing in common:
By George Varga
POP MUSIC CRITIC
December 23, 2004
It would be foolish
to claim that any of the artists who made my 10 favorite debut albums
of 2004 will enjoy great career longevity. Nor would it be prudent to
predict that any of them will be as consistently daring and
uncompromising as, say, Tom Waits and Diamanda Galas, two San
Diego-bred mavericks who are beacons of artistic independence and
But the albums I've chosen all
struck a chord that suggests the performers who made them will last
considerably longer than Britney Spear's latest hair color. As for the
conspicuous absence of Kanye West's superb debut, "The College
Dropout," it's in my 10 best albums of the year round-up, appearing in
Sunday's year-in-review Arts section.
Threadgill, "Sweet Home: The Music of Robert Johnson" (Random Chance;
www.ran domchancerecords.com): Rather than create another slavish
tribute to Delta Blues pioneer Robert Johnson, a la Eric Clapton or
Peter Green, New York singer Pyeng Threadgill reinvents his music by
simultaneously looking forward and back. Her ingenious arrangements
draw not just from blues and jazz, but from funk, R&B, rock and
Afro-Latin, with touches of hip-hop, electronica and New Orleans brass
band music. Threadgill's agile voice dances on top, at times suggesting
a cross between Jill Scott and Cassandra Wilson, by way of Nina Simone.
The result is a stunning homage to Johnson – and a welcome introduction
to one of the most original and rewarding new artists of 2004.
Futureheads, "The Futureheads" (Sire; www.sirere cords.com): Named
after a 1992 album by the Flaming Lips, this fresh-faced English
quartet cites influences as diverse as Devo, Fugazi, Queen and Kate
Bush (whose "Hounds of Love" is joyously re-interpreted here). Add in
XTC, Wire, the Jam and the recently reunited Gang of Four, whose Andy
Gill co-produced this 15-song album, and you get an inviting blend of
punk, power-pop and art-rock. Retro? On paper, yes. But Futureheads'
gifted members rise above their influences as they celebrate them, and
you will, too.
Prieto, "About the Monks" (Zoho; www.zohomusic.com): Since relocating
to New York, Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto, 28, has become one of
the Big Apple's most in-demand musicians, thanks to his exemplary
playing with everyone from pianists Eddie Palmieri and Andrew Hill to
saxophonists Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill. His overdue debut
album showcases his dynamic percussion work and impressive composing
skills, as well as his impeccable taste and ability to blend Latin
traditions and post-bop with a progressive approach that is rich and
Machines, "Now Here Is Nowhere" (Reprise; www.repriserecords.com): This
Texas-bred trio at times suggests what would happen if Pink Floyd,
Pavement and Kraut-rock pioneers Neu! had merged as one band, anchored
by Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. Proudly bombastic one moment, soft
and delicate the next, the group seems determined to reinvent prog-rock
for a post-punk age, and very nearly succeeds.
Fiddler, "Waltz of a Ghetto Fly" (Genuine/Pias America; www.pias.com):
A former member of George Clinton's P-Funk All-Stars, Detroit
singer-keyboardist Joseph Anthony "Amp" Fiddler has also worked with
Prince, Lucy Pearl and Ramsey Lewis. His 13-song debut is a gem of
sinewy funk and old-school soul (think Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder),
with understated techno textures, gently undulating chill-out grooves
and ruminative lyrics about the joys and pitfalls of love.
Kinch, "Conversations With the Unseen" (Dune; www.dune-music .com): At
24, Birmingham-based alto saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch is being
hailed as the great new hope of the British jazz scene. Armed with a
degree in history from Oxford, he somehow combines such diverse
influences as Charlie Parker, Greg Osby and A Tribe Called Quest, then
adds his own stamp to wonderfully vibrant music that fuses jazz
fluidity with hip-hop fervor.
Sac / Damo Suzuki, "Abhayamudra" (Strange Attractors;
www.strange-attractors.com): On which Suzuki, the former singer of
German art-rock legends Can, teams with Boston-based band Cul de Sac
for a two-CD live album of "instant compositions," recorded with the
stipulation that there be absolutely no rehearsals. What results is
more than two-hours of ear-bending music – avant-rock marked by surf
guitar drones, Middle Eastern trance rhythms, neo-psychedelia and more
– that is as as adventurous as it is thankfully free of
McKay, "Get Away From Me" (Columbia; columbiarecords.com): Born in
London and raised in Harlem, Nellie McKay is equally adept performing
jazzy torch songs, subversive rap parodies of Eminem, bubbly folk-pop,
Tin Pan Alley ballads, Broadway-styled jaunts, urbane swing and more.
The audacious singer-pianist would have fared better if this two-CD set
were pared to one disc, but – at 22 – her musical diversity, skewed
worldview and irreverent lyrics are a joy.
Dabbs, "Quite Often" (Terminus/Sweet Tea; www.terminusrecords.com): The
debut solo album by ex-Always Sunday frontman suggests what Counting
Crows might have sounded like with Jeff Buckley on lead vocals. Dabbs'
finely crafted songs explore dreamy soundscapes one moment, jangly
roots rock the next, and are enhanced by his pristine melodies and deft
Andy Robinson, "Exotic America"
(Brontosaurus; www.andyrobinsonmusic.com): The former drummer in San
Diego prog-rock band Horsefeathers, Andy Robinson subsequently worked
with such L.A. cult groups as Elton Duck and Invisible Zoo before
returning home in 2000. His debut solo album finds him performing on
everything from dulcimer and synthesizers to kalimba and organ, as he
crafts a seamless blend of Western and Eastern folk stylings that are
rich in warmth and charm, but happily bereft of affectation.