The Best Music of 2001
If there's one feeling that characterised 2001, it was that unexpected things occurred. Certainly, everyone can share this sentiment with regard to the sad events of September 11th, and at the end of 2000, we still weren't entirely sure who would be running the United States, but the surprises ran further than that. Super-hyped films such as Pearl Harbor tanked, only months before analysts were declaring current events to be 'a Pearl Harbor for the Twenty-First Century'. Mariah Carey - the world's best-selling musical artist - signed a contract for a bazillion dollars, only to later crash in a much-publicized nervous breakdown. George Harrison died. Fellowship of the Ring wasn't a disappointment. And artists ranging from Beck to Macy Gray to Steve Lillywhite to Guest?ove of the Roots elected to award the Short List of Music Prize to Icelandic post-rock collective Sigur Ròs.
Out of my ten favourite albums from 2001, six are (for all intents and purposes) debuts. Had you told me last January that my favourite album of the year would be a spoken-word disc from a poet in Winnipeg, I would have laughed in your face. Had you told me that two of my top twenty would be in languages other than English, I would have been dubious. Had you told me the coming year would include shitty releases from Tortoise, the Dave Matthews Band, the Eels and Belle and Sebastian, I would have winced.
Yes, it's been a surprising year.
So here are my picks for 2001, from my favourite albums to the biggest disappointments, and all points in between.
Top 10 Albums of 2001
10. Elbow - Asleep in the Back [V2]
Atmospheric, rhythmic and very dark, this debut release from the British mope-rockers sounds to me like a cross between Radiohead and Arab Strap. I only truly appreciated the subtleties of the disc after seeing them live: from the epic 'New Born' to the acoustic balladry of 'Scattered Black and Whites', these fellows rise above the chaff of peers such as Starsailor, Trellis and Travis.
9. The Strokes - Is This It? [RCA]
I know, I know, I know. Still, this short, zippy album is chock-full of rockin' tunes I can dig, without relying on crunchy pop guitars (Weezer) or tiresome aggression (Queens of the Stone Age). 'Some Day' and 'Last Nite' are fuzzy, sing-along gems, and while over-hyped, Is This It? is worth owning.
8. Gordon Downie - Coke Machine Glow [Wiener Art]
It wasn't until December that I got my hands on this solo release from the Tragically Hip's oh-so-swinging frontman. Downie's expressive vocal style took some getting used to, and the tone of this disc clearly diverges from the rock of recent Hip albums (it ranges from percussive Damien Jurado-esque numbers to honky-tonk to spoken word), it's clearly the work of the same man who contributed to 'Fireworks', 'Nautical Disaster' and 'Stay'. Highlights include the delightful 'Chancellor', the haunting "Star Painters', and the booming opener, 'Vancouver Divorce'.
7. Kings of Convenience - Quiet is the New Loud [Source/Astralwerks]
I've been flipping back and forth between preferring this, the Kings' North-American debut, to preferring the self-titled album that was rereleased by Kindercore last year. Both share much of the same material, but for the moment, the production and instrumentation of Quiet is the New Loud wins out. This disc is a warm Sunday morning kind of CD, immersive and gentle. Like the best of Simon & Garfunkel, or a solid dose of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 'Our House', Norway's Kings of Convenience are acoustic balladeers who prefer harmony to dissonance, wistfulness to rage.
6. Radiohead - Amnesiac [EMI]
It's disappointing to me to see Radiohead's follow-up to the utterly magnificent Kid A so low on this list, let alone making an appearance on my 'Biggest Disappointments' list (see below). The fact remains, however, that this release is the runty younger brother of Kid A: schizophrenic and misguided, it features songs that are among the finest Radiohead has ever recorded ('Pyramid Song', 'Life in a Glass House', etc.), but envelopes them in shitty rock numbers ('I Might Be Wrong', 'Knives Out') that I couldn't care less about. Twenty minutes of Amnesiac are pure brilliance - the best alt.rock songs of 2001. The rest... is not.
5. Julie Doiron - Désormais [Endearing]
These quietly murmured songs - nine in French and one in heart-breaking English - are as close to the tradition of Nick Drake as any I have heard. With her own, half-mumbling vocal style, Doiron sings of love and loss without doing so explicitly, and her understated melodies are a fine, silver lattice over which the rest shimmers. Outstanding.
4. Mogwai - Rock Action [Matador]
Deep, daring and delicious, this album takes Mogwai's post-rock genius and distills it down into its essence. No song lasts longer than it ought, none meanders predictable (Godspeed!-style) into a climax: all are original, exciting, with diverse instrumentation and a range of style. There's the static-storm-drone of 'Sine Wave', the Welsh acoustic lullabye 'Dial:Revenge', the epic crash and build of 'You Don't Know Jesus'. While some critics have seen this album as overly commercial - this is precisely its genius: like Sigur Ròs before them, Mogwai realizes that post-rock need not be sprawling and navel-gazing to be satisfying, successful, and ultimately affecting.
3. Hayden - Skyscraper National Park [Hardwood]
After a too-long hiatus, Hayden returns to the recording world with Skyscraper National Park; an album that is most surprising not because it's is good, or because it's very good, but because it is - and we're talking Hayden here - upbeat. Yes, that most melancholy and growling of singer-songwriters presents us here with a disc that, while melancholy, is not unhappy. Hayden has written and performed some of the best songs of his career ('Dynamite Walls', 'Bass Song'), the production on the album is sonically interesting, and it has been assembled into a cohesive, satisfying whole.
2. The Reindeer Section - Y'All Get Scared Now, Y'Hear? [Pias America]
Sadly absent from most other Top Ten lists I've seen, this triumph from Scottish super-group The Reindeer Section is moving, exciting, and tugs your heartstrings in that lovely, rainy, Scottish way. Composed of members from Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, Mogwai, Astrid, Mull Historical Society and more, the collective is led by Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, who is the one running theme of the album. Whereas few others contribute to every track, Lightbody dominates, and it is his style of acoustic melancholy that bleeds through. This is not a bad thing. From the whispered 'Will You Please Be There For Me' to the dancing, Beatles-la-la-la of 'The Day We All Died', this album is a pastiche of layered styles, recalling Badly Drawn Boy, Hayden, the Zombies, and more. A very, very pleasant surprise.
1. Clive Holden - Trains of Winnipeg [Endearing]
I love this album. A strange collaboration between the Winnipeg poet Clive Holden and two members of folk-punk outfit the Weakerthans, Trains of Winnipeg evokes wonder, sadness, rest and regret through a series of poems read to music. Holden's voice bends with the music, but also maintains the integrity of the words: he is not singing, but his delivery dances with the melody, the one enriching the other. Holden tells stories or paints pictures. The musicians erect Mogwai-esque guitar landscapes, rumbling train soundtracks or creepy, ambient noise to match each piece. Even if you don't normally enjoy spoken-word, this album is a masterpiece - like an older brother to Gord Downie's Coke Machine Glow - and it was my favourite album of 2001.
11. His Name is Alive - His Blues Will Cover the Earth
12. Cake - Comfort Eagle [Columbia]
13. Nacho Vegas - Actos Inexplicables [Limbo Star]
14. Jack Johnson - Brushfire Fairytale [Enjoy]
15. The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band - Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward [Constellation]
16. Zero 7 - Simple Things [Ultimate]
17. Goldfrapp - Felt Mountain [Mute]
18. Turin Brakes - Optimist LP [Astralwerks]
19. Low - Things We Lost in the Fire [Kranky]
20. Pete Yorn - Musicforthemorningafter[Columbia]
The bounding, gothic silliness of the Rah Bras' RUY BLAS, the party of Bran Van 3000's Discosis, Ben Davis' dark The Hushed Patterns of Relief, Arab Strap's growling Red Thread, Sparklehorse's pastoral It's A Wonderful Life, The Microphones' dusky The Glow, pt. 2, the comfortable (if slightly boring) Hot Shots Part II, by the Beta Band. Oh, and the bizarre but wonderful Langley Schools Music Project.
Elbow and Goldfrapp: The Spectrum, Montreal, November 25.
I came into this show with low expectations, and emerged elated and astonished. Both of these bands transcended the limitations of their albums, revealing themselves to be talented, energetic, original musicians. The crowd dug them hard, Alison Goldfrapp was dulcet-voiced and sultry, the violins were plugged in, and Elbow made their songs sound different. Terrific.
Why, Scotland, naturally. 2001 gave us the opportunity to relish new releases from Mogwai, Arab Strap, the Beta Band, Belle and Sebastian (one terrible EP [Jonathan and David], one terrific [I'm Waking Up To Us]), the Reindeer Section, and, I suppose, Travis. Meanwhile, we all had the opportunity to explore these bands' excellent discographies, along with those of Bert Jansch and the Delgados. Something about the highlands seems to breed musical genius.
Biggest Disappointments of the Year
10. REM - Reveal [Warner]
9. Lamb - What Sound [Polygram]
8. Beta Band - Hot Shots Part II [Astralwerks]
7. Ben Folds - Rockin' the Suburbs [Epic]
6. Belle and Sebastian - Jonathan and David EP [Matador]
5. Sloan - Pretty Together [murderecords]
4. Tortoise - Standards [Thrill Jockey]
3. Jimmy Eat World - Bleed Americana [Dreamworks]
2. The Eels - Souljacker [Dreamworks]
1. Dave Matthews Band - Everyday [RCA]
The albums listed above were pretty freakin' sucky, or at least, fell so short of expectations that after a while I couldn't think of anything except that divide between what should have been and what was. To some extent, the same can be said for this year's releases from Weezer, Radiohead and the Dismemberment Plan. All had the potential for greatness, and instead, well, they didn't. From REM's nice-but-vapid pop songs, to a dumbed-down Dave Matthews, to insipid Beta Band, nu-jazz Tortoise, 80s-style Ben Folds, and inconsistent Radiohead, 2001 was a banner year for good bands making no-good music. Boo! Try harder next time.
Top 10 Songs of 2001
These ten songs are absolutely excellent. Each of them is different, and each comes close to perfection. Most are from 2001, but some are tunes released earlier that I've simply come to love over the last year. Those of you who are comfortable with Morpheus or whatever, seek these out and listen. For the rest of you, I've made them available online. Only #5 and #6 are in mp3 format, the rest must be listened to streaming through myplay.com. If you like what you hear, please remember to support the artist by purchasing the album.
10. Jack Johnson: 'Bubble Toes' from Brushfire Fairytale.
A playful, soulful song with yummy percussion and some delicious 'la da da da da das'. Like Ben Harper, but snappier.
9. Jim Bryson: 'One Cigarette' from The Occasionals.
Warm, rough-voiced Americana, with haunting "doo-doo-dooss". Sad lyrics bathed in reassuring twang guitar.
8. Pedro the Lion: 'When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run' from It's Hard to Find a Friend.
Playful, funny, and zingy. Alt.folk that's carefree and toe-tapping.
7. Hayden: 'Dynamite Walls' from Skyscraper National Park.
A road song full of longing and wistfulness. Guitar-based songwriting.
6. Cat Power: 'The Colors and the Kids' from Moon Pix.
So very sad, but ultimately uplifting. Chan Marshall's thick voice recalls Janis Joplin: it is pained, full, but astonishingly delicate. Quiet, over strummed acoustic guitar.
5. Weezer: 'Island in the Sun' from Weezer.
The 'hip hips' kill me every time. Summertime pickmeup, and if the radio hasn't played it to death, you'll love it. Between this and 'El Scorcho', Weezer have justified their existence.
4. Gordon Downie: 'Chancellor' from Coke Machine Glow.
Drums, piano, and Gord Downie's voice combine in an enigmatic song of vampires and chancellors. I don't understand it, but the melody goes to unexpected, sublime places, and I can never play it just once.
3. Jude: 'I Do' from No One is Really Beautiful.
Jude sings in his reedy voice about unrequited love, nostalgia, and that familiar sentiment of wanting happiness for somebody, even if they can't (won't) give it to you. "I do" is about weddings, RSVPs, and letting go. Sadder than it sounds.
2. Sarah Harmer: 'Lodestar' from You Were Here.
A song that grows from simple, canoe beginnings, to a rousing, dance-and-laugh conclusion. Subtly epic, featuring delicate guitar-plucking, cello, and a passionate voice.
1. Radiohead: 'Pyramid Song' from Amnesiac.
Perhaps the finest thing Radiohead has ever set to tape. Sad, strange and musically invigorating. A funny time signature, piano footprints and the onset of jazzy drums raise this piece above the mundanity of pop music, setting it firmly into the ranks of the Western musical canon. Genius.