It's easy to imagine the plucked banjos, gently strummed acoustic guitars, and eerily hushed vibe of The Creek Drank the Cradle as originating from deep within the Appalachian mountain range. Or, as Iron & Wine -- a.k.a. Sam Beam -- lets his voice rise plaintively above his careful finger-picking, drawing on a folksy continuum from Nick Drake on back to Roscoe Holcomb, one might conjure up visions of the kudzu-choked Ozarks. Perhaps -- and now we're stretching -- a particularly pungent patch of the Everglades might come to mind. But a Miami Beach living room? Consider it a testament to Beam's talent, then, that the cream of his home recordings have charmed not only Seattle's Sub Pop Records (the launching pad for Nirvana and a host of grunge-era acts), which issued them as this album, but also a growing number of coast-to-coast fans. What exactly inspired a song like "Upward Over the Mountain" is unclear. That tune dissolves from dreamy childhood flashbacks to musings on a current lover to a wistful reassurance: "Mother, remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body... sons are like birds flying always over the mountain." But that sense of lyrical mystery is part of The Creek Drank the Cradle's charm, while its enveloping warmth is what keeps one returning to its languid pace and lullaby-like melodies.

There had to be a way to get these guys in Best of Miami without committing overkill. And their band name is the only thing they haven't been lauded for yet. They've got to have the best name because everyone's heard of them. Miami's own Latin/funk/jazz infusion is never mistaken for any other troupe of All Stars. The band's name has the same lovable Seventies kitsch that radiates from its maestro, DJ Le Spam a.k.a. Andrew Yeomanson, who's always seen in his habitual plaid thrift-shop pants, fun-themed T-shirt (like Fat Albert) and Converse sneakers. The "Spam" was inspired by old Spam ham ads, not Internet lingo like so many modern kiddies like to think. The "Allstars" portion is well deserved. The jazz ensemble featuring Mercedes Abal on the flute, AJ Hill on the sax, John Speck on the trombone, and Tomas Diaz on the timbales is as formidable a band as the X-Men are superheroes.

Camacho has been on the Miami scene for more than a decade, first as one of the voices behind the Goods, and more recently fronting his own band. He wears his allegiance to melody (Beatles comparisons are inevitable) on his sleeve, and while the Goods' songwriting prowess fluctuated, Camacho's solo work keeps getting better. His 2001 release Trouble Doll featured Big Star-style power pop. An upcoming full-length raises the ante with an early-Replacements feel just gritty enough to offset some of the pop shimmer.

Michael Kernahan's 21st Century Steel Orchestra is Miami's strongest link to the steel pan music of Trinidad and Tobago. Kernahan, a Trinidad native who builds the pans (more commonly known as steel drums) he plays, has put together an ensemble that numbers as many as 40, though he plays with more manageable groups at local venues. "They're the leading steel pan band in South Florida," says Stephen Stuempfle, curator of the South Florida Historical Museum and a steel pan scholar. The music has roots in the Caribbean, but before that, Africa -- though much of it consists of adaptations of jazz and calypso standards. "Michael Kernahan is really a student of the music, and when you hear him, you're hearing the real thing," Stuempfle says.

Most electronic music doesn't say much, literally. If there are lyrics involved, the vocals treatment has more to do with melody and tone than the meaning of the actual words. But Miami's Cuban/German "beat molester" likes to add some say to his sway. In Chopped Zombie Fungus, released on local label Schematic, Von Schirach (his real and way cool name) has a few requests: "whip me down, make me hurt, make me bleed, touch my tit, slap my ass, take it down, drink my milk, hurt me down, squeeze my ass, slap my tit, swallow it, eat my cheese." It used to be that whenever dance music was silly, it never knew it. Thank God for guys like Von Schirach and albums like this, where you can be intelligent without the pseudo-sophistication of Euro trance and deep house (nobody's funny on Ecstasy or cocaine). It isn't just lyrical antics that make this album so lovable; Von Schirach takes the time to deconstruct sound and rhythm into a Dadaistic collage of chaotic noise. Many tracks call for a patient, attentive ear. The sounds are manipulated obtusely and through water-drop syncopation. To say most of these songs are offbeat is as much an understatement as the term for this genre: Intelligent Dance Music. But break-beating ravers and club kids should have no fear of the forward experimentalism soaking much of this release; Von Schirach includes a bassed-up dance track, the happily titled "Boombonic Plague," perfect for rump shaking and pelvic thrusting, if you're into that kind of thing.

The latest spinoff from the Beta Bodega Coalition's growing empire, Botanica del Jibaro has released a series of astonishingly high-quality twelve-inch singles in the past twelve months from local stalwarts like Algorithm and Cyne. As always with this ever-provocative crew, most of Botanica's recordings concentrate on sundry political issues, from bombing runs held in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to the legacy of slavery in American society. All of this, of course, would be facile agit-prop if not for unquestionably great songs like Cyne's "African Elephants," a hard-hitting romp that's one of the best underground hip-hop singles released anywhere in the last several months.

What's the matter with kids today? Nothing. At least not with the ones loitering outside the Lincoln Theater during a New World Symphony intermission. The NWS's artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, calls classical music "a rare and wonderful thing." The same can be said of the NWS, the baby of all symphonic orchestras. The NWS, which recently celebrated its fifteenth-anniversary concert, is also known as America's Orchestral Academy. Its 85 members are recent graduates of the nation's finest conservatories and university music schools, and they can stay only three years before they must find jobs with orchestras across the land. MTT describes NWS as "an investment in a whole new generation of musicians." But that doesn't mean the NWS sounds like a bunch of juveniles. On the contrary, a young tuxedo-clad horn player walks into a gelato shop after a recent program of Mozart's Six German Dances, Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Bass, and Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Seated at a table was a classical connoisseur who had witnessed the performance and couldn't constrain himself when he noticed the lad's duds and horn case. "That's the best orchestra I've heard in a long, long time," he exclaimed. "You should be proud of yourself." The young musician smiled and replied right on cue: "Thanks for coming." Cultivating such audience appreciation is one key to NWS's success. Another key is MTT's insistence his young musicians learn state-of-the-art techniques for mastering auditions, the classical musician's number-one source of fear and loathing. During their tenure they receive a modest stipend, but more important is the payment in kind that comes from working with a conductor of MTT's stature.

Manuel Artime Theater
Standing around a smoke-filled dive for hours on end as a band blasts away is great when you're twentysomething. But as anyone who's caught shows at the Jackie Gleason or the Gusman can attest, there comes a time in a hipster's life when he just wants to, well, sit down. So how can an, ahem, aging fellow catch some cutting-edge live music without enduring aching joints? Just follow the lead of a handful of local promoters who have been booking exciting up-and-coming acts into this overlooked (and city-owned) Little Havana gem, an honest-to-gosh theater. The Manuel Artime has great sightlines (the sloping floor means no bad seats) and free parking -- which adds up to a stress-free evening out. In fact the musicians who get the chance to hit the Artime's stage often seem just as excited as the crowd to be in such an august (yet unpretentious) hall. Not every gig here has been on the order of last fall's transcendent Bright Eyes show. But even a train wreck like the Miami debut of Cat Power -- where song after song literally came apart -- was received as a novel experiment gone awry, instead of two hours of your life you'll never get back. And how often can you say that about bad art?

Speaking of love, it's hard not to amour Rose Max when she sings, for example, "Speaking of Love" ("Falando de Amor") or any of those Brazilian jazz standards that make us so happy we could cry. One night she woos you with her bossa nova and samba amid the couches and candlelight of the Van Dyke Café's dreamy upstairs room. On another her renditions of Seventies pop songs in the cheesy bar at Porçao get you and your sisters cluster-dancing, arm-waving, and singing along. Husband Ramatis Morães provides Max's lush bed of guitar chords. Whatever the venue, everybody is in seventh heaven; that is, major-seventh and minor-seventh, those magical chords that can at once relax, energize, sadden, and enrapture, as master Brazilian songwriters Antonio Carlos Jobim, Newton Mendonça, and others discovered. Max, a native of Rio de Janeiro, was practically singing before she was born. Her great-grandfather was conductor/composer Cupertino de Menezes and her grandfather guitar player/composer Manuel de Menezes. She moved to Miami in 1993 and a decade later she gives her sultriest seminars at the Van Dyke, where she and Morães play with a full drum-bass-piano rhythm section. She appeared out of nowhere, as goes the Toni Bellotto and Nando Reis classic "Pra Dizer Adeus" ("To Say Goodbye"), which she delivers on her recently released first CD. "You never saw me alone, you never heard me cry," it continues. "You make it hard to imagine whether it's too early or too late to say goodbye." It is always both once Max has begun to sing.

Readers Choice: Melody Cole

Sam Beam is fast becoming all the rage. Earlier this spring his album as Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle, charted at number 81 in the Village Voice's prestigious "Pazz and Jop" poll for the best of 2002, and his subsequent national tour engendered even more praise from fans and critics. Some wondered how a man who writes quiet, reflective country and folk tunes filled with vividly elliptical imagery could come from the land of Girls Gone Wild, but Miamians know he's part of a folk tradition that's unusually strong in these parts. Though Beam doesn't sing in Spanish, he fits right in.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®