Best Music of 2001 Lists
1. Miles Davis, Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) It’s About That Time (Columbia)
When I began to think about this ranked year-end list, one of the first discs that I thought of was this one, but in organizing this little hierarchy I’ve been reluctant to place a recording of a 30-year-old concert it in the first spot. Would that be sensible, since the rest of the list is occupied by living, breathing bands that could perhaps (some of them) more use the attention? But then, pleasantly, after all, my list should be expected to have little bearing on the world it describes. Thusly, here is Miles Davis at the top of my list, since it’s been my favorite of the year, overall, and because it’s just so fresh and powerful. I feel comfortable recommending Live at the Fillmore East to anyone who will tolerate a recommendation, and who has something of a voracious appetite for rock and/or jazz, as I do. Musical taste is, of course, entirely subjective, but if they don’t like this one, well, I guess I just don’t understand that at all.
2. Of Montreal, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (Kindercore)
Yes, there’s a variety of whimsical verse and some incredible pop songs too. Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal auteur, is a master of delaying the resolution of a musical phrase past its expected destination. To do it, he ties phrases together with connecting bits (maybe a note or two, a piece of a scale, a pause or a swoop) and connects them to other distinct phrases, rendering an encyclopedic collection of tunes that sound both familiar and strange. And very original. Coquelicot is a worthy successor to 1999’s sunny epic, The Gay Parade, and tops it in ambition and in the lending of a proud dignity to the weird and wonderful. Add to this the best packaging of the year, which features beautiful illustrations of the disc’s musical happenings, and it’s an audio-visual experience and one of the most satisfying of the year.
3. Circulatory System, Circulatory System (Cloud)
I can’t say enough about this disc — I was taken with it the first time I heard it, and like it more the more I play it. It’s an enveloping psychedelic that calls for close listening — to the music, and to ourselves and each other. I bought Circulatory System’s nameless, spray-painted remix CD at a show. It’s got drastic re-castings of some of these songs, and the “sound treatments” Olivia Tremor Control was famous for. Now I can’t do without either. Highly recommended.
4. The Kingsbury Manx, Let You Down (Overcoat)
Let You Down fits in nicely with some of my more revered rock albums: Led Zeppelin III and Buffalo Springfield Again, and it fills in the holes that were never filled by post-Barrett Floyd and the Moody Blues. But there’s nothing old or musty about Let You Down, I think it’s just that bands aren’t generally bold or talented enough to make a record that sustains the dreamy pace that this one does for an entire album. It sustains a mood like Sketches of Spain or Kind of Blue does. You can put it on and settle into it and you won’t be jarred out of it until the Kingsbury Manx let you down at disc’s end.
5. White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
Wow. White Blood Cells has gotten a lot of good reviews this year, and for good reason. It’s utterly lean, and survives on its wits and character where other music needs to be dressed up in all kinds of ornament to feel good about itself. And it’s about as sparse as you can get: guitar and drums and the odd keyboard. Jack White’s got a real rock star’s voice and he and Meg White’s songs are so smart, catchy, and rocking that White Stripes are beyond imitation. Of course they will be imitated. I listen to this and I think about Bon Scott and AC/DC, The Doors, Led Zeppelin I, Bad Company, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, and more. And none of them too. I hope Jack White can save his voice for a bunch more records.
6. Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol)
Well, its not the seamless masterwork that Kid A is, but its a fine collection of songs which can only be criticized in the light of that recordings amazing cohesiveness. Amnesiac is a well-paced and thoughtfully balanced disc, despite popular criticism that its a collection of Kid A leftovers. Ive heard more obscure, but not less challenging music than “Like Spinning Plates” and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” this year, and I don’t think I’ve heard anything as cinematically haunting as “Pyramid Song”. There also hasn’t been a more convincing wedding of rock songwriting and electronic IDM production. For a very expensive but truer outtake collection, the B Side companion to Kid A and Amnesiac can be culled from the CD single issues of “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” — I like this sequence: “Fast-track”, “Fog”, “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy”, “Kinetic”, “Worrywort”, “Cuttooth”, “Trans-Atlantic Drawl”, and “Life in a Glasshouse (Full Length Version)”. You’ll find some textures not to be found on the proper full releases, and a couple of great songs you won’t want to have missed.
7. Summer Hymns, A Celebratory Arm Gesture (Misra)
Summer Hymns may share keyboard and woodwind player Dottie Alexander and bassist Derek Almstead with Of Montreal, but the group puts their talents to much different use. Where Kevin Barnes’ (see above) songs are tightly arranged and complex, Summer Hymns’ songs are loose and scenic, creating variety out of layered textures. Of Montreal songs surprise with disorienting melodic turns that seem simpler over time, while Summer Hymns’ unfold patiently and possess the mysterious quality of inevitability. Singer Zachary Gresham reminds me of Neil Young in the quality of his voice and his easy phrasing. Philip Brown is a standout drummer, and Derek Almstead emerges, on this disc and on Coquilicot, as the most creative and distinctive bass player around. He also contributes a beautiful lap steel solo on “I could Give the World Away”. But enough details, Arm Gesture is the sleeper of the year. Comfortably warm and hazy; an unpretentious recording that’s easy to love.
8. Keith Jarrett, Inside Out (ECM)
There isn’t a musician I admire more than Keith Jarrett. I love a lot of records he’s played on, especially 1970’s Live/Evil (under Miles’ leadership), 1974’s Treasure Island, 1999’s The Melody at Night, with You, and now this. I never before settled comfortably into the so-called “standards trio” discs, despite an appreciation for each members’ playing. Maybe it was the material, because my wait for a “standards trio” disc to embrace is over. There are extended soulful cadences, muscular grooves, and prickly outer-edge feats of strength. But it’s most prominent characteristics are poise and depth. Jarrett has come through his “serious music” recordings (the influence is here) and a personal bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to present the most profound music of an already great career.
9. Autechre, Confield (Warp)
Confield is a collection of sonic illustrations of robot life. There are prayerful robots, robots driving recklessly, and the terrible sounds of robot warfare. There’s a robot’s train-related obsessions, an instructional piece on robot system maintenance, and some exotic robot mood music. They all parade by with masterful assurance, as if pulled by their creators from a folder called “easy pieces”. Not for the delicate of sensibility.
10. Set Fire to Flames, Sings Reign Rebuilder (Alien 8)
This is about as far as you can get from Of Montreal’s playful surrealism: it’s dark and creepy music, and strangely alluring. Perhaps Set Fire to Flames has the nightmare so you don’t have to. And the nightmare is set to string and sound-effect heavy rock, about half spooky ambient environments and half groove-based. The disc peaks near the halfway point with “there is no dance in frequency and balance” which sounds like the underworld’s marching band rallying the troops. The house on the cover of Sings Reign Rebuilder is most certainly haunted, and the music on the disc is certainly the music that plays in that house. I would think it would be unbearable, as it is made not only of grave stuff, but is interspersed with cracked monologues from some frantic sounding folks who are called “lying dying wonder body #s 1, 2, and 3”. But overall, it is actually kind of soothing, especially in the pretty drone sequences. Odd? Yes. Do I claim to know exactly what’s going on here? No. But it stands up with the best of the year — as the most inviting to your imagination.