Jennyanykind, I Need You (Yep Roc)
Band on the Run was recorded on an 8-track machine in a swamp in Nigeria. Jennyanykind’s I Need You was recorded on an 8-track in an abandoned schoolhouse in the rural Southeast. Never mind that twin brothers Michael and Mark Holland are relatively average musicians and singers; they are consummate over-achievers possessed by holistic vision. They recorded this record by themselves on lunch breaks and after hours, transforming their mundane routine into a profound mystery, orbiting the sun in a mere 45 minutes in open-G tuning. The Hollands resourcefully create a sonic ying yang that lays hold of the heart of America: blues, pop, and ambient. From its infectious opening to its McCartney-informed finale, this is one of the most perfect albums this reviewer has ever experienced, and one that few of the general public will bother to hear…
Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
...on the other hand, everybody will hear this record at some point, though many will be understandably miffed. This is certainly not The Bends (the last truly great rock album); Radiohead has veered onto a path taken in years past by Pink Floyd and latter-day Talk Talk one that leaves record executives squirming in their leather chairs. But Thom Yorke is essentially Roger Waters and Mark Hollis rolled into one. It is fitting that Kid A was released on the eve of 2001; it should have been subtitled “A Requiem for Stanley Kubrick”. The title track would have perfectly adorned the director’s unfinished film AI. Here one finds the human spirit struggling to express itself in a sterile, sci-fi soundscape. Though many have been turned off, one can just imagine HAL 9000 saying, “I have the greatest possible enthusiasm for this mission…”
Soulhat, Experiment On a Flat Plane (Terminus)
The smart-ass band from Austin strikes again. Like Jennyanykind, Soulhat flirted with big label notoriety before settling back to dust bowl sensibility. This is the good-time rock album of the year, the kind you’re allowed to practice various vices to. Kevin McKinney and Frosty Smith feed off one another, perhaps for the last time.
The Hot Club of Cowtown, Devl’ish Mary (Hightone)
Another Austin band, Hot Club gives us the most flawlessly executed record of the year. Whit Smith’s hollow-bodied guitar and Elana Fremerman’s fiddle dance in tandem through a torrid set of jazz and western swing standards. This is the Americana album of the year.
Kansas, Somewhere to Elsewhere (Magna Carta)
Don’t laugh this is not some musty rummage through dinosaur bones. This is a rebirth, resurrection, and ascension, recapturing the creative fire of Kansas’ eponymous 1974 debut. Avoiding prog preoccupations, this record is a grandiose, sweeping statement. If you can’t stomach this type of music, buy it for your grandpa. He will not be able to contain his emotions when he hears the heroic tribute to a dying bomber pilot in “Icarus II”. Kerry Livgren reaches his creative renassiance with this effort, with the exotic “Byzantium” surpassing “Dust in the Wind” in its pathos.
Transatlantic, SMPTe (Metal Blade)
If you’ve ever seen the Saturday Evening Post cover entitled “The Prom Dress”, you get a figurative idea of what this record is like. Like the earthy teenager holding the radiant white dress in the mirror, SMPTe is really an wonderfully accessible pop album draped in prog rock grandeur. Fear not that one of its tracks ranges over 30 minutes in length. Like an engrossing movie, there is enough here to keep you entranced. Transatlantic is an all-star prog band whose engaging style is reminiscent of Crack The Sky and Sebastian Hardie. In other words, you won’t be bored.
King’s X, Please Come Home…Mr. Bulbous (Metal Blade)
This reviewer has been in the throes of a love/hate relationship with King’s X for years. Rarely has there been a recording as rapturous as Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, nor one as grievously depressing as Dogman. And in a maddening sort of way, Mr. Bulbous straddles the two extremes. In short, you get the best and worst (depending on your taste) of King’s X in one fell swoop. Regardless, they continue to be the musicians’ band, possibly the most underrated group of all time.
Vigilantes of Love, Audible Sigh (Compass)
With Black Eyed Sceva the thinking man’s Christian band on indefinite hiatus, one must turn to their source of inspiration to find anything comparable to listen to. Bill Mallonee’s Athens-based Vigilantes have churned out impeccable, gut-wrenching country/emo-rock for a decade, and Audible Sigh may be their most painfully beautiful excursion to date. Let this band get under your skin, and they’ll walk you through the deepest heartaches while keeping your desires alive.
Starflyer 59, Everybody Makes Mistakes (Tooth & Nail)
This band moves deftly from one influence to another with uncanny grace. Under a booming bass and dissonant bombasts lies the heart of a romantic. Starflyer challenges its listeners without exhausting them. One of the best modern rock bands of the ‘90s, and ready to chart new detours through the next century.
The Stanley Brothers, Earliest Recordings: The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947-1952) (Revenant)
Don’t laugh again. Acoustic guitar god John Fahey has compiled the bluegrass/old-time album of the year. These are the raw, primordial sides Carter and Ralph cut for Rich-R-Tone in Bristol, Tennessee at the beginning of their important and vastly influential career. Bill Monroe was so disgusted (and threatened) when he heard these tracks that he fought to stave the Stanleys off the Grand Ole Opry. Dr. Ralph’s bone-chilling falsetto is captured in crazed urgency here. The brothers tear through the frenetic set with reckless abandon, at times so caught up they let out war whoops a la Grayson & Whitter. This is a must for any roots music enthusiast.