Classic styles still come out strong in 2003

Dave Rossetti

1. Robert Randolph & the Family Band – Unclassified

With all the accolades thrown Randolph’s way, it’s hard to believe this is his first studio effort with his band. It’s the perfect debut. The pedal-steel guitar wizard with the church running though his veins leaves a lasting impression as he leads his crew through 11 tracks ripe with breakneck funk (“I Need More Love”), scorching instrumentals (“Run For Your Life,” “Squeeze”) and coolly-sung ballads (“Soul Refreshing”).

2. John Hiatt & the Goners – Beneath This Gruff Exterior

John Hiatt is middle-aged, a label that the roots-rocking songwriter fully embraces because it just means he has more life to write about. With his road-tested Goners rocking throughout, Hiatt’s nasally wail carries him through biographical accounts of handling empty-nest syndrome (“Circle Back”) and his lifelong battle with depression (“The Nagging Dark”), tales of love and adultery, as well as “Missing Pieces,” a standout on an album full of gems.

3. Michael Franti and Spearhead – Everyone Deserves Music

This outfit can’t be pegged into any genre. Franti and Spearhead are hip-hop, reggae, rock, and even disco-ish on the glorious “Love Invincible.” Widespread fame has escaped them, but this band’s talent far exceeds its level of prominence. Franti supplies all kinds of socio-politically informed rhymes for band mate Radioactive to spew, sings his own protests and — in a greater accomplishment than his peaceful message — provides beautiful music for everyone.

4. Indigenous – Indigenous

This Native American family affair’s third studio effort is blues-rock at its finest. From the handclap-infused opener “C’Mon Suzie” through closing instrumental “Monkeyshuffle,” lead guitarist Mato Nanji leads the unrelenting onslaught through his distorted Telecaster and growling vocals. Along the way, Indigenous soars with the radio-ready “Want You To Say,” smolders through “Hold On” and catches musical fire regularly, leaving little doubt the band left all it had in the studio.

5. Paul Weller – Illumination

Illumination topped the UK’s album charts upon its September 2002 release, but Americans didn’t greet its 2003 stateside release with the same fervor. The British are clearly on to something. Weller, formerly of The Jam, delivers a catchy, horn-driven single (“It’s Written In The Stars”), but Illumination’s real highpoints are too plentiful to list. Guitar-driven laments “A Bullet For Everyone,” “Leafy Mysteries,” and “Talisman” should suffice as starting points.

6. Widespread Panic – Ball

Any who felt these jam-circuit veterans couldn’t keep the music flowing after losing founding member and distinctive guitarist Mikey “Panic” Houser need look no further than Ball for the answer. New guitarist George McConnell takes some getting used to, but not much. The boys are at their best on “Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)”, deliver a great acoustic detour (“Longer Look”) and trade hillbilly cries on “Don’t Wanna Lose You.”

7. Damien Rice – O

An amazing young talent, this Irish folk singer/songwriter pours all his frustration into O and delivers one standout after another. To the backdrop of a calm acoustic delivery, his uniquely powerful voice often boils over to the brink of madness, then returns to a state of composure. Rice’s presence, coupled with cello accompaniment, haunts on “I Remember,” and any attempt to describe the sprawling “Eskimo” would ring hollow.

8. Sonny Landreth – The Road We’re On

Yes, slide-guitar master Sonny Landreth is one of Hiatt’s Goners (see No. 2), and this placement might seem dubious considering his bandleader’s lofty ranking — but Hiatt’s “duet partner” isn’t your typical sideman. Landreth provides admirable songwriting for gritty blues and roots rock numbers while coaxing unfathomable sounds from his instrument, truly making his mark with standouts like “A World Away.” His smooth voice isn’t too shabby, either.

9. Black Label Society – The Blessed Hellride

The most out of place CD on this list, Black Label Society’s Hellride is a berserk hard-rock trip. Headed by guitarist Zakk Wylde — the band’s hugely talented frontman and Ozzy Osbourne’s right-hand man — enlists the Prince of Darkness for vocal duties on “Stillborn,” then tears his way through the insanity of tracks like “Doomsday Jesus.” Heavy as Hellride is, Black Label Society relents for the title track and the piano-driven serenity of “Dead Meadow.”

10. Joss Stone – The Soul Sessions

Here almost entirely for her vocal prowess, the 16-year-old Stone has the potential to be a force for years to come. The Soul Sessions aren’t just a promise of future greatness — Stone proves she already knows her abilities and sounds like she’s trying to revive ’70s soul on her own. An impressive debut, Stone would be wise to insure those pipes of gold.

Also worth listens: Mark Selby – Dirt, North Mississippi Allstars – Polaris, Richard Thompson – The Old Kit Bag, Tommy Castro – Gratitude, Warren Zevon – The Wind

Best study music: The Derek Trucks Band – Soul Serenade