Pretty Vacant

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

Best Bootleg: Yesterday & Today/Revolver; The Mono Mixes: I don't want to be one of these mono snobs, but when you compare the punchy mono "Taxman" with the stereo version, you'll wonder why they allowed the tambourine to take up the whole left side of a speaker. And "Paperback Writer" sounds like heavy metal -- even whoops the ass of the remix on last year's 1album.

Ted Simons:

1. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop): Indie rock lives! In New Mexico, even!! Shades of collegiate dream-day bands float above and around these tuneful ditties, leaving shy grins and yearnings for more innocent times. There's more than a glint of Brian Wilson twee amid these gems, but the CD's charm comes from many angles. Indeed, if the naive psychedelia of Syd Barrett's early work ever set you searching the neighborhood for gnomes and scarecrows, then run hard with wide, waving arms and embrace the Shins. Did someone say Alba-quirky? (God, I hope not.)

2. Jimmy Eat World, Jimmy Eat World (DreamWorks): They're good kids. They're clean kids. They're good, clean kids. They're Jimmy Eat World, purveyors of near-flawless power-pop and the biggest band to come out of Mesa since . . . well, never mind. The onetime emo darlings can still be fresh-faced to a fault, as on "If You Don't, Don't," which features singer Jimmy Adkins asking a love interest, "At the least could we be friends?" (Insert wince.) But then, on the next cut, the romping stomping "Get It Faster," comes the observation "I want to do right by you/But I'm finding out cheating gets it faster," and the earnest enunciation quickly assumes a more interesting accent. Great band, great CD.

3. My Morning Jacket, At Dawn (Darla Records): Don't hate Jim James because he sounds so much like Neil Young. It's hard to ratchet that nasal whine to such high latitudes. Indeed, so many have tried and failed to appropriate Young's '70s-era, spliff-tempered tenor that James and his fellow Jackets likely can't help but sound like a latter-day Crazy Horse. The songs here are suitably loopy and subversive, ranging in interests from Christmas-season shoplifting sprees to curious love songs bemoaning "the thought of one single day without your head in my hand." Nice touch: a limited-edition companion disc of suitably austere demos of the main CD's songs.

4. Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun (Fat Cat/MCA): Amorphous waves of something-or-other wash over evocative vocals singing whatever-they're-saying, all in a way that makes perfect sense, I think. Fans of the Cocteau Twins and other unintelligible exotics will recognize the Sigur Ros schematic even if no one outside Iceland (the band's from Reykjavik) can assume to comprehend what's being said/sung. Think of it as wonderfully nonlinear mood-music -- just don't think too much. Favorite cut: uh, it's number seven, the perfectly titled "Vidrar vel til loftarase." I think.

5. Georges Antheil, Ballet Mecanique (Naxos): Georges Antheil was among the crazy expatriate Americans of early 1920s France, and his "Ballet Mecanique," featuring, among other things, pianos, percussion, electric buzzers and airplane propellers, caused the requisite sensation, replete with riots and other forms of outraged hoo-ha. It's a fun piece, and the revised version here (minus specific buzzers and props) is performed with suitable verve. But the real high point of the CD is Antheil's "Serenade for String Orchestra," which supplants "Mecanique's" high jinks with heavy doses of haunting melodies. A true American classic.

6. Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway): Alt-country's onetime wunderkind shakes much of the introspective boot-gazing of Whiskeytown days and comes up with the best '70s record of the year. Echoes of The Band and various post-Burrito offshoot acts (Rolling Stones included) ring between the CD's Southern accents, threatening, at times, to turn the enterprise into a museum piece. But what saves Gold is the seemingly effortless way Adams makes his tempos and melodies go in unexpected directions. He's still a killer songwriter who can make words and noise paint convincing pictures.

7. Tool, Lateralus (BMG): Tool-man Maynard James Keenan escapes the softer geometry of A Perfect Circle projects and screws his scrawny self into more familiar Ozzy-howls of anguish. And gee, it's kinda nice to have him back. Lateralus, Tool's first album proper in more than five years, is a slow, percussion-heavy affair, with the extended cuts bordering on prog-rock indulgence. It's not your little brother's heavy metal, but Tool's always been the thinking malcontent's band of choice. Best moment: Keenan popping a tonsil screaming, "Is this what you wanted? Is this what you had in mind?" The answer, most assuredly, is yes.

8. David Garza, Overdub (Lava/Atlantic): Who knew that one of the nicest surprises of the year would sound a lot like Tiny Tim kicking out the jams with Prince's back-up band? Overdubis like a résumé reel for Garza's eclectic songwriting and producing talents, which range from repetitious trance-leanings ("Soul Custody") to early '70s NYC glam ("Blow My Mind"). Best of all, Garza's got a healthy spiritual skepticism that keeps him from answering his own doubts and questions. The CD's got some bald spots, but cuts three through six are about as inspirational a succession of songs as you'll find on this list.

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