The Lullaby Pit’s Best CDs of 2000
I’ve been doing this annual CD review for several years now, even though few people notice, let alone care. So lately I’ve been pondering why I’m so obsessive about this ritual of seeking out new music, listening, buying, evaluating, ranking, and reporting, especially in a world gone so relativistic that we’re afraid to suggest that one thing is actually better than another thing. We’re comfortable enough saying we like this or that, but the idea of excellence as an absolute that transcends mere taste seems fascist to us. And when I assert my opinion that a particular CD is something you might like, and ought to listen to, that probably strikes some as more than a little arrogant.
So why do it? Part of the answer is simple enough – I love music and find the process both challenging and fun. But there’s more to it than that – I feel like we’re all caretakers of our culture. Ideally, everybody has a corner lot somewhere that we feel responsible for maintaining. Some people teach, some work tirelessly for the poor, some volunteer for the arts, some collect stamps, some coach little league, some sing in barbershop quartets…. You could argue that certain of these activities are more noble than others, but the point for me is that music is a powerful, affirming force, and a lot of really talented musicians are out there busting ass trying to move the culture along in a meaningful way. That’s their corner, and I’m genuinely grateful to them, even the ones whose music I despise, when they sing and play from the heart.
My self-imposed responsibility is to pay attention, to chronicle, and to evangelize, even though the corner I’m on may be only sparsely traveled and all within earshot may dismiss me for just another crank. A Top 20 list ain’t Mother Teresa stuff, but if I can introduce a few people here and there to an artist they’ve never heard of (and likely never would), maybe the music will speak to them in a way that will make their lives a bit brighter. Then I feel like I’ve accomplished at least a little something.
The frustrating part is that I can only rate what I hear, and there are so many great bands out there that it’s impossible to hear even a fraction of them (especially since radio these days refuses, seemingly as a matter of policy, to play any band worth listening to). For each one of the artists in my 2000 Top 20, there are probably 20 more I’d love if I were only exposed to them.
So this column honors the best music I heard this year (CDs released in 2000, and a few that came out in 1999 but didn’t hit my radar screen in time for last year’s list). However, I’d like to dedicate the ritual to all those bands I didn’t hear, but would have liked if I had. May they each find a larger and more appreciative audience in 2001.
The Top 20
1. Don Dixon, The Invisible Man (Gadfly)
In 1985, former Arrogance frontman Don Dixon released Most of the Girls Like to Dance, but Only Some of the Boys Do…, one of the greatest expressions of hormone-drenched teenage/young man verve guitar pop has ever seen. In three subsequent efforts Dixon confronted the tragic inevitability of adulthood and maturation, and in all cases he did so with remarkable eloquence and wit. Now, on this year’s The Invisible Man, Dixon accomplishes something special, marking the turn onto the back nine with, of all things, a concept album. These 11 dramatis personae, featuring characters ranging in age from 18 (Mitch Easter’s “Decline and Fall”) to 85 (“All I Wanted,” a bitter lament of unfulfillment), find Dixon reflecting on the forms and foibles of life through the eyes of people he perhaps once was and someday might be. In the hands of a lesser artist this could quickly get ponderous, but Dixon’s dry sense of humor keeps him (and the listener) honest, allowing him to explore the serious and tragic without bogging down in self-absorption. It’s hard to describe a CD like this one without making it sound too intellectual to be enjoyable, which is sad, because Invisible Man is hooky, funny, and tuneful, and I didn’t conclude this all by myself. I loaned my copy to a lot of people, including new music-savvy types and folks who never venture beyond the bland safety of Adult Contemporary, and the verdict was pretty much unanimous. The fact that almost nobody has heard it is a black mark on the souls of radio programmers everywhere. Click here for more on The Invisible Man.
2. A Perfect Circle, Mer de Noms (Virgin)
APC features Tool frontman Maynard Keenan, although the creative driver is former Nine Inch Nails and Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel. But let’s not dismiss the band with the old “side project” kiss of death just because of Keenan’s presence. If Tool never plays another note, but A Perfect Circle stays together, I’ll survive just fine, thank you. APC’s brand of Metal is dark and brooding, as we might expect from the backgrounds of Howerdel and Keenan. But where Tool has a nasty, alienated edge to their music, APC’s darkness is lush and atmospheric, shot through with seductive glimpses of color and light. Maybe it’s me, but lately many Metal artists seem to have abandoned any pretense at songcraft and musicality, and the result is simply unlistenable. But Howerdel (who did all the composing) seems to understand that the iron fist is more effective when wrapped in a velvet glove. As of this writing the CD is performing quite nicely on the charts, too, and hopefully that success will breed influence with other Metal bands out there.
3. The Catherine Wheel, Wishville (Columbia)
Over the past decade or so The Catherine Wheel has been one of rock’s most consistently outstanding and innovative bands. Unfortunately, a meltdown with their former label cost them valuable momentum after the release of 1995’s Happy Days, their commercial highwater mark in the States, and the brilliant Adam and Eve (1997) might as well not have been released for all the attention it garnered here. But circumstances haven’t slowed the band musically, as evidenced by this year’s superb Wishville. Even more spartan in its arrangements than Adam and Eve, the disc nonetheless crackles with energy and nuance, and the spare, thoughtful moments are interspersed with soaring anthemic highs (as in “What We Want to Believe In”) that stand on a par with anything the band has done since Chrome.
4. Elastica, The Menace (Atlantic)
Noisy, careening, playful – this disc has more pounce and strut than a puppy with a new squeak toy. The Menace retains the minimalist neo-New Wave ethic of the band’s self-titled debut, but this time around it sounds like bandleader Justine Frischmann has been listening to more B-52s and less Wire. There’s a dizzying energy level to the disc, which bounces off the walls so hard it seems constantly on the verge of discombobulation. Somehow, though, Frischmann manages to hold things together. I wondered, after that marvelous 1995 breakout, where the band would go next. The whole New Wave movement of the late 1970s flared up and died away in three or four years, with even the best of the crop feeling the need to branch out a bit in order to remain creatively viable. Failure to find directions for growth might lead Elastica into stagnation and obscurity (as it did scores of promising bands at the dawn of the ‘80s). But Frischmann has twice now demonstrated a keen knack for infusing old ideas with new life. There being nothing new under the sun, there are worse talents to have.
5. Eels, Daisies of the Galaxy (Dreamworks)
Eels frontman E is like Michael Jordan – even when he has an off year (by his standards) he’s still better than most everybody else. When I began this year-end review I had Daisies much further down the list. Basically, it seemed rather pale compared to 1998’s stunning Electro-Shock Blues (which I still can’t believe I only rated #10 – where the hell was my head that day?), and without really thinking about it I sort of pegged Daisies for the second ten somewhere. Then I listened to it four or five more times, and it moved up the list each time. The tunes are so consistently engaging that no one or two really stand out, and E is one of the smartest and most sensitive lyricists working anywhere in popular music today. I try not to toss words like “genius” and “superstar” around lightly, because they’ve been so overused that they’ve lost their power to signify. But they absolutely apply with E – he’s brilliant beyond all reason, and is one of the three or four brightest lights in this generation’s music pantheon. Radio might ignore him, but the music history books won’t.
6. U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope)
I don’t know if U2 has any more landmark albums in their future, but I find great comfort in their unwillingness to lay down and become bad parodies of themselves. Albums like War, Unforgettable Fire, and Joshua Tree defined an era, and when the band was left for dead after Rattle & Hum all they did was surge back with Achtung, Baby! They were left for dead again after Pop, a project that was as unsatisfying viscerally as it was clever intellectually. Perhaps this is the band’s Achilles’ Heel – sometimes they’re a bit too smart for their own good, and when their work climbs up out of the gut and into their heads they lose their audience (for which I personally blame the audience, but that’s another argument altogether). If so, All That You Can’t Leave Behind should win that audience back, being a wonderfully feeling, rather than thinking, album. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way (obviously, at #6 on the list). Instead, it’s compelling how, after several years of moderately interesting experimentation with electronica, the band can come home again and, as if nestled among family and friends, kick back and just be themselves for awhile. My favorite moment on the disc, for all sorts of reasons, is the “Brown-eyed Girl”-ish “Wild Honey,” a worthy homage to Van Morrison.
7. Superdrag, In the Valley of Dying Stars (Arena Rock)
This Knoxville Power Pop outfit’s 1996 debut was pretty damned good. Their 1998 followup was significantly better. And this year’s effort blows them both away. Frontman John Davis’ songwriting is more consistent, with hooks galore and more thoughtfully turned lyrics, and the whole band has benefitted tremendously as it has moved past the British Invasion pose so evident four years ago. Their guitar pop influences are still plenty evident, but now they have developed a strong enough identity of their own that the subtle Cheap Trick references and Big Star covers (from a recent concert appearance) seem natural, not self-conscious. The Power Pop genre breeds bands that are too frequently captive to their influences (Beatles, Badfinger, Raspberries, etc.), and while it’s laudable that the great masters are reverenced, you’re never going to forge a legacy of your own by following closely in the footprints of those who came before. Superdrag excels in a predominately retro style because they transcend those from whom they have learned – which, of course, is the hallmark of a great band in any genre.
8. Delerium, Poem (Nettwerk)
Poem is very much in the mold of Karma, Delerium’s gorgeous 1995 release, and while it breaks no new ground, it does feature a host of beautiful songs, lush arrangements, and nicely-envisioned vocal performances from a series of collaborators (including Matthew Sweet, whose contribution to “Daylight” rivals Sarah McLachlan’s sumptuous turn on Karma’s “Silence”).
9. Supreme Beings of Leisure, Supreme Beings of Leisure (Palm)
The Supreme Beings’ self-titled debut introduces a fresh L.A. vibe to Trip-hop, a distinctly European techno style (until now, anyway). In the hands of artists like Tricky, Portishead, DJ Shadow, and Mono the genre oscillates between down-tempo breakbeat Hip-hop and cool, lounge-inflected Anglopop, but SBoL broaden the mix with dashes of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latino flavor. The poly-ethnic infusion is subtle, but the effect is distinct.
10. Richard Ashcroft, Alone With Everybody (Virgin)
I’ve resigned myself to the notion that nobody associated with Verve is ever going to do anything that stacks up to their full-length debut, Storm in Heaven. But that said, former frontman Richard Ashcroft has launched his solo career in admirable fashion. This collection is even stronger in spots than Verve’s much-heralded swan song, Urban Hymns, and the lead track, “A Song for Lovers,” displays the same kind of anthemic grandeur than made “Bittersweet Symphony” such a monster hit.
11. Aimee Mann, Bachelor #2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo (SuperEgo)
Bachelor #2 is Mann’s best work since Whatever (which was easily one of the best CDs of the last decade) but sadly, she remains a poster child for what’s wrong with the music industry. At the same time she was receiving massive acclaim for her contributions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, she was working without a label. Now, a lot of talented artists can’t score a decent record deal these days, but artists who are garnering significant popular press coverage you’d think would attract some major label attention. So Mann released the disc herself, making it available online and at shows. Bachelor #2 contains some material also found on the film soundtrack, but these songs work much better in the context of the album than within the context afforded by the film (and as great as I thought the film was generally, I also found the use of “Save Me” to be self-conscious and distracting).
12. Fuel, Something Like Human (Epic)
Fuel’s 1998 debut had both a melodic and a sonic side, but the two weren’t as integrated as we might like. If I might oversimplify for a moment, on Something Like Human the band has seemingly worked harder on making its pretty songs rock and its rocking songs prettier. The effect is encouraging, chiefly because “Hemorrhage” (the lead single) is actually getting some airplay, and deep in my heart I still harbor fantasies of a day when once again I can listen to the radio without utter despair. The radio question notwithstanding, Fuel has now released two solid albums of driving sonic pop that remind me, in their best moments, of Bob Mould (although Mould’s music is rarely as slickly produced). That’s a pretty high compliment.
13. Supergrass, Supergrass (Island)
I admire the craft and ambition of bands like Radiohead and Oasis, but as a rule the Britpop movement strikes me as a bit sterile. Now that Verve has split, the lone remaining exception to that rule is Supergrass, a band that never seems to lose touch with how much fun rock and roll can be. The trio continues to grow creatively, with several songs here matching the highest spots from 1997’s In It For the Money. In this respect, they sort of strike me as the U.K. equivalent of Superdrag – a tight combo, steeped in a proud pop lineage, that keeps getting better with every effort and apparently enjoying themselves while they’re at it.
14. Green Day, Warning (Reprise)
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say about a record. Green Day makes smart, hook-infested punk pop records. Every time. This one is like their other records, which are all pretty good, end of review. Okay, maybe I can add this: If Warning stands out in some way, it’s perhaps in the lyrics, which are as socially-aware as ever, but are a bit more craftily constructed. Of course, we rarely regard Green Day for its social commentary because the tunes are so deceptively accessible (Billy Joe told a Denver crowd a few years back that, “we’re not a punk band, we’re a melodic California pop band”). Which is a shame, because Warning has at least as much to say as any self-indulgent wank you’re likely to hear from Rage Against the Machine.
15. Fiction 8, Chaotica (Nilaihah)
Some of the more interesting bands I’ve heard in the past couple years have emerged from the corner of the music universe that includes Goth and Industrial, and for lack of a satisfying term I tend to lump it all together under labels like “Darkbeat,” “Dark Pop,” or the more widely used “Darkwave.” Denver-based Fiction 8 doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories, although on their Web site frontman Mike Smith does reluctantly admit that F8 is a “dark pop band.” They’re also a great dance band with an emerging knack for haunting ambient undertones (due in large part to the addition of bassist/vocalist/violinist Mardi Salazar). Chaotica is F8’s third full-length release, and hopefully the personal and creative dynamics of the new lineup, coupled with a supportive label relationship, will allow the CD to reach a larger audience than its predecessors. More on Fiction 8.
16. Leisure McCorkle, American Ghetto Pop Machine (Second Blue Moon)
Charlotte’s Leisure McCorkle is the latest in a long line of outstanding guitar pop artists to hail from the Tar Heel State, but his vocal delivery and songwriting style are more likely to remind you of British New Wavers Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, and Joe Jackson than of Don Dixon, The Spongetones, or the dBs. Regardless, American Ghetto Pop Machine (his first full-length release – Leisure’s debut EP was a Lullaby Pit Honorable Mention in 1997) is a virtual primer on Power Pop chops. These 10 tracks run the gamut, from the cerebral (“America Says”) to the “too drunk to think” (“Alcohol”); the rollicking (“Because of You”) to the gentle (“If I Had My Way”); and the celebratory (“Julie Everybody”) to the heartbroken (“You Are”). Jamie Hoover and Jolene’s Mike Mitschele do a nice job helping shape the album, but in the end it’s all about the songs. While McCorkle is still a long way from the star status he seems intent on attaining, he has a gift with words and melodies that will serve him well as he plots a 2001 move to a much bigger pond, Los Angeles. More on Leisure McCorkle.
17. Hooverphonic, The Magnificent Tree (Epic)
I can’t make up my mind about this one. Intuitively The Magnificent Tree doesn’t strike me as powerfully as did the group’s first two releases, and perhaps it’s because they seem to be migrating toward a more mainstream sound. TMT isn’t as quirky as A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular, nor does it soar quite as splendidly as Blue Wonder Powder Milk (which gave us “Battersea,” the soundtrack for one of the prettiest car commercials ever). But when I listen closely to the disc I find nothing in particular to justify the flatness of my response. The songs are nicely constructed, the performances richly textured, and the production polished and spot-on. To be fair, Hooverphonic has once again given us a delicious serving of smoky, Trip-tinged techno-pop, and while it doesn’t sweep me off my feet, it’s certainly a lovely diversion.
18. VNV Nation, Empires (Metropolis)
If the whole was somewhat less than the sum of the parts on the Hooverphonic disc, the inverse is true of the new VNV Nation release, which is one of the best dance albums I’ve heard in some time. Empires is at its best when it settles into a dark, trancy groove and lets the clutch out, but it wants to be something more serious, and the momentum bogs down a tad when the focus shifts to the lyrics. I’m probably being too picky, though – while it may be hard to decide which individual track to stick on a compilation for a friend, as a unified whole Empires is one of the best end-to-end listens of the year.
19. Saint Etienne, The Sound of Water (Sub Pop)
What I said about Hooverphonic above goes double for Saint Etienne’s latest effort. The Brit electronica trio has reeled off a string of trippy pure pop gems, including the exquisite Good Humor (which occupied the #6 slot in the Lullaby Pit’s Best of 1998 list), and while The Sound of Water comes off as a nice, well-executed collection, it doesn’t quite rise to the standards the band has set for itself in recent years. But this is the curse of talent and innovativeness – as soon as you produce something that’s only moderately wonderful the self-appointed Cool Police (that’d be me, in this case) get all bitchy.
20. Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! (Kranky)
GYBE!’s first two efforts were like steel-toed boots to the teeth, alternately introspective and expansive, and constantly thrumming with intimations of menace. Here the Montreal-based collective have taken some of the edge off. The four-song, two-disc set is more structurally varied than their previous releases – a good thing – but the apocalyptic tone lent by spoken word and found audio elements on F#A#Infinity is missing and sorely missed. Performatively, though, LYSFLAtH is arguably the group’s most accomplished work to date.
Honorable Mentions, and Other Stuff That Was Worth the Money
Raison d’Être, The Empty Hollow Unfolds (Cold Meat Industry)
A superb effort from the Swedish Dark Ambient artists. This CD is more ominous than previous releases (if that’s possible), owing more this time around to soft industrial echoes than to medieval church influences.
Walter Clevenger & the Dairy Kings, Love Songs to Myself (Permanent Press)
I liked Walter’s last release a lot, too, although I thought it was perhaps a little too indebted to Nick Lowe. On this release the band branches out stylistically, with rave-ups that echo everything from the Beatles to Buddy Holly to latter-day Roy Orbison to the Everly Brothers.
VAST, Music for People (Elektra)
This sophomore release would probably be top 15 material if it didn’t follow so closely in the conceptual footsteps of the debut.
Paul Oakenfold, Perfecto Presents Another World (Sire)
I don’t consider compilations in my annual review, especially DJ compilations, but this two-disc set nevertheless merits mention. The progenitor of Trance remixes everything from Led Zeppelin to Vangelis to Delerium to Dead Can Dance on this wonderful dance groove.