2001 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2001

Radiohead, Dylan Top This Year’s List

Read The Reviews: The Strokes Bob Dylan | The White Stripes Joe Henry | Sigur Ros PJ Harvey | Radiohead Stephen Malkmus Alejandro Escovedo Gillian Welch

Pop music in 2001 is still in the dark ages. But there were some glimmers of hope this year.

It’s obvious that the grip of Britney Spears and her boy-band cohorts on the American musical psyche is finally weakening. Hip-hop, led by such chart-toppers as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Jay-Z, is still celebrating flashiness over inventiveness. And although there were some notable debut albums this year, rock on mainstream TV and radio was still under the sway of nu metal acts and cute “alternative” rock bands.

These lists are always highly personal. My list was determined by which drew me back for repeat listens. Some like PJ Harvey and Alejandro Escovedo, were immediate connections. Others, like Stephen Malkmus, took some time.

As always, these selections are open to debate and I’m always interested to hear from readers how I might be wrong (Read: I’m not wrong). If you take exception with one of my choices or want to submit a list of your own, drop me a line. No Britneys allowed.

 Joe Henry “Scar”

Although his sister-in-law Madonna transformed his song into one of 2001’s biggest radio hits, folkie songwriter Joe Henry triumphed on his own by recording the best album of his career. He pulled a Joni Mitchell this year and released “Scar,” an album of swanky love songs well informed with the jazz vernacular of the Village Vanguard, circa the 1950s.

For this record, the gifted songsmith tried something new and assembled a circle of jazz session cats (including the great Ornette Coleman) to hammer his tunes into ironclad arrangements that swing.

In juxtaposition to the bleak lyrics, which document the ups and downs of love, the melodies and instruments on songs like “Mean Flower” and “Rough And Tumble” interact and move with precise elegance, like dancers.

If Madonna ever wanted to reinvent herself as a cool jazz singer, the perfect producer is already in the family.

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 The White Stripes “White Blood Cells”

The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells” wins this year’s award for best album that sounds like it was recorded in my parents’ basement.

Raw, smart and rocking, the duo of Jason and Meg White has recorded an album of quirky cuts that at moments sounds like the Violent Femmes doing Black Sabbath numbers. The songs are so stripped down that it gives the impression that the duo were playing along to their favorite songs with a tennis racket only a few months before.

Like the “Blair Witch Project,” “White Blood Cells” proves musically that less is sometimes more. The Whites’ use one guitar and a bashing drum on “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground,” forging a track that crunches harder than an army of metalloid guitar overdubs.

That cut is followed by a neo-rockabilly sing-along, “Hotel Yorbel,” and then, “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman,” which pushes as close to epic proportions as a four-instrument rhythm will permit.

The most remarkable song might be “Little Room,” a 50-second bash-athon that might be about the meteoric rise and fall of a pop band. The tune’s lyrics seem to detail how “White Blood Cells” was created and what a record of this caliber should mean for this talented little band.

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 Bob Dylan “Love And Theft”

While Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney shamed themselves by releasing solo albums that targeted the younger demographic, Bob Dylan’s “Love And Theft” was a statement that old age can be an asset. This was the kind of record that took 40 years of experience to make.

“Love And Theft,” which has rock’s finest songwriter mastering genres of American music bred in the first half of the 20th century, caps a rare third comeback in pop music. It should silence any doubters who’ve tied Dylan’s commercial resurgence to his 1997 death scare or critique his last album, the morose “Time Out Of Mind,” as a blender-treated mix of lines nicked from folk and blues classics.

Think of “Love And Theft” as a collection of songs that Dylan could have written for a disparate bunch of legends like Carl Perkins, Louis Jordan or Bing Crosby. Recorded with his hardened but flexible road band, Dylan’s songs switch between strutting Chicago blues, stomping rockabilly, classy swing jazz and banjo-led mountain music.

 

Dylan knows these type of songs and he instinctively knows how to pull them off. He confidently croons his way through “Moonlight” and even maneuvers his croak-like voice into sounding sweet for the slow-stepping “Bye And Bye.”

With “Love And Theft,” Dylan has reopened his back pages and is again the conveyer of American music’s traditions and roots. This time, he’s a seasoned veteran and better than ever.

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The Strokes “Is This It”

Besides Alicia Keys’ “Songs In A Minor,” the most hyped album of the year was the Strokes’ major-label debut, “Is This It.” Unlike Keys’ effort, “Is This It” has thus far failed to win public attention despite critics and some late-night appearances on MTV2.

But it’s a shame that “Is This It” hasn’t lit a fire under record buyers because it comes close to living up to the buzz.

Like their punk and New Wave predecessors, the New York-based band’s lean, hook-y songs speak of dysfunction and move with a sense of carelessness, but they are structurally well-crafted ? guitars, bass and drums neatly forming the grooves. Singer Julian Casablancas’ vocals are as unkempt as the band members’ hair, especially on songs like “The Modern Age” and “Take It Or Leave It.” But both the music and their hair is disheveled on purpose.

This is the stuff that critics love, but some have derided the group as a rehash of ’70s aesthetics.

And if the Strokes are really just clones of punk godfathers Television, their only fault is that band members are not being market-savy enough. Television’s debut was just as good and no one bought that one either. Maybe they should have chosen to follow in Blondie’s footsteps.

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Sigur Ros “Agaetis Byrjun”

The music of Sigur Ros can be difficult to remember, but it’s worth the effort.

The songs of this Icelandic quartet are delicate beauties?the kind that pass by at a snail’s pace. The tracks are essentially moody soundscapes, which leave little for listeners to hang on to. Add to this the fact that whatever language singer-guitarist Jon Por Birgisson is crooning in, it seems that it’s comprised of only two or three vowel sounds.

But however much “Agaetis Byrjun” pushes the limits of a listeners’ attention spans, the splendor of the group’s creations are delayed gratification. Rich with ethereal feedback, tracks like the majestic “Svefn-G-Englar” unwind like symphonies.

It’s still unnerving to wait more than four minutes for a song to reach fruition. The melody’s patient ascent toward the climax of each song gives the odd impression that whatever emotions are burning behind the songs are encased in ice.

What makes Sigur Ros’ slow-burn music so trying on your patience is exactly what makes it such an enthralling listen.

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 PJ Harvey “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea”

On “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea,” PJ Harvey put away her Billie Holiday persona that seemed to dominate her recent output and is back playing guitar and writing songs with musical and lyrical bite.

Since her last album, it seems Harvey’s had some big questions on her mind. This record’s songs have an unofficial common theme of searching, quests physical, emotional and spiritual.

Musically, the songs strike with immediacy. Her lyrics cut straight to the point. Whether she’s dueting with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about love on “This Mess We’re In” or recalling a flirtatious night hanging out in “You Said Something,” she’s a folk singer with an electric guitar reporting life’s experiences?hers, yours and mine.

And she doesn’t shy away from addressing complicated issues. Even as she’s full of lust on “This Is Love,” she’s also musing about the meaning of life. For “The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore,” Harvey’s serpentine guitar lines and her sharp vocals work in tandem, lending believability to her grim conclusions about the world, which boil down to “just give me something to believe.”

When PJ Harvey gets serious, she really gets serious.

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Radiohead “Amnesiac”

Maybe “Head Games” would have been a more appropriate title for “Amnesiac,” Radiohead’s latest ploy to baffle the music world with a “challenging” album.

“Amensiac” and its predecessor, “Kid A,” were both obvious attempts by the band to push away the critical attention and commercial success by incorporating less traditional rock’n’roll and more technological gadgetry and studio wizardry.

But as hard as the group tries to bury its exquisite compositions under electronic noodling, their attempts at alienating record buyers falls flat.

How can they really hide something as grand as “You And Whose Army?” or sonorous as “Knives Out” and expect everyone to reject the album because they fiddle with the mixing board knobs in between the good songs?

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 Stephen Malkmus “Stephen Malkmus”

Former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus lets all his strange and clever sensibilities run wild on his first solo venture.

Always with a Lou Reed-like monotone, Malkmus sings his new college-rock anthems with straightforwardness?whether he’s detailing how pirates tortured him in “The Hook,” or presenting his musical tribute to screen legend Yul Brener in the peppy “Jo Jo’s Jacket.”

Beneath the wry humor, Malkmus seems to be enjoying himself by augmenting his ditties with whatever sounds or instrument strike his fancy.

It’s always fun to listen to someone who’s having fun.

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 Alejandro Escovedo “A Man Under The Influence”

Singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo already won No Depression magazine’s nod as their “Artist of The Decade” for his work in the ’90s, but “A Man Under The Influence” makes plain that he just might be in the running again in 2009.

The Austin, Texas, alt-country pioneer’s album is mostly a quiet, meditative effort with the narrator examining his life, his family and his loves.

The texture of each track is the real treat. The music revolves around the combination of distorted guitars, steel guitars and strings, and has that warm and intimate aura?the kind that’s perfect to listen to during a late-night drive.

Although love sick songs like “Follow You Down,” “Don’t Need You” and “About This Love,” can be emotionally taxing on easy-going listeners, cuts like “Castanets” or “Rhapsody” show that Escovedo can write and sing about loving life as well as pining for his loves.

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 Gillian Welch “Time (The Revelator)”

Gillian Welch’s celebrated appearance on the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack was a big break this year, but her new album succeeds in expressing her love for roots music in a more personal and unified fashion.

With a brain trust of Welch, her partner David Rawlings and producer T-Bone Burnette (who also assembled the “O Brother” album) directing the record, its 10 songs are based on Welch and Rawling as a performing duo.

Songs like “Revelator” and “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll,” show off the pair’s folk-guitar interplay and mountain harmonies.

Although the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack was designed to be a greatest-hits of roots music, Welch’s album is one too.

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This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • Rufus Wainwright “Poses”
  • Whiskeytown “Pneumonia”
  • Mark Eitzel “The Invisible Man”
  • Mercury Rev “All Is Dream”
  • Jay Farrar “Sebastopol”
  • New Order “Get Ready”
  • Ryan Adams “Gold”
  • Guided By Voices “Isolation Drills”
  • “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Soundtrack
  • Sparklehorse “It’s A Wonderful Life”
  • Fugazi “The Argument”
  • Bjork “Vespertine”
  • Lucinda Williams “Essence”

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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