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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Best of 2001: Shan Fowler

Best Music of 2001 Lists

1. White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
Jack White has the mind of a Dadaist, the musical acumen of an accomplished audiophile, and the yowl of a natural born rock star. He and ex-wife Meg White have put together an album that’s both showered in the light of its own influences and unlike anything else out there. The White Stripes aren’t the best rock and roll band ever, but they sure play like they want the job.

2. The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic (Mint)
Lest you think boy bands, bling blings and navel-ring girlies have annexed Poplandia as their own, this “supergroup” of Canadians and one far-from-token American remind us what pop is really about: infectiously catchy hooks wrapped around lyrics of love and despair. Mass Romantic draws on everything from Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies to God and Phil Spector’s wall of sound to Rick Ocasek’s angular hooks and the Go Go’s valley girl ‘tude. If this album doesn’t make you dance, then donate your legs to somebody who deserves them.

3. Joe Henry, Scar (Mammoth)
The eminently talented musician and songwriter has spent the past decade toying with every musical genre imaginable to either a) prove how good he is, or b) simply keep from getting bored. Problem is, Henry’s never quite struck the right balance of musicianship and showmanship. He finally does on Scar, a collection of downers that accentuate the smoky interiors of jazz (from gypsy to ragtown to cool), blues, country and whatever else is lying around. Henry’s rasp could have no better company than Ornette Coleman’s pensive horn (“Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”), a wistful clarinet (“Stop”, covered last year by his sister-in-law Madonna as “Don’t Tell Me”), or sublimely damaged lyrics (pretty much the rest of the album, including “Mean Flower”, “Edgar Bergen”, and the title track). Let’s hope Henry keeps his balance for a while.

4. DJ Z-Trip and DJ P, Uneasy Listening (Against the Grain, Volume 1) (self-released)
Welcome to the alternative universe of DJs Z-Trip and P, a universe where every radio station on the dial has melted into one bonafide party-starter that is symbolic, psychotic, synergistic and stupefyingly supafreaked. You’ll shake your head in shock for the entire 75 minutes at the sheer volume of music history you’re hearing sliced and diced and how natural it sounds assembled into one mind-blowing mix.

5. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony)
Some strumming and Welch’s sweet, low howl — that’s all it takes for an album that’ll sound good for years to come. Welch hearkens to the old with her guitar picking, but points to the new with a vocal demeanor that’s both reserved and aware. She can name-drop something as banal as the Steve Miller Band on “My First Lover”, and still long for authenticity on “I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll”. With the help of David Rawlings, Welch won’t just make you feel like you’re young and wise, she’ll make you feel like you’ve always been that way.

6. Björk, Vespertine (Elektra)
The aural rococo of Vespertine is ironically Björk’s quietest work to date, an incomparable balance of electronic manipulation as stylized as The Matrix and organic syncopation as subtle as a babbling brook. The hooks and grandeur she found on last year’s musical-minded Selmasongs EP are transformed into incandescent fairy tales like “It’s Not Up to You” and “Aurora”, while the sinister loops of “Pagan Poetry” and “Hidden Place” are cinematic soundscapes begging for a film to wrap themselves around. Everything is music on Vespertine — when Björk inhales and exhales in rhythm on “Cocoon”, it’s our breath she’s taking away.

7. Marumari, Supermogadon (Carpark)
If Willy Wonka sold the chocolate factory to make an album, it’d sound like Supermodagon. Rhode Island’s Josh Presseisen takes us to landscapes that could only exist inside his mind, a place full of fever dreams, muted light bursts and clouds that swirl like cream in black coffee. It’s a place without angles or edges, where you might occasionally be struck with the fear of not knowing what lies ahead, but when you finally arrive, you’ll feel like you’ve always been there. Like Mr. Wonka might say: Marumari is a music maker, and Marumari is a dreamer of dreams.

8. Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus (Matador)
Stephen Malkmus wasn’t everything about Pavement, but after listening to his eponymous debut you get the feeling that he was everything good about Pavement. Chiming guitars, lyrics about mountain treks, pirates and Yul Brynner, and a vocal delivery that couldn’t care less — a couple more songs like “Church on White” and “Jenny and the Ess Dog”, and Pavement might simply be remembered as the band Malkmus played in before he hit his stride.

9. Aceyalone, Accepted Eclectic (Nu Gruv/Ground Control)
The Freestyle Fellowship co-founder puts his mic where his mouth is on opening track “Rappers Rappers Rappers”, a turn-of-phrase test that lesser MCs wouldn’t think of trying. Over the next 15 tracks Aceyalone proves why he can get away with such trickery. From the rapalong countdown of the title track to the leave-me-alone anthem “Five Feet”, and from the amped representing of “B-Boy Real McCoy” to the old school scene-setting of “Bounce”, Ace-One minces through other rappers like so much chopped liver.

10. Mogwai, Rock Action (PIAS/Matador)
For those who are fed up with The Unbearable Lightness of Being Radiohead, the salad days of good ‘ol arty guitar rock are looking like they’re over. Yet, with some luck and the proper sedatives, a new generation of blissful burnouts will buy copies of Mogwai’s exquisite ruckus Rock Action (along with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — see below) and then buy guitars with rickety distortion pedals. The short LP is as blurry, overexposed, and cryptic as its eerie album art, but take a close look at the photos and you’ll notice that the setting is a bar, not a basement studio or stained-glass library in jolly old Oxfordshire. They may play something like art rock, but Mogwai are influenced more by bottle than book.

10 1/2. Basement Jaxx, Rooty (Astralwerks)
Yeah, so what if the garage or two-step or whatever you want to call it became patently uncool when N’Sync and Craig David rode cheap imitations into the Top 40 last summer? What the Basement Jaxx make is stomping dance music, plain and simple. It may seem trite in the contemplative post-September 11 New World, but songs as groovy as “Romeo”, baudy as “Get Me Off”, and rambunctious as “Where’s Your Head At”, remind us that it’s OK to lose ourselves in a good beat every now and then.

10 3/4. The first part of Daft Punk’s Discovery (Virgin) and various moments of Missy Elliott’s Miss E, So Addictive (The Gold Mind/Elektra)
You can take or leave everything after track five of Discovery, but the anthemic thump of “One More Time”, wicked faux electro-geetar of “Aerodynamic”, afterschool-special innocence of “Digital Love,” synthetic freakout of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, and retro-disco of “Crescendolls”, will keep you hitting “repeat” until your fingertips are bruised.

Missy Elliott’s weak attempts at R&B sound like Prince circa 1999, but when Timbaland lays down some of the best beats around and Missy rhymes like it’s 2099, So Addictive lives up to its name. “Lick Shots” and “4 My People” flow like buckets of freshly corked Crystal, “Scream (A.K.A. Itchin’)” one-ups Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin'” for lifestyle, “One Minute Man” delivers the satisfaction its sorry scrubs can’t and “Get Ur Freak On” is the best radio single of the year, period. A couple times through and the bling bling isn’t sounding so bad, after all.

Honorable Mentions:
The Greenhornes, The Greenhornes, (Telart)
Hi Tek, Hi Teknology (Rawkus)
Neko Case, Canadian Amp (Lady Pilot)
Pish Posh, Indoorstorm (Rawkuts)
Gorillaz,Gorillaz (Virgin)
Pete Yorn, musicforthemorningafter (Columbia)
Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway)
Lucinda Williams, Essence (Lost Highway)
Fantastic Plastic Machine, Beautiful (Emperor Norton)
B.R.M.C., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, (Virgin)
The Coup, Party Music, (75 Ark/Tommy Boy)
Clem Snide, The Ghost of Fashion, (Spinart)
Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes, Oh Holy Fools, (Saddle Creek)
Cake, Comfort Eagle (Columbia)
Old 97’s, Satellite Rides (Elektra)
Richie Hawtin, DE9, Closer to the Edit (NovaMute)
Swell, Everybody Wants to Know, (Beggars Banquet)
Sunset Valley, Icepond, (Barsuk)