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2004's Dirty Dozen 

The musical abilities of New Orleans' musicians are a given; what sets the best CDs apart this year is their conceptual sophistication. The Neville Brothers' Walkin' in the Shadow of Life, for instance, isn't simply funky. Musically and lyrically, the album recalls late-1960s/early-1970s soul, a more resonant context for the band than the hippie utopianism that the brothers sometimes flirt with.

Similarly, the Dirty Dozen's Funeral for a Friend (Rope-a-Dope) -- just out of my top 12 -- isn't just a very good brass band album; it evokes the jazz funeral and situates New Orleans brass bands in a musical and cultural framework. That makes it easier to appreciate the music, and the band's inventiveness comes through more clearly.

The rock 'n' roll albums are equally smart, the best example being the Detonations' Static Visions. The trio's sound is all about electricity, making the CD title a nice pun if it's intentional. Not only is the guitar sound entirely a product of distortion, but the vocals also have an aggressive, blurry edge that comes from radical over-modulation. Where so many bands talk about energy and excitement, the Detonations encode it in every element of their songs.

I've opted for a top 12 because 10 simply seemed too limiting and because, even at that, a number of good records are left out. In addition to the Dirty Dozen, lurking just off the list are Hip to Bop by Maurice Brown, Scuba School by Big Blue Marble, Map of What Is Effortless by Telefon Tel Aviv, Day's End by John Gros, Miracle Mule by the subdudes and Live at the Tempere Jazz Happening 2000 by Kidd Jordan/Joel Futterman/Alvin Fielder Trio. Morning 40 Federation's debut on M80 Records combines the best of the band's two indie albums, but including best-ofs seems like cheating on top 10/12 lists, so I left it out.

1. Neville Brothers -- Walkin' in the Shadow of Life (Back Porch): The Nevilles sound comfortably immersed in '70s funk and, more importantly, soul. The lyrics recall Bobby Womack and Curtis Mayfield in their clear-eyed evocation of the struggle to get by in hard times, and the band's harmonies make you believe that holding on to each other might really be the answer.

2. Pleasure Club -- The Fugitive Kind (Purified): While faux New Wave bands have picked up the wardrobes and musical mannerisms of early-80s bands, James Hall and company updated the urgency and sense of style from that period and tied it to bold songs with genuine edginess.

3. Terence Higgins & SwampGrease -- In the Bywater (Gris Gris Bag): With not-found-in-nature synthesizer sounds animating the funk-jazz fusion, the Dirty Dozen drummer has produced one of the year's liveliest albums.

4. Alexandra Scott -- Spyglass (independent): Subtle production touches and less-subtle language make Scott's album subversive. It undercuts the confessional female singer-songwriter pose and tells more truth in the process.

5. Various Artists -- Humid Sounds of Media Darling Records (Media Darling): This collection of underground rappers and DJs hearken back to 45 or so minutes in 1976 when mechanical, verbal and mental dexterity ruled rap.

6. Spencer Bohren -- Southern Cross (Valve): Bohren treats soul, folk and blues like fetish objects, performing loving versions that capture the lonely hearts of songs by Curtis Mayfield and Hank Williams, among others.

7. C.C. Adcock -- Lafayette Marquis (YepRoc): You don't expect a guitarist's album to be all about rhythm to the exclusion of solos, and you don't expect a swamp pop guitarist's album to sound so modern. You do expect to dance to it, but you don't expect to do the hip shake, baby.

8. Jeff & Vida -- Loaded (Binky): Jeff & Vida aren't simply depicting working-class life in bluegrass and country songs. An artist's sensibility shapes lyrics filled with subtleties and smart bits of language in songs they deliver with fire and precision.

9. The Happy Talk Band -- Total Death Benefit (independent): There are no frills, just a churning, distorted guitar, a rhythm section and Luke Allen's fragile voice singing songs about life on the margins. He's so matter-of-fact in his delivery that he's a welcome antidote to the city's tendencies to romanticize the slow slide into the inevitable.

10. Grayson Capps -- Grayson Capps (independent): Like Tom Waits, Capps is a bohemian first and foremost, and plays blues singer more than he actually is one. Still, there's a freedom that accompanies not having to sweat authenticity, and he takes full advantage of that, opening up the sonic palate in ways bluesmen don't.

11. The Detonations -- Static Visions (Alive): Like Jimi Hendrix's guitar playing, Static Visions is the sound of electricity channeled through guitars and a microphone. It's punk rock, but with textured distortion central to the album's appeal. 12. Dr. John -- N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'udda (Blue Note): The title suggests a lightweight CD, but Dr. John's songs tell tall (and not-so-tall) tales from everyday New Orleans. His interpretations of "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Stakalee" and "St. James Infirmary" make these old warhorses relevant and worth another listen.

click to enlarge The lyrics on the Neville Brothers' Walkin' in the Shadow of Life are a clear-eyed evocation of the struggle to get by in hard times, and the band's harmonies make you believe that holding on to each other might really be the answer.
  • The lyrics on the Neville Brothers' Walkin' in the Shadow of Life are a clear-eyed evocation of the struggle to get by in hard times, and the band's harmonies make you believe that holding on to each other might really be the answer.
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