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Pop Music | The $50 Guide

'Chutes' and 'Ladder' and Other Sound Plays From the Past Year

February 25, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is the Times pop music critic

The holiday season is such a strong sales period that labels tend to hold back their key releases of the new year until spring to give fans a chance to replenish their budgets. This lull enables us to catch up with some 2000 releases in this edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with what's fresh in pop music on an album budget of $50 per month. The albums by Coldplay and David Gray both have a strong sense of intimacy and craft that is especially endearing in a time of so much musical calculation.

January

Coldplay, "Parachutes" (Capitol/Nettwerk America). While so much commercial rock in this country is taken up with cardboard anger and aggression, England continues to produce hit bands with some of the thoughtfulness and character of classic rock. There's not a trace of irony or sarcasm in Chris Martin's voice as he sings, "We live in a beautiful world" in the opening seconds on this intimate and endearing album. But "Yellow" is the song that will probably hook you, if that alt-rock radio fave hasn't already.

David Gray, "White Ladder" (ATO/RCA). The nervous energy in some of Gray's arrangements may remind you of Billy Joel, and thus give you pause. But Gray's tales about living through romantic turmoil have a conviction and revelation that's often missing from the Piano Man's music. Like Coldplay's Martin, Gray is a writer who digs deep inside for truths and shares them in highly personal vocals. The Englishman sometimes edges too close to the pop mainstream, but at other times ("We're Not Right," "Nightblindness"), he moves into the winsome, introspective tone of a folk troubadour. He'll be at the Universal Amphitheatre on May 18.

Various artists, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack (Mercury). If you already have solid country-leaning, American roots albums, you may find that the music here doesn't seem quite so uplifting and unique in the CD player as it does in the movie theater, where it's a joy to hear the style in the context of a film. But chances are you'll eventually succumb to the flavorful sounds, and tip your hat to producer T Bone Burnett's ability to re-create the spirit of an era with charm and craft, and the help of such artists as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and the Cox Family.

February

Nortec Collective, "The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1" (Palm/Mil). The collective's name reflects the link between norteno and techno that is at the heart of this album's wonderfully effusive musical fusion. Even though dance music keeps turning in novel and unexpected directions, this mix of instruments and ideas is as engaging as it is surprising. The movement, which started in Tijuana, leans more heavily on the tension of techno than the celebration of norteno and banda, but the flavor of the regional styles adds an invaluable touch of spirit and life.

Los Tucanes de Tijuana, "Corridos de Primera Plana" (Universal Latino). If the Nortec Collective makes you want to check out norteno, you can't go wrong with this album. This is one of the genre's most respected and prolific outfits. The themes are dark and sometimes blood-splattered, but you probably would never suspect that if you don't understand Spanish. The accordion-spiked sound is so inviting that you can't help but feel uplifted.

Various artists, "You Can Count on Me" soundtrack (E-Squared/Artemis). Steve Earle, whose stamp is all over this album, is a link between the American roots sounds featured on the "O Brother" album and such varied '70s influences as the blue-collar rock of Bruce Springsteen and the country outlaw sensibilities of Willie & Waylon. And the feel is perfect for the intimacy and detail of "You Can Count on Me," an exquisite film that sidesteps Hollywood convention much the way Earle shuns pop calculation. Besides five tracks from "The Mountain," Earle's 1999 bluegrass-leaning collection with the Del McCoury Band, this soundtrack includes seven lively tunes from the vaults of Earle's label, E-Squared. The music ranges from the honky-tonk edges of Cheri Knight's "White Lies" to the edgy country-rock warning of Bob Kennedy's twangy "Vampire."

*

Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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