Best of 2001: Margaret Schwartz

Margaret Schwartz

Best Music of 2001 Lists

Like all top 10s must be, this is an eclectic bunch, culled from whatever's passed my ears this year. Another inevitability of the top 10 are those who are left behind -- my top 20 would include Mary J. Blige (who makes being sort of contented and centered sound sexy -- plus a great song about PMS!), Weezer (sweeties!) and, if grudgingly, the former S.M (because some of us are still getting over the breakup). If I had to categorize a year that will live in infamy (if not musically), it would go something like this: both twang and pop are getting smarter, and the cultural penchant for pastiche lives on. Britney managed NOT to become a woman but convinced us she was no longer a girl, punk turned 25, and quiet became the new loud.

1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (self-released)
This is the best album I've heard in years. I can't say enough about it, but here's a go. Number one, the title comes from a shortwave espionage station in the Massoud network. Always an exemplar of subversive communication, the shortwave network has become an excellent metaphor for Wilco's quiet triumph after their label released them from their contract when they refused to make changes to YFH. Now everybody's favorite cowpunk-turned-tunesmith is holding all the cards: Wilco owns the record, they're streaming it from their website, and choosing among several offers to release the album officially. In the process Wilco has done more than we can predict to help artists gain leverage over the tyranny of the recording industry. That's just the paratext, on to the music, which is nothing less than brilliant. I'm not sure why Reprise thought this album was "risky", because it's so damn catchy! Tweedy's knack is to make it sound easy -- a light touch and enough richness of texture to keep me identifying new sounds after umpteen listens. Add to that a cigarette-stained baritone and lyrics both impressionistic and nakedly honest, and you've got the best album of this year, even of recent memory.

2. Clem Snide, The Ghost of Fashion (spinART)
How can you not love a bunch of guys in ultra mod suits and Chuck Taylors playing banjo and upright bass? Though The Ghost of Fashion isn't quite my favorite over Your Favorite Music (mostly because they've upped the snide and jettisoned some clem), Eef Barzeley and friends still deliver with witty, tuneful twang that never once falls into the nostalgia or derivativeness of less intelligent acts. CM are at their best when both wistful and wry -- as on "Joan Jett of Arc", "Don't Be Afraid of Your Anger", and the inimitable "No One's More Happy Than You" -- rather an anthem for the antidepressant generation.

3. The Pernice Brothers, The World Won't End (Ashmont)
This is one of the most intelligent pop albums I've heard in a while -- lush and heart wrenching and toe-tapping all at once. Joe Pernice's got a whole lot of monikers up his sleeve -- the most recent was Chappaquiddik Skyline -- but it's under his own name (and yes there is also a brother) that he achieves full bittersweet deliciousness. Most notable among an album of gems is "Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)" for its soaring string section and unforgettable (for those of us who have leased our brains to the Academy) lyric: "Contemplating suicide / or a graduate degree." The rest of the record follows suit with songs of longing, regret and no small amount of bile, all delivered in Joe's breathy, harmony-laden vocals.

4. Edith Frost, Wonder Wonder (Drag City)
Well, Chicago disowned Liz Phair some years back -- it seems now Edith Frost has come to take her place, albeit in a whole different kind of sound. Frost's smooth alto cuts like a warm knife through butter on minimal, folky tracks that preserve much of her first album's introspection and loose structure while adding a welcome pinch of up tempo bounce. Edith's mostly singing about the geography of loss, both interpersonal and spatial. Check out the awesome 1976-style album cover, too.

5. Jay-Z, The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam)
The man who took Annie out of the orphanage and into the ghetto is back! It's amazing to me that Jay-Z is so good and so mainstream silly at the same time. The album insert predictably features shameless Roc-A-Wear plugs alongside the artsy, architecturally-inspired design and the equally predictable photos of Jay-Z smoking blunts and looking like a badass. Without the requisite annotated hip-hop encyclopedia I have no idea what he's saying most of the time, but my white-as-the-driven-snow tukus was shaking from the very first track. We all know the H*O*V*A anthem, but other standouts are the handclapping "take 'em to church" "Heart of the City" and the ranting "Renegade" with Eminem. This album was released on September 11, yet the East Coast's best pusher still managed to move some serious vinal.

6. Tenacious D, Tenacious D (Epic)
How long has the world waited for Tenacious D? About seven years, if you've been following the on-screen exploits of Jack and J.C. Finally the only authentic acoustic death metal duo has appeared on the aural horizon, riding rock's straining, sweaty steed to victory. The D wisely recruited fellow pastiche-meisters the Dust Brothers to create a high-production version of their vaudeville act, complete with patter. What I find so awe-inspiring -- besides the cover photo of the boys in their underpants -- is the virtuosity with which the D renders its Journey-meets-Guns'n'Roses-meets-Jesus-Christ-Superstar sound. Instrumental in aforementioned rockin-ness is drummer and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, whose participation in this, The Greatest and Best Band in the World, confirms what many of us have suspected all along: that the Foos were seamless parody. Songs like "Fuck Her Gently" are not for the faint of heart; though the D may adopt the Marx Brother's wide-eyed sense of fun, their idiom is pure locker room. On the other hand (or perhaps consequently), Tenacious D have succeeded where Radiohead (f-in pansies!) failed: they saved rock and roll.

7. Kings of Convenience, Quiet Is the New Loud (Astralwerks/Source)
Oh yeah, you didn't hear? Quiet is the new loud, just like black is the new black. You knew that dialectic had to swing in the other direction sometime, and whaddya know, these earnest Norwegians are just the ones to take you gently by the hand and whisper sweet nothings into your ear. I'm sure I'm not the first one to cry "Simon and Garfunkel!" but I actually think there's a deftness here that S&G always passed over in favor of those heavy handed lai-de-lai's and soaring Garfunkel sopranos. My personal favorite is the ethereal "Little Kids", for its gorgeous piano refrain, but the album can really be taken as a whole. The lyrics are thoughtful and not the sweet platitudes one might expect -- for example a song like "I Don't Know What I Can Save You From" (okay, they're not native speakers, they don't have that whole don't-end-with-a-preposition thing nailed) explores the ambivalence of a lapsed relationship.

8. Call and Response, Call and Response (Kindercore/Emperor Norton)
Lovely, keyboard drenched cosmic pop from California. Inscrutably simple, deliciously adept. The remixed version has several new songs, for those of you who only have the original, and they are well worth the extra dinero. It's not often you hear a band embrace the good time sound without ending up in an ironic quagmire, but these cute chicks and boffo boys make it look easy. Of special interest is the sublimely goofy (and straight faced) "Roller Skate", and the jubilant "Lightbulb".

9. Pink, M!ssundaztood (Arista)
Right before black became the new black (an interesting fashion spin-off from this fall's events), pink spent some time in that coveted position (after the nineties we were all sick of brown and gray, I guess). At the time it seemed only appropriate to me that there would exist a pop diva named Pink, whose image seemed to embody all the wet lollypop gloss of that recently departed era of excess (remember when people watched Survivor? Like religiously??). She certainly out-wailed Christina on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack cover "Lady Marmalade", but with this album, Pink has become, well, rather a kick-ass neon than a candy-ass pastel. Seems she strategized the diva thing to get her foot in the door, and now she's doing it her way, with oh-so-1982 album art and a bunch of rocking numbers. Turn on the pop radio really at any time in the day or night and you'll hear her propulsive, grandiose "Get the Party Started," and hear Pink invite you to kiss her ass. This is one lady who don't care if you think she's a girl or a woman.

10. Preston School of Industry, All This Sounds Gas (Matador)
Ok, well I had to do it. While Stephen Malkmus brought out a self-titled collection which was the musical equivalent of Chinese food (tasty but somehow not filling), those of us who are still stumbling about numbly in the post-Pavement world were gratified to find that Scott Kannberg came out with his A-game. A comparison to George Harrison is apt if not a bit morbid here: it really does sound as if the underrepresented Kannberg had an arsenal of great material just kicking around after Pavement's swan song Terror Twilight was released. Although PSOI definitely bears the mark of Kannberg's Spiral Stairs contributions (remember the droney "Forklift" and anthematic "Kennel District"?), Kannberg's got a lot more tricks up his sleeve than his Pavement work lets on, including shimmering pedal steel and organ ("A Treasure @ Silver Bank") and a sort of shambling melody that his monotone Pavement songs never allowed. The cryptic "Whalebones" ("Bringing the whalebones home / bringing the whalebones home again / there's thirteen hours to go / bringing the whalebones home") epitomizes the album's air of far flung spaces and implacable signs, as if Kannberg were sifting through the musical artifacts of the past 10 years.

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