Best Music of 2001 Lists
1. Björk, Vespertine (Elektra)
Two of my friends sold this CD just days after they bought it. They hated it. I loved it and it took me awhile to say that. Vespertine makes Björk's last full-length studio album, the four-year-old Homogenic play like a Britney Spears record. Vespertine's brittle, tinkling songs filled with music boxes, harps, choirs and strings seem to grow more ice crystals the more one listens to them. The beats throb and pulse when you didn't know you were listening to beats at all. A winter album of perfection, released in a sweltering August.
2. Cousteau, Cousteau (Palm Pictures)
A almost unheard of band from England released an underrated, underpublicized gem. Dark, loungey, smoky and yes, a lot like Tindersticks. They are not copycats, though. "The Last Good Day of the Year" is a Burt Bacharach single on Valium. "Mesmer" sounds like a lost Nick Drake track by way of Bowie's Hunky Dory. Strings, horns, brushed drums and a creamy-voiced tattooed bulk of a baritone singer, Liam McKahey, makes Cousteau the house band at the dingy supper club of Scott Walker's dream.
3. The Divine Comedy, Regeneration (Parlophone)
I mildly slammed this about-face CD by Neil Hannon's band (which split a few months ago) for being too wide of a musical 180 from his basic sound, mainly by using Radiohead's producer Nigel Godrich. Changing my tune now, I find its beauty in the way Hannon's has stripped most of the irony and orchestral touches from his signature sound and left a splintered, lonely, pretty discovery of post-millennial hangover. The title fits the art.
4. Dr. Robert, Birds Gotta Fly (Fencat)
Rescued from the dustbin of mid-'80s UK soul-pop, this former frontman of The Blow Monkeys (remember "Digging Your Scene" and "You Don't Own Me"?) has removed the keyboards and gloss in the past ten years since his band's disintegration and upped the folk and blues factors. Now better known as a producer (Beth Orton), sideman (Paul Weller) and collaborator (with Madonna and Björk's recent producer, Marius de Vries), Robert gets to shine on his own, dusting electronica onto his mainly acoustic tracks of loss, reinvention and back to nature vibes.
5. Elastica, The Radio One Sessions (Strange Fruit)
The band decided to split this year after last year's comeback, five years on from their debut. Missed opportunities and stopped watches for sure. But this collection of singles, b-sides and unreleased outtakes from English radio shows us how fun and immediate they were. Who cares if they ripped off Wire and The Stranglers? Stunning frontwoman Justine Frischmann knew how to use a good guitar riff and rhyme when she needed to. Spin magazine, nominating The Strokes as having one of the top 20 albums of the year, decided to call those fledgling NYC boys "The male Elastica" and God knows it's a compliment. Elastica R.I.P.
6. Goldfrapp, Felt Mountain (Special 2001 Edition) (Mute)
Technically, this CD did come out last year, but the band re-released it in 2001 with a bonus disc of remixes and b-sides. On one of said b-sides, "U.K. Girls (Physical)", this dark, dreamy English duo cover Olivia Newton John's ode to exercise, "Physical", and transform it into a twisted, Portishead-style ballad with a bass beat to die for. Calexico make an appearance, not as remixers, but covering a Goldfrapp single . . . in Spanish. The whole CD set comes off as the should-have-been soundtrack to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.
7. Peaches, The Teaches of Peaches (Kitty-Yo)
Bikini Kill meets Lil Kim. A Canadian grade school music teacher moves to Berlin and becomes a feminist, sex-positive dominatrix in pink hotpants. Peaches knows the score. With song titles like "Fuck the Pain Away" and "Lovertits", she raps over hard, punishing beatboxes and sequencers while telling her rapt fans about the state of...well, being Peaches. I saw her and sometime collaborator Gonzalez open for Elastica in 2000 to a stunned crowd. They opened with a lip-synched, air-guitar cover of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name". The woman is genius.
8. Pulp, We Love Life (Island UK)
Currently only available on import because for some unfathomable reason, Pulp's U.S. label has either (a) dropped them, (b) refused to release their CD or (c) didn't know they had a band called Pulp on their label. Wake up Island! This lush return to form after 98's dark and difficult This is Hardcore, Pulp embrace nature as metaphor throughout the entire album, with dense tracks like "Weeds" and "The Trees". Have no fear, it's the same old Pulp, more or less. With the 60s pop star recluse Scott Walker manning his first production for a band, We Love Life's orchestral rock tales of forest-wandering, roadkill and sunrises is a sharp contrast to Hardcores bitter cityscape-drenched nightmares. Grows on you like the aforementioned weeds.
9. The Strokes, Is This It? (RCA)
I didn't want to like them, really. While I'm a sucker for a good batch of Britpop nonsense, American hype is usually an oxymoron. American bands just grow and grow with audiences. The Strokes came on like the Best New Band in England, even though they are rich NYC twentysomethings. You almost want these messy haired pretty boys to lose, mainly because celebs like Winona Ryder think they're the shit. But the pick n'choose of Iggy pop thrills, Velvet Underground drone, Television crunch and Smiths drama (among others stolen from their record collections) makes them catchy as hell. I cry Uncle'! The Strokes win.
10. Paul Weller, Days of Speed (Independiente)
This man does not get enough adulation. It's hard to believe that Paul Weller has been banging out pop in a thousand different shades for almost 25 years. From his teenage punk kicks with The Jam, Euro-sophisticated soul with The Style Council in his twenties and his 30-something solo embrace of 60s white boy blues and acoustic rock. Weller has covered every angle. Days is the man unplugged, a voice and a guitar, with the lucky task of choosing the best of the hundreds of songs in his catalog for a live gig. Stripping the songs from tags like "punk", "rock", "pop" and "soul" he finds the emotional core of all these genres he has tried. And he's still handsome as hell at 40+ Cheers!
Pet Shop Boys Further Listening: 1984-1997 (reissues - 5 CDs) (EMI)