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BEST OF 2006 / POP MUSIC | ANN POWERS

Visions of Joanna

December 17, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

ASSESSING this year in pop, I might as well start by throwing my hands in the air and waving them -- since I just don't know what the present means and the future holds. There's never been a more confusing time for the music industry, as it copes with the slow death of the CD (good riddance, crappy plastic!) and the embryonic development of the next bankable format. Downloads, streams, ring-tones, instant-messaged hits -- what's next, singing shoelaces? All that's sure is that as information becomes instant and universal, more and more music will overwhelm our ears.

Tens of thousands of official releases, and myriad more thrown up on artists' websites and blogs, push infinite variety, even as the corporate giants of radio, video and concert promotion narrow what's available to those without access to a mouse. You can retreat into your niche or exhaust yourself exploring other wormholes, but it's getting harder to just happen on a voice you didn't expect to hear.

Pop is our culture's medium for the boldest public conversations about sex, love, money, youth and the practice of dreaming, and it makes the biggest public impact when it's both diverse and unifying. Right now, very little beyond "American Idol" connects us. Whether that's a tragedy depends on how much you fantasize about togetherness.

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Joanna Newsom, "Ys" (Drag City Records): For every 10 trends a critic chases, there's one creative work that deserves to be called "singular." This gathering of art songs by percussive harpist, modern-primitive singer and modernist composer Joanna Newsom is this year's peerless thing. Yearning, funny, full of hungry bears and cosmic glow, it reveals the wonderland on the other side of one woman's looking glass.

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Timberlake/Timbaland: Between the year's most delicious single, Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous," and the dance-floor art project "Future Sex/Love Sounds," this was producer Timbaland's year -- the Grammy committee should be committed for not nominating him for best producer. Most heartening was his ongoing partnership with Justin Timberlake, an easy-spirited interracial partnership in a world where such public alliances remain rare.

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The return of frakkin' metal: Like the new "Battlestar Galactica," whose trademark expletive I've employed here, heavy-metal now is thorny, artistically ambitious and bloody powerful. Leaving the lame theatrics to the emo kids, new greats including Mastodon and Converge (and such seasoned hands as the Deftones and Tool) find the spot where the blood enters the brain, and live there.

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Feminist girls: Militant women's lib isn't too cool right now, but never have there been so many confidently eloquent young female singer-songwriters. Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, Regina Spektor, Amy Lee (of Evanescence), Corinne Bailey Rae, K.T. Tunstall, Miranda Lambert -- not to mention the Dixie Chicks (whose album was the only one this year that made me cry) and a newly self-actualized Beyonce -- all indicate that some moms back in the 1970s and 1980s taught their daughters the feminist mystique.

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Los Abandoned, "Mix Tape" (Vapor U.S.): Now, I just moved to L.A., so I don't know squat. But this is what the city sounds like to me. Smart kids in perpetual motion, in love with the glitter, trash and plastic of the city, rove from art openings to strip malls in search of fun and fulfillment. And they're, like, totally bilingual.

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Comets on Fire, Arthur Nights, Nov. 20: I was ready to bail before this final set in the fulfilling but draining multi-day festival. But something kept me in the back of the musty Palace Theater, and then this scruffy band I'd never heard before loped onstage and nailed me to the wall. Tempestuous psych-rock, verging on noise, with beauty shot through like glass slivers. This is the stuff that conjures Dionysus.

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Lil Wayne, Genius: Hip-hop had a bummer year commercially and critically, but out of the rubble rose this former hoodlum, his skill on fire and his consciousness spurred on by Katrina's devastation of his hometown. Lil Wayne released the year's killer mix tape ("The Dedication, Part II," with DJ Drama), made the OutKast album great for the length of his guest appearance, and out-protested Neil Young on "Georgia ... Bush." Only the Clipse, with its late-season instant classic "Hell Hath No Fury," rivaled him for casual elegance.

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The Children's Hour: Forget those insipid lullaby reworkings of Nirvana. This is a new golden era for kids' music because indie musicians realized that they could have fun, make money and stay creative playing for their kids' friends. Smart, inventive artists including the Sippy Cups, Wee Hairy Beasties, Uncle Rock, Ralph's World, Farmer Jason, Laurie Berkner and scene grandaddy Dan Zanes are treating their juvenile audience with respect, not condescension -- and making music that really rocks.

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Espers, "II" (Drag City): So somber, so pretentious, so enchanting. Titles such as "Dead Queen" and "Moon Occults the Sun" prepare you for the trip within. If this psilocybin-laced, feedback-kissed chamber folk opus were a movie, Derek Jarman would have directed. If it were a food, it would be the White Witch of Narnia's Turkish Delight.

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Bob Dylan, "Modern Times" (Columbia): He sings through his nose. But the man can still dance.

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The worst

The stripper as the feminine ideal. Enough already. I'm a pro-sex feminist, and have known some strong, brainy sex workers in my day. But can female power in hip-hop and R&B be located somewhere besides the pole? And it's not just rappers who are guilty of this objectification. Suburban moms, I know you wanna spice up your marriages. But could you think of something slightly less ridiculous than Strippercize?

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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