1. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)
On 2000’s Parachutes, Coldplay got by on considerable youth, charm, and a knack for sweeping hooks that combined for a great album. A Rush of Blood to the Head should silence a lot of folks who thought Parachutes was a fluke; it’s tight, aggressive, yearning, and still full of youthful exuberance. Frontman Chris Martin further distances himself from Thom Yorke comparisons with a voice that’s increasingly mature and interesting. We’re awash in this style of British pop right now, but Coldplay seems to come by this highly evocative sound naturally. A good tonic for the inner cynic that pops up all too often.
2. Neil Finn, One All (Nettwerk)
Former Crowded House mastermind Neil Finn must have entered this world as a changeling baby or something equally supernatural and rare. When he writes a song that truly flies (“Private Universe”, “Fall at Your Feet”, “Try Whistling This”) it escapes his obvious Beatles influences and pulls you into an alternate reality of his own imagining. With his recent solo work, he seems to have shed the perfectionism that previously kept some promising songs grounded, in favor of a darker, grittier texture. His solo debut, Try Whistling This showed the rough edges and uneven surfaces of such a new approach, but One All shows that Finn’s worked out the kinks in this subtle new sound. One All is easily as inviting as any of his more celebrated Crowded House work.
3. Paul Westerberg, Stereo/Mono (Vagrant)
As Paul Westerberg released each of his solo records, I began to believe more and more that he needed a foil—someone in the studio to call him out on half-hearted ideas, or to make a lyrical passage sharper. Shows how much I know. In true Minnesotan fashion, Paul Westerberg hunkered down in his basement late at night, all by his lonesome, and pounded out two discs of his best material in years. Each of Westerberg’s previous solo albums has since grown on me with age, but Mono showed the raggedy Stones influence that Westerberg had been hiding for too long, while Stereo found him coaxing unassuming wordplay and shadowy memories from the night. Immediately accessible and darkly charming, this pair of discs shows that domestication, time out of the limelight, and isolation might have served Westerberg well after all.
4. Drive-by Truckers, Southern Rock Opera (Lost Highway)
Technically, another 2001 release, but Lost Highway’s reissue this year makes it eligible in my eyes. With the recent fallout over Trent Lott’s remarks at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, Southern Rock Opera seems more timely than ever. The American South is a region torn between the old and the new, with way too much of the old still lurking in the shadows, and this two-disc set is the sound of a band exploring the paradoxes that spring from that tug of war. Rabid word-of-mouth paints SRO as a concept album based on the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it’s far more than that. Songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley craft a three-guitar fueled barnburning tour through the South in all its contradictory shame and glory: rebel flags, the Civil Rights movement, George Wallace, Civil War veteran grandfathers, teenage nights roaming the roads, it’s all here.
5. Sixteen Horsepower, Folklore (Jetset)
What Beck’s Sea Change would have sounded like if he’d married into the Addams Family. I first heard it only a week or so ago, and I’m still in a bit of a daze from its stark, often nightmarish beauty. Sixteen Horsepower’s always seemed like a bit of a one-man show, but when David Eugene Edwards basically retooled the band for Folklore, it apparently made a world of difference. The Fundamentalist circus barker vibe still lurks in the background, but Edwards seems more interested this time in conveying simple, traditional songs about his time-honored themes of sin, redemption, and the struggles in between. Even if you don’t agree with Edwards’ philosophy (and I often don’t), there’s no denying the music’s power.
6. Clinic, Walking with Thee (Domino)
Even with all the initial hype surrounding Walking with Thee and the fact that Clinic dresses in surgical scrubs, it was easy to dismiss the album on first listen. It’s so unassuming in its moody tones and easygoing structures that it tends to pass you by like cloud shadows. But when’s the last time you heard an honest to goodness modern rock band get such good mileage out of a harmonica? Once you start listening, though, you understand why bands like Radiohead like these guys so much; there’s incredible depth in Clinic’s sound.
7. Elf Power, Creatures (spinART)
Athens, GA-based Elf Power keep to what’s sustained them all along: moody instrumentation, sonic darkness, and more fantasy imagery than a hippy-trippy Led Zeppelin song (the only thing missing seems to be a hobbit reference, but I could just be missing one). This time, though, they sustain a single hypnotic mood for the length of the entire record. Creatures wallows in a own moody murkiness that some people find monotonous, but I don’t have any problem going along for the ride.
8. White Stripes, White Blood Cells (V2)
Yeah, yeah, it came out in 2001, but I only got around to hearing it this year (plus, it was rereleased in 2002). Inspired, fractured blues rock that thankfully avoids the self-consciousness of bands like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, in favor of just sounding like they’re trying to bust their way out of a metal shack. Some distractions along the way (from Jack White getting in line to feud with Ryan Adams, to the press’s obsession with finding out whether the pair were siblings or an ex-couple) shined some light on the band, but detracted from the music. With all that cleared away, however, White Blood Cells is a glorious example of primal rock and roll, the kind that we hadn’t been hearing for a long time.
9. Elvis Costello, When I Was Cruel (Island)
Costello’s not an angry young man anymore, and that’s fine—we got plenty of great songs out of him while he was. Now, he’s an angry—or at least cynical—older man, and the songs are no worse for it. Lauded as Costello’s return to rockin’ form, When I Was Cruel tempers its aggression with some wonderful textures, from the distorted drums of “Dust 2” to the slightly Latin twang of the title track and the eerie strains of “Spooky Girlfriend”. To these ears, the Costello train lost some of its momentum this year with a couple of lesser reissues and an unsatisfying b-sides compilation, Cruel Smile, but When I Was Cruel more than makes up for those lapses.
10. Tom Waits, Alice (Anti)
Tom Waits actually released two records this year: Alice and Blood Money. I found Blood Money, despite some fantastic lyrics and sounds, to feel a little bit like Waits was painting by the numbers. Alice, however was a different story. Waits’ (and wife Kathleen Brennan’s) music and lyrics for Robert Wilson’s stage treatment of Lewis Carroll’s life took the Weimar strains of The Black Rider (also a stage piece for Wilson) and perfectly meshed them with Waits’ penchant (somewhat subdued for this album) for sideshow imagery, meditations on death, and grisly sense of humor. Latter day Waits isn’t to everyone’s taste (my sister says he sounds like a troll under a bridge), but for those with a taste for his gutbucket growl, Alice finds him at the top of his game.
Best album in the shadow of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Jay Bennett & Edward Burch, Palace at 4 a.m. (Undertow)
Most welcome return to form: Tori Amos, Scarlet’s Walk (Epic)
With each subsequent relase after 1994’s Under the Pink, Amos seemed to be straying farther and farther from her strengths, often seeming to sabotage good songs with vocal histrionics or unnecessary dramatics. In the wake of September 11th, however, Amos crafted a solid, unassuming album about America, and it’s the best thing she’s done in quite a while.
Best raw, unblinking Ryan Adams lines that’ll keep me listening despite his behavior: “I’ve been thinking some about suicide / but there’s bars out here for miles ... think the thing you said was true / I’m gonna die alone and sad”
Biggest thorn in side of mix tapers: Steve Earle, Jerusalem
You try fitting politically charged songs like “Ashes to Ashes”, “Amerika v6.0”, or “John Walker’s Blues” onto a mix CD of “normal music” and see how you fare. Not to make light of these times, but it wasn’t until I shied away from those three songs in favor of the sunnier climate offered by “The Kind” that I realized the pervasiviness of our current political climate. Not only are we trading away our liberties left and right, but the simple act of selecting a song gave me momentary visions of conservative acquaintances hunting me down. When I realized the source of that hesitation, I realized Jerusalem‘s true worth (even if it’s not one of Earle’s best works), and the deeper issues surrounding it.
Best unreleased album: Patty Griffin, Silver Bell Shelved amidst label mergers, Silver Bell was the album that Griffin gave up in exhange for getting out of her contract. It’s an interesting record—kind of a missing link between Flaming Red and 1,000 Kisses. “Making Pies” made it from Silver Bell and onto 1,000 Kisses, but it’d be a shame for some of Griffin’s best songs like “Top of the World”, “Mother of God”, and “Standing” to never see the light of day. Here’s hoping she re-records them later.
Most welcome reissues: The Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall and “Tomorrow the Green Grass fell out of print (due to the ubiquitous evil of label mergers), before finally reappearing. I’d be hard pressed to keep either of these out of my list for Top CDs of the entire ‘90s, so it’s good to have them back. The re-release of the Rolling Stones Abkco catalog was also way overdue, especially in light of the fantastic job that had been done on the Virgin side of the Stones’ output.
Best Compilation: Uncle Tupelo, Anthology ‘89/‘93
Most disappointing reissues: The recent spate of the ‘Mats records for Twin Tone. The remastering’s a godsend, but bonus tracks are nowhere to be found. Whether you subscribe to the notion that the band destroyed all the master tapes in one of their most notorious drunken escapades, of if Westerberg’s feud with Twin Tone founder Peter Jesperson is that bitter, these reissues got shortchanged. Despite their place in modern rock lore, these records are far from perfect (even bad in spots), and some of the ephemera floating around from those days could have made for some fun rediscovery.
Best “Story” Song: Josh Ritter, “Harrisburg”
A short tale of wanderlust and slipping “like a shout” from a normal life. It’s hard to sympathize with the protagonist who drops his kids off at the mission “with a rose for the Virgin”, but Ritter’s subtle layer of religious imagery (“if evil exists, it’s a pair of train tracks / And the Devil’s a railroad car”), as well as his driving delivery, make this one ring in your memory long after it’s stopped playing.
Brewing feud with the most entertainment potential: Ryan Adams/Robbie Fulks, ‘cause at least Fulks has a sense of humor about the whole thing…
Best album to struggle with: Richard Buckner, Impasse
As bare and minimalist as an electric record can be, Impasse resists attempts to join its flow. From its often repetitive riffs to Buckner’s lyrical bent for being as obscure as possible, Impasse begs you to walk away. Problem is, the best parts are so compelling that you want to keep coming back in hopes of getting one more piece of the puzzle to fit.
Still trying to decide if it’s full of pretentious wordplay or genius: Clem Snide, “Joan Jett of Arc” (2001)
Most unwelcome piece of music news: Warren Zevon’s going to die.