Pretty Vacant

New Times' panel of critics searches for musical gems in a disheartening 2001

2. The Strokes, Is This It (RCA): You knew this band had something legit going when the backlash hit and all the playa-haters could slam them for was being too rich, too well-connected. If being born into affluence disqualified you from playing rock 'n' roll, Brian Jones would have been excluded from the Stones, and half the college-radio staples of the last two decades would have been forced to get real jobs. Forget their pedigrees: The Strokes are a terrific punk band who've absorbed their Velvets and Voidoids (if anything, too well), know how to put together a three-minute song, and have the requisite air of antihero snottiness (even if they learned such snottiness at prep schools). Sure, they're overly derivative at times ("The Modern Age" is "Waiting for the Man" sideways), but at their best, as on the driving "Barely Legal," and the infectious single "Last Nite," they manage the trick of sounding familiar and utterly fresh at the same time.

3. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia): Zimmy's much-ballyhooed 1997 comeback album, Time Out of Mind, was a welcome -- if overrated -- return to form, but it was also just a better crafted regurgitation of the "life sucks, bring on the afterlife" mantra we've been hearing from this brilliant sourpuss for the last two decades. But Love and Theftwas completely unprecedented in the Dylan catalogue: a rollicking mix of jump blues, country and lush Victrola pop, all delivered with the dark humor of an aging, mustachioed riverboat gambler who knows his best days are behind him, but figures he might as well live it up while he can.

4. Sarah Dougher, The Bluff (Mr. Lady): College professor, social activist, lesbian role model, and member of the band Cadallaca, Dougher moonlights as a first-rate singer-songwriter. Putting her dark recollections of doomed love in bouncy jangle-pop settings that recall the Nerves and the early dB's, Dougher subtly takes the air out of her own pretensions. And even with thin reedy pipes that recall Liz Phair more than Irma Thomas, she tackles Allen Toussaint's vintage New Orleans tear-jerker "It's Raining" and makes it her own, through sheer force of will. One of the least appreciated gems of the year.

5. Rufus Wainwright, Poses (DreamWorks): Not as consistently luminous as Wainwright's 1998 debut, Posescompensated by putting this Canadian wunderkind's force-of-nature vocal melismas in some unlikely contexts: the flowery funk of the Alex Gifford-produced "Shadows," the country-folk of daddy Loudon's ode to emotional masturbation, "One Man Guy," and the sunny contemporary pop of "California." Surely the best pop record ever to name-check Bea Arthur.

6. Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus (Matador): A mild disappointment for devoted Pavement worshipers, this relatively low-key solo debut grew in stature on repeated listens. Malkmus' smart-ass non sequiturs, angular guitar hooks and easy tunefulness carry his Yul Brynner homage, "Jo Jo's Jacket," his Gen X love story, "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog," and the irresistibly goofball "Phantasies." And who else would be warped enough to take the cowbell crunch of "Honky Tonk Women" and put it on a Turkish pirate ship, as he does with the appropriately titled "The Hook"?

7. Bertrand Burgalat, The SSSound of Music (Emperor Norton): The Phil Spector of France -- and touring bassist for the group Air -- doesn't distinguish between the sublime and kitschy, and he's such a sonic alchemist he'll blur the lines for you, too. With bubbly hook fests like "Nonza" and "Sunshine Yellow," this rich, cavity-inducing, crème brûlée of a disc navigates from chirpy trance to singer-songwriter folk to interstellar bossa nova, and transforms them all into 21st-century elevator music.

8. Jimmy Eat World, Jimmy Eat World (DreamWorks): Proof that you can defy the industry, make music on your own terms, and still get the suits to fall in line, JEW's third major-label release (titled Bleed American before the September 11 terrorist hijackings) shows their sense of songcraft growing exponentially. Exploiting both the guitar menace they derived from their indie-rock record collections and the immaculate feel for vocal harmony ingrained from the guilty-pleasure pop of their childhoods, they arrive at a fresh synthesis on melodic standouts like "The Middle," "Praise Chorus" and "Authority Song." For all the mass-media attempts to make them the poster boys for emo, this band is stubbornly following its own musical direction, and the results keep getting better.

9. Jill Scott, Experience: Jill Scott 826+ (Hidden Beach): Following up your debut album with a double-live set might seem pretty audacious (if not foolish), but it makes perfect sense for Scott, a new-soul vocal powerhouse who's at her best in front of an audience. Cutting loose on lengthy, jazz-inflected recastings of defining tracks like "A Long Walk (Groove)" and "Love Rain (Suite)," Scott is simultaneously sexy and spiritual, bluntly scatological and ethereal -- a budding postmodern mix of Millie Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald, or was that an old-school mix of Lil' Kim and Alicia Keys?

10. Beulah, The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette): With horn and string flourishes to rival Love's Forever Changes, this San Francisco septet more than earns its place in the trippy pop movement known as Elephant 6. But Beulah leader Miles Kurosky, while possessed of the requisite Elephant 6 vocal wimpiness, is a sharper, and weirder, lyricist than his peers. Whether worrying that his girl might not think of him as her head flies through the windshield, or bragging about the beautiful scar that punk rock gave him, he consistently undercuts the prettiness of the music around him, giving The Coast Is Never Clearan off-kilter edge that much underground pop lacks.

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