Best of 2001: James Beaudreau

James Beaudreau

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, it’s not the seamless masterwork that Kid A is, but it’s a fine collection of songs which can only be criticized in the light of that recording’s amazing cohesiveness. Amnesiac is a well-paced and thoughtfully balanced disc, despite popular criticism that it’s a collection of Kid A leftovers. I’ve 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.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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