Post-attack clarity at the Shortlist 

Aimee Mann was less than thrilled to be the swing vote. But there she was, at a closed-door gathering inside L.A.'s Knitting Factory club, surrounded by a remarkable group of influential music-makers -- Beck, Macy Gray, Mos Def, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, producer Steve Lilywhite, Mann's husband Michael Penn and others -- to decide the winner of the first-ever Shortlist Prize for Achievement in Music. (While the media wasn't invited, I weaseled in as the brother of one of the Shortlist's creators.)

Earlier, the all-star group had whittled down about 50 nominees to the top 10 unsung albums (under 250,000 sold) of late 2000/early 2001. Thirteen "tastemakers" gathered on this November night to choose the recipient of the $10,000 prize, plus the honor of being selected by such notable peers.

After some surprising initial debate (Mos Def's expression of fondness for Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker) and some quick dismissals, the race came down to two: Reflection Eternal, by New York MC/producer team Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, and Agaetis Byrjun, by Icelandic group Sigur Ros.

Narrowing the debate to those two, however, left a deadlock. While ?uestlove of The Roots, critic Toure and rapper Mos Def (Talib's close collaborator) argued the lyrical merits of Reflection Eternal, folks like Beck and Los Angeles Times scribe Steve Hochman noted the beautiful sound-world of Agaetis Byrjun. The initial vote: six for Talib, six for Sigur Ros. And one abstention: Aimee Mann.

As a singer/songwriter, she couldn't fully embrace the mostly instrumental Sigur Ros, a group that, when it vocalized at all, sang in an unintelligible blend of Icelandic and gibberish. And while she placed high premium on words, she couldn't relate culturally to Talib's lyrics. Besides, choosing the better of a politically aware inner-city poet and a fantastical Nordic experimental pop group is like comparing apples and orange roughy.

As the discussion raged -- Talib should win because he speaks to real experiences; Sigur Ros deserved the prize for creating something entirely unique and transcendent -- somewhere in there, though unspoken, emerged the rub: Is it better to create art that's entirely of its time, or art that's completely timeless?

It could be that six months earlier, the answers would've been different. But if hip-hop is still the "black CNN," then does it also share journalism's fishwrapper fate? In a more luxurious climate, Reflection Eternal might've resonated more eternally. But under the shadow of Sept. 11, it could be that the record's tone -- if not its still-valid artistry -- sounds like yesterday's news.

Of course, no one would mistake Agaetis Byrjun as a commentary on this, or any, time. But the invitation it provides listeners -- to enter it and disappear into a landscape of clouds and glaciers -- is not only crucial in times of uncertainty, it's an invitation that'll hold pretty close to forever.

Who knows if any of this passed through Aimee Mann's brain before casting the deciding vote, but when Sigur Ros emerged 10 grand richer, it somehow seemed like justice for the subtle charms and ineffable power of pop.

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