Best Music of 2001 Lists
After 2000 rocked my world with more great releases than I could keep track of, 2001 came as a huge letdown. The following ten albums are all eminently worthy releases, but I had to dig a little to pull them together. There are two compilations, and two albums that technically came out in 2000, but I decided to include on this list for reasons stated below. And unlike last year, when rock 'n' roll bounced back into this jaded listener's world on the wings of Doves and a guy named Badly Drawn Boy, this year pretty much everything featuring guitars fell short of expectations. Even stalwarts like Cowboy Junkies and Ben Folds disappointed.
I also can't help but notice that only two US releases made my list this year, and one of them, Brazilified, doesn't even feature any US artists. Everything else is from Britain, Canada, France, Germany most anywhere but my native soil. I'd claim this as evidence of my worldly tastes, but I think it's more just a sign of how utterly stale American music is becoming. Not even that most American of dance music styles, house, could claim home field advantage. The best house album of 2001 came from Germany.
So here, vaguely in order of how obsessively I listened to them, are my ten best for 2001.
So here, vaguely in order of how obsessively I listened to them, are my ten best for 2001.
1. Max Graham, Transport 4 (Kinetic)
Paul Oakenfold hasn't released an interesting disc of his own in years, but give the man credit where it's due: he has an infallible ear for new talent. His Tranceport series has already helped make superstars of Sandra Collins and Dave Ralph, and he may have found his best successor to the trance throne yet in Vancouver's Max Graham. Graham's Transport 4 (the name change is, I guess, a regrettable concession to the anti-trance backlash of the past year), isn't just the best trance CD of 2001 it's one of the best progressive dance mixes of all time a near-flawless collection of killer tracks mixed with mesmerizing precision. It's no coincidence that half the songs here became club anthems after its release. Tranceport/Transport has always been an influential series, but Graham's mix set the tone for the summer of 2001 in a way that few DJ compilations ever do.
2. Grand Tourism, Grand Tourism (CyberOctave)
Air may be the better-known name, but for my money Grand Tourism's self-titled debut beats out their 10,000 Hz Legend for the title of Best French Electronica Album of 2001. Marred only by the occasional corny English lyrics (why can't the French just stick to their native tongue? don't they know how sexy it sounds to the rest of us?), this is a wonderfully consistent set of languid make-out music spiced up with just the right amount of casual dance beats and cunningly funky basslines. Tracks like "Bassmatazz" and "Variations sur Emma Peel" fairly drip with Gallic seductiveness, while the stunning opener "Jim Clark Theorem" finds the band adding a little layer of menace to their slinky sound. Easily the sexiest, most atmospheric release of the year.
3. Zero 7, Simple Things (UK: Mushroom Records, US: Quango)
Call it afterglow music. The kind of stuff you want to pop into the CD player at the end of a really good party, or after really great sex. Zero 7's music is so guileless, and so darn pretty, that it's easy to dismiss as muzak for hipsters, and in a way I suppose that's exactly what it is. But never mind. Simple Things triumphs on the most basic level, creating and sustaining a dreamy, sensual mood with a loungy electronica sound cleverly fleshed out with retro instrumentation, tinkling Fender Rhodes keyboards, lush strings, and the occasional laid-back trumpet solo. Even the first time you hear songs like "Red Dust" and the Air-like "Give it Away", they sound pleasantly familiar, like old classics you never get tired of. And that first impression doesn't wear off. Simple Things grows on you like a old favorite coat, stylish, comfortable, and warm.
4. Bent, Programmed to Love (Sport/Ministry of Sound)
This gorgeous collection of pulsating synth ballads and sample-laden downtempo grooves actually came out in 2000, but was only recently released in the US, so I'm including it in this year's list. As chillout albums go, 2001 never surpassed this one. Bent's Simon Mills and Nail Tolliday have such a keen knack for coaxing melancholy beauty out of electronic instruments that even a borderline cornball track like the aptly titled "Cylons in Love" manages to put a knot in the throat. Mills and Tolliday are also big fans of shamelessly pretty female vocals, an element commonly botched in electronica but executed to a T here. The torchy Nana Mouskouri samples on "I Love My Man" and "A Ribbon for My Hair" are outshone only by guest vocalist Zoe Johnston, who is quietly radiant on "Swollen" and the album's best track, "Private Road". A brilliant balancing act between synth polish and soulful sweetness.
5. Ian Pooley, nite:life 06 (NRK)
German DJ/producer Ian Pooley released the best house album of 2000, a sublime collection of original songs called Since Then that I boldly predict househeads will look back on years from now with the same kind of reverence jazz fans reserve for an album like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. When you set the bar that high, what do you do for an encore? Wisely, Pooley doesn't even try to compete with himself on nite:life 06. This is just a straight-up DJ mix that largely eschews the samba grooves of Since Then in favor of deep, soulful, club-friendly house. But even when he's not breaking new ground, Pooley is still a marvel. nite:life 06 is a luscious mix, rambling seamlessly through 20 head-bopping tracks on its way to a silky downtempo finish courtesy of Pooley's own "The Scenic Route" (credited to Quiet Daze, one of his many aliases). More proof that Pooley is the brightest talent in house music right now.
6. Various Artists, Brazilified (Quango)
It seems like everyone released a Latin dance music compilation in 2001, but Quango's Bruno Guez set the gold standard on this jazzy, sophisticated party record. Unlike so many compilation CDs that are both stylistically uneven and loaded with filler tracks, Brazilified plays like a great DJ mix minus the track segues. Guez builds from a chilled nu jazz base with tracks by Jazzanova and Da Lata into funkier Latin grooves from Mr. Gone and Truby Trio and finally into an irresistible Latin house workout by Arsenal. If you like Brazilian beats and want to discover some new artists pushing them in remarkable directions, Brazilified is essential listening.
7. Fatboy Slim, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks)
The backlash against Norman Cook and his DJ alterego Fatboy Slim reached fever pitch early in 2000, when "Praise You" and "Rockafeller Skank" were as seemingly inescapable as Britney Spears and dance music purists were crying sellout. Then at the end of 2000, Fatboy got nearly everyone to shut up and dance with this amazing follow-up. I'm including Halfway Between in my 2001 best because, as a late release, I overlooked it last year, but also because no other dance music record burrowed its way so successfully into every nook and cranny of popular culture this year. "Star 69" was the dancefloor anthem for the summer, "Weapon of Choice" kicked ass on MTV, "Ya Mama" popped up in sports arenas, movie soundtracks and TV commercials. And the thing is, Mr. Cook deserves every ounce of success he's achieved. Halfway Between is very nearly a masterpiece, the kind of quantum leap in sound and style only an artist at the top of his game can produce. It's still Big Beat, sort of, but with more elements house, funk, R&B and, yes, even trance tossed into the mix to create a record that is both challenging and exhilaratingly fun.
8. Thunderball, Scorpio Rising (Eighteenth Street Lounge Music)
On their sophomore effort, Sid Barcelona and Steve Raskin of Thunderball come into their own, taking the trademark loungetronica sound pioneered by their mentors Thievery Corporation and smacking it up with a heavy dose '70s funk/soul groove. The result might best be described as music for uptown pimps: a swanky mix of blaxploitation swagger and jazzy drum-and-bass sophistication that works brilliantly on tracks like "Heart of the Hustler", with its Curtis Mayfield-like vocals, and the title cut, a slow-motion ride on sly basslines and Latin rock guitars. Thunderball's street-smart mixing of styles reaches its apex on "Stereo Tonic", a deceptively simple trip-hop track that's been in heavy rotation on my car stereo for weeks. Who else right now is blending b-boy samples, scratches, sitars and the synth riff from Steve Miller Band's "Jungle Love" with such gleefully funky results? Smart, gritty, entertaining stuff.
9. Various Artists, Indestructible Asian Beats (Manteca)
Never heard of the so-called Asian underground? Not to worry this stellar compilation from Manteca's Martin Morales will get you up to speed in a hurry. A well-established movement in England, but only recently gaining ground in the States, "Asian underground" is a sound that mixes southern Asian (primarily Indian) melodies and instrumentation with the backbeats of hip-hop, dub, reggae and even the UK's latest dance craze, two-step. When it's done well, as it is on pretty much every track here, it's a pure joy, like listening to all that pretentious talk about globalization melt away into a thick cloud of tabla sprays, b-boy chants, sitar drones and funky basslines. Morales works in pioneers like Ananda Shankar and Asian Dub Foundation, but what's really exciting is the work of relative newcomers like the exhuberant Los Chicharrons and "breakzploitation" innovator Juttla, whose atmospheric, menacing "Mera Dil" is the compilation's highlight. Clearly, Asian underground is still evolving in ways that promise even more exciting future sounds.
10. Tiga, Mixed Emotions: Montreal Mix Sessions Vol. 5 (Turbo)
Apparently the dance music world needs to pay more attention to what's going down in the Great White North. Montreal's DJ Tiga is the second Canadian deckmeister to make my list, joining the equally unheralded Max Graham. Mixed Emotions offers up contrasting sets of tech house and electro-funk, each distinguished by Tiga's flawless mixing skills and a great ear for tracks that build upon one another with cumulative effect far exceeding the sum of the parts. The first disc's techno, house and tribal sounds are impressively presented, but its disc two's fearless plumbing of electro-funk cheese that pushed this album into my top ten. How good is a DJ who can lay down 70 minutes of tracks like "Space Invaders are Smoking Grass" without ever once making you feel ashamed of yourself for wanting to dance to this stuff?
Best Reissue: Medicine Drum, Supernature (CyberOctave)
This seminal blend of tribal beats and psytrance riffs is still one of the most successful combinations of world and electronic music ever recorded. And in the fickle, ephemeral world of dance music, it still sounds amazingly fresh four years after its initial release. After a brief hiatus, CyberOctave has it back in circulation in the US, just in time to remind club kids that John Digweed wasn't the first one to put bongos in the mix.
Best Remix: Peter Kruder's remix of Bebel Gilberto's "Tanto Tempo" (from Tanto Tempo Remixes, released on Six Degrees)
In a year dominated by cookie cutter retreads of '80s pop tunes ("When the World is Running Down", "Electric Avenue", "Billie Jean", etc., etc., ad nauseam), the best remix came from source material only a year old. Bebel Gilberto's luminous Tanto Tempo gave birth a full album of great remixes, but Peter Kruder's electro-fueled version of the title track towered above all others.
Most Durable Overplayed Song: Banco de Gaia's "Obsidian" (from trance compilations galore)
It turned up on seemingly every trance mix this year, but Banco de Gaia's "Obsidian", with its buzzsaw bass riff and wailing gypsy vocals, just never gets old. The rest of Banco's 2000 release Igizeh will most likely be forgotten, but "Obsidian" is an instant classic.
Best Song on an Otherwise Forgettable Album: Basement Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At" (from Rooty, released on Astralwerks)
Yes, I know everyone loves Basement Jaxx except me. I'd love them too, if they made more songs like this gleefully old-school house anthem. You can take or leave the winking campiness on the rest of Rooty, but "Where's Your Head At" is just a flat-out great party tune, and more sincere than anything else the Jaxx have ever done.