Best of 2001: Simon Warner

[17 December 2001]

By Simon Warner

Best Music of 2001 Lists


 

Ryan Adams, Gold (Mercury)
After a decent spell as contributor to the wild wiles of Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams set out as solo gunslinger on 2000’s promising Heartbreaker but the follow up, the gorgeous and presciently-named Gold, is finer still. From the opening bars of the infectious ‘New York, New York’ through the harmonica-histrionics of ‘Firecracker’, on to the melancholy of ‘When the Stars Turn Blue’ and then the charming balldary of ‘Sylvia Plath’ (her grave’s the valley over from me in the Yorkshire Pennines) show off Adams’ versatility as rocker, raconteur and romancer. Literate and lustrous, Gold marks the lift-off point for one of America’s finest new songwriting squires. The fact that the UK launch came replete with a video featuring a mind-searing image of Adams in full flow before the once mighty fingers of the World Trade Centre has accidentally given this push an extra layer of mythology. The portents are that he may actually live up to it.

Chris T-T, The 253 (Snowstorm)
In the midst of global record-dom, there are always those determined to keep the cottage industries of pop spinning and this quirky troubadour is a classic example of the trend. T-T works by day as a sub-editor with Press Association—the AP or Reuter’s of the UK; by night, the veritable Peter Parker dons not a spider’s vest but a battered six-string and takes his mighty power pop trio, the Ducky Fuzz, around the kingdom. In between times he even runs a small scale indie of his own called Wine Cellar. Now though, his star twinkles still brighter—Snowstorm, an independent with a high credibility quotient, have released this, his third long player, and the reception has been mighty fine. No wonder with the charmingly eccentric ‘Build a Bridge, Burn a Bridge’ rubbing shoulders with the anthemic majesty of ‘Drink Beer’ and the bucolic and Blake-like ‘English Earth’. The CD title, by the way, is derived from a London bus route.

The Strokes, Is This It (Rough Trade)
There is no way I can fathom that the title of this release can be rendered without a question mark (blame the label or the printers, or maybe song meister Julian Casablancas). On second thoughts, blame no one and certainly not singer-composer Casablancas, whose pre-punk retro-ism, is the missing bridge between the Velvets and the CBGBs crew of 1974/5. Better than the Dolls, brighter than Johansen, the Strokes with Casablancas upfront, chug out 11 pearls of Manhattan surliness and still you can’t help but love’em. From the title tune to the curtain closer ‘Take it Or Leave It’, the record plays like something from a bygone age—songs tight, taut and economic, bristling with late adolescent attitude, spatter gun some raw emotion, posed in slick, throwaway phrases. More young Stones than Ramones, the Strokes pilfer the Jagger-Richard jauntiness and marry it to Lou Reed’s urban and urbane detachment. It’s a clever trick and one they’ll be reprising, I propose, for a year or two to come.

Radiohead, Amnesiac (Parlophone)
Internet darlings and arch miserablists, Radiohead do things that make me smile even if Thom Yorke’s fixed grimace looks beyond melting. After the lavishly praised Kid A, this prompt follow up looked, on paper, like a collection of mismatches and out-takes. Yet I feel it’s already lasted better than its more heralded bigger brother. The sonic mumbles of ‘Pakt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box’ now provide near-catchy in-car choruses for this solo motorist while ‘Life in a Glasshouse’, on which the boys are joined by the gorgeously mournful strains of the Humphrey Lyttelton Band, an ancient ensemble dating from the 1940s and Anglo-New Orleans revivalism led by an octogenarian Etonian, is so extraordinary that most of the weight of last century’s blues and rock seems framed in its epic and transfixing span.

Michael Franti & Spearhead, Stay Human (Parlophone)
One of the undersung giants of black American music, Michale Franti has crammed more musical emotion and lyrical muscle into his decade of projects with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead than most artists manage in a life-time. Stay Human is a great concept—a 22 piece narrative tale which embraces the multi-media of song and broadcast in a most engaging fashion. A black activist is facing execution and the independent radio station campaigns on her behalf, while Franti’s compositions provide the bridges between the phone-ins, the interviews and commentary that describe this fictional, but credible, political drama. The songs in almost all cases work on several levels—upbeat hip hop dance tunes, tender romances, environmental pleadings, dogmatic manifestos. Yet their appeal hinges of the writer’s ability to find the sweetest hook, the most compelling backbeat, and them embroider it with a stream of rap poetry of the highest order: many miles away from the macho bravado of downtown, rather, from the philosophical manual of real life.

Mercury Rev, All is Dream (V2)
Sweeping, cinematic, the Revsters continue their quest to rehabillate pop on a grand scale. In a year that the Strokes and the White Stripes proposed the primacy of the pared down pulse, this band adopt the lavish gesture when the three chord guitar trick might possibly just have done. But this is some way from mere progressive rock indulgence: those baroque twists evoke an older America in the way that groups like the Band, songwriters like Randy Newman, have done. ‘Lincoln’s Eyes’ offers a fine example, reminiscent of a song they may have included in a 1940s Disney movie, it paints a vividly coloured, yet grainy vision, a dreamy fantasy in which Old Abe briefly appears in a cameo role, but one that also accommodates the actor Joel Grey, most famous as Oscar-winning club host in the movie Cabaret. Such playful reference points and borrowings, musically or lyrically, pepper most of the songs—‘Little Rhymes’, ‘Spiders and Flies’ and ‘Hercules’ plough their allegorical furrows in a mellifluous way, evoking moments from just remembered films, plays, even novels, that fill the honeycombs of memory. These 21st century rock mini-symphonies bring to mind what might have been if that giant of American music Brian Wilson had stayed the course.

Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo (Warner)
The daughter of that latin tempstress Astrid lives up to her mother’s reputation on this tantalising collection which delighted much of mainland Europe over the summer - a sweltering Brazilian cocktail, sung in both Portugese and English and oozing the kind of sensual pleasure generally associated with a Mediterranean coastline at least, the sands of Rio, more likely, and a sunset just off Key West. No beach bum myself, Bebel delivers these soft surf fantasies with a touch of ‘Samba da Bencao’, ‘Sem Contencao’ and the stunning ‘Mais Feliz’. Only the threadbare standard ‘So Nice’ fails the tanto tempo test; the rest is the perfect soundtrack for the traveller who simply prefers to stay at home.

Daft Punk, Discovery (Virgin)
In Europe we play host to an annual song competition that showcases pop entries from most of the continent’s nations. Unfortunately, rather like our swelling soccer competitions, there are now so many countries, post-Soviet meltdown, that the Eurovision Song Contest has to have qualifying rounds, so the likes of Estonia and the Ukraine, are no longer guaranteed a place in the TV jamboree, watched by hundreds of millions one Saturday in spring, and derided with a vengeance by the British press. The idea that an non-English speaking land can challenge the kingdom of the Beatles and the Stones, brings out the xenophobe in every press critic. Daft Punk throw such parochial garbage back in our faces. The French two piece crumble the myth of Anglo supremacy to produce the Western world’s album of the year in Discovery. Synthetic, ironic, constructed and as natural as a styrofoam beaker, the band incinerate those feeble notions of roots, sincerity and authentcity that have haunted popular music and its critical vanguard for far too long. This is a state of the art take on the long lost doodles of disco, it is cyberpunk made melodious, it is the streamlined soundtrack to the new age. Just play ‘Digital Love’ or check the Nietzschean nuances of ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ to get my drift. Oh, and every other track is worthy of single status—the group plan to issue all fourteen tunes in an attack on the UK charts of exocet proportions. Not punks, and certainly not daft, these Gallic gauleiters, obsessive masters of the studio, a contemporary Kraftwerk with a sense of humour, are definitely green for go go.

India.arie, Acoustic Soul (Motown)
Motown, once America’s biggest black corporation, once a legend in pop music circles globally, has become, in the last 20 years, a pawn, maybe a rook, in the multinational chess game called rock’n'roll. Once a part of the British EMI, then consumed by the Dutch PolyGram and now a segment in the staggeringly vast mosaic of business activity that is the French-Canadian Vivendi Universal, it is no longer sensible to think of this latterday commercial building block having much association with Berry Gordy’s original Detroit Hit factory. And hit factory Motown has not been for a decade or two. Yet there is still a glimmer of magic that glistens when the land of Smokey, Marvin and Diana is invoked, which is why the emergence of the dotcom songstress herself, an exemplar of new times, Miss India.arie, is actually rather heart-warming. I don’t know if Berry actually caught her singing in downtown Tinyville and guided her young hand along the dotted line but, such fantasies aside, her debut record has something of the soul once linked to the imprint joined to the intelligence of a Tracey Chapman or an Erykah Badu, which can hardly be bad. The litany of the ‘Intro’—a tribute to a gallery of mostly black figures—the feminsist ‘Video’ and the proud-to-be-me swagger of ‘Brown Skin’ hint that India is more than just a recycler of older Motown platitudes. She represents a confident new player who will not need to rely long of the fading reverberations of her label to gain a large audience.

ani difranco, Revelling/Reckoning (Righteous Babe)
I have recently been reviewing the work of a line of American women whose roots lie in the New York punk explosion of the mid-1970s. From Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch and Kathy Acker to Karen Finley and Exene Cervenka, a long line of punk feminism—expressed through rock, poetry, the novel and spoken word—continues to leave a mark on the metropolitan centres of New York, LA, London and Paris. It struck me how closely the assertive and challenging voice of ani difranco fits into this genealogy and her long and largely enticing double CD (an album dedicated to each of the moods of the title) confirms this history. Her songs are glorious amalgams of folk strumming and plucking and jarring jazz inversions, but her ideas, her words, her open-hearted poetry, represent the confessions, the reflections, the celebrations of a woman who is control of her life, her music, her label, but is, paradoxically, also as exposed, as vulnerable, as endangered, as the sisters to whom we might historically connect her. To have seen Difranco on stage is a privilege—no one I know possesses her audience with even half the vigour she exudes—but to hear her on record is to recognise a tender, honest, uncompromising talent. While all carry traces of the Beat legacy, we know how little impression women made on that scene. Without Smith, without Acker and the others, I don’t think there would have been this opportunity for extraordinary outsiders like difranco. This latest slice of her prolific output shows how heartily she has seized the chance.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/bestof2001-warner/