Best of 2001: Sarah Zupko

Best Music of 2001 Lists

1. Witness, Under a Sun (Island, UK) (MCA, US)
Wigan, England’s Witness labored under the spectre of Wigan’s most famous sons, The Verve, on their first album, Before the Calm. On Under a Sun, they’ve gone in an entirely new direction, basking in the rays of Southern Californian jangle pop and the Southern alt-rock of R.E.M. Under a Sun is the rare sort of record that both strikes you immediately with its pleasing pop sensibility while also growing on you and revealing new layers upon repeated listenings. Uncut magazine lavished five stars on this gem. It’s the most deserved five-star rating of the year.

2. JJ72, JJ72 (Columbia/Lakota)
The Dublin power trio released their debut last fall in the UK and it finally hit US shores in September 2001. Kudos to Columbia for bringing this band stateside. Picking up where Coldplay’s Parachutes left off, JJ72 offers an album full of stadium size anthems. This is soaring, confident music that draws from the Radiohead school of guitar rock, but is also steeped in the harder edged music of Nirvana. There’s not a single weak track on the album and the occasional, less-than-perfect lyrics are offset by flawless musicianship, inventive arrangements and startling key changes. JJ72’s real ace-in-the-hole is lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Greaney. Greaney moves effortless from high falsettos to low rock growls and harnesses guitar feedback and churning rhythms like a virtuoso.

3. Ed Harcourt, Here Be Monsters (Heavenly, UK)
Brighton, England’s Ed Harcourt was initially tagged by the UK press as yet another in the long line of “sensitive young men” following Badly Drawn Boy. His debut, the mini-album Maplewood, suggests that analysis is not far off the mark. But he threw all the journos for a loop with the magnificent Here Be Monsters, a glorious orchestral pop album that sports lavish arrangements and drips with addictive hooks. Harcourt’s music lives in a completely different neighborhood than the mope-pop of Badly Drawn Boy. It has an acoustic base to be sure, but Harcourt has also learned his lessons from the supreme pop craft of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney as well.

4. I Am Kloot, Natural History (We Love You, UK)
Manchester continues to be a hot-bed of phenomenal musical talent. Doves and Elbow have followed New Order, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and Oasis out of the north England grey and into international prominence. I Am Kloot are unlikely to ever reach that level of fame, but don’t blame it on the quality of the music on Natural History. More than anything I Am Kloot is the work of singer-songwriter John Bramwell, a clever, sarcastic tunesmith with the skewering sense of humor for which Mancunians are famous. During this year of folk-pop resurgence in the UK, Turin Brakes and Kings of Conveniences have garnered most of the attention, but I Am Kloot’s record tops their efforts for both its smart, curmudgeonly lyrics and spare and effective arrangements.

5. Turin Brakes, The Optimist LP (Astralwerks/Source)
Back in November 2000, the British music press was heralding a new “trend” in UK pop music; the neo-folk/pop acoustic sounds of bands like Turin Brakes, Kings of Convenience, Lowgold, etc. Basically, they were trying to find the next Badly Drawn Boy, who had surprised nearly everyone by stealing the coveted Mercury Prize away from Coldplay. So Turin Brakes were getting hyped way before The Optimist LP appeared. And these South London boys surely deserve it. The introspective tone suited the year that produced the New York and Washington DC terrorist attacks perfectly. Serious lyrics you can sing along to as naturally as a Beatles song, tracks like “Feeling Oblivion” and “Future Boy” were an ideal accompaniment to our treacherous times.

6. The Strokes, Is This It (RCA)
Sometimes hype is justified. Sure the New York-based Strokes are retro, wearing their Television influence on their sleeves, but rarely does retro sound this natural and positively organic. Entertainment Weekly called Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas “the most cocksure rogue since Oasis’ Liam Gallagher”. Gallagher’s band has labored under the backhanded retro slap since 1994 and also managed to produce two of the best records of the 1990s (Definitely Maybe [1994] and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory [1995]). The Strokes are positioned to be the US answer to Oasis — a rollicking rock ‘n’ roll band with stadium-size singles and glorious rock attitude up the wazoo.

7. The Avalanches, Since I Left You (Modular/XL)
In a weak year for dance/electronic music, Australia’s Avalaches offered up a mesmerizing stew of samples and grooves on Since I Left You that would be a bonafide classic in any year. The title song is also one of the finest singles of the year, a disco-fried sunny-sounding diva song that’s unbelievably catchy.

8. Pulp, We Love Life (Island, UK)
Jarvis Cocker has always been a rather literary sort and on We Love Life, Cocker seems to be aiming for the title of poet. Using the classic English theme of gardening, Cocker’s lyrics come off somewhere between Chauncey Gardener (“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden” from Being There [1979]) and Noel Coward (“If England is a garden, we ought to have more manure” from “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner”). Where 1995’s Different Class was the shining example of smart, literate Britpop and 1998’s This Is Hardcore was a dark somber affair that seemed at polar opposites from Different Class, We Love Life stands somewhere on the middle ground; more pop than Hardcore, more insular and focused than Different Class. We Love Life also has all the warmth that Hardcore lacked. An excellent return to form.

9. Spiritualized, Let It Come Down (Arista)
Jason Pierce dismissed most of the members of Spiritualized after Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space (1997) and now he works as essentially a solo act . . . with full orchestra and gospel choir totaling more than 100 musicians. In many hands that would spell disaster and deliver bloated, pretentious, ego-driven music. But in Pierce’s able non-classically trained hands, it somehow works, as Pierce is a master of melody, mood, and arrangement. Whoever his George Martin (Beatles’ producer) is behind the scenes, he/she deserves a slice of the glory as well.

10. Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul (Epic)
The finest female voice in country music has had her fair share of monster Nashville hits (“Timber I’m Falling in Love”, “Don’t Toss Us Away”, and “Blame It on Your Heart” among them), but she’s always done it her way, maintaining the traditional country sound amidst the pop schlock of the Nashville hit parade. On Mountain Soul, she returns to her Appalachian roots with an album of straight-ahead bluegrass and old-time country music. The mournful sounds of Appalachian misery and poverty were always present in the vocals on even her biggest hits, but here Loveless gives full rein to the classic “high lonesome” sound of her forbearers Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. Like Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless is returning to the music of her youth and treating us to some of the finest roots music of the year.

11. Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway)
OK, so it isn’t Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams’ extraordinary solo debut from last year. Where Heartbreaker was rough and raw and drenched with emotion, Gold is polished and more rock ‘n’ roll than country, and more Rolling Stones than Gram Parsons. And yes, Gold is overly long. Chunks of this album could probably have been left in the recording studio. That done, Gold may have been a top five pick. However, most tracks are superb: the anthemic and perfectly-timed, post-September 11 “New York, New York” and the Dylanesque “Firecracker” being the best of the lot.

Honorable Mentions:

Comeback Album of the Year:
Elton John, Songs from the West Coast (Rocket/Universal)
The pop master returned in 2001 with his finest record since the 1970s. He scores extra points for the very direct response to hate crimes and homophobia on “American Triangle”.