Pretty Vacant

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

B). The extremely rare ability to fuse punk rock with heavy metal and not come off like some Guitar-Instituted, whey-faced numbskull busting a testicle trying to be decadent, or worse, angsty: Kenny Horne is an honest-ta-Allah guitar hero whose sonic saunter recalls unlamented Generation X guitarist Derwood Andrews and, at times, the Stooges' Ron Asheton (yeah, yeah, that dude).

C). Hand-in-pocket-groove quotient. The ear-fatiguing rips (plus one uncredited "ballad") -- from the Urge Overkillish "Three Steps From the Bar" to pro-alcoholic kiss kiss "C'Mon" -- are grounded pieces of music for two reasons: bassist Steve Rodriquez and drummer Jarrod Lucas.

D). Contains 2001's numero dos R 'n' R song. "Greyhound" is a pickled liver stomp that deftly galvanizes bus travel as a means to an end. Yet when Escovedo shouts "The Greyhound just keeps rolling!" atop the careening-the-guardrail wallop, we know damn well what the hell he's really on about. Fuck the odds.

7. Col. Parker, Rock n' Roll Music (V2): This record is chock-full of astoundingly unmusty-sounding four-chorders played with discernable grins and thickened livers, and includes a remarkable ballad, "Angels Run," that is as sad and mournful a tune as has been heard in recent memory.

8. Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway):Great record that will no doubt be on every year-end Top 10 known to man. Oh, well. Still, all this wisdom, and songs that sound from a different time. The record is odd that way.

9. Lloyd Cole, The Negatives (March Records): On solo record number five, Cole, the fat-hearted misanthrope, shows he can wrench exuberant pathos out of anything. Even the littlest details sound significant, as if he's certain that he knows the difference between living things and dead ones. Maybe it's 'cause he's got a wife and kids now. On "What's Wrong With This Picture" and "Tried to Rock," Cole discovers that the working man's idea of defeat is really veiled victory, sounding more expressive and warmer than ever. The graceful, Roxy-ish guitar and string hooks remain, as well as the terse, cranky conjecture, but they're now timeless somehow.

10. Sugar High, Saccharin & Trust (self-released): Sugar High manages a balance that requires a true command of songcraft: adult themes in the heart of a boy in the context of big-chorusy pop tunes. What's great about Saccharin & Trust is that the band members don't always sound like the most proficient musicians; what carries the album is the necessary stuff, that which has carried any great guitar-pop record over the years: exuberance, heart and great songs sung by guys who've given up almost everything else in life to do this.

Fred Mills:

One of those years in which mere words somehow don't seem to possess the gravity they might normally have during the annual critical postmortem, 2001 instead will be remembered as a year that people began to perceive music along lines less wallpaperish, more crucial to surviving on a day-to-day basis. Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?That said, there were some interesting words, deeds, admissions and omissions this rock 'n' roll year.

ROCK CRITIC OF THE YEAR: Beck, writing in Vanity Fair's annual "Music Issue" about his 50 all-time favorite album covers, sagely observed, "I generally find these 'best of' lists, compiling their way into our lives with items pronounced valid and relevant in the eyes of one, to represent little more than the compiler's slanted sensibility." From there Mr. Hansen, er, waxed beatifically on the sleeve merits of Bowie's Pinups, Duran Duran's Rio, The Damned's Damned Damned Damned, Roxy Music's Country Life, etc. (Ever the tit-man, Beck also expressed appreciation for the Scorpions' Lovedrive.) Speaking for all my fellow journos who have over the years performed occasional reviewing chores while gazing at the covers and never actually cracking the plastic (ups the promo resale value, natch), it's nice to be vindicated.

BEST "WE CAN BE HEROES" MOMENT: Neil Young, who performed a heart-rending version of John Lennon's "Imagine" on a candlelit stage during the September 21 TV broadcast America: A Tribute to Heroes. If that weren't enough, in mid-December Young serviced U.S. radio stations -- at his own expense, and not tied to any current promotion of his own product -- with a new CD-R single titled "Let's Roll," which paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the 9-11 tragedy.

BEST "WE CAN BE VILLAINS" MOMENT: U2, who in a monumental public relations misfire granted mega-chain Best Buy an exclusive two-week window to sell its new concert DVD Elevation 2001 before other retailers. Response was swift, with many indie stores and small chains subsequently refusing to stock the DVD even during the make-or-break holiday season. Wrote one such small retailer in CMJ's weekly industry tip sheet, neatly linking the U2-Best Buy firestorm with the ongoing post-Napster brouhaha, "Consumers respond to simplicity, not hurdles to access. . . . The natural response is to raise their middle finger and elect to take all they can get for free, the rest be damned."

IS THAT THE ENTIRE COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA IN YOUR PANTS, OR IS YOUR LAPTOP JUST GLAD TO SEE ME? AWARD: Four Tet, Pause (Domino), and Fennesz, Endless Summer (Mego), for reviving the art of electronica-as-organica. The former processed harps, acoustic guitars and children's voices beyond recognition and then back again through digital reconfiguration, while the latter metaphorically took the sandy beaches, caught a wave or two, and hung 10 with the Beach Boys, the Ventures, and Jan and Dean, all the while playing the glitch-and-paste game like nobody's business.

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