Art is cyclical, and it reflects the times. It’s interesting to note that while 2001 was perhaps the worst year socially, politically, emotionally and economically in recent memory, it really held up well artistically. Music – and I mean real, honest, powerful music – made a serious comeback in 2001, especially after the cultural wasteland that was the year 2000. This was one of those years that made you grateful for the spiritual uplift that the best music provides. Thankfully, it was abundant this year, and though it wasn’t possible, this year’s art did everything it could to fill the empty spaces left by two gleaming towers and thousands of lives.
Considering how much music (and all art) is a reaction to the times it exists within, 2002 should be a year to watch. September 11 was one of the worst tragedies ever visited on Americans, so vast that it affected every corner of the globe. Tragic times, whether they be personal or national, quite often produce outstanding artistic statements about them. How we survive is in how we react, and musicians can only react with the truth and skill of their emotional outpourings. Once the insipid tributes have faded from memory, the real artists will start to speak. If 2001 was the year we woke up, then 2002 will be the year we start facing the world with our eyes wide open.
But we still have to finish talking about 2001. And so, I present to you my annual Year-End Top 10 List, the best one I’ve compiled in quite some time.
As with any list that its author takes way, way, way too seriously, there are rules that apply to the Year-End Top 10 List. First, only new studio albums are eligible. No live records, no covers albums, no previously released titles, and no greatest hits-type things. Only original artistic statements released between January and December need apply.
Second, my whole readership needs to be able to find and purchase every entrant. That means only national releases count – if you can get it through your local record store or amazon.com, it passes muster. Albums released only through artists’ web sites are ineligible. That leads directly into regulation number three, which is that I try to hear everything eligible within a given year, as much as my finances will allow. Of course, this rule is impossible to follow to the letter, but I do try, and I hardly ever feel, at the end of a given year, that I’ve shortchanged anyone. At the very least, I’m much better at keeping track of the onslaught of new releases than the voting members of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are.
I need to make this note here, though, because it concerns an act that got an honorable mention last year: I have not yet heard the new Wu-Tang Clan album, Iron Flag. I own it – I’m looking at it right now – but I haven’t been able to devote the time to spinning the damn thing yet. Should my thoughts on the album impact the list you’re about to read, I’ll let you know. I have serious doubts, considering said list’s overall quality, but you never know…
While last year’s list was largely a product of elimination by default, resulting in a number one choice that would have been six or seven slots down in any other year, 2001 offered me the opportunity to play favorites. The content of the top five was determined by the quality of the albums, but the order in which they appear on the list is totally subjective. I spent the last few weeks listening to my top five, just to make sure they were all as good as I thought they were (they are), and when it came time to assign slots to them, I had to go with the ones that affected me the most deeply. Truth be told, there isn’t an album in my Top 10 this year that I don’t think is a treasure.
Just to illustrate how tough a competition it was this year, I have 13 honorable mentions. Some of these also-rans actually appeared on early drafts of this list as recently as last month. Just about all of them would leave last year’s list in the dust.
My rules don’t allow me to recognize three of this year’s great records in the list proper, but here are recommendations for them anyway. Two are live albums, and both Sting’s All This Time and Radiohead’s I Might Be Wrong take serious chances and successfully reinvent the studio material. Too many live albums are mere recitations of studio material with crowd noise. Sting pulled together a masterful group of jazz musicians to recast some of his strongest songs in reflective new lights. And as for Radiohead, their brief eight-song live disc lends energy and inventiveness to the studied, repetitive Kid A/Amnesiac material, and should be used as a template for their next studio project.
The third non-competitor is Tori Amos, whose covers album Strange Little Girls is more successful than it has any right to be. More enjoyable, heartfelt and affecting than her last two studio albums combined, Strange Little Girls would have at least rated an honorable mention if Amos had written the songs. Her version of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” is by itself worth the price of admission.
The honorables this year are all over the map. There’s the pure, perfect pop of Weezer, whose third self-titled album was exactly what it should have been. There’s the eccentric metal of System of a Down’s Toxicity, which refuses to be nailed down for longer than 20 seconds. Then there’s the rumbling, ominous slab of seething fury that is Tool’s Lateralus, a continuation of the longest, most inaccessible statement of vision that any band is releasing these days.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the frothy pop of Garbage’s third album, beautifulgarbage. There’s the proto-rock sounds of the 77s, whose A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows outshone virtually every band their age. Speaking of rock and roll, there’s the Black Crowes, who made their sixth great album with Lions. And then there’s Starflyer 59, whose sparkling, ambient Leave Here a Stranger grows deeper with every listen.
I’m surprised now when I reread my review of Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines. I dismissed it as typical alt-rock, which it is, but the searching melodies have really grown on me. I listen to this one more often than my original review would lead one to believe, making it another example of a record that takes time to sink in. There’s nothing at all wrong with it, and I admit my mistake and take it back.
Now we get into the discs that could have easily shown up on this list, and in fact did show up on recent drafts. Built to Spill made a great little album with Ancient Melodies of the Future, hearkening back to their early days as one of the most winsome pop bands in the country. Also great for different reasons was Mark Eitzel’s The Invisible Man, a group of seriously depressed yet oddly uplifting tunes produced to off-kilter perfection. Upon reflection, this is most certainly Eitzel’s best work.
Prince made a comeback and a half with The Rainbow Children, a jazz-inflected spiritual manifesto that shows, once again, that he’s one of the most talented musicians around. At the other end of the longevity spectrum is Ours, whose debut album Distorted Lullabies is the musical find of the year. Johnny Gnecco sounds so much like Jeff Buckley it’s uncanny, and he wrote a dozen superb, dramatic songs to accompany that unearthly voice. No one’s made a debut this strong in a long, long time.
If you’re counting, we’ve reached 12, which leaves only the album that came closest to the list. That would be Roland Orzabal’s wonderful Tomcats Screaming Outside, which could easily sit at number 10 (or even number nine). Excluding Orzabal from the top of the heap was a difficult decision, because his album is very nearly perfect. Had his original U.S. distribution deal gone through last year, he’d have handily walked away with the 2000 number one spot. This year, he has to settle for number 11, but that doesn’t mean his album is any less brilliant for it.
Okay, without further ado (and because I’m almost at 1500 words already), here’s the 2001 Year-End Top 10 List:
#10. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.
Coming off of 10 Cent Wings, one of the finest pop albums of the last 10 years, one could certainly expect a sharp drop in quality from Jonatha Brooke’s follow-up. That she self-financed and self-released Steady Pull on her own Bad Dog Records wouldn’t seem to bode all that well for it, either. Surprise, though – Brooke pulled off a heavier, more melodic and all-around better album than her last one. It’s missing that one perfect song (like “Because I Told You So” on Wings) to put it over the top, but the 12 numbers here exhibit Brooke’s overall growth as a songwriter. Find me a statement of independence as sweet as “I’ll Take It From Here,” or a windy pop epic as nuanced as “Walking.” Go on. I dare you. Steady Pull is a triumph for this unjustly unknown artist, and a good omen for her continuing career.
#9. Sloan, Pretty Together.
After a brief absence from this list, Canada’s Sloan reclaim their spot with their most ambitious and successful album to date. Pretty Together takes the band’s ‘70s-inspired sound into new directions, which is nothing new for the foursome. What is new is the refreshing sense of purpose the album exhibits from first note to last. It’s an adventurous, risky, finely crafted record, and it’s also the first one since One Chord to Another that feels like a true band effort. If you haven’t discovered this band yet, Pretty Together is a great place to start.
#8. Glen Phillips, Abulum.
Phillips, formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket, turned in the finest set of lyrics I heard this year. Considering the wordsmith that sits at number five on this list, that’s an impressive feat. Phillips’ tales of joyful homelessness, gender wars and killing the neighbor’s dog practically radiate with the spark of honesty and cleverness, two great tastes that most often don’t taste great together. He pulls it off brilliantly, and his instantly likeable voice and soft-spoken melodies complement the lyrics well. There are songs on Abulum that you’ll never forget once you hear them, particularly “Men Just Leave” and “Drive By.” It’s a great start to what will hopefully be a long and productive solo career.
#7. Aphex Twin, Drukqs.
If this list were based solely on musical skill, Drukqs would have number one all wrapped up. At more than 100 minutes, it represents the most complex and comprehensive Aphex Twin album, a study in the relationships between disparate tones and moods. There’s a palpable tension to the best pieces on Drukqs, a kind of emotional hold that’s not normally ascribed to instrumental electronic music. But then, Richard James is not your normal instrumental electronic musician. He’s in a class by himself, as this exhausting and exhilarating album ably demonstrates.
#6. Daniel Amos, Mr. Buechner’s Dream.
Nearly rendered ineligible when the band’s first distribution deal for this, its 13th studio album, fell through, which would have been a damn shame. Mr. Buechner’s Dream is a sweeping double-disc encapsulation of everything that’s been great about Daniel Amos for 25 years. Much attention is paid to artists like Wilco and Whiskeytown who draw on ‘70s rock and American musical traditions to inform their sound. No attention was paid to MBD, a true American classic in every sense of the word. For those of you lucky enough to have heard it, MBD offered up 33 straightforward rock songs without a bum track in the bunch, and infused them with a spirituality and a passion hardly seen in the modern music world. It’s the crowning achievement of a long, undignified career that’s left them no closer to the acclaim and status they deserve.
#5. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.
Speaking of crowning achievements, Ani D. turned in her most ambitious and enthralling work to date on this double-disc wonderama. The jazz influences have crept into even the darkest corners here, especially on the more sedate Reckoning. This album feels like the culmination of a decade-long journey, and for most of the album’s 120-minute running time, Ani seems content, as if she’s finally arrived. Fans of her early work will miss the anger that’s all but absent here. For those of us who have been gladly following her through the various stages of her evolution, though, this album is the equivalent of reaching the summit, especially since she arrived at this sound with no label interference whatsoever. The best part is, at times on Revelling/Reckoning, you can hear Ani searching for another 10-year mountain to start climbing.
#4. R.E.M., Reveal.
The title of this album is a spectacular irony, since it obscures nearly everything, from Michael Stipe’s voice to the true character of the lyrics, behind waves of bright, lush production. Even without the layers of sound, though, Reveal would represent the best set of songs the Athens foursome have written in nearly a decade. The blissful sound of this recording is the band taking hold of the melodies they’ve crafted and holding on. Too often R.E.M. has a great album in its grasp and lets it get away. Reveal is one of the rare instances in which they managed to maintain their grip all the way through. It joins Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant and Automatic for the People as their fourth truly great album.
#3. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs.
Poor Ben Folds. For the fourth time in a row, Folds has crafted an album that deserves the top spot, only to see it stolen away from him by one or two slightly superior efforts. This is one of those instances where personal preference definitely came into play, as Rockin’ the Suburbs is every bit as good as the two albums ahead of it. It’s witty, it’s heartfelt, it’s delightfully idiosyncratic, and it’s extremely well put together. In addition to his trademark genius on the piano, Folds acquits himself surprisingly well on drums, bass, guitar, and a bevy of other instruments – nearly everything on the record, in fact. Top that off with a wonderful set of biting, soaring lyrics and you have a pop album that’s just this side of perfect. It’s not Folds’ fault that he’s only number three. Better luck next time, Ben.
#2. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.
If you thought his classically-influenced debut was something, check out Wainwright’s measurably more accomplished sophomore effort. No one’s doing this sort of twisty, catchy baroque pop, and even if they were, Wainwright would be doing it better. Poses is remarkably self-assured, perfectly composed and performed, and just flat-out one of the best records I’ve ever heard. If Wainwright has as lengthy a career as his father’s ahead of him, he’s really thrown down the gauntlet for himself with this breathtaking album. Here’s hoping he tops this one as handily as he bested his fantastic debut.
Which brings us to the top of the heap:
#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.
This album came out before any of the others on this list – February, in fact – and it took hold of the top spot and refused to let go. For the second year in a row, I feel compelled to defend my selection for album of the year, since most everyone else has dismissed Phantom Moon as a pleasant distraction at best. To me, it’s a lot more than that. How do I love this album? Let me count the ways:
First, it’s a clear triumph of art over commerce. Sheik’s previous two albums found him tempering his considerable skills for commercial concerns, balancing the art and the product capably, but frustratingly. Phantom Moon is pure art, a glorious leap for Sheik as a melodicist and a player. The album is almost entirely acoustic, it contains no hit singles and was designed to be heard as a complete work. This is Duncan Sheik’s mission statement, a true outpouring of his soul.
Beyond that, though, it’s simply and completely beautiful. Every song unfolds like elegantly spun wisps of cloudy skies and rainy window panes. This album brings a chill into every room in which it’s played. It never argues its own case, but rather sits quietly in a darkened corner on a knotty wooden chair, quietly humming beautiful tunes to itself and anyone who cares to listen. It’s a chronicle of pure, undiluted creation, so intimate at times that it’s frightening.
No album this year provoked such a reaction from me. If Sheik never does anything like this again, it won’t matter, because for 53 minutes of music, he found that place that most artists search their whole lives for, he lived in it for a while, and he remembered to write down everything he saw and heard. Phantom Moon is nothing short of perfect, especially when it dares to be imperfect in all the right ways. I said repeatedly that this list is subjective, and nowhere more than here at its apex. Though no one else may ever feel the way I feel about it, Phantom Moon delivered everything I look for in music wrapped up in one beautiful package.
As always, e-mail me your lists. I’d love to take a gander at ‘em.
This column wraps up my year, the first full calendar year of TM3AM. I’m taking next week off, but I’ll be back and ready to go on January 2, 2002. Thanks again for reading throughout Year One, and I hope you’ll join me for Year Two. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and remember, if you love life, life will love you back.
See you in line Tuesday morning….and to all a good night.