Pretty Vacant

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

Serene Dominic:

1. David Gray, White Ladder (BMG/RCA): This record got me through 2001, made a sucky day job more tolerable and made co-workers 38 percent more pleasant to be around. Now that it's blasting in every store intercom, it's probably doing the same for people working at Fry's and Home Depot. Babylon and on, I say!

2. Björk, Vespertine (Elektra): If you preferred Homogenic's quieter moments over its strident militant grooves, the Icelandic siren has traded in her combat boots for a swan dress this time out. Most numbers are little more than electric piano, some sparse samples and angelic whispers and moans from Björk, who sounds as if she's either falling in love or trying to crack a safe. And though I'm sure she's not the first one to turn vinyl surface noise into a rhythm track, I'm not about to scour Metal Machine Music to prove it.

3. Moreno Velosa, Music Typewriter (Hannibal): Where's the new bossa nova coming from? Same place the old bossa nova came from, pal -- Brazil! But before you go petitioning Sergio Mendes to get Brazil 2020 going, check out the debut album from the son of legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Velosa. Updating bossa nova and samba rhythms with hip-hop beats and squiggly synth flourishes that are never permitted to overtake the soothing nylon guitar in the mix, Moreno Velosa manages that difficult line between traditional and state of the art. And his genderless voice sounds like Astrid Gilberto in falsetto mode and Jobim in lower register -- what more can you ask for?

4. Joe Henry, Scar (Mammoth): An appealing cross between Tom Waits and Donald Fagen, Henry enlists sidemen from Waits guitarist Marc Ribot to alto-sax giant Ornette Coleman for a collection of late-night parables and appeals to a lover who's like "The Meanest Flower."

5. Radiohead, I Must Be Wrong (Capitol): Where everyone's favorite band gone weird has to back up their musical experiments with some muscle, and sound like they're playing songs instead of silverware. And they do -- converting "Like Spinning Plates" and "Everything Is Its Place" into unlikely stadium anthems.

6. Jimmy Eat World, Jimmy Eat World (DreamWorks): If Richard Simmons jumped up from behind me and said "Live right now just be yourself/It doesn't matter if that's good enough for someone else," I'd want to rap him in the mouth. But with the chugging power chords of Jimmy Eat World backing him up, I might have to buy him a drink. While some might say it's not as adventurous as the two Capitol albums, this album got the band into Billboard's Top 50 and Wal-Marts without sucking. Nothing in this troubled year sounds as reassuring as "The Middle" or as nostalgic about simple pleasures like tossing your last quarter in a jukebox or missing Ninth and Ash on a Tuesday night. If Tempe doesn't ever erect a statue to these guys, the least we can do is put up some bowling trophies.

7. W.O.M.B., W.O.M.B.: How come it's only emo when guys make with the passion? These women put out more fervor in their headsets than a month of Sunny Day Real Estates. Their philosophy of the world is as angry as the Slits and as innocent as the Shaggs, but weirder than both combined.

8. Reubens Accomplice, I Blame the Scenery (Better Looking):And I blame Jeff Bufano and Chris Corrak's guitar interplay for making me haul out the six-string and figure out a couple of these songs for myself.

9. The Strokes, Is This It (RCA): I love this for sentimental reasons more than anything else. But are these guys geniuses? I dunno, but combining the Velvets with the New Vaudeville Band? No one's ever thought of relocating Sister Ray to Winchester Cathedral, that's for sure. And I like the way everyone blasts Julian Casablancas 'cause his daddy's rich when everyone lets Albert Hammond Jr. -- the son of "It Never Rains in California" and "The Free Man Electrical Band" -- go scot-free. And this has got to be a first -- a band changing its innocuous album art to make it controversial! There's certainly enough good stuff here to justify praise if not hype, and I don't care how much money their trust funds contain -- moolah rouge didn't get Ross Perot in the White House, but I'm betting it can crowd Creed off the radio.

10. Gorillaz, Gorillaz (Virgin): Everyone always said the Archies were squeaky clean, but "Bang Shang a Lang" always sounded like fudge-swirl perversion to me. And these guys are what Jughead would sound like if they got him to transfer his burger addiction to crack.

Favorite Single: Ludacris, "Area Codes": I'm sorry, but this guy's delivery is funnier than anyone since Christopher Walken.

Favorite Reissue: Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire and Beyond 1964-1969: Even if you squandered half your life browsing through record stores, you probably never even accidentally glanced at most of these titles. If you really love Britpop, you shouldn't live any longer without hearing "You Stole My Love" by the Mockingbirds or "Save My Soul" by Wimple Winch. Or without even saying Wimple Winch once. Imagine discovering a new favorite '60s song every six minutes -- that's the windfall return on your investment. And like the first Nuggets, it introduces a new word to pop vernacular -- can you say "freakbeat"?

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