If 2001 was a maddening, schizophrenic year for America, that goes double for the music that bubbled to the surface in the last 12 months.
For most of the year, bland frivolity and mindless chest-thumping ruled the airwaves. Then, as the World Trade Center went down in a monumental pile of rubble, self-centered pop stars suddenly found ethics and a political conscience. It was hard to tell which side of this coin was more distasteful and phony. The image of J. Lo revving up that posterior-powered choreography, and mustering up fake empathy for the American troops -- as long as those MTV cameras were faithfully documenting it for a concert special -- was a sad reminder of all those self-aggrandizing Bob Hope Christmases in Vietnam. What about doing something truly charitable, as in not milking it to plug your latest triple-platinum piece of crap?
But if nothing else, the traumatic political and social shakeups of recent months may render some of the more manufactured, adolescent-geared pop music obsolete. There's a theory that in tough times, people seek to escape (certainly, if you look at the Busby Berkeley musicals of the Great Depression, or the frothy fare that filled German movie theaters during World War II, there's a precedent for it). But the pop moppets and nymphets who've ruled MTV in recent years were already in danger of exceeding their expiration dates before September 11, and now they don't just seem plastic and manipulative. There's an additional whiff of the sadly passé about them, the same odor you got from Gary Lewis or Frankie Valli in the psychedelic late '60s.
What the last few months of 2001 hinted at -- and it was just a hint, mind you -- was a possible closing of the huge disconnect between popular tastes and what seems truly relevant. Catching The Strokes or Ryan Adams in semi-not-too-infrequent rotation on MTV or seeing Jimmy Eat World crack TRL, you got the feeling that something might be stirring.
No more fitting example of how inadequate and empty Britney, 'N SYNC, Mandy, Willa and Jessica are could be found than the first weekend after the terrorist attack. VH1 continually aired a video incorporating footage of a grieving New York, backed by Jeff Buckley's recording of "Hallelujah." MTV pulled a clip of Bob Marley's "One Love" out of mothballs. It was a de facto admission, by both networks, that their own playlists were so short of emotional sustenance that they had to turn to dead artists whom they've consistently ignored to find the right tone for the moment.
Even at its best, pop music has always been a combination of crass commercialism and divine inspiration, and the crassness is often a big part of the fun. But when the balance gets out of whack, it can feel like you're being forced to eat chocolate doughnuts at gunpoint, 24 hours a day. The question that hovers over 2002 is whether the music will begin to reflect the times (with something other than knee-jerk patriotism) or whether the times will continue to succumb to the music.
We know, we know: It was a horrible year, a dreadful, teeth-grinding, blood-vomiting, migraine headache of a year. Every soulless R&B crooner; every moony-eyed, blond-haired, bubble-breasted warbler; every latter-day grunge knockoff; every NAMBLA-fetish boy band; every fake-ass crossover country poseur released a whole full-length goddamned album this year. It started in January with O-Town and ended in December with Destiny's Child receiving Artist of the Year props at the Billboard Music Awards. And how it did go on and on and on without surcease, until we found ourselves pleading Enough, enough! Gimme a fucking break here! to the cold universe.
You could be forgiven for crying uncle. God knows, it's a terrible world to live in.
But stay, faith. Despite the fact that we all got buried in the '01 Crap Rock mudslide, there were a few (what Rahsaan Kirk would call) bright moments that allowed us to retain a handle on our sanity. When the great roll is called, let the record show that we didn't lose all hope, even in these wearying days.
Keep alive, baby. Good times is coming round again.
1. Ramones, the remasters: I live in a tiny college town, 50 miles away from any urban center of size. In the alleyway next to the public library in this little hamlet, there's a peeling, faded piece of graffiti that reads "I know I'll go to heaven cause I served my time in hell"; and just above that, in a newer hand, is scrawled "JOEY RAMONE R.I.P." I like to imagine that both those pieces of graffiti were written by the same person, at the respective ages of, maybe, 13 and 39. I like thinking that the fucked-up rural kid who thought he deserved something better found it in The Ramones and Road to Ruin, which were remastered and rereleased last year by Rykodisc. I like thinking that maybe we all survived together. Rest in peace, Joey. We know you went to heaven.
2. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: The best album you were supposed to hear in 2001. Reprise declined to put out Jeff Tweedy and company's latest, declaring it too weird for radio. Since then, Wilco has signed with Nonesuch to release YHF in the spring of '02, but bootleg copies have been making the rounds for a few months. It's a stunning piece of work, and one of the best reasons to stick around for the new year.
3. Ye Olde Tweener Pop Backlash (pending): And as long as we're making predictions, let me hazard a guess that '02 is going to deliver a rash of scratchy, underproduced, homemade recordings by a bunch of ugly-ass bands to make up for the Christforsaken deluge of tripe pop acts we had to endure this year. Everywhere you turned in 2001, it was lip gloss and glitter, moose-knuckle hot pants and sweetened vocals. Such a situation can only endure for so long before the pendulum starts to swing back, and I pray the time might be at hand for a swift, terrible reaction.
You can run, Aaron Carter, but you can't hide.
4. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft tour: On the strength of a solid album, his Bobness is making admirable strides on his latest tour, rapping with the audience and digging into the old songbook for a well-paced, eminently enjoyable night o' music. Sure, the grin he's showing us might only be the card cheat's, the latest shifty persona in his repertoire. But still: What a joy to see him healthy, performing in good voice and with what seems to be genuine pleasure.
5. Terry Southern, ³Give Me Your Hump!²: The Unspeakable Terry Southern Record (Koch International): One of the most welcome surprises of the year, if I may be forgiven for including a spoken-word disc in the roundup. Southern, the diabolical genius who penned such films as Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, author of the books Blue Movie and The Magic Christian, was one of the most underappreciated American satirists of the 1960s and 1970s. Southern here reads excerpts from his own writing (including the "hump" sequence from Candy, his infamous literary collaboration with Mason Hoffenberg), and guests ranging from Marianne Faithfull to Michael O'Donoghue interpret his work, in an archival project long overdue.
6. We Owe You Nothing -- Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews (Akashic Books): Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life may be the punk search-and-rescue book of the year, but We Owe You Nothing is the meatiest. Interviews with old- and new-guard punks, including a priceless where-are-they-now with every former member of Black Flag (Greg Ginn's still a diva, God bless him!), make this 2001's best lit'rary value for your dollar spent.
7. Marvin Gaye, What's Going On -- Deluxe Edition (Motown): Forget the eviscerated, emasculated cover milked for sap at the Concert for New York. Treat yourself to the original, in a deluxe packaging that presents Gaye's classic statement of survival and social awareness in no fewer than three beautiful versions. And buy a second copy. Somebody you know needs this album, right now.
8. Garage Rock Revival: And it's about damn time.
9. The Ongoing Dirty White Boy Rumble: In the event you were preoccupied with something more important (like, say, making a sandwich) and missed it, a nasty little imbroglio came to a head during the summer of '01 in which Eminem, the Insane Clown Posse, Fred Durst, DJ Lethal, and a host of other Caucasoid waterheads all chose up sides against each other in a fey imitation of an O.G. representers' beef. Back-and-forth disses like Eminem's "Quitter" and Everlast's "Whitey's Revenge" chronicled the lurid details of this particularly surreal dingleberry on the ass of popular music with excruciating meticulousness. Combining the tense human drama of pro wrestling with the exotic locales of America's trailer parks and yeast-fragrant frathouses, the White Gripe may not have been Tupac vs. Biggie, but it sure was fun to watch while it lasted.
10. Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes (Thunder's Mouth Press): Out of print for too long, this is one of the best jazz autobiographies you'll ever read. Hawes was one of the bright lights of bebop piano in the 1950s, but a heroin arrest in 1958 stalled his career. Granted executive clemency by no less than President Kennedy, he returned to music in 1963; he died of a stroke 14 years later. Originally published in 1974 (and written with novelist Don Asher), Raise Up Off Me is a tight, electrifying read, the story of how a preacher's kid became one of the best bebop pianists in jazz history and nearly lost it all. Hawes' portraits of his fellow musicians, some of whom were also addicts, are by turns heartwarming and terrifying. Reprinted in a handsome and affordable new paperback edition, Hawes' memoir deserves a much wider readership.
1. Spoon, Girls Can Tell (Merge): While most noteworthy rock bands peak early and spend the rest of their careers dealing with the law of diminishing returns, this Austin trio is the miraculous example of the reverse process. A dime-a-dozen alt-rock band five years ago, they've gradually morphed into brilliant pop tunesmiths. Singer-guitarist Britt Daniel has one of the great voices in rock: simultaneously sweet and sour -- infectiously upbeat, but with melancholy undertones. And with "Lines in the Suit" and "The Fitted Shirt," he penned the best garment-themed pop songs since Costello shined all the buttons on his "Green Shirt." Girls Can Tell is so spare and unassuming, it was easy to overlook, but no rock record this year provided as much pleasure per minute. It suggests what might have happened if the Pixies had ever formed a Zombies tribute band.
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 Theft was 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, Poses compensated 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 Clear an off-kilter edge that much underground pop lacks.
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"?
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 1 album.
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? Overdub is 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.
9. Renee Fleming/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Night Songs (Decca): American super-soprano Renee Fleming's buttery voice is enough to clutch the ears of even the most ardent of art-song naysayers, even those with little desire to know an aria from a hole in the ground. And pointy-headed musicologists will no doubt find much to debate regarding the finer points of Fleming's timbre and enunciation, not to mention her audacity for being popular enough for a profile on 60 Minutes. But those in search of a highbrow thrill couldn't ask for much more than these 26 accomplished yet approachable selections.
10. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part (Reprise): On which our hero, restrained as always by sidekick Mick Harvey, keeps his predictable melodrama and gothic fright masks to manageable levels and continues toying with the notion of subtlety, a concept he finally took to heart with 1997's The Boatman's Call. Cave juggles his John Cale and Tom Waits ambitions for most of these slow-going wordy tunes, and the results are as effective as anything the Seeds have produced. Secret weapon: Cave's simple piano lines that evocatively cut through the attendant excess. A nice place to start for neophyte Cave-dwellers.
Favorite Single: Jimmy Eat World, "Bleed American": Assured and combustible rock 'n' pop that shows this Mesa band's previous high points, most notably "Lucky Denver Mint," had little to do with luck. Next big things come and go, but JEW looks to hang around a while.
Favorite Reissues: Neu!, Neu! 2, and Neu! 75. The collected early '70s oeuvre of Krautrock odd couple Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger (with über-producer Connie Plank), who stopped bickering long enough to remaster and rerelease these wonders of rhythmic minimalism. A must for Faust fans and Kraftwerk devotees.
Favorite Soundtrack: The Royal Tenenbaums: Kudos to filmmaker Wes Anderson. Any excuse to expose the masses to Nick Drake ("Fly"), Emitt Rhodes ("Lullaby") and Elliott Smith ("Needle in the Hay") is a noble endeavor, especially if Ravel, the Ramones and the Clash are included. And the film's original music by former "Booji Boy" Mark Mothersbaugh doesn't suck, either.
1. Ian Hunter, Rant (Fuel 2000): A blazing, soulful, altogether ignored record that skewers entropy, with the grace to acknowledge that Mott the Hoople occupies but a modest nook on the grand map of pop. Dylanesque anti-Brit, anti-Yank ballads ("Death of a Nation," "Purgatory," respectively), witty, self-deprecating pisstakes ("Morons"), and the best rock 'n' roll song of the year ("Wash Us Away") -- whose arc connects the Faces, Dylan and Stones and Mott to the Upper East Side circa early 2001 with nary a trace of self-parody -- make this Ian Hunter's best since Mott days. It's funny; just when you might suspect him to be a backward-gazing yet clever old tosser, he'll toss off something like, "We're all dead now, in our boxes/Holding on to what little we've got left."
2. Ramones, reissues: Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin (Rhino/Warner archives): One night in 1977, Norman Mailer went to CBGB to see the Ramones. Mister Tough Guy Don't Dance had to stand on a chair to gain view over the heaving crowd. After the third song, he turned to a friend and shouted one all-inclusive word: "Heroic." Mailer, arguably one of the few men at the time qualified to utter such a word, called it like he saw it. It's funny; the term "heroic" hasn't applied to rock 'n' roll in some time. We forget that.
3. Rich Hopkins/Billy Sedlmayr, The Fifty Percenter (Hayden's Ferry): Without the ironic gloss on the tragedy of drug-addled abasement, Billy Sedlmayr, the deathly thin, prison-tatted, wholly unheralded songwriter, is the unlikely voice whose melancholic confessionals are underlined with a kind of yearning -- imagery that focuses less on the fantastic self-destructiveness of Sed's life than on gritty landscapes and personalities that inhabited it. The literate, narrative-driven songs brim with a sense of indispensability and offer salvation through the guitar work of Sidewinders/Sand Rubies/Luminarios founder Rich Hopkins that summons up generations' worth of ghosts -- from the Byrds and Love to Crazy Horse and Steve Earle.
4. Black Crowes, Lions (V2): Now seemingly under the radar. Too bad, they're the best rock 'n' roll band going.
5. Dictators, DFFD (Dictators Multi/Media): Bounced from the majors back before MTV, the 'Tators soldier on with this brilliant follow-up to 1978's Bloodbrothers. No one could accuse the 'Tators of simply worshiping primal forces, 'cause, they are the primordial pre-punk, white-trash ooze. What's more, both "Pussy and Money" and "I Am Right" define with eyebrow-singeing accuracy and hilarity ("So tell me pretty baby/Are you still talking about yourself") the long-lost idea of rock 'n' roll as effectual cultural reference point.
6. Dragons, Rock 'n' Roll Kamikaze (Junk Records): Here are four reasons the Dragons' fifth album is worthy of attention, despite untold indie-label level odds:
A). Semi-autobiographical info best not taken out of context: Singer/lyricist Mario Escovedo is a charismatic mix of Bukowski-ish bluster and confessional-booth chivalry, at once an unruly 4 a.m. drunk in need of "a kiss and a little company" and later, a quixotic family man who asks, "Can I make it up to you one day?" He's a Drinking With the Boys clubhouse chairman who's adult enough to admit he's in love, yet unwilling to give in to the workaday world. It's an honesty blueprint for agony, to be sure, but a futile dichotomy that makes for great rock 'n' roll songwriting.
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.
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.
TOP REISSUE YOU DIDN'T GET TO HEAR: Donny Hathaway, Live (Label M): It was the best of years for reissues (the first three Neu! albums, the last-word Dylan-Band "Basement Tapes" box A Tree With Roots, the expanded/remastered James Brown Live at the Apollo Vol. 2, etc.), but it was also the worst of years as bottom-line politics frequently overrode archival aesthetics. Evidence? This transcendent concert set from late soul king Hathaway. Not to be confused with a similarly titled earlier album, it was recorded in August and October of 1971 at Hollywood's Troubadour and NYC's Bitter End and features a smokin' version of Hathaway signature funk-jazz classic "The Ghetto" alongside covers of "What's Going On" and "Jealous Guy." Then literally on the eve of its September release, the record company, Label M, had its plug pulled, leaving the CD in limbo.
THE KEITH MOON MEMORIAL AWARD: While Spiritualized got all the headlines for its (admittedly excellent) Let It Come Down CD -- which included a reworking of "Lord Can You Hear Me," originally penned during S-ized leader Jason Pierce's Spacemen 3 days -- it took Pierce's erstwhile bandmate Pete Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom, to go looking for the real heart of rock 'n' roll on the highways and byways and in the motel rooms and swimming pools of Middle America. Touring with nary a new record to promote (or, for that matter, a U.S. label to underwrite the tour), Mr. Boom and his band Spectrum spent November in the States performing a set cheekily titled "Songs the Spacemen Taught Us" comprising mostly Spacemen 3 classics. The band was enthusiastically received, too -- save for one motor lodge's desk clerk in rural North Carolina who took exception to the band's decidedly foggy, somewhat uncontrollable demeanor and called the cops. Reportedly, Spectrum was escorted from the Tarheel State a few ounces of weed (and Lord knows how much powder and pills) lighter, leaving the notoriously pro-drug Kember to do some serious scavenging down Route 66 for his, ahem, kicks.
1. Lucinda Williams, Essence (Lost Highway): For a quote/unquote "alt-country rec," this is about as unclichéd as they come, an intimate, oftentimes fearless portrayal of emotional stasis and how it can bring one's life to a shuddering halt. It's also erotic as hell -- "C'mon, baby, let me taste your stuff," Williams purrs, as if she were a phone-sex operator dialing in from somewhere down on Main Street. And sonically, it's got an uncommon potency and heft that artists, it must be said, rarely chance upon twice.
2. Beachwood Sparks, Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop): As with Roger McGuinn's cosmic cowboy musings and Gram Parsons' recastings of Hank, Merle and Johnny as arbiters of the national conscience, the Sparks have a hybrid sound that's suffused in sincerity and soulfulness. It only coincidentally includes the twang, hum and chuckle of Telecaster, pedal steel and banjo, by the way; the band could've just as easily picked up samplers and synths. Herein observe post-teenage symphonies to God performed with philosophical reserve and instrumental abandon.
3. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Global A Go Go (Hellcat): Grandpa or godfather? Nope. Spokesman for a generation? Not a chance. Strummer himself told me that folks can "hose off" if that's their take on him. Instead, the ex-Clash main man opts for a less-restrictive mantle of musical spelunker, digging deep for everything from Afro-pop to Middle Eastern trance-rock to spliff-happy dub 'n' rocksteady, all deftly integrated into a compelling framework of fiery, take-no-prisoners punk rock. Socially pungent lyric of the year, courtesy Mr. S: "God sure baked a lot of fruitcake, baby!"
4. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia): As musically energized as it is lyrically rustic and quirky, the album voted Most Likely to Top All Critics' Lists also has an unavoidable apocalyptic tone that seems downright creepy when you realize that it was released on September 11. "High Water (For Charley Patton)," in particular, cuts to the bone: "Don't know what I'm gonna do/'Don't reach out for me,' she said/'Can't you see I'm drowning, too?'/It's rough out there/High water everywhere."
5. Mogwai, The Rock Action (Matador): So monumentally magisterial, its musical alchemy signifies it as no less than the post-post-rock era's Sgt. Pet Sounds' Lonely Hearts Club Band, an entire daydream nation's worth of Nu-Psych. Scrims of winnowing keyboards, swaying strings, peripatetic fretboard meanderings and sweet choirs contrast with massed-crescendo, horns/Mellotron/guitar soundscapes, constantly prodding the listener's emotions into states as suggestive as a TM session with the Maharishi.
6. Tindersticks, Can Our Love . . . (Beggars Banquet): Laying aside some of their previous forays into moody psych- and flamenco-pop in favor of the vintage sounds of Motown, Philly and Memphis, the 'sticks sculpted a passionate evocation of connubial bliss and illicit release. Singer Stuart Staples comes on like Al Green, pulls back like Bryan Ferry, then offers consolation like Curtis Mayfield. In the face of today's painfully formulaic R&B/hip-hop -- Destiny's Child? R. Kelly? Please -- these white Brits come off as the most soulful act on the planet.
7. Steve Wynn, Here Come the Miracles (Innerstate): In the same year that his unqualified early classic saw a remastered/expanded reissue (the Dream Syndicate's Days of Wine and Roses), Wynn unexpectedly hunkered down in Tucson and went about painting his masterpiece. Rock noir at its best, baked in the heat of the unforgiving Lower Sonoran sun and bursting forth with edgy, lyrically rich, punk-inspired heavy garage.
8. New Order, Get Ready (Reprise): Why and how the band rediscovered its inner rock 'n' roll child -- more accurately, its inner Power, Corruption and Lies -- one can only speculate. But by allowing the natural playfulness, cynicism and tunefulness that has marked its finest moments in the past to newly resurface on tracks such as the mighty sequencers-and-riffs "Crystal" and "60 Miles an Hour," well, New Order arrived at the only comeback this year (not counting Leonard Cohen's) that didn't, um, suck.
9. Truby Trio, DJ-Kicks (!K7): I dunno, maybe it's the still-lingering 911 psychic hangover, but somehow, a reduced-stridency musical diet suits me best for now. Freestyle jazzbos/postrockers the Truby Trio hit all the right notes on this mix disc, from their own "High Jazz," a shuddery, kinetic slice of Afro-funk and atmospheric soul, to the minimalist diva-house of Korova's "Some People (Waiwan Remix)" to the hedonistic trance-funk of Voom Voom's "Ginger & Fred" (Voom Voom is a Truby Trio/Kruder & Dorfmeister spin-off). The perfect cure for postapocalyptic anomie.
10. Mink Lungs, The Better Button (Arena Rock): Not only did this Brooklyn band serve up the year's thumpingest tune ("Think of Me," a cynical but jangly kiss-off number that marries Flamin' Groovies and Byrds to Moby Grape and Guided by Voices), it's got the stage show to back up the album. Prog-rock, power-pop, Hula-Hoops and a grand finale that's equal parts Alice Cooper, fundamentalist tent-revival shtick and the bloody prom scene from Carrie -- ladies and germs, I give you the Mink Lungs.
Honorable Mentions: Buddy & Julie Miller (Hightone); Beatless, Life Mirrors (Ubiquity); White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy); Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Nonesuch); Björk, Vespertine (Elektra); Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., New Geocentric World (Squealer); Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot); Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol); Jah Wobble and Bill Laswell, Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission (Axiom/Palm); Spiritualized, Let It Come Down (Arista).
1. Various Artists, The Blank CD-R: Forget all the major-label releases. Nothing sold better in 2001 than the blank CD-R. With everyone from kids to seniors finally mastering the weird science of downloading MP3s and recording their own discs, the CD of the year was the one that came with 80 minutes of sweet nothing.
2. 'N SYNC, Celebrity (Jive): With their images showing up on everything from bobblehead dolls to toy cell phones in 2001, 'N SYNC practically begged serious rockers to kick their candy-coated butts. But their third album kicked off with a killer defense: the single "Pop," loaded with gimmicky scratching and stutter-edits that gleefully exposed its own manufacturing and G-rated rapping that somehow sounded tougher than anything else on the air this year.
3. Nelly Furtado, Whoa, Nelly! (DreamWorks): With her Portuguese roots lending a vague Brazilian feel to the eclectic mix of folk, hip-hop and rock influences scattered throughout her impressive debut, Furtado emerged as a refreshingly original voice and an upbeat presence with a hard-to-categorize style.
4. Gorillaz, Gorillaz (Virgin): In an era of prefabricated pop, Gorillaz are as pretend as you're likely to see: a band shown only as cartoon images (courtesy of alt-animator Jamie Hewlett), even, apparently, in the live shows they've done around Europe. But their videos and Web site rock -- who needs reality?
5. Alicia Keys, Songs in A Minor (J): With her whatever-you-want-it-to-be neutral complexion and cool-looking braids, Keys set the fashion standards for a new multi-ethnic look aped by every teenage girl in America seeking a no-limits style. Musically, her CD did the same thing, blurring the lines between pop, hip-hop and even, occasionally, classical.
6. Various Artists, What's Going On: Begun as a superstar effort to aid AIDS relief in Africa but overtaken by the September 11 events before its completion, the all-star remake of Marvin Gaye's still-potent anthem wound up sounding like a mishmash of well-meaning sermons. But it somehow managed to sum up our need to say something/anything in 2001 better than any of the other 911 tribute attempts. Plus, it finally got Fred Durst to stop whining and put forth the best peace messages from any hard rocker in history -- a remarkable transformation.
Editor's note: In the interest of brevity -- and for lack of four other choices -- Jimmy Magahern chose to make his Top 10 list a Top 6 list.
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