Best of 2001: Rob Varak

Best Music of 2001 Lists

1. Joe Henry, Scar (Mammoth)
With this release songwriter supreme Joe Henry proves beyond question that were there any justice in the world, Madonna would be known as his sister-in-law rather than the other way around. Scar features a blissful combination of Henry’s quirky and insightful writing and music that is challenging and almost impossible textured. This album is virtually flawless. The band features Me’shell Ndegeocello and a virtual who’s who of young jazz virtuosos, as well as achingly beautiful orchestral arrangements by Steven Barber. This group creates a sound so deep and moving that 1,000 rock critics with 1,000 thesauruses would still lack sufficient adjectives to do it justice. Critics gushing over the faux improvisation and invention of Radiohead are hereby directed to a group which puts their relatively infantile experiments to shame. More impressive than all the virtuoso firepower (including jazz icon Ornette Coleman) is the fact that every note played is utterly subservient to the vision of Henry’s songwriting. Touching, playful, tearful and joyful, Scar leaves a much sweeter impression than its title would have you believe.

2. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony)
Gillian Welch could cruise to success on her terrific voice alone. An instrument of aching vulnerability, one could listen to it all day. She has released a series of albums featuring just that approach, as she and David Rawlings have delivered the musical goods with fervor. What makes this album special is the new spirit and depth of the songwriting of Welch and Rawlings. These are timeless songs which manage to sound both primordial and contemporary. The listener is drawn into a swirling melodic carnival. The siren-like beauty of the album entices one to get lost in the simple guitar textures and lyrical mazes that binds these songs into an organic whole. Icons of Americana rub shoulders in effortless indifference to time or space. Elvis and Abe Lincoln share common ground in a song that begins with reference to the Titanic, and sounds like it was recorded between Carter Family sessions in a shack in Meridian, Mississippi. While listening to this album, time becomes the central theme and all-important, yet somehow remains meaningless. All that exists is the music . . . in its own time and place.

3. Prince, The Rainbow Children (NPG)
A tour de force return to form that is among the great albums of Princes career. His commitment and enthusiasm for the album is made palpable by the sheer density of musical ideas stuffed into every track. Sounds and ideas leap about the songs and segues with calculated abandon, drawing the listener into a distinct sonic universe that Prince cultivates like an aural garden. The lyrical content is superficially concerned with an elaborate parable of allegedly deep religious meaning. In truth, the themes are a frank and often controversial look at the place of the African-American community in the United States. While not always consistent or even logically coherent, these themes do push Prince to some of his more thoughtful lyrics in many years. The end result is an album of epic proportions that shows Prince is still capable of creativity on the level that used to draw comparisons to Duke Ellington and Ray Charles.

4. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia)
Dylan continues the renaissance that began with his mid-’90s roots music cover albums World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You. Since returning to the wellspring of his early inspiration, Dylan has had few missteps. All of the critical acclaim heaped upon this album is well-deserved. Touching base with blues and early-American forms seems to have helped Dylan connect with his muse as a songwriter. Working with such a tremendous band would seem to be a factor as well. Charlie Sexton’s versatile guitar work manages to drive every tune without ever becoming unduly obtrusive. Most importantly, this band knows how to play as that most elusive of creatures: a great electric blues ensemble. For all the name-checking given to Muddy Waters, few bands understand the selfless and social elements that made his band the greatest in the history of the blues. Dylan’s band knows. They breath as a unit, swinging through the up-tempo numbers and locking arms through the slow ones. The entire band is the rhythm section. Solos are only an opportunity to add to the conversation, rather than speech making. Lots of people will dissect the songwriting, but don’t overlook the pleasures to be found in the band.

5. Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Silvertone)
This album has managed to make two important musical rescues. Nobody doubted that Buddy Guy still had all the raw tools that made him a giant in his chosen field. However there were acute concerns about Guy neglecting those tools in favor of guitar-wankery and audience pandering. While his albums generally showed more depth than his live shows, he was rapidly becoming marginalized by the greater blues-appreciating public. This album single-handedly put an end to any perceived decline. That’s rescue number one. Rescue number two is the Mississippi Hill Country blues that comprises the material on the album. Fat Possum records did an admirable job in the mid-’90s promoting artists of surprising quality from obscurity and highlighting an under-appreciated style of music. Recently, however, that label and others in its wake have exploited both the music and the artists nearly to the point of caricature. Rock bands like Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion and The North Mississippi All-Stars have hammered the soul out of the hypnotic blues of the region, while third-rate artists of dubious credibility have been dragged into studios to make music of limited value. This album puts the Mississippi Hill Country Blues back into its proper place as one of the unique treasures of American roots music. Buddy’s vocals are nothing short of magnificent, and his guitar work is rejuvenated by the droning thunder of the rhythm section. He fully inhabits every one of these tracks. It’s downright scary. Without hyperbole, this is the finest blues records of the last ten years.

6. Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway)
All the hype, critical backlash or charges of derivative writing fail to overcome the simple truth about this album. The songs are great and the performances are terrific. I firmly believe that it is not so much the derivative nature of Adams’ writing that troubles most critics, as much as it is the artists from whom he borrows. If the major influences on this album were the Velvet Underground or Television, there would be an avalanche of praise (as there has been for the music, if not the pedigree of, the Strokes). All of this is neither here nor there, however. The sprawling, ’70s wonder of Gold will far outlive the nattering nabobs who would rather play connect-the-influences than enjoy a good song. And ultimately the number of truly original and moving songs is what will endure.

7. Michael Franti & Spearhead, Stay Human (Six Degrees)
This has to be one of the most overlooked albums of the year. It’s a rich, layered synthesis of hip-hop, soul, jazz and just about everything else (including a phenomenal disco track). The narrative concerning a fictional radio show’s reaction to an impending execution is an entirely excusable conceit. Like Prince’s The Rainbow Children, the narrative is buoyed by tremendous music. More importantly, Franti avoids the sanctimonious overtones that often undermined his earlier work. He manages to interweave elaborate conspiracy theories with inflammatory rhetoric without ever losing his sense of humor. Balancing the sheer joy and fun in some of these tracks with the seriousness and edge of his lyrics is an impressive feat. His success is primarily due to his versatile and always pleasing voice, which ranges from soulful Marvin Gaye testifying to the gritty KRS-One style hip hop with which Franti first made a name for himself. A dazzling effort that capitalizes on the irresistible philosophy of “all the freaky people make the beauty of the world”. Tough to deny that.

8. Lucinda Williams, Essence (Lost Highway)
Where Car Wheels on a Gravel Road reveled in the raucous mud of its Southern -ness, Essence casts its gaze on a softer, more reflective (though no less emotionally harsh) landscape. With only one outright rocker on the album, the songs drift by in an easy stream. Williams emphasizes the introspective heart of the album by paring down her songs to elements of almost shocking simplicity. She foregoes elaborate imagery and thick lyrical intricacy for the stark elegance of naked truth. Yet any hint of oversimplification is driven off by her impassioned vocals and the hauntingly beautiful accompaniment of her band. Longtime guitarist Bo Ramsey embraces a lyrical, Mark Knopfler-esque guitar style that compliments the elemental grace of both lyrics and melody. An artistic triumph on all levels.

9. Los Super Seven, Canto (Columbia/Legacy)
A skewed tour of Latin and Brazilian music that excels because of an exquisite blend of the traditional and the avant garde. Like Los Lobos (naturally), Los Super Seven do a service to folk music by not paying homage. Rather they grab the un-worked clay of this roots music and mold it to fit their own musical vision-without undue regard for dogmatic rules or structure. Almost alarmingly unerring for music so adventurous, this album delights from top to bottom. Sonically rich enough to reward repeated deep listening, it is also superficially engaging enough to rank as first-rate driving music.

10. Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, The Swimming Hour (Rykodisc)
There seems to be a real theme with the best albums of 2001, but it’s really one that is just constant in music. So many of the albums released over the past year have featured artists known for roots music, or with deep connections to it, branching out into new creative areas. This record is similar, as long time fiddle-maven Andrew Bird dives headlong into pop songwriting. He may not be forsaking his roots, but he sure is making a large leap. And it works. The songs are a varied mix of adventurous compositions that incorporate all sorts of blues, jazz, classical and even lounge elements. The playing is top-notch throughout, and Bird’s flat vocals are laced with irony that recalls Beck. It’s a playful and fun record, with dark undertones and musical complexity that enrich the experience with each listening.

Honorable Mention:

  • DJ Logic and Project Logic The Anomaly (Atlantic/Ropeadope)
  • Merle Haggard Roots (Epitaph/Anti-)
  • Maxwell Now (Columbia)
  • Wayne Hancock A-Town Blues (Bloodshot)
  • Orland Cachaito Lopez Orland Cachaito Lopez (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
  • White Stripes White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The Record Industry)
  • Dilated Peoples Expansion Team (Capitol/Okayplayer)
  • Femi Kuti Fight to Win (MCA)
  • Various Artists Hank Williams: Timeless (Lost Highway)
  • Various Artists Red Hot + Indigo (Red Hot Organization)
  • Nikka Costa Everybody Got Their Something (Virgin)
  • Ozomatli Embrace the Chaos (Alma/Interscope)
  • Doc Watson At Gerdes Folk City (Sugar Hill)
  • Stevie Ray Vaughn Live at Montreux (Epic/Legacy)

    Most Disappointing Album: Robbie Fulks Couples in Trouble (Boondoggle)

    Best Album from 2000 Discovered in 2001: Nelly Furtado Whoa Nelly! (Dreamworks)

    Most Anticipated Albums of 2002: Common Electric Circus (MCA), The Roots Phrenology (MCA), Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

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