Music

Best of 2001: Ben Varkentine

Ben Varkentine

Best Music of 2001 Lists


Best new albums:

Original Broadway Cast Recording, The Producers (Sony Classical)
Like most theater lovers I'd give almost anything to see the show, till then, this is as close as I'm going to get to this Tony-winner.

Les Petits Sous, The John Hughes Project (self-released)
Just about any band that sets itself the goal of re-creating the "soundtrack to John Hughes movie that never was" would be okay by me-especially when they put it over as well as this NY trio does.

The Go-Go's, God Bless the Go-Go's (Beyond/Go-Go's)
Seven years after their last reunion, the Go-Go's return with an album which sometimes sounds more like a strong and promising debut than their fourth full-length LP. It's full of autumnal, earthy songs with infectious melodies and music that sounds a bit - to my boy ears - like advice for the daughters and younger sisters coming after them--which doesn't mean boys can't relate to it, of course. Trust me.

Violet Indiana, Roulette (Instinct)
Delicate, artful guitars and an overdubbed and multi-tracked voice meet to make music for rubbing someone's shoulders, making love, dreaming to.

Venus Hum, Venus Hum (Mono-fi)
Irresistibly liquid , smooth space-pop sound pools and bubbly vocals.

Starflyer 59, Leave Here a Stranger (Tooth and Nail)
Shoe-tapping, dreamy, anxious, melancholy, playful, quirky, and wistful pop/rock.

Laptop, Opening Credits (Trust Me)
Well heavens to Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins preserve us: We has us a new synth pop star. Jesse Hartman, who is Laptop, seems to be as obsessed by the "new wave" sound as I am. His songs are written with a vision of 1986 and lyrically drawn from the tried-and-true well of pop songs: relationships, relationships, relationships.

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, All the Pretty Horses (Sony Classical/Sony Music Soundtrack)
A novel, beautiful mix of guitars and strings.

Best album I bought in part because of a PopMatters review: Stars, Nightsongs (Le Grand Magistery)
At it's best, it's like Thomas Dolby come again.

Technicalities. This section is reserved for albums that were originally released in 2000, but which either weren't released in the US, or I just didn't hear, till 2001, and that I want to single out for special attention:

B.B. King, Anthology 1962-1998 (MCA)
This two-disc Anthology examines 35 years in the career of "The worlds greatest blues singer, the king of the blues!" He plays with the apparent ease with which Martin Luther King spoke, and I ain't got a higher compliment to give.

Blush 66, Domecstasy (Star cross'd)
This is music which nicely evokes feelings of confusion and frustration, with bittersweet lyrics and a chilly, hold on at all costs lest you break into tears quality to the songs which is quite distinctive.

Paved Country, Deconstructing Paradise (self-released)
Multiple guitar-laden music that I'd sooner call lovely than I'd label it as country, folk, or anything else.

Biggest disappointment: Joe Jackson, Steppin' Out: The Very Best of Joe Jackson (A&M)
Not so much a disappointment as unnecessary, I suppose. There are around 10 Joe Jackson best-of's on the market at this time, and this is not the best of them. A matter of greater concern is the fact that Jackson appeared in my "Biggest disappointments" section last year, too, which I sincerely hope is not indicative of a trend.

Best reissues or compilations of previously released work:

Prefab Sprout, The Collection (Sony/Epic)
Brian Wilson is probably the single most influential American recordmaker of the pop/rock era. Every month, dozens of bands wash up on the shore trying to catch his wave (Sorry for the beach metaphors, but it's in my contract as a music critic to use at least two when discussing Wilson. Thought I'd get them out of the way quickly.). Meanwhile, Prefab Sprout's Paddy McAloon quietly earned the comparison by sheer virtue of his vocals and songwriting. At the height of his powers, there was no one that could touch his pronouncements on pulp culture, pop and�religion.

Kirsty MacColl, Tropical Brainstorm (Instinct)
What I wrote about the original UK issue of this album last year still stands: She sang like an angel, she wrote like a dream, and she was gorgeous. She was worth a baker's dozen plus of Jennifer Lopez, Nelly Furtado (especially Nelly Furtado), Enya, Whitney Houston and Dido. This US issue of her final album contains three bonus tracks, including the last song she ever recorded. I still miss her as much as you can miss someone you never met or even spoke to.

Mamas & The Papas, All The Leaves Are Brown/Golden Era Collection (UNI/MCA)
Dreamin' of California on a sunshiny Monterey Monday with Denny, Michelle, John and Cass. Wondering what all the hullabaloo was about? Lovely vocal/musical arrangements, harmonies, tight musicianship (almost all session players) and quality songwriting -- wonderfully basic songs aren't as easy to write as they are to sing.

Vivabeat, The Good Life 1979-1986 (Permanent Press)
An anthology from a band almost everybody's forgotten (if they knew about them in the first place)? You bet. And Vivabeat had all the faults and virtues of top '80s pop, which means those of us who love it for both have found a new league to warm to . . . which is cool.

Paul Desmond, Lemme Tell Ya 'Bout Desmond (Label M)
The most beautiful tracks included on this compilation of the work of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond put me in mind of seeing a beautiful, long-haired girl for the first time. All of a sudden she seems to go into slow motion for a moment, hair framing her face as she moves. Paul Desmond played the kind of refined music one can luxuriate in like a day off. Gentle, breezy jazz that almost taps you on the shoulder and asks for permission to climb into your ears, giving some kind of new meaning to the term "quiet storm".

38 Special, Anthology (Hip-O)
At the end of the day, they're a southern rock band but, as the material on this album shows, they were rarely purists about it, letting in influences from straightahead rock to pop to new wave to hard rock and even a little heavy metal and acid rock.

Kirsty MacColl, What Do Pretty Girls Do? (Big Eye)
From 1989 to 1995, MacColl recorded four "live on the radio" sessions for the BBC. Collected on this album, the songs amount both to a MacColl largely "unplugged" album and a counterweight to the Galore collection of 1995. That album presented MacColl's singles and other representative songs in their fully produced record versions; here, stripped of MacColl's trademark backing vocal tricks or any production polish, the songs must get by on their own, and many of the recordings are improvements on their album versions.

Various Artists, Head Jazz (Label M)
This album is an experimental collection, mixing the traditional pop/jazz sound of artists like (Little) Jimmy Scott with more avant-garde performers like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Like all Label M releases, it's largely based around reissues of Joel Dorn's productions from the Atlantic catalog, and as such it acts as kind of a combination mix tape and calling card for the label, and a fitting place for my:

Label whose releases I will most miss: Label M, I'm told, has lost it's funding. Too bad.

Honorable Mentions:
Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (Deluxe Edition) (Motown)
Various Artists, The Classic Chillout Album (Columbia)

Two CDs That In Hindsight I Wish I'd Given Better Reviews To, Because They've Grown On Me:
Bosco, Action (Atlantic)
Madison Avenue, The Polyester Embassy (C2)

One CD that didn't sound quite as good four months after I wrote my review, but still from a favorite band of mine: The Cinematics, Stations (Spilt My Soda)

Promising, though flawed debut: Maple Mars, Welcome to Maple Mars (Permanent Press)

Promising, though flawed non-debut: Waldeck, The Night Garden (E-Magine)

Best return to form:
Human League, Secrets (Ark21)
I thought about moving the Go-Go's to this list, but "return to form" implies you've been off-form, and the Go-Go's haven't -- they've just been gone. Human League, on the other hand, haven't had a decent single since 1986s "Human". Which makes this album such a joy; it sounds like a revitalized League, still driven by Philip Oakey's songwriting (the most consistent element of their success) and singing, along with Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley's backing vocals (the latter here called Susan Anne Gayle, for some reason) and a new collaborator or two.


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