Upstarts garner universal acceptance

'Elephant,' 'Speakerboxx' make noise

The year of living dangerously for downloaders will be remembered for the two albums people actually bought and cherished: Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Below” and the White Stripes’ “Elephant.”

The success of these discs — a two-CD set from the flamboyant rap duo and the first album recorded for a major label from the Detroit combo — is emblematic of rock and rap audiences’ thirst for universality.

“Speakerboxxx/The Below” is an album so consistently good that it can be embraced by millions and never be considered mainstream. Outkast has had steadier legs than any of its brethren on the sales chart the past three months.

The White Stripes, meanwhile, continue to spread their punk-Led Zep tunes to an increasingly larger audience. And as their core audience gets younger, they solidify rather than shed their hold on their older faithful. (Opposite appears to be true of the Strokes, the other hyped “savior of rock ‘n’ roll” act that slid quickly down the charts as their sophomore disc didn’t have the panache of their debut).

White Stripes and Outkast are up for a number of Grammys, and if scribes have to write that either act is shut out, the tone won’t be pleasant.

Rap and R&B dominated the sales and singles charts to the point where one week in October the entire top singles chart 20 was the work of black artists.

In cyberspace, meanwhile, the popular “Stacey’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne demonstrated there’s a potent rock vote hunting for catchy MP3s. “Attention Interstate Managers” should prove to be their breakthrough disc.

On “Sumday” and “So Much for the City,” Grandaddy and the Thrills prove a ’60s-inspired California sound can be put to good use no matter where a band hails from. And Neil Young, a key player in shaping said sound, demonstrated he can still tweak the sonics, rev up the solos and produce a meaningful fable. The material on “Greendale,” presented as a stage play by 30 actors while Young and Crazy Horse supplied the narrative, provided one of the year’s most arresting and satisfying concerts.

The Memphis sound, specifically the one from the 1970s, was revived by its originators, Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell, who reunited to make Green’s retro-rich “I Can’t Stop” for Blue Note. While Green was proving he never left the soul building, 43-year-old Earl Thomas, a San Diego-based singer, announced his deserved arrival in the same venue with “Soul’d!” (Memphis Intl.).

Ryan Adams, who would probably make a half-dozen records a year were he allowed, made an uncharacteristically hard rock album and then turned around and released two softer EPs that bested the full-length “Rock n Roll.” “Love Is Hell Part 2” is the best of the three.

Fooling with another man’s indigenous music is nothing new; creating something illuminating out of it is a rare feat. Four acts managed to inventively walk in someone else’s musical shoes: Former Jobim collaborators Jaques and Paula Morelenbaum partnered for a second time with pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto to explore the Brazilian master’s bossa nova work; Ron Isley dumped the funk for an album of Burt Bacharach numbers on “Here I Am”; David Hillyard and Rocksteady 7 found a unique meeting place of Jamaican ska, post-bop jazz and Cuban son on “United Front”; and guitarist Bill Frisell gathered a collective of musicians from various continents and dubbed them the Intercontinentals to make one of his most refreshing Nonesuch discs.

In addition, singer-songwriter Josh Rouse, taking inspiration from a time when Young, James Taylor and Carole King ruled the charts, made the gorgeous and appropriately titled “1972.”

And while there continues to be no shortage of tribute albums and concerts, “Concert for George” set a new high-water mark for these events. Band of grayhairs, lovingly led by Eric Clapton, sparkles in the George Harrison tribute, with one soloist after another joyfully celebrating the legacy of the late Beatle.

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