Best Music of 2001 Lists
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony)
In the wake of O Brother, Where Art Thou?‘s wild success, Welch and husband David Rawlings could have taken the easy way out. They were already masters of Appalachian laments and murder ballads, and their rustic sound was suddenly hip. Why not just ride the gravy train? Instead, they released one of the most haunting, darkly hypnotic records in memory. With references to John Henry, Elvis, the Great Emancipator, the Titanic, and even Steve Miller, Welch and Rawlings boil their music right down its archetypal bones. At this point, I’m not even sure you could use the word “roots” to describe music this ethereal. It’s not the kind of record you’d want to pull out at a party, but if you want to summon up some of your dead kin, they’ll probably love it.
Lucinda Williams, Essence (Lost Highway)
How can one album, one voice, contain so much ache?
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Universal)
This Coen Brothers movie was already charming enough with its depiction of loony, visually-impaired Southerners (I’m from the South, so I can enjoy the stereotypes without a whole lot of guilt). But who could have expected the soundtrack to be such a revelation? Covering the Americana gamut from bouncy cuts like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to Ralph Stanley’s chilling “Oh Death”, O Brother provides a perfect antidote to what’s coming out of Nashville these days. Naturally, there’s several renditions of “Man of Constant Sorrow” all of them good ranging from a traditional instrumental to the buoyant Soggy Bottom Boys version.
Matthew Ryan, Concussion (Waxy Silver)
Every bit as bleak as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and perhaps even more depressing, Concussion repeatedly throws us into lives that are breathing the first fumes of aftermath. A boy kills his father to the sound of summer crickets; a robber leaves a house to find his lover has been killed while sitting in the idling getaway car; a relationship dissolves. Ryan’s raspy voice and stark acoustic guitar, occasionally accented by plaintive violin, can be absolutely heartbreaking. I’m not sure the night holds an hour dark enough to truly get inside this record at least I hope not but Concussion is an album that somehow finds beauty and humanity in truly terrible moments.
Whiskeytown, Pneumonia (Lost Highway)
Whiskeytown’s swan song, Pneumonia sat on the shelf while label disputes and Ryan Adams’s burgeoning solo career threatened to make it a truly “lost record”. Brimming with observations about what makes “home” both good and bad, Pneumonia is a wonderfully bittersweet album. Pneumonia shows signs of the stylistic shifts that Adams would make on Heartbreaker and Gold, but it’s mainly a showcase for the traditional Whiskeytown sound, replete with gorgeous Caitlin Cary vocals and swaying melodies.
Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol)
Amnesiac has been dismissed as the table scraps from Kid A, but I find it to be a more streamlined, accessible exploration of the same themes and sounds. Thankfully burdened with less import than its predecessor, Amnesiac is every bit as ambitious, and maybe more artistically successful.
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (unreleased/self-released)
It hasn’t officially been released, but the band is streaming it from their website and it really isn’t that hard to find a friend with a copy. Lord only knows what Reprise was expecting out of Wilco, but apparently Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was light years away from it. True, it’s devoid of anything that’ll ever be a hit. Any time the record comes even remotely close to a traditional pop song, the band veers off into fields of feedback or strange melodies. It’s an incredibly exciting disc, though. The roots-rock equivalent of Radiohead, Wilco is just doing their own thing, and welcoming anyone who wants to come along for the ride.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century (Real World)
The Blind Boys of Alabama have been singing gospel forever, but Spirit of the Century finds them trying rock ‘n’ roll on for size. Taking songs like Tom Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here” and “Down in a Hole”, Ben Harper’s “Give a Man a Home”, and the Stones’ “Just Wanna See His Face”, the Blind Boys take back some of the gospel tradition that rock stole many years ago. Warm, blanketing harmonies and true spirituality seep through every second of this disc, reaching their heights in a version of “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but when you hear it, it makes perfect sense.
Los Super Seven, Canto (Columbia/Legacy)
More polished than Los Super Seven’s first album, Canto finds this Latino supergroup crossing ever more borders, with a lineup that includes Peruvian diva Susana Braca, Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, and Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso. Led by Los Lobos veterans David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, Los Super Seven continues to mine riches from a deep tradition.
The Beta Band, Hot Shots II (Astralwerks)
Hot Shots II is the Beta Band’s validation; their way of saying, “We’re really not bad at what we do.” They needed it after their disappointing sophomore effort, The Beta Band. Mixing styles and sounds in a more ear-friendly manner than Radiohead (for whom the Beta Band opened on tour last year), the group finds a perfect fusion of eccentricity and scattershot musical tastes.
John Hammond, Wicked Grin
Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs
Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea
Joe Henry, Scar
Spoon, Girls Can Tell
North Mississippi Allstars, 51 Phantom
Buddy & Julie Miller, Buddy & Julie Miller
The Del McCoury Band, Del & the Boys