Best Music of 2001 Lists
I've only heard a couple hundred of the many thousands of albums released during 2001, so let's call these "favorites" rather than the "best". Except for number one: Nobody beats Bob Dylan.
1. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia)
At 60 years old, Bob Dylan certainly didn't have anything to prove by releasing an album as great as the epochal recordings he produced in the '60s. He did it anyway: Love and Theft is as worthy of an hour of your time as any other activity or art form, from visiting a museum to attending the symphony. Leading his touring band -- which he correctly calls, with just a touch of qualification, "probably the best band in the world right now" -- through a comprehensive encyclopedia of American roots and popular music, Dylan displays a sly turn of mind that's just as eager for a bad pun ("I'm sittin' on my watch / So I can be on time") as an insightful bit of truth ("Funny the things you have the hardest time partin' with / Are the things you need the least"). Dylan excels at both love ("I got a craving love for blazing speed / Got a hopped-up Mustang Ford / Jump into the wagon, love / Throw your panties overboard") and war ("I'm going to spare the defeated / Boys, I'm going to speak to the crowd / I'm going to teach peace to the conquered / I'm going to tame the proud"), spinning tales full of exuberance and dread. In the dense, allusive "High Water (for Charley Patton)", the narrator's told, "As great as you are, man / You'll never be greater than yourself". In this case, there's no higher compliment.
2. White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry
The White Stripes splice together electric blues and garage rock in a helix of sound that's unique to themselves even as it draws inspiration from all the right places. Jack and Meg White (brother and sister or ex-husband and -wife, depending on which publicity reports you believe) wield only a guitar, drum kit, and occasional keyboards with such authority that any other instruments would be wholly superfluous. Their fractured, intricate songs are riveting and memorable, and they come together as an album that's benefitted from careful sequencing. Near the midpoint, the chirping "We're Going to be Friends" lightens the instrumental stomp for a sweet reminiscence of puppy love; the White's haven't gone soft -- "Offend in Every Way" and "I Think I Smell a Rat" come immediately after -- and Jack's already lamented (admitted?), "And if there's anything good about me / I'm the only one that knows." There's redemption in the offing, though, some of it, as Dylan suggests, through love and some through lust. Let's hope that they're ex-spouses after all....
3. Clem Snide, The Ghost of Fashion (spinART)
"I think that hunger, war, and death / Are bringin' everybody down" may be the callowest line I've heard all year, but it's a rare misstep on an otherwise eclectic, heartfelt album. Employing a multitude of instruments that combine guitar rock intensity with intricate country flourishes, Clem Snide aren't afraid to reveal their emotions through either poignant words or well-crafted music.
4. Muddy Waters, At Newport, 1960 (Remastered & Revisited) (MCA)
Four alternate studio tracks are a slight bonus to one of the classic live blues albums, but it's the sparkling remastered sound that makes this reissue a must-have. Waters and his spitfire band wowed the folkies gathered at the famous Newport Folk Festival in 1960, with a blistering set that's soulful, intense, and a whole lot of fun despite the music's being one of the foundations of the blues. When Muddy sings, "I got my mojo workin' / But it just don't work on you", he must be talking to a woman with a heart of ice. One listen proves that Muddy's mojo works just fine.
5. The Gossip, That's Not What I Heard (Kill Rock Stars)
Gay-friendly punk rock lives in the south! (Or did, before it started moving to the punk rock-friendly Olympia.) On their debut album, this Arkansas-spawned trio barges into the same bluesy garage as the White Stripes, with even shorter, sharper riffs and primal drums. Singer Beth Ditto delves headfirst into the intricacies of love and lust, sounding raucous, honest, and nowhere happier than pogoing across the dance floor.
6. Mouse on Mars, Idiology (Thrill Jockey)
Electronica continued to churn out hundreds of records that will be quickly consigned to the waste bin of commercial history, but Mouse on Mars have once again proven themselves artists capable of rising above the pack. The electronic effects on Idiology are a means, not an end in themselves, and as this longstanding German duo mesh them -- in a series of complex arrangements -- with live instruments, the difference seems purely academic.
7. Zen Guerrilla, Shadows on the Sun (Sub Pop)
A number of records on this list are built on combinations -- of sounds, aesthetics, geographies. Like the White Stripes above, San Francisco's Zen Guerrilla could be a straight ahead rock band, but there's something extra thrown into the mix; where White Stripes reach back to the garage rock of Detroit bands like the MC5, Zen Guerrilla incorporate the city's first great musical legacy: Motown. An unlikely combination, to be sure, but the marriage of no-bullshit hard rock and Motown soul works wonders.
8. Spoon, Girls Can Tell (Merge)
Girls Can Tell sounds like a classic rock album: not a "classic rock" album, either, but an "instant classic" that just happens to rock. There's one too many instrumentals (and there are only two), and some moments seem to have sacrificed content to form. When the two inhabit these songs at the same time, which happens more frequently than not, the album's staying power is unquestionable. Bright, clean production makes every detail seem like a highlight, from the chime of the guitars to the punch of the drums.
9. Nortec Collective, The Tijuana Sessions Vol.1 (Palm Pictures)
These sessions actually did happen in Tijuana, where a group of musicians, artists, and designers has begun creating a cultural, musical hybrid between American electro and traditional Mexican norteñ. Accordians, horns, and mariachi guitars meet the future as loops pulsing to bouncing techno beats. On the increasingly porous southern border of California, the future is now -- and it sounds good.
10. Three-way tie between solid new records from three indie stalwarts: Fugazi, The Argument (Dischord) / Superchunk, Here's to Shutting Up (Merge) / Kristin Hersh, Sunny Border Blue (4AD)
Consistency gets you very little in the hyper-accelerated world of pop culture. Fugazi, Superchunk, and Kristin Hersh (in her current solo incarnation and with the Throwing Muses) have been steadily producing one great album after another for well over a decade. Nothing on their new releases will shake the world, as should be expected after all this time. But for those of us who grew to love them during our musically formative years there's something inexpressably comforting about their continued output, like growing up with old friends.