Best of 2000: Sarah Zupko

1. Coldplay, Parachutes (Nettwerk America)
I was all set to dislike this band as I spent this summer in London being inundated with endless pre-release Coldplay hype from the British music weeklies. Then came 10 July 2000 and I snagged a copy for 10 quid from a Soho second-hand shop, figuring I had to hear what all the fuss was about, but unwilling to spend my £15 over at the HMV. Well, I’ve seldom spent my money better and I returned to the US with a big grin and the self-satisfied sense of discovering a great young group none of my stateside pals had ever heard of. I’m hoping that’s all about to change as Coldplay embark on a North American tour early in 2001. Parachutes, a rare album that lives up to it’s pre-billing, is a staggering debut from a very young group. Often tagged as Radiohead/Jeff Buckley imitators — not accurately, I may add — Coldplay offers up a treasure trove of carefully constructed, well-written songs of love and angst that employ subtle dynamics and creative instrumentations. Every song is thoughtfully conceived and there isn’t a single weak moment. And then there is “Yellow” — the single of the year, the soundtrack of summer in the UK, and one of the most wrenching and moving love-song-as-rock-anthem songs I’ve ever heard.

2. Joe Ely, Live at Antone’s (Rounder)
Joe Ely is a Texas legend, a barnstorming singer-songwriter with a range of influences bigger than the state he calls home. But Ely’s popularity and influence extends well beyond the boundaries of the Lone Star State. When the Clash were doing their tours of the US back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, they (particularly Joe Strummer) palled around with Ely in Austin. Fellow musicians and discerning music lovers have always appreciated Ely’s songwriting gift and performing chops. His sound is typically Austin in the sense of being almost unclassifiable genre-wise. Anyone who has spent a bit of time in the state capitol, knows musical classifications mean little here — it’s all about creating great songs from a variety of influences. Hence, Ely and his band offer up Tex-Mex-drenched country full of melancholy accordions and throbbing slide guitars, roots-rock Americana, acoustic folk, and good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. Live at Antone’s proves that you gotta see this guy live to really hear Ely in his full glory. The man and the band smoke through a set that spans music from Ely’s long career, as well as touches on favorites by fellow Texas songwriters, such as Jimmie Dale Gilmore (“Dallas”), Robert Earl Keen (“The Road Goes on Forever”), and Buddy Holly (“Oh Boy!”) This one hasn’t left my CD changer since June.

3. Sigur Rós, Ágætis Byrjun (Smekkleysa/Bubble Core)
Forget Kid A‘s pseudo electronic noodlings. Sigur Rós, not Radiohead, is the band that pushed the barriers of the “rock” song in 2000. Dreamy, ethereal, and almost otherworldly as the Icelandic landscapes from which they hail, Sigur Rós’ songs unfold gently and seductively, sweeping you away into peaceful reverie. Ágætis Byrjun honestly doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard. Sure, it has some obvious influences — Radiohead, Grandaddy, 19th century classical music — but it mimics none of them. “Flugufrelsarinn” is the single most beautiful piece of music I have heard this year with its downright classical string section and horns, U2-like twinkling guitars, and breathy vocals. A staggering debut and word is the US label bidding war has already begun.

4. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (Bloodshot)
The former lead singer of Whiskeytown broke up his former band and his girlfriend broke up with him, which gives us lucky listeners Heartbreaker. Adams’ debut solo disc leads the pack of this year’s fertile crop of Adams’ influences range from folk and country to straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll — Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons — and he lets them all loose on Heartbreaker. Free of the confines of a “band”, it’s clear Adams feels far more comfortable as a solo artist where he’s able to follow wherever his muse leads. Guest appearances by Emmylou Harris (“Sweet Carolina”), Kim Ritchie and Gillian Welch are merely a few of the many highlights on this exceptional strong album.

5. Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis)
Steve Earle sobered up and rediscovered the depths of his massive talent. Transcendental Blues is his finest effort since 1986’s Guitar Town. It also the most varied effort of his career — offering up swaggering roots rock, Irish folk country (“The Galway Girl”), acoustic confessionals, and bluegrass-drenched numbers (“Steve’s Last Ramble”) that recall his previous work with the Del McCoury Band (1999’s The Mountain). A brilliant return from one of America’s premier songwriters.

6. Primal Scream, XTRMNTR (Astralwerks)
Deeply funky, occasionally disturbing, and always ass-shaking and thought-provoking, XTRMNTR is the culmination of this prodigiously talented band’s long career of musical exploration. No band has ever integrated dance and rock as effectively as Primal Scream, not even the Stone Roses.

7. Uri Caine, The Goldberg Variations (Winter & Winter)
Uri Caine is becoming a mainstay of my annual “best of” columns. That’s inevitable, really, given that Caine continues to release ground-breaking albums year after year as this jazz great explores the classical canon. Last year’s Mahler interpretations made me completely reassess the work of the composer and in 2000, Caine has taken on an even more ambitious task, filtering Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” through virtually every genre of 20th century music, save perhaps heavy metal. Oh yes, that includes techno and hip-hop treatments of variations, as well as myriad forms of jazz and pop. This eclectic approach lives up to the true meaning and intent of “variations” and Bach’s work provides the perfect foil for this smashing success of an experiment. Truly mind-blowing. What will this man do next — I’m already visiting the Winter & Winter website regularly to see.

8. Badly Drawn Boy, The Hour of Bewilderbeast (Twisted Nerve/XL)
Damon Gough a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy captured Britain’s heart this year and the treasured Mercury Prize to boot, beating out the heavily favored Coldplay in the process. Gough is also heralding the latest thing in British music, pop-folk. Yeah Belle & Sebastian came first, but their twee pop sound is only now coming back into widespread popularity. There’s a whole line of promising bands following behind Badly Drawn Boy, including Turin Brakes, Lowgold, and Elbow. But Bewilderbeast is the “movement’s” masterpiece — soft-spoken orchestral pop, rough-edged charmingly unfinished fragments, and delicious melancholy.

9. Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island)
k.d. lang has a reputation for being a singer’s singer and a performer with a voice that can move mountains. Well, along comes Shelby Lynne, opening for lang on her recent US tour, and completely upstages the well-known diva with her intoxicating blend of soul, country, and rock and the stage presence of a legend in the making. High praise indeed, but every bit sincere. Lynne began her career in the bowels of the Nashville hit factory, singing synthetic country tunes and sporting big hair, big makeup, and little patience for the silly package that the Nashville music industry concocted for her. Breaking free and regrouping in California, Lynne emerged on I Am Shelby Lynne with an eclectic and true-to-herself sound that draws as much from Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin as it does from Patsy Cline.

10. The Guthries, Off Windmill (Brobdingnagian)
Just to prove how big the tent really is, Nova Scotia’s very own Guthries throw a serious helping of Byrdsian jangle pop into the country stew. Then they broaden things further with deep nods to orchestral pop and folksy male and female vocals resting cozily on top of acoustic guitars and classical violins. This album was the biggest surprise of the year. I’m always one to applaud variety and genre blending, but especially when it sounds as convincing and accomplished as this. Good old fashioned songwriting with all the attention to detail that requires.

Honorable mentions
Grandaddy, The Sophtware Slump (V2)
Lambchop, Nixon (Merge)
Doves, Lost Souls (Astralwerks)
Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
Beachwood Sparks, Beachwood Sparks (Sub Pop)
Matthew Ryan, East Autumn Grin (A&M)
Dwight Yoakam, Tomorrow’s Sounds Today (Reprise)
Kasey Chambers, Captain (Warner Bros.)
The Delgados, Great Eastern (Beggars Banquet)
Super Furry Animals, Mwng (Placid Casual/Flydaddy)
Crooked Fingers, Crooked Fingers (Warm)
Peter Bruntnell, Normal for Bridgwater (Slow River)
Richard Ashcroft, Alone with Everybody (Virgin)
Atau, Biorhythms (Caipirinha)
The V-Roys, Are You Through Yet? (E-Squared)
Belle & Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Jeepster)
The Waco Brothers, Electric Waco Chair (Bloodshot)
Mojave 3, Excuses for Travellers (4AD)
Ian Brown, Golden Greats (Interscope)