Best Music of 2001 Lists
For me 2001 was the year when everything opened up, when sonic pleasures awaited me around every corner. Oh wait . . . that’s the story of every year, actually. Ignore the inevitable “this year wasn’t as good as such-and-such year” talk; there’s always more great music being made than we would ever have time to listen to. Here’s some of what dazzled me this year . . .
1. My Morning Jacket, At Dawn (Darla)
My favorite album of each year is usually the one that I find hardest to describe, the one that has taken me to a brand new place which is supremely special and sublime. My Morning Jacket’s At Dawn is a masterpiece of indescribable beauty, a creation which uses traditional rock ‘n’ roll, country and R&B as a jumping-off point, but transforms these influences into something unique. Jim James’ voice gets my vote for “most likely to send chills up my spine,” with the way it soars about everything and pierces your very being. I could write about At Dawn for days and still never come close to hinting at its essence. It stirs in me a pure sense of awe.
2. Michael Franti & Spearhead, Stay Human (Six Degrees)
This year’s most adroit fusion of music with sociopolitical critique (and one of the best soul albums in recent years), Stay Human presents Franti’s humanistic vision for the future while moving hips through music that’s based off of every great soul, R&B and reggae album every made yet still sounds fresh. Franti pulls no punches in describing today’s U.S. society, criticizing our current criminal justice system, drug policies, political parties, military-industrial complex and economic structures, yet he does so in a way that goes beyond the specific issues to look at the implications and ideas lurking behind them. He presents a hopeful counter-message of love, nonviolence and freedom, and does it in a upward-looking, friendly manner, through the subversive sounds of sweet soul. In the grand tradition of rebel musicians from Bob Marley to Public Enemy, Michael Franti carves out his own place, crafting an album which works both as ear-pleasing, beautiful music and as a heartfelt message of inspiration and motivation directed at anyone wishing for a new societal outlook which favors peace over war, equality over hierarchy, justice over retribution, and altruism over selfishness.
3. Guided By Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT)
With Isolation Drills the astoundingly prolific rock ‘n’ roll poet Bob Pollard has finally succeeded at what he’s been trying to do since around 1995, taking his blend of weird art-rock and Who-ish arena rock to the masses. No, the album wasn’t the hit he so obviously wants to have, but it, more than any other GBV album, bridged the gap between art and accessibility by being instantly pleasurable without sacrificing that mysterious something that makes GBV so special, the quality that has made their fans so obsessive. Isolation Drills is one hell of a rock record, with never-to-be-forgotten hooks and power chords, but it’s also an imaginative, touching trip into the human soul, a vivid portrait of loneliness and confusion.
4. The Lucksmiths, Why That Doesn’t Surprise Me (Clover/Drive-In)
Each year’s top 10 list must have a place for the album that made me hit “repeat” the most times, the album that I just had to play again and again. This year that was the latest album from the Lucksmiths, witty purveyors of heartfelt, melodic pop. Why That Doesn’t Surprise Me is loaded with catchy hooks, plus lyrics that adeptly use wordplay and humor while drawing a bittersweet picture of everyday life which encompasses both big emotional themes (love, heartache) and small snapshots of day-to-day existence (road trips, broken bones, etc.).
5. Aesop Rock, Labor Days (Def Jux)
The enigmatic Aesop Rock travels universes with his words, spinning a mind-blowing web of images, stories and ideas on his Def Jux debut Labor Days. A sublimely poetic hip-hop album, it sets hyper-articulate bursts of lyrical creativity to atmospheric musical soundscapes that rock your world while sparking synapses in your brain. One minute he’s pondering the way our capitalist system suppresses personality, the next he’s transporting himself into other dimensions, sci-fi style. A truly complicated MC, he’s crafted a brilliant, layered work that stands out among this year’s releases (in hip-hop or outside it) for its imagination and depth.
6. Superchunk, Here’s to Shutting Up (Merge)
I don’t care what other people say, to me Superchunk gets better with each album they release. Their latest, Here’s to Shutting Up, continues their recent foray into a more diverse sound, one driven as much by melodic string and keyboard arrangements as by their usual guitar-rock attack. That extra sense of beauty gives their music even more emotional weight than usual, which says something considering that they’ve always come about as close to channeling feelings in their rawest form as anyone possibly could.
7. Mark Mulcahy, Smilesunset (Mezzotint)
Whether it’s with Miracle Legion, Polaris, or on his own, Mark Mulcahy is continually creating fantastic pop-rock music that never gets the credit it deserves. He takes a soulful, slightly jazzy approach to pop singing, writes lyrics that are emotionally affecting yet hard to pin down, and in general has his own personal approach to music which is hard to describe but never fails to produce intriguing works of beauty. Smilesunset might be his best work yet, a gorgeous, involving portrait of love, longing and obsession.
8. Wolfie, Tall Dark Hill (March)
As Wolfie’s songs mature from catchy bursts of pop energy into heartfelt pop-rock anthems which meld rock brashness with pure feeling and imagination, the band seems to get less press attention, which is a crying shame, as their latest album is remarkable on every front. Delightfully pop but always ready to rock the house, Wolfie is an American treasure, a group of gifted musicians who aren’t afraid of expressing their own point of view, not caring that their style of heartfelt sensitivity and optimism isn’t appreciated among “adults” in our modern times.
9. The Coup, Party Music (75 Ark)
Staunch critics of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and all forms of institutionalized inequity, The Coup use hip-hop as a form of activism. It helps that their message is driven home through some of the most poetic, vivid hip-hop lyrics you’ll hear, nimbly delivered over powerful, funk-and-soul-drenched tracks. With Party Music they’ve knocked the funk quotient up another notch, while tackling the key social issues of the day and encouraging listeners to help them tear this mutha’ up and make the world a better place.
10. E*Vax, Parking Lot Music (Audio Dregs Recordings)
With a sound matching electronic otherworldliness with earthbound melody, E*Vax is on to something truly unique. To listen to Parking Lot Music is to enter a fully realized sonic universe, a world crafted from a musician’s vision. Both pop and experimental, E*Vax is an artist to watch, someone whose creations are unforgettable from the first listen on.
I also loved:
The Caribbean, Verse By Verse (Endearing)
Old 97’s, Satellite Rides (Elektra)
Mark Robinson, Canada’s Green Highways (PulCec)
Dilated Peoples, Expansion Team (Capitol)
. . . and so much more.