So Kramer was describing Newman on Seinfeld the other night, and he used a phrase that I think I want on my tombstone: “Portly, yes, but smart as a whip.”
As promised, this column contains my Top 10 List for the year 2000. I originally said I wasn’t going to do one, and even as I type these words I’m reconsidering, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. First, though, I’d like to point out that even though my readership has dropped by 95 percent or so, I still take this list very (almost painfully) seriously. I agonized over these choices, this year more than any in recent memory, not because I think people take my little opinion seriously, but because I love these lists. I love rankings and orders and pitting one artist’s merits against another’s. Believe me, I’d do the Top 10 List every year even if no one paid any attention to it. (In fact, I did it for many years before anyone paid any attention to it.)
There are rules, of course, and this year those rules kept out a few albums that should be here. The regulations are:
1) Only new studio albums are eligible. Cover albums, live albums and best-of packages need not apply. This first rule kept out Rage Against the Machine’s stunning Renegades, which would have been high on the list if not for the fact that it’s entirely cover songs. That album is still highly recommended.
2) Only discs that are widely available in the U.S. are eligible. If you can’t get it, there’s no point in my recommending it. I have, in the past, made exceptions to this rule for local artists, but they were extreme cases, and in both instances (Cerberus Shoal’s Homb and Say Zuzu’s Bull), not including them would have been a crime. Plus, my entire readership at that time could walk to the local CD store and get both discs.
3) While I can’t hear everything, I’ll at least try. That’s my own personal rule, just for me. I’m always disappointed by the Grammy Awards because the Academy doesn’t seem to keep track of the best music in a given year. It’s not that hard, honestly, and if I were a paid member of the Academy, I’d think I would try a bit more than those folks do.
Two albums caused me a great deal of consternation over their inclusion this year. The first is, reluctantly, not on the list. I chose not to include Peter Gabriel’s OVO, quite simply the best non-soundtrack work he’s done in 18 years, because it’s not available in the U.S. It’s only been released in Europe, and I got mine through a stroke of dumb luck. Plans for a U.S. release have, at this writing, been put on hold, which is a shame. The album is a great piece of work, thematically and musically, and it’s worth the import price to hear it. Should it be released stateside, it’ll get a proper review here, and will most likely end up on that year’s list. Until then, I can’t include it.
The other troubling disc sits at Number One, a decision that has found me arguing with myself, out loud, for a few weeks. I’m most likely going to eat up a ton of column inches discussing and defending its inclusion and placement, so I’d like to save it for the end and get to the honorable mentions first. There are, in fact, five of them, which surprised me quite a bit, considering how bad the year was.
And I’ll touch on this later, I’m sure, but the list you’re about to read only exists because 2000 was so awful. In no case here (except for Number One) is the album represented on this list the artist’s best work. The top five on this year’s list feel like the honorable mentions in years past. You’ll find nothing as striking as Radiohead’s OK Computer (and if I had a category for Biggest Disappointment, their follow-up, Kid A, would be a shoo-in), or Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, or even previous entries from some of the names on the list. It’s with that disheartening grading curve that this year’s top pick ascended the heap. It was the best partly because everything else was so lousy. In fact, you might say that the Top 10 and the honorable mentions comprise the only 15 discs really worth listening to in the last 12 months. It’s sad.
Honorable mentions for 2000:
Hip-hop emerged as the biggest musical force of the year, accounting for five of the 15, a full third of the list. Both Wu-Tang Clan’s The W and OutKast’s Stankonia came really close to the list, and both are pretty cool. Wu-Tang’s third is shorter, spookier and more artfully crafted than their double-disc from 1998, Wu-Tang Forever, and OutKast’s fourth is an out-and-out booty shaker, sort of like a long-lost P-Funk album.
I reluctantly bumped Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor from my list, but that’s not because it wasn’t good enough. Unfortunately, this haunting, surprising effort never saw a wide release. It’s only available through his website, kipwinger.com. I finally realized that if I had to reject Gabriel, I had to reject Winger as well, even though putting his name on the list would have been a thrill. Winger has made a remarkable transformation over three solo albums from ‘80s hair band frontman to serious, talented singer/songwriter. His stuff is also worth hunting down.
Michael Penn made a decent album early in the year with MP4, and while it’s not his best work, it’s still downright sparkly. Rounding out the honorables is Travis, whose lovely The Man Who made its sad, sweet mark this year. Call it Number 11, and again a special thanks to Joel for getting me into them.
God, look at how I’ve run on. It’s neat to have no space restrictions.
Here’s the list:
#10. Deltron 3030.
The most sonically original hip-hop album of the year, bar none. It’s a collaboration between Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, with of course a cast of thousands. It sends its layered beats and rhymes into the future and enacts a sci-fi world of wonders. After hearing this, you won’t chuckle at the term “progressive hip-hop.” It’s a neat trip. (Special thanks to Chad Verrill, without whom I might not have tried this disc.)
#9. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo.
As she has her whole solo career, Mann clocks ahead of her husband Michael Penn with this long-awaited slab of bitterness wrapped in sweet melodies. Every song reminds Mann’s admirers (which I count myself among) why they waited so long, and the album as a whole may be the most vitriolic letter ever written from an artist to her record company. It’s also melodically beautiful, and while it’s nowhere near the heights she ascended with 1993’s Whatever, it’s still a soft caress with a venomous bite beneath its surface.
#8. Paul Simon, You’re the One.
After his disastrous Broadway experiment The Capeman (the soundtrack of which made this list two years ago), Simon hunkered down and produced this little record of smaller tunes that’s as heartbreakingly elegant as The Capeman was dramatic. These songs are about growing old and looking back upon life, and it may be the most upbeat mid-life crisis ever committed to tape. The songs are also about playing the guitar, and it’s the lovely and understated work in this area that really makes the album stand out. It’s a testament to Simon’s skill that an album that followed his greatest failure doesn’t come off as a defiant pout or a groveling apology. It’s just a simple record of great songs.
#7. Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free.
I seem to owe thanks in spades this time, so a quick acknowledgement here goes to Mike Moore and Josh Douglas, who ganged up on me and made me listen to this. I stated earlier that only one artist placed his/her best work on this list. This one doesn’t apply, since Let’s Get Free is Dead Prez’ debut. And what a debut it is. This might be the finest political hip-hop album since Fear of a Black Planet. It’s single-minded in purpose, tone and style, and it retains that hit-with-a-battering-ram effect that the best of Public Enemy’s work engendered. Hopefully, this is just the opening salvo in a long, focused career.
#6. Elliott Smith, Figure 8.
Smith’s follow-up to his dazzling Dreamworks debut, XO, isn’t as immediately brilliant. In fact, it takes a few listens to sink in. That’s odd, though, because Smith hasn’t really changed a thing here – he’s just gone a bit bigger. Figure 8 gives Smith the biggest budget he’s ever worked with, and he spins a web of sound that sometimes hides, sometimes accentuates how angry and bitter he is. Smith’s greatest gift is as a melodicist, sending his tunes everywhere but where you’d expect them to go. By the third listen, though, they sound exactly right.
#5. Morphine, The Night.
It’s a shame that Morphine’s final album was so transitional. The late Mark Sandman was obviously bringing the group’s sound someplace new, and The Night was the first step there. It’s still a decent piece of work, layering in more sonic flourishes than any other in their catalog. The experiments here tend toward the spooky side, but then, Morphine always dwelled in the seedier areas of traditional rock. It was great while it lasted, and The Night is a fine farewell from a band that will be truly missed.
#4. U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
There’s no mistaking the sound of a re-energized U2. Their first truly grand album since 1988’s Rattle and Hum (okay, Achtung Baby was pretty good, too) is a sustained skyward shout, the exhilarating sound of a great band rediscovering what made them so great. The Edge plays his little heart out, and Bono, God bless him, takes his aged, cracking voice and really sings for the first time in far too long. There’s no weak link here – the band even sells the occasional trite lyric with conviction and fire. Welcome back, boys.
#3. The Cure, Bloodflowers.
If Robert Smith plays guitar on Bloodflowers like he might never play again, well, that might be the case. Smith has proclaimed this album the band’s last, and it completes a trilogy begun with 1984’s Pornography and continued with 1989’s Disintegration. The trilogy stands as the best work of the Cure’s career, three benchmarks capped off with this year’s ode to resignation and release. The songs are cathartic, powerful and sad, and yes, Smith plays and sings like he might never get the chance again. What better way to end than with a great album all about endings.
#2. Bjork, Selmasongs.
Bjork may just be the most innovative performer around, a title she more than earns on this tiny album of songs from Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, in which the elfin songstress stars. These seven pieces take the technorchestral elements from her last album, Homogenic, to the next level. Sweeping orchestrations rest atop bizarre, atonal electronic beds, and yet somehow the disparate elements result in letter-perfect pop songs. While this EP is maddeningly short (27 minutes), Bjork’s perfecting a style here, a style no one else is even trying. When she comes back with her fourth full-length project next year, it’ll no doubt be stunning. For now, this is an excellent little morsel.
And that brings us to Number One. I’m sure you guessed it by now:
#1. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP.
It’s true. There wasn’t anything released this year that topped Marshall Mathers in conception and execution. From first beat to last, it’s a perfect pop album, social satire and grand experiment. In a year weighed down by ballast, no one tried to do more with music than Marshall Mathers.
And I pretty much hate myself for saying so.
I’m heartened by the fact that other critics (especially Larry Katz from the Boston Herald) had similar thoughts this year. Katz wrote a lengthy explanation of his decision not to include Mathers on his list, even though it was the best record of 2000. Doing so, he said, would be an endorsement of the artist’s viewpoint, and since this artist’s viewpoint includes violent death, rampant homophobia and raping his own mother, I can see his point. I just happen to disagree with it.
Eminem’s conducting a social experiment in fame, free speech and this country’s misplaced role models. His alter ego, Slim Shady, is a pathological liar, a sublime parody of the modern gangsta rapper. With Shady, Eminem captures the fascination that modern white youth have with black culture and lampoons it. He’s “suburban white rage” personified, if there is such a thing, telling increasingly taller tales of his gang-banging exploits. He’s like a mirror held up to the “keep it real” Comptonites of gangsta, saying, “Yeah, my stories aren’t real, but if you buy theirs, why not mine?”
The superb irony of The Marshall Mathers LP is that people did buy his stories. His debut, The Slim Shady LP, sold through the roof, and people began to dress like him, talk like him and act like him. In a bold master stroke, Mathers used his second album to explain the joke while perpetuating it. He knows his place in the culture. He knows his influence. There’s no denying responsibility for his actions this time, and yet Mathers goes even further than its predecessor.
If you can think of a single more haunting musical moment this year than “Stan,” the story of an extreme Slim Shady fan, I’d like to hear it. In five minutes, Eminem delivers a stunning thesis on a culture that worships pop stars, and the perils of taking that too far. It’s a cautionary tale, and one with real bite. Counterpointing that on the album is “Kim,” a vicious, brutal, explicit drama in which Mathers kills his girlfriend. It’s bone-numbing in its directness and unbridled rage.
If that were all Mathers had going for him, his album might be a footnote, but he also strings together the most irresistible pop hooks on any album this year, and his skill as a rapper is currently untouchable. His internal rhyming structure sometimes approaches the mad genius level. His biggest asset is his ability to change his voice, often mid-word, into an entirely different animal. His three personalities (Mathers, Shady and Eminem) all have distinct voices, and demand different interpretations of the words they’re spewing. If you take “Kill You” seriously, for instance, you’re a lunatic, but you should believe every word in “The Way I Am.” Or should you? Like Edgar Allen Poe’s unreliable narrators, the threesome dart back and forth across this record, contradicting each other over and over. In the end, though, the master has complete control, and he does what any good rapper should do – he takes your hand and navigates you through the music with his words. In this case, though, you might want to pay attention to whose hand you’re holding, and which grin he’s wearing.
Yes, many of his sentiments are indefensible. In the same vein, putting him atop a list of the year’s best may seem equally indefensible. Here’s my standard analogy: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is widely considered one of the greatest achievements in early filmmaking. He pioneered techniques that are still used today. It’s largely considered the best film of 1915. It’s also filled with abhorrent images and pungent racism, telling in graphic and jingoistic detail of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t what he said, it was the dramatic new ways he found of saying it.
The Marshall Mathers LP fits the same mold. No one has this effectively satirized the culture they’re contributing to, ever. Eminem’s techniques are all new. The Marshall Mathers LP will be remembered most not for what it said, although that will probably be remembered as well, but for the jaw-dropping ways it said it. With great reluctance, I must call it what it is: the best album of the year. Nothing else was scary enough to best it.
If you have any thoughts on this (and where Eminem’s concerned, almost everyone has an opinion), I’d like to hear them. Write me – firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, in keeping with tradition, I’d love to see your Top 10 Lists, if you have them.
Next time, whatever I get for Christmas. Have a merry.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.