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The San Diego Union-Tribune

The First Family

The best debut albums of the year are a diverse bunch with one thing in common: excellence


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 excellence.

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.

Pyeng Threadgill, "Sweet Home: The Music of Robert Johnson" (Random Chance; www.ran 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.

The Futureheads, "The Futureheads" (Sire; www.sirere 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.

Dafnis Prieto, "About the Monks" (Zoho; 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 distinctive.

Secret Machines, "Now Here Is Nowhere" (Reprise; 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.

Amp Fiddler, "Waltz of a Ghetto Fly" (Genuine/Pias America; 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.

Soweto 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.

Cul de Sac / Damo Suzuki, "Abhayamudra" (Strange Attractors; 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 self-indulgence.

Nellie McKay, "Get Away From Me" (Columbia; 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.

Trent Dabbs, "Quite Often" (Terminus/Sweet Tea; 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 electronic accents.

Andy Robinson, "Exotic America" (Brontosaurus; 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.