Every year, a few records tend to dominate the critical landscape, topping reviewers' annual Top 10 lists in droves. In 2001, finding consensus picks proved a bit more challenging, as The Onion A.V. Club's six music writers filled their 60 available slots with a whopping 46 different albums. Here they are.
1. Herbert, Bodily Functions (K7) (Buy It!)
Matthew Herbert is best known for the kind of shifty, organic beat-programming that helped make microhouse 2001's most exhilarating genre. But on Bodily Functions, he created a swooningly beautiful vision of dance music residing alongside emotive songwriting in unprecedented ways. Featuring the smoky vocals of Dani Siciliano, warmly naturalistic instrumentation, and beats that pop and glide with the weightlessness of finger-snaps, the album reaches rich new heights for both electronic music and jazzy torch-song orchestration.
2. Björk, Vespertine (Elektra) (Buy It!)
3. Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway) (Buy It!)
4. Jay-Z, The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella) (Buy It!)
5. Destroyer, Streethawk: A Seduction (Misra) (Buy It!)
Destroyer's Dan Bejar is like an indie-rock version of Herman Melville, a songwriter who unearths essential truths with poetic lyrics that are as suggestive as they are forthright. With Streethawk: A Seduction, he upped his already-high ante, digging into the distance between inspiration and disappointment with the tunefulness that made his songs highlights of The New Pornographers' Mass Romantic.
6. Basement Jaxx, Rooty (Astralwerks) (Buy It!)
7. Jan Jelinek, Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records (~Scape) (Buy It!)
As Farben, Jan Jelinek has been responsible for some of the most rewarding glitch techno in recent years. Under his own name, he made an ambient album that blew the top off of similar work by the likes of Oval and Pole, while giving the stereo-speaker industry cause for excitement. Pieced together from unrecognizably manipulated jazz loops, Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records is disarming in its aural clarity, the kind of album that makes listeners look over their shoulders to see where that sound is coming from.
8. Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol)
9. Daft Punk, Discovery (Virgin) (Buy It!)
10. Circulatory System, Circulatory System (Cloud) (Buy It!)
Great Album Still Too Creepy To Revisit
Aaliyah, Aaliyah (Blackground) (Buy It!)
Aaliyah's first album in five years was an elegant distillation of the gooey soul and future-shock R&B that dominate the pop charts. But the same qualities that made it an early shoo-in for Top 10 status took on unbearably grim airs when she died in an August plane crash. Aaliyah's un-diva-like willingness to fade into tracks and use her voice as an atmospheric shading agent sounds ghostly and sad now. That should change over time, but it'll be a while before Aaliyah recaptures its initial beauty.
Best As-Yet-Unreleased Album Inspired By Number-Stations Recordings
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco has already gotten tons of press for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a mesmerizing album that the band's label rejected as too weird to release. But just as intriguing as its experimental airs and shadowy Internet-only availability are its little-discussed allusions to The Conet Project, a four-disc collection of recordings from so-called "number stations." The source of Wilco's eerie sample of a little German girl intoning "yankee… hotel… foxtrot," The Conet Project is full of seemingly nonsensical recitations of numbers and words heard on mysterious short-wave radio frequencies. Nobody seems to know why they exist or who's responsible for them, but that hasn't stopped Thomas Pynchon fans—or Wilco's Jeff Tweedy—from taking a little time to wonder.
Most Convincing Ode To The Importance Of Ass Preservation
Sun Ra, Nuclear War (Unheard Music Series) (Buy It!)
On the long-overdue CD pressing of his 1982 classic Nuclear War, Sun Ra rails against the atom bomb, the only technological advancement he seemed less than jazzed about during his career. Adopting a hilarious, sing-songy rap cadence on the title track, he goes straight to the core of the matter: "It's a motherfucker, don't you know / If they push that button, your ass has got to go / Gonna blast your ass so high in the sky / You can kiss your ass goodbye, goodbye / What you gonna do without your ass?" The rest of the album is solid (though inessential) Sun Ra at airy waltz speed, but seven minutes of Ra rapping the apocalypse blues is enough to make any disc worth owning.
1. The Dismemberment Plan, Change (DeSoto) (Buy It!)
Following 1999's amazing Emergency & I must have been a daunting task for The Dismemberment Plan: That album not only marked a critical step in its musical evolution, but also ballooned the size of its fan base. Fortunately, Change was not only great, but exceptionally diverse. Within the framework of a standard rock lineup, The Dismemberment Plan plays with post-punk, drum-and-bass, new wave, reggae, and plain old rock. The result is a singular sound from a disarmingly good band.
2. Crooked Fingers, Bring On The Snakes (Warm) (Buy It!)
Those expecting former Archers Of Loaf singer-guitarist Eric Bachmann to continue his angular indie-rocking were surprised but largely delighted by the emergence of Crooked Fingers, his mellow, often sad, always terrific solo project. Crooked Fingers' second album, Bring On The Snakes, walks the same dark path as its self-titled predecessor, nodding to great and gritty songsmiths from Hank The First to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.
3. Clem Snide, The Ghost Of Fashion (spinART) (Buy It!)
4. Low, Things We Lost In The Fire (Kranky) (Buy It!)
5. Fugazi, The Argument (Dischord) (Buy It!)
6. Danko Jones, I'm Alive And On Fire (Bad Taste) (Buy It!)
Danko Jones—the man and his eponymous band—has been a Toronto phenomenon for years, impressing the locals with a simple dedication to the staples of unadulterated rock: three chords, a hammering backbeat, and impassioned lyrics. Jones' legacy hasn't spread farther and faster for a simple reason: Until this year, his band's recorded output consisted of two hard-to-find EPs. Available only as a Swedish import, I'm Alive And On Fire should be just slightly easier to come by, but worth the effort. Only the greatest living garage band could reference Bob Dylan and Motörhead with such ease.
7. Clinic, Internal Wrangler (Domino) (Buy It!)
8. Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol) (Buy It!)
9. Jeff Mangum, Live At Jittery Joe's (Orange Twin) (Buy It!)
10. Death Cab For Cutie, The Photo Album (Barsuk) (Buy It!)
Maddest Props To A Deceased Grandparent
DMX, "I Miss You"
Ripped rapper DMX proves that he's the baddest of the bad-asses by showing his sensitive side on "I Miss You," from his otherwise uneventful The Great Depression. Think about it: A growling dog like DMX has to be prepared to defend himself after writing lines like, "What I wouldn't give / for one more hug / from Grandma."
Most Profound Videos By A Band That Sings Gibberish
Sigur Rós, "Svefn-G-Englar" & "Viorar Vel Til Loftárasa"
The Icelandic band Sigur Rós has been bombarded with praise for its atmospheric pop, sung in a mixture of its native tongue and singer Jonsi Birgisson's made-up language, Hopelandish. Its two rarely seen videos provide stunning but startling accompaniment: "Svefn-G-Englar" features a cast of actors with Down's Syndrome dressed as angels, while "Viorar Vel Til Loftárasa" is a sad coming-of-age story about gay teens. Both are visually amazing love stories that aren't hokey or mawkish.
Best Prediction For 2002
Rock Returns To The Garage
With The White Stripes' excellent White Blood Cells already bubbling over into the mainstream, what bands will follow out the garage door? Good bets include The Walkmen, Gasoline, Vue, Danko Jones, The Mooney Suzuki, and The Mistreaters.
1. Spoon, Girls Can Tell (Merge) (Buy It!)
The most exciting three minutes in rock this year may have been "The Fitted Shirt," from Spoon's jagged, invigorating, revelatory Girls Can Tell. Over a taut guitar riff that shoots off sparks but never quite explodes, Britt Daniel sings about the craftsmanship of his father's clothing as a metaphor for a bygone, lamented era. The rest of Girls Can Tell offers similarly crisp, clear observations over music that's melodic but hard to pin down. The songs are in the vein of early Elvis Costello, loosely rooted in indigenous dance music but strangely arrhythmic, and Daniels uses lead instruments as percussion, following that beat across shifting sands. It's a thrilling, moving journey.
2. Pernice Brothers, The World Won't End (Ashmont) (Buy It!)
3. American Analog Set, Know By Heart (Tigerstyle) (Buy It!)
4. Whiskeytown / Ryan Adams, Pneumonia / Gold (Lost Highway) (Buy It!)
Ryan Adams gets excoriated in some quarters for his naked rock-star ambitions and his suspicious prolificacy, but even though the 36 new songs he released this year—spread between the final Whiskeytown album Pneumonia and his second solo album Gold—contained a fair amount of dud lyrics and half-considered ideas, the majority were bright and enjoyable. The best tracks were among the best any genre had to offer, gracefully exploring the line between traditional and contemporary pop music. If Adams has to make an unruly mess to come up with songs as near-perfect as "New York, New York," "Don't Be Sad," "Sit & Listen To The Rain," and "Answering Bell," then long may he slop.
5. The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic (Mint) (Buy It!)
6. Daft Punk, Discovery (Virgin) (Buy It!)
7. Rufus Wainwright, Poses (DreamWorks) (Buy It!)
8. The Strokes, Is This It (RCA) (Buy It!)
9. Electric Light Orchestra, Zoom (Epic)
Following the course of other classic-rock staples that followed the hot commercial trends a decade ago (when their careers were still viable), Electric Light Orchestra returned to the sound that defined it on Zoom. The band has even mostly shrugged off the prefab twang-and-big-beat style that leader Jeff Lynne made de rigeur back in the late '80s. Now, E.L.O. backs each letter of its acronym, especially the "O." Lynne restores the swirling strings, dance-floor-tested rhythms, and vibrating electric guitar that helped the group bridge the gap between prog-rock and disco. The result is one of the most deliriously entertaining rock albums of 2001, and perhaps the best record E.L.O. has ever made.
10. Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus (Matador) (Buy It!)
Best Reason To Turn Off MTV
When MTV launched in 1981, some astute critics noted the irony of a network devoted exclusively to "commercials" for bands, but now MTV has gone one step further, largely replacing promotional clips with programs that are essentially advertisements for MTV itself. Not only does the network have its own awards shows and seasonal cablecasts from sunny locales, but each event also comes bundled with retrospectives and "behind-the-scenes looks," in which MTV staffers reflect on the wild times they had during Spring Break '99 or that one crazy episode of Total Request Live. In just 20 years, MTV has created its own hermetically sealed environment, where everything that occurs on-air presumes that all viewers have spent most of their lives watching MTV, making memories from inexpressive band interviews and bursts of obscured profanity.
Best Reason To Turn Off VH1
Besides having a playlist tight enough to set a watch by ("9:30… time for Alicia Keys"), VH1 was responsible in 2001 for feeding the string of one-trick ponies on the fringes of the dreary nü-metal and jam-band movements. The rotating collection of uncharismatic balladeers with forgettable names ranged from nondescript sensitivos (Train, Five For Fighting, Lifehouse) to bands that should, judging by their names, be rocking harder (Incubus, Staind, Nickelback). Not that all of it was bad, but the cumulative effect has been maddening, showing simultaneously that rock 'n' roll can still move units, but only at its most watered-down.
Most Exciting Genres Of 2001
Pop music was at its best in 2001 when its purveyors were having a low-rent good time. The two genres that provided the greatest number of meaningless kicks were the giddy, danceable "pastiche electronica" by the likes of The Avalanches, Solex, and Mint Royale, and the gritty garage-rock of The White Stripes, The Strokes, and Grafton (among others).
1. Björk, Vespertine (Elektra) (Buy It!)
2. The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic (Mint) (Buy It!)
3. Bob Dylan, "Love And Theft" (Columbia) (Buy It!)
4. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The Record Industry) (Buy It!)
It's a happy fact that every time rock appears to paint itself into a corner, some act comes along to demonstrate how powerful it can be when stripped to its basic elements. The blues-loving, ambiguously related duo The White Stripes nicely demonstrated the power of elemental rock on its first two albums, and on its third, took its craft to the proverbial next level with its strongest, strangest set of songs to date. The uniforms are a nice touch, too.
5. Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol) (Buy It!)
Sure, it's Kid A II, but why complain about that? Another boundary-pushing experiment as haunting as it is daring, Amnesiac delivered the best encore to an instant classic since Prince followed Purple Rain with the still-underrated Around The World In A Day.
6. Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus (Matador) (Buy It!)
7. Pernice Brothers, The World Won't End (Ashmont) (Buy It!)
8. R.E.M., Reveal (Warner Bros.) (Buy It!)
9. Rufus Wainwright, Poses (DreamWorks) (Buy It!)
10. Nick Lowe, The Convincer (Yep Roc) (Buy It!)
In one of the quietest comeback acts around, Nick Lowe has traded in the "pure pop for now people" of years past, and started creating soundtracks
for smoke-filled rooms. The Convincer recycles elements of classic American pop into the sort of music a lost soul might make. Lowe's devilish expression on the album cover may suggest a man with secrets to keep, but only because he saves the gut-spilling for the music inside.
The "Pink Moon" Award For Best Song Rescued By A Commercial
Daft Punk, "Digital Love"
A song that sounds great even without images of Daft Punk in robot gear, "Digital Love" goes well beyond a disco pastiche to become possibly the best non-Pet Shop Boys disco reinvention since the '70s. Seldom has a vocoder sounded so much like the voice of true love. Shameless and joyous, in a year without Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" it would qualify as the single of 2001.
Best Reason To Outlaw Cover Versions Of Classic Songs
Various Artists, What's Going On (Buy It!)
Sure, the causes What's Going On supports are great, but some songs just don't lend themselves to easy interpretation. Just as most Beatles covers suffer because the originals have been so indelibly stamped on listeners' memories, just about any cover taken from Marvin Gaye's classic album What's Going On can hardly help but prompt the thought, "Nope, it's not as good as the original." The "We Are The World"-style all-star single has problems well beyond even this fatal flaw: It "improves" the lyric, pairs Michael Stipe with P. Diddy, and lets Fred Durst strain his overworked vocal cords.
Best Musical Autobiography (Final Chapters Division)
Elvis Presley, Live In Las Vegas (Buy It!)
A four-disc box set of Elvis Presley's Vegas performances, Live In Las Vegas starts well enough. Flush with success from his '68 comeback special, Presley sounds invigorated by his return to live performing, and he doesn't hesitate to let the audience know it between songs. Subsequent discs don't go nearly as well, as the patter grows repetitive and starts to sound enhanced by substances other than adrenaline. Worse, good songs get dragged down by goofy lyric changes, and Presley's puffing between songs sounds more like an overworked rhino than the King Of Rock And Roll. Disc Four juxtaposes a 1956 appearance with tracks from 1974 and 1975, when his concerts began to turn into weird, self-pitying public exorcisms. The contrast is as chilling as the difference between a Marlon Brando movie still from The Wild One and a frame from The Score.
1. Aceyalone, Accepted Eclectic (Nu Gruv Alliance) (Buy It!)
A decade after drafting the blueprint for countless brainy, inventive West Coast underground hip-hop acts, charismatic Freestyle Fellowship frontman Aceyalone returned with Accepted Eclectic, his strongest solo album to date. Cascading from mellow introspection to joyous battle-rap to old-school nostalgia, Accepted Eclectic hits its pinnacle with "Five Feet," an irresistible ode to the importance of personal space that ranks as one of the loopiest and most imaginative anthems in hip-hop history.
2. The Coup, Party Music (75 Ark) (Buy It!)
The Coup recently made headlines when it was forced to scrap Party Music's original cover art, for obvious reasons: It depicted Marxist frontman Boots Riley blowing up the World Trade Center. Yet, like the rest of The Coup's albums, Party Music is as notable for its gentle humanism as for its incendiary politics. From rabble-rousing anthems like "Ghetto Manifesto" and "5,000,000 Ways To Kill A CEO" to finely wrought narratives like "Nowalaters," Party Music proves yet again that few can equal The Coup in navigating the fine line between art and propaganda.
3. Atmosphere, The Lucy Ford LP (Rhymesayers)
Rising out of the Upper Midwest, Atmosphere frontman Slug made one of the year's most striking impressions with The Lucy Ford LP, an alternately funny, scary, and sad album bursting with energy and ideas. Iconoclastic, fiercely intelligent, and uncompromising, The Lucy Ford LP confirms the place of both Atmosphere and the Rhymesayers collective at the top of the indie hip-hop class.
4. Timbaland & Magoo, Indecent Proposal (Blackground) (Buy It!)
5. Masta Ace, Disposable Arts (JCOR) (Buy It!)
6. Tha Liks, X.O. Experience (Loud) (Buy It!)
7. J-Zone Presents: The Old Maid Billionaires, Pimps Don't Pay Taxes (Old Maid)
8. DJ Hi-Tek, Hi-Teknology (Rawkus) (Buy It!)
9. Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus (Matador) (Buy It!)
10. Various Artists, The Funky 16 Corners (Stone's Throw) (Buy It!)
Most Dispiriting Hip-Hop Comeback Album
Run DMC, Crown Royal (Buy It!)
Following an eight-year absence from the studio, Run DMC (or more specifically, Run, since the disgruntled DMC is largely missing in action) sold out in the worst possible fashion with Crown Royal, a mercenary attempt to regain commercial success by hopping on every bandwagon imaginable—particularly the rap-rock craze Run DMC helped start. It didn't work, as not even Arista's deep pockets and guest appearances from Stephan Jenkins, Kid Rock, and Fred Durst could keep Crown Royal from flopping.
Most Annoying Song (Former Beatle Division)
Paul McCartney, "Freedom"
Offering irrefutable evidence that war is indeed bad for the eardrums of children and other living things, Paul McCartney's "Freedom" offers an ode to American liberty nearly as sophisticated and subtle as Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The U.S.A." McCartney isn't even American, although if Madonna can reinvent herself as a prim English lady, then perhaps he's justified in casting himself as Uncle Sam's favorite English nephew.
Trend That Refuses To Die
Wacky Ironic Covers
There's no easier way to score a cheap hit than with a pseudo-naughty cover of a popular song, and this year found Dynamite Hack and Alien Ant Farm riding the cover-song bandwagon straight to one-hit-wondersville. Alien Ant Farm's "Smooth Criminal" added nothing to one of Michael Jackson's least-loved hits, while Dynamite Hack's 2000 track "Boyz-N-The Hood" finally broke big reinventing Eazy-E's gangsta anthem as—get this!—a wimpy folk song. How delightfully insouciant! It even uses actual racial slurs! Come back, Bloodhound Gang, all is forgiven.
1. The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic (Mint) (Buy It!)
It came out on a Canadian indie label late last year, but that's no reason to disqualify The New Pornographers' endlessly ingratiating Mass Romantic for consideration as the best album of 2001. Led by members of Destroyer and the underrated Zumpano, with notable appearances by estimable country chanteuse Neko Case, the band bursts forth with a collection of lovably ingratiating pop-rock that frequently exceeds the sum of its influences. The Cars and Cheap Trick are the most direct reference points, and even their best work would have trouble matching "Letter From An Occupant," which tosses off no fewer than five distinct pop hooks—each strong enough to carry a song on its own.
2. Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American (DreamWorks) (Buy It!)
3. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop) (Buy It!)
The wonderful New Mexico band The Shins packs Oh, Inverted World's 33 minutes with twists and thrills, keeping the album unpredictable from track to track and from moment to moment. "Girl On The Wing" is a spectacular pop blowout, but it doesn't feel out of place in close proximity to "New Slang," one of the year's loveliest ballads. Every listen unveils a new trick or obtuse turn of phrase, but Inverted plays equally well with or without attention directed to the songs' subtleties.
4. Björk, Vespertine (Elektra) (Buy It!)
5. Idlewild, 100 Broken Windows (Capitol) (Buy It!)
6. Clem Snide, The Ghost Of Fashion (spinART) (Buy It!)
7. Pete Yorn, musicforthemorningafter (Columbia) (Buy It!)
8. Low, Things We Lost In The Fire (Kranky) (Buy It!)
9. Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol) (Buy It!)
10. Mark Kozelek, What's Next To The Moon (Badman) (Buy It!)
After years of label battles and a foray into acting (he's a member of Stillwater in Almost Famous), Mark Kozelek returned in a prolific burst this year. His band Red House Painters finally released its sumptuous, long-delayed Old Ramon, but even better was What's Next To The Moon, a low-profile half hour of delicate, acoustic, Bon Scott-era AC/DC covers. The concept sounds like yet another wacky exercise in mismatched sensibilities, but the result brings out the insecurity and pathos in Scott's words, casting light on both Kozelek's interpretive abilities and AC/DC's little-recognized depth.
The Honeydogs, Here's Luck (Palm) (Buy It!)
Jump, Little Children, Vertigo (EZ Chief) (Buy It!)
David Mead, Mine And Yours (RCA) (Buy It!)
Poor Rich Ones, Happy Happy Happy (Rec 90/Five One) (Buy It!)
The Rosenbergs, Mission: You (Discipline Global Mobile) (Buy It!)
Most Heartwarming Reissue
Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information (Buy It!)
A lush 1974 soul spectacular, and a no-longer-lost classic. Thank goodness.
Least Heartwarming Reissue
Mudvayne, The Beginning Of All Things To End (Buy It!)
The painted men of Peoria's reissued 1997 debut demo opens by repeating the words, "You're a motherfucking piece of shit and you'll never amount to nothing"—with, appropriately enough, a sample of a crying baby.
Best Commentary In A Pop Chorus
Ben Folds, "Rockin' The Suburbs"
In 11 mockery-drenched words ("Y'all don't know what it's like / being male, middle-class, and white"), Folds eviscerates the nihilistic schlock surrounding him on modern-rock radio. Funny how much of today's metal, which was supposed to be an aggressive reaction to the emasculated whining of grunge, features 10,000 times as much moaning self-pity. Examples range from derivative neo-grunge ballads (Staind's "It's Been Awhile") to the work of a thousand Mudvaynes who've figured out a way to cop Alice Cooper's shtick without having any fun.
2001's Best Songs (One Entry Per Album)
1. New Pornographers, "Letter From An Occupant"
2. Clem Snide, "Joan Jett Of Arc"
3. Mint Royale, "Show Me"
4. Jimmy Eat World, "A Praise Chorus"
5. Stephen Malkmus, "Jenny And The Ess-Dog"
6. The Shins, "Girl On The Wing"
7. Daft Punk, "Digital Love"
8. Idlewild, "Actually It's Darkness"
9. The Coup, "Wear Clean Draws"
10. The Avalanches, "Frontier Psychiatrist"
11. David Mead, "Mine And Yours"
12. Pete Yorn, "Strange Condition"
13. Björk, "Cocoon"
14. Whiskeytown, "Jacksonville Skyline"
15. Ryan Adams, "New York, New York"