James Taylor's early-’70s status as the king of sensitive male vocalists is mere VH1 countdown fodder now. Yet in 2006, more than a few male artists seemed to have recollected being reared in Taylor's soft rock FM heyday or at least had some of his sunny-voiced sincerity channeled down to them by sonic osmosis. I am no JT disciple — and the Isley Brothers did the best version of "Fire and Rain" (Free Ron!) — but these ears have been grateful for his example this twelvemonth because the "sensitive man" paradigm has yielded the first masterpiece of the digital age: Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere (Downtown).
To be sure, Justin Timberlake worked overtime this season to bring the sexy back, but other pop artists, as varied as the Coup's Boots Riley, Chris Stills, and Ray LaMontagne, labored to achieve a semblance of organic authenticity in their work — King Solomon Burke went to Nashville, and even Hank III went straight to hell. While their female counterparts — go Natalie Maines, Bitch, Lily Allen, and posthumous Nina Our Lady of Myriad Reissues! — raised hell and exploited bad-girl tropes, many of the men (if not purely saccharine crooners) got raw via their interior landscapes rather than external provocation. From the Southland, see Centro-Matic's Fort Recovery (Misra), Bobby Bare Jr.'s The Longest Meow (Bloodshot), and Sparklehorse's Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (Astralwerks) for the wide-screen, psych-twang versions of this impulse. In this, the boys of ’06 heralded the arrival of another sensitive phase in pop music.
No pop star embodied the nu sincerity more than this year's key Grammy winner, John Legend. Exploiting the goodwill fostered by the 2005 smash hit "Ordinary People," Legend took to the woodshed with cream collaborators — including Californian producers Craig Street, Raphael Saadiq, and will.i.am — and the result was Once Again (Sony), the autumn's most significant release. Onstage and in personal appearances, Legend worked his charm as a nice, discreet, well-groomed church boy made good. Meanwhile, the marrow of Once Again’s song cycle dealt with cuckoldry, lust, longing, and the sorrow of life in wartime — all riding on a complex sonic bed recombining classic soul, "easy rock," AM pop, bossa via Burt Bacharach, and the myth of the era's leading crooner icon, Jeff Buckley. From the Buckley homage "Show Me" to the yearning cries of "Where Did My Baby Go," Legend waxed lyrically vulnerable and rendered himself the prime man for all our seasons of discontent.
All in all, it seems no accident that Legend's hero Marvin Gaye got key DVD reissue treatment this year: Live in Belgium 1981 and The Real Thing: In Performance 1964-1981 (featuring a heartrending live version of "What's Goin' On"); is he not the ever-fruitful father of all late-modern, ambitious, sensitive popcraft? And another angsty politicized black man, the Dears' Murray Lightburn from north of the border, dropped the fine, woeful Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts). Lightburn appeared to walk a tightrope between Morrissey and metasoul prophet Seal on "Fear Made the World Go ’Round," "I Fell Deep," and "Bandwagoneers" — plus the wryly scathing "Whites Only Party."
The great New Orleans Christian rock crossover quartet Mute Math seem to be after arena glory rather than the somewhat hermetically sealed cloister Lightburn's music suggests, but these groups share a tacit commitment to revitalizing rock's lyrical and sonic palette.
Jonny Lang did an effective reverse of Mute Math's sonic journey, from blues and pop rock categories to inspirational, on the uneven but great Turn Around (A&M). Lang espouses the open, clean, lighthearted benefits of living the Christian life. Mercifully, the sermonizing and sentimental treacle are kept to a minimum. Featuring guests such as new grass master Sam Bush and yacht rock's last crowned king of soulful sincerity, Michael McDonald, Turn Around kicks Timberlake's narrow white-negro hips to the Amen Corner and back via blazing guitar licks and true Memphis grit. Lang also goes further than any other nice guy in this gallery by letting his wife play God on "Only a Man."
Adopting an inevitable singer-songwriter vein, considering his country-rock-confessional-chansonnier heritage, Chris Stills's album title said it all: When the Pain Dies Down — Live in Paris (V2). Referencing Buckley's keening as well on "Landslide" and covering Americana's most revered purveyors of sincere music, the Band, en Français on "Fanny (The Weight),” Stills strums his way simply and soulfully into the hearts of the Studio du Palais audience and any listeners tolerant enough to separate him from his famous parentage.
On the urban front, Robin Thicke transmuted Stills's blue-eyed soul crooning in a less twangy and more radio-friendly direction. While Beyoncé was declaring a false state of independence this fall and assuming Diana Ross's mantle with finality, Thicke was telling the fellas you don't always have to be hard, that thug love has had its day, on The Evolution of Robin Thicke (Interscope). Besides the boilerplate sagas of escape from music biz demigods and monsters and an interesting cod-reggae interlude ("Shooter"), Thicke strove to bring the love back instead of the sexy. And the vulnerability on display in "Would That Make U Love Me" and "Everything I Can't Have" versus the robotic rump-shaker "Wanna Love U Girl" seems to suggest that's more disturbing.
Even 1970s and ’80s relic Ray Parker Jr. got in on the singer-songwriter act, dropping I'm Free (Raydio) independently and attempting to bum-rush a perhaps nonexistent market for a horndog sepia Jimmy Buffett. And, up to the moment, "freak folk" pied piper Devendra Banhart and his Hairy Fairy boyz posed in dresses for the New York Times Magazine, the black-and-white images meant to invoke both old-fashioned guileless authority bootlegged from the prewar era and the liberated power of hirsute girly men brave enough to transcend gender boundaries. These New White Savages might be too bohemian to actually cook and change a diaper — yet, as with their ’70s profem forebears, they're unafraid to let their lady muse wear the mustache in the relationship and concoct weird sonic utopias of her own.
Utopias of any kind eluded the musician refugees dispossessed by Katrina: to wit, beautiful bleeding-heart releases like The New Orleans Social Club: Sing Me Back Home (Burgundy) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's reprise of Gaye's antiwar masterpiece What's Goin' On (Shout Factory). These discs are suffused with sincere calls for peace, love, understanding, and an end to greed and environmental destruction that no listener in 2006 could refute or afford to ignore.
What's happening, brother? Gnarls Barkley's landmark release of St. Elsewhere in the spring encapsulated the 2006 response to Gaye's eternal query and signaled a subtle yet seismic shift in pop possibility. Sensitive singer-songwriter, soft rock poster boy, Hip-Hop Nation troubadour — Cee-Lo was all of these personae, armed with poetic confessional lyrics and complex, distinctive melodies. Soundwise, courtesy of brilliant Danger Mouse, St. Elsewhere is a very liberated recording, trumping ATLien superstars OutKast and their problematic Idlewild (La Face) in the act of aesthetic and racial revolt. Although enigmatic and evocative lyrics abound (especially moving are the title track, "The Boogie Monster," "Online," and of course, "Crazy"), my favorite song is "The Last Time." What's more sensitive and sincere than: "Under an endless sky/ Wish I can fly away forever/ And the poetry is so pure when we are on the floor together"? (Even if nothing rivals the Chi-Lites' twangy begging throughout the classic "Oh Girl," surely that's in the wings for next year?)
With all its grating and grillz, hip-hop has reached its end point and become not a revolutionary social force but a genre full of sucka MCs I cannot relate to. Cee-Lo and Boots (via Pick a Bigger Weapon's humorous sociopolitical commentary) have taken their stands at a very crucial moment. Above all, St. Elsewhere is a vital sign of the times.
That the war and a multitude of social ills have not frozen any of the artists cited above seems miraculous. That they foregrounded introspection and personal transformation in their work rather than simply abdicated as fugitives from the turmoil of these dark days is as close as any damsel in distress is likely to get to emotional rescue in 2006. Yes, with politicians masked and callow and other art forms muted by material glut, these knights in sonic armor are just about the only effective soothsayers for the way we live now. SFBG
KANDIA CRAZY HORSE'S CRAZY TOP 10:
•Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
•Solomon Burke, Nashville (Shout Factory)
•John Legend, Once Again (Sony)
•Alejandro Escovedo, The Boxing Mirror (Back Porch)
•The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph)
•Bobby Bare Jr.'s Young Criminals Starvation League, The Longest Meow (Bloodshot)
•Dears, Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts)
•Karen Dalton, In My Own Time (Light in the Attic)
•Cassandra Wilson, Thunderbird (Blue Note)
•Centro-Matic, Fort Recovery (Misra)