First, my annual caveat: This column chronicles my favorite albums of '02. I made no attempt to factor in a disc's "importance."
1. Solomon Burke: Don't Give Up on Me (Fat Possum/Anti-/Epitaph) — Take one of the greatest rhythm & blues singers ever, yank him out of obscurity, put him in the hands of imaginative producer Joe Henry, find a batch of tunes by the likes of Waits, Dylan, Morrison and Costello, and ... presto. My runaway favorite album of the year. Henry keeps the gospel-inflected arrangements minimal, clearing the decks for the master's definitive soul tenor and his deeply interpretative readings of songs that consistently dodge R&B cliches. A masterpiece.
2. Los Lobos: Good Morning Aztlán (Mammoth) — More decisive proof that they're not just another band from East L.A. Los Lobos continues to stir together the panoply of American roots styles while maintaining a solid, unmistakable identity. Good Morning Aztlán ranges from straight-up rock to traditional Mexican folk to blues, R&B to psychedelia to improbable hybrids.
3. Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel (Island) — Unlike some of my peers, I liked Costello's dalliances with art music and classic pop. I like When I Was Cruel better. Costello may disdain the term "rock," but Cruel is definitely a return, albeit infused with imagination, stylistic cross-pollination and acerbic lyrics rich in metaphor. His core backing group includes former Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas. That should say enough. After a decade away from ... rock, Costello proves he has lost none of his touch.
4. Common: Electric Circus (MCA) — Finding true experimentation in mainstream hip-hop is like biting into a Bic Mac and discovering a 5 karat diamond. Electric Circus is a diamond-in-a-Big-Mac disc. Call the music psychecletic, a surprise-filled melange of off- kilter beats, swirling sonics and plenty of live instrumentation. "New Wave" counters its aggro verses with airy vocals by Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier; "Jimi Was a Rock Star," with guest Erykah Badu, is about the trippiest thing you're apt to hear on a hip-hop record. Common effectively evokes a wide range of feels on the mic: hard, gentle, spacey. He's a deft lyricist who blends social commentary, love odes and treatises on integrity. If any hip-hopper can preach about artistic integrity, it's this cat.
5. Fluid Motion: Fluid Motion with Sam Rivers (Isospin Labs) — Bay area trombonist/composer David Manson is certainly an enterprising fellow. Along with teaching at St. Pete College, producing the Emit series of experimental music and leading the forward-thinking jazz group SHIM, he found time to cut and release this terrific disc that rivals anything produced nationally this year. Enlisting saxophone legend Sam Rivers and his regular bassist and drummer was Manson's first coup. Bringing in young trumpeter Jonathan Powell (a native of Tampa, resident of NYC) added further juice. Writing a batch of challenging tunes that straddle the line between post-bop and avant-garde made it all worth doing. Fluid Motion bustles with vitality, further enhanced by the engineering of John Stephan, who's facility at the Springs Theatre in Tampa, imbues the sound with a depth and overall liveness generally missing from large-label efforts. www.isospinlabs.com
6. Cassandra Wilson: Belly of the Sun (Blue Note) — The dusky-voiced singer has transcended jazz over the last decade. For Belly, she returned to her native turf of Mississippi and concocted a sexy album rich in various blues hues. Along with impressive originals, Wilson and company deliver seductive interpretations of The Band's "The Weight," Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm" and others. Her voice is impeccably backed by a smoldering blend of percussion, acoustic bass, slide guitar and other accoutrements.
7. Medeski Martin & Wood: Uninvisible (Blue Note) — After the wayward experimentalism of The Dropper and the acoustic ramblings of Tonic (both released in 2000), Uninvisible is a heartening return to form for the New York groove-jazzers. The disc brims with limber funk, riffy hooks and rough-hewn keyboard sonics, decorated here and there with horns, turntables, spoken word and other conceits, none of which distract from the trio's worship of the groove.
8. Wayne Shorter: Footprints Live! (Verve) — The legendary saxophonist's first all-acoustic disc since the 1960s and his first ever live album is an unqualified triumph. Playing tunes from throughout his stellar career (but none by Weather Report), Shorter guides his ace ensemble through cannily interactive versions of "Sanctuary," "JuJu," "Masquelero," the title track and others. His mates — drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci and pianist Danilo Perez — are equal partners in music that shifts and morphs and continually produces an array of new colors.
9. Various Artists: Red Hot + Riot (MCA) — The latest in the "Red Hot" series of albums earmarked to raise money and awareness about AIDS, this one is probably the most ambitious yet. A tribute to Feli Kuti, the Nigerian originator of Afro-beat who died of AIDS-related causes in '97, it's a summit meeting of top African artists and folks from American hip-hop, jazz and R&B (Talib Kweli, Roy Hargrove, Meshell Ndegeocello and scads of others). The music emanates from large ensembles and comes in cascades of undulating African grooves, layered with teeming percussion, call-and-response vocals and slabs of coarse horns. A groove party with a conscience.
10. Laura Nyro: Live: The Loom's Desire (Rounder) — During this pair of Christmas Eve concerts from The Bottom Line in New York ('93 and '94), the late singer/ songwriter establishes a lovely, living-room atmosphere. Accompanying herself on piano, and backed on several songs by a luscious all-woman harmony group, the angel-voiced Nyro glides through sets that combine classic pop, R&B and her own formidable material. By this point, Nyro's voice had lost most of its shrillness, leaving a gorgeous instrument that straddles the line between operatic and soulful.
Too Good Not To Mention:
Bonnie Raitt, Silver Lining (Capitol) — Blues-infused adult pop; Charles Lloyd, Lift Every Voice (ECM) — Absorbing jazz colored by blues, gospel and space-jams; Phantom Planet, The Guest (Epic) — Enticingly frayed power-pop; Hot Water Music, Caution (Epitaph) — Slammin', melodic post-punk; Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Live at the Wetlands (Dare/Warner Bros.) — Roof-raising jams courtesy of the young progenitor of sacred steel.
From the Vaults:Mickey and the Soul Generation, Iron Leg (Cali-Tex/Quannum Projects) — Obscure early '70s instrumental funk by a San Antonio band made up of African- and Mexican-Americans; Weather Report, Live and Unreleased (Columbia Legacy) — Two discs of scintillating, previously unreleased concert material; John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition (Impulse) — The iconic 1965 album fleshed out with previously unissued material. Two discs.