Erin McKeown – Distillation

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Right at the death of the year comes the belated British release of a magnificent debut album by a name we’re surely destined to hear a lot more of in 2003. Erin McKeown is a young woman from Massachusetts who dresses like she just stepped out of a sepia postcard mailed from somewhere in the Appalachian mountains circa 1930. She sounds like a cross between a less twee Be Good Tanyas and a more cheerful Gillian Welch, and Distillation could almost be a female companion volume to such early Ry Cooder albums as Boomer’s Story or Into The Purple Valley. Like those records, it leaves you wondering whether it’s folk, country or acoustic blues. The answer, of course, is that it’s all of them and more, with the odd washboard and yodel for good measure. McKeown’s voice has a delightfully unmediated honesty, and Dave Chalfant’s production sparkles with a bright, earthy, slightly brittle analogue sound that makes you wonder why anyone ever needed multi-tracking. Unlike Cooder, who was always essentially an interpreter, she’s a great songwriter, too. Memo to editor?can we please hear “How To Open My Heart In 4 Easy Steps” on the next free Uncut CD? It’s just about the track of the year.

Kinky

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From Monterey, Mexico, Kinky’s extraordinary debut album was recently shortlisted for the American equivalent of the Mercury Music Prize, and it’s easy to hear why. The quartet mix funk, house, rock-en-Espa

Benge – Meme Tunes

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The record store shelves may be heaving with digital debris, but electro-veteran Benge has been at it since the mid-’90s, taking every opportunity to refine his twitchy noodlings and invest them with a distinctive melancholy warmth. These 11 tracks take the ‘discreet music’ of ’70s Eno and filter it through a thoroughly modernist and meticulous electronic aesthetic.

With atmospheric tracks like “Pica Unit” and “Urban”, Benge exhibits a keen sense of melody that elevates him above the competition.

Grant Langston – Chinese Fire Drill

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Californian troubadour Grant Langston works in an old-school medium, exhuming ’80s guitar rock, but his inner Mark Eitzel screams out from his dark, ironic lyrics. Lively drumming detonates the dynamics as the frontman sings of being drunk, being in love, and other essential topics. “Man, this chick is killing you,” declare the Shangri-Las of his subconscious, to which he replies, “You’re goddamn right?but it’s just so romantic.” Other stories of West Coast idling include “Beautiful Cynic” and “Slice Of Misery”.

Chris Potter – Travelling Mercies

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His profile raised by his appearance on Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, Chris Potter continues to showcase a singular talent on this, his second album since then. With a basic quartet of Potter plus Kevin Hays (keyboards), Scott Colley (bass) and Bill Stewart (drums), the music on Travelling Mercies is occasionally augmented by guests, including John Scofield on guitar. Lithe, soulful and swinging, this is music which wears its sophistication lightly. Those following Potter’s career can rely on a generous return for their money.

Chris Rea – Dancing Down The Stony Road

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Not Middlesbrough, where he was born, but the banks of the ol’ Mississippi, of which he could only have dreamed. Dancing Down The Stony Road is his blues album, and in his search for authenticity you can hear the fretboard buzz and the crickets singing in the hot Delta night (or rather Provence, where the LP was recorded). It’s pleasing, JJ Cale kind of fare, but it should never have been a double CD. Even labours of love need editing.

Venetian Snares – Winter In The Belly Of A Snake

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Drill’n’bass practitioner Aaron Funk has made a pretty convincing case for himself as the successor to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Mu-ziq. Not just through his juxtaposition of groggy melodies and frantic beats but through his pathological productivity. On his third LP of 2002, Funk continues to mix the usual cataclysmic workouts with crypto-classical passages, mumbled vocals and a cover of The Misfits’ “She”, on which he sounds like Nick Cave. It’s pleasingly hard to tell when he’s being playful or merely psychotic.

Meat Beat Manifesto – Ruok

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A prime mover in the late-’80s industrial boom, Jack Dangers moved into house and remixed the likes of David Byrne and The Shamen. Now holed up in the Bay Area with an ancient EMS Synthi 100, he’s mellowed, eschewing aggressive political samples in favour of spooky laughter, jive talk, soul divas and corny robots, backed with doomy, dubby bass, sci-fi squiggles and endlessly mutating percussion. Guests The Orb and Z-Trip add further interest to a hugely inventive collection.

Ben Vaughn – Glasgow Time

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The west coast of Scotland’s so immersed in music from the west coast of the US that American ringer Vaughn fits right in with this collection of country-tinged ballads and whimsy, assisted by members of BMX Bandits, Belle & Sebastian and backing-vocals-only Blakey. Vaughn’s songs are light to the point of evaporation at times, but a couple, like “She Fell Out The Window”, are deceptively deep and bittersweet.

Swizz Beatz – Swizz Beatz Presents G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories

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Thin stuff, this, from the latest hip hop producer who fancies himself as an artist in his own right. Swizz Beatz may be in demand for his jumpy, uncomplicated tracks. As a rapper, he makes Dr Dre sound like Rakim. Worse, the myriad guest slots?Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J, Eve, Noreaga et al?often resemble outtakes, so that the stand-out performances come from visiting ragga MC Bounty Killer and a comparative unknown, Styles.

DMX, Swizz’s most potent collaborator in the past, doesn’t even bother to turn up. For most fans, a clumsy tag team of Metallica and Ja Rule will provide scant compensation.

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That the idea for a Fela Kuti tribute album originally came from a member of The Roots shows just how pervasive the influence of Nigeria’s legendary inventor of Afrobeat has been. Macy Gray, D’Angelo, Nile Rodgers, Kelis and Money Mark are all here alongside such African musicians as Baaba Maal, Fela’s son Femi Kuti, his old drummer Tony Allen and Manu Dibango. Many of the best moments come when the two camps combine, as on the Afro-soul stew created by Femi with D’Angelo and Gray on “Water No Get Enemy”. If you’re unfamiliar with the music of one of the true giants of African music, this is a good place to start.

Zabrinksi – Koala Ko-Ordination

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Zabrinksi sound old beyond their years. Blending Warp-style click-beat electronica with cosmic psychedelia, they’ve absorbed some hugely potent music. More importantly, they’ve reshaped it their way.

Veering between icy atmospherics (“Blen”), future-folk introspection (“Switzerland”) and ripe pop perfection (“Raid The Farm”), Zabrinski wrestle ambition with ability and make bold eclecticism sound easy. Brain-scrambling yet assuredly elegant, these precocious teenagers look set to usurp Super Furry Animals as Wales’ leading wide-eyed adventurists.

Nashville Skyline

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Tributes, hook-ups and jams with the famous are nothing new for Willie Hugh Nelson, but as he starts to live out the refrains of his beloved old favourites like “September Song” and “Stardust”, the listener is permitted to indulge him a few poignant musical recollections. Closer to three score years and 10 than any man who spends so much time on the road has a right to be, ole Willie’s stop-over at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville is not without a few creaky interludes?though these are due to the peculiar choice of some guests, rather than any fading of Nelson’s eye.

Stars & Guitars won’t ever figure in a long time fan’s list of great Willie-isms. It might be churlish to deny artists like Sheryl Crow, Rob Thomas and Jon Bon Jovi the chance to bask in the reflected glory of the bandana’d balladeer, but their contributions to “Whiskey River”, “Maria (Shut Up And Kiss Me)”and “Always On My Mind”won’t trouble devotees of the originals.

Nelson is such a good-hearted type himself that he’s prepared to let the youngsters take the plaudits. The concert is at its best when the forced professionalism of the hangers-on is replaced by genuine rawhide raggedness.

A truly blowsy version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, and an even more frayed take on The Rolling Stones'”Dead Flowers”, complete with real star guitarist Keith Richards, are the must-hear moments. Lovers of old country and alt.country alike will also need to check out Nelson and old buddy Ray Price reprising the classic “Night Life”, one of his darkest moments of the soul, an integrity-packed duet on Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again”with the saintly Emmylou Harris, and a suitably smoky collaboration with Ryan Adams on “The Harder They Come”.

Reservations aside, this item will be brought out on special occasions, even if it’s followed immediately by some real Shotgun Willie.

Neko Case – Canadian AMP

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Prior to her finest solo record so far (Blacklisted), Case recorded Canadian Amp in her kitchen with a bunch of Chicago cohorts, initially pressing a tour/mail order CD only. Eight elegant slices of noirish country, these unadorned interpretations of Canuck talent (save for Hank Williams'”Alone And Forsaken” and two originals) rely on the sheer expressiveness of Case’s luminous voice for their power. Lisa Marr’s “In California” is simplicity itself, but Case’s own “Make Your Bed” and “Favorite” (Brett Sparks on back-ups) steal the show. Not bad for a stint of housework. As is noted on the sleeve: “You can do it in your underwear.”

Nickel Creek – This Side

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Since their eponymous 2000 debut, Nickel Creek seem to have undergone a Popstars-esque makeover, all tousled barnets, wide-leg denims and moody photo ops. The vision, however, remains gloriously unaffected. To believe music this steeped in warm country earth yet determinedly shorn of revivalism flows from three sprites barely out of their teens is some feat. Again guided by producer Alison Krauss, This Side expands on their intricate acoustic shanties by occasionally plugging in the amps and stretching bluegrass, indie and folk over a thrillingly realised canvas. And still not a banjo in sight.

This Month In Americana

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Williams’ seventh solo outing is no less than a romantic, star-canopied waltz through a cluster of timeless classics wrung from the rose-tinted golden dawn of Broadway and beyond. Cosying up to the likes of “Moon River”, “Over The Rainbow” and “Blue Skies” in her own imperfect, easy-on-the-helium warble (somewhere between Minnie Mouse and Mary Margaret O’Hara), Williams suffuses these old chestnuts with warmth and wide-eyed wonder, like a child tumbling into love with the world for the first time. Wrapped up in gorgeous, velvety jazz arrangements, moments like “My Funny Valentine” caress the ear like sonnets.

Williams’ awkward grace proves irresistible. “Over The Rainbow” features affecting piano notes and Petra Haden’s lovely strings, while “Keep Sweeping Cobwebs Off The Moon” is like something The Handsome Family might creep around: a farting tuba, clarinet and tin-pot drums painting a picture of ’40s authenticity so striking that you can almost see that neon carnival pulling into town through rain-smeared windows. Of course, Williams’ wavering vibrato isn’t to everyone’s palate, but for those already smitten, this is rewarding stuff. Try listening to the closer, “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” (conjuring up memories of visiting her Judy Garland/Hoagy Carmichael-loving maternal grandmother back home) without weeping like a baby.

Hoggboy – Or 8?

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Hoggboy’s physical home is Sheffield, but their spiritual mecca is a hybrid of MC5’s Detroit and Ramones’New York. Their credentials are suitably top-notch, both sartorial (scuffed-up leathers and denim, unruly mops) and musical (Pistols legend Chris Thomas produces eight numbers; Uncut favourite Richard Hawley the other three), and there’s enough sneering garage bluster on show?the wildly crashing “Urgh!!!” and “So Young”; the feedback snarl of “Mile High Club”?for justification. The tunes sometimes lose their way, but there’s just enough belligerent suss left poking through the rubble.

Bob Sinclar And DJ Gregory – Africanism

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Between 2000 and 2001, French DJ Bob Sinclar (the brains behind Jane Fonda-sampling “Gym Tonic”) and his buddies (including British act Liquid People, who also featured on Sinclar’s fine Cerrone remix package) put out a series of ethnic-influenced singles, crossing African rhythms with digital futurism. Although over 100,000 copies of this album have already been sold abroad, the UK is being treated to a deluxe edition with an additional disc mixed by DJ Gregory. Superb.

Big Brovaz – Nu Flow

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Groomed for mainstream success, Big Brovaz?an eight-strong London collective?rival their transatlantic contemporaries for marketing ambition and bling-bling blarney. The concept is shameless, too, matching up two producers, three male rappers and three female singers to create a lucrative hybrid of OutKast and Destiny’s Child. Sadly, the music doesn’t measure up. While the women sing decently, the rapping is unexceptional: it would have helped had they understood there was more to OutKast than flash and clowning. There’s little here to give their US idols sleepless nights.