The Best CDs of 2001
Lullaby Pit “Best of” lists tend to suggest a theme in the popular music of the year, but 2k1 defies quick description moreso than any year in memory. No one genre dominates, although there were plenty of strong entries in everything from Power Pop to Metal. Most of the best releases were produced by independent labels, but that’s hardly a new phenomenon – major-label suckage has been an ugly fact of life for a long time and no relief is in sight. And while this year’s list is well represented by new artists (including the top spot), it also sees the return of some old favorites.
In fact, the most notable trend of the 2001 music year was the fact that, thanks to the economy and the ridiculous expense of moving from Boston to Denver, I was unable to buy as much new music as I normally do. As such, my picks will probably snub more worthy artists than usual, and I’ll offer apologies for the omissions I’m aware of below.
So, with all regrets for the lack of a defining trend and the exclusion of all the great discs I couldn’t afford to buy, here’s The Lullaby Pit’s Best CDs of 2001.
1: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
As I type this, I’m listening to “Whatever Happened to My Rock & Roll,” the third track on BRMC’s stunning self-titled debut release, and am wondering pretty much what the guys in the band are wondering:
I fell in love in love with a sweet sensation
I gave my heart to a simple cause
I gave my soul to a new religion
Whatever happened to you?
Whatever happened to my rock & roll?
These are arguably the darkest days in the past 50 years of popular music, and that’s saying something, because I used to believe the disco years were as bad as it could possibly get. But as unspeakable as the mainstream has become, new bands like BRMC – the anti-*NSYNC – demonstrate the truth of what Bono said at the Grammys: “It is an extraordinary thing to behold the sound of a rock and roll band in full flight.”
That’s especially true when the rock band in question so clearly and unashamedly reverences the expressive power of the guitar the way this crowd does. It’s been a long time since new music evidenced any real veneration of the axe, but BMRC treats the instrument that made rock & roll the way Sammy Sosa would probably handle one of Babe Ruth’s bats if he were allowed to take a few cuts with it. These are dark, smoky, soulful guitars, guitars at ease with the ambivalence of melody and dissonance.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club owes a great deal to the UK’s early-‘90s Dreampop/Shoegazer movement. In particular, the legacy of Jesus and Mary Chain holds significant sway here (with “Whatever Happened…” bordering on homage), and you can also expect to hear bits and pieces of everything from Stone Roses to Ride to Chapterhouse, as well as occasional snatches of Love & Rockets, My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized, Verve and even Rolling Stones. There’s a wonderfully psychedelic narcotic/glam strut to the performances – it’s not as though the band is caught up in being rock stars or anything, but they do seem like the sorts who are very at ease around black leather and fog machines.
This isn’t just my best CD of 2001 – it’s one of the best debut releases from any band in the last 25 years, period. BMRC’s site…
2: REM – Reveal
After several years of apparently trying to find a new direction, REM eased out of experimental mode and released their best effort since 1992’s marvelous Automatic for the People. Not that the band all of a sudden went conventional, understand – rather, they simply placed a greater emphasis on the songs, a strategy that has informed all of the band’s greatest successes through the years. Of particular interest is the Pet Sounds-tinged undercurrent throughout, a theme that rises to the level of overt homage in a couple spots. Reveal may not be Reckoning, but it’s considerably stronger than their three previous efforts.
3: Graham Parker – Deepcut to Nowhere
There’s really not much new to say about GP. While most of his late-‘70s New Wave breakout contemporaries have faded away into obscurity (or worse, maturity), Parker has managed to age, more or less gracefully, without losing his edge. On Deepcut, a disc that begins with “Dark Days” and ends with “Road to Nowhere,” Parker plays the angry middle-aged man to perfection, venting his personal discontent through tunes like “I’ll Never Play Jacksonville Again,” “It Takes a Village Idiot” and “Syphilis & Religion” (and with Parker, you really can gauge the tone of a release by looking at the song titles). Sadly, Parker is cursed by his own past. When the first four years of your recording career include “Heat Treatment,” Howlin’ Wind,” “Stick to Me” and “Squeezing Out Sparks,” it’s always going to be easy for critics to talk about how you were better back in the old days.
4: Stabbing Westward – Stabbing Westward
The new self-titled Stabbing Westward CD really caught me off-guard. While I past releases have occasionally hinted at a more mainstream possibility, nothing quite prepared me for Stabbing Westward, the post-Industrial pop band. In just about every way imaginable, SW’s latest is less hard Industrial angst-rock and more song-driven rock (in a way that would have been very radio-friendly five years ago, probably). And I’m probably making this all sound, if not like an overtly bad thing, then at least suspicious. But that’s not the case, and I am the suspicious type when I think I smell a sell-out (I mean, how the hell could they sell out, even if they wanted to, in the current popular music environment). In fact, I was absolutely blown away by the songcraft of SW. Past records have revealed a couple radio-worthy gems (“Shame” and “What Do I Have to Do” from Wither Blister Burn & Peel come to mind, for example), but even in their most poppy moments the emphasis still remained on aurally manifesting the rage of betrayal and lost love. I never even conceived of something as lovely as “Happy,” which takes Christopher Hall’s recurring “I can’t believe you dumped me” obsession (how often does he get 86ed, anyway?) and surrounds it with lush love-song melodies and even some synth-xylophone instrumentation. I apologize if I’m making the disc sound too pretty or sensitive or insufficiently Industrial for anybody who latched onto SW during the Ungod era, but sometimes bands grow in the direction of the mainstream, and that’s not always a bad thing. Frequently, yes, but not always…..
5: Tool – Lateralus
Tool’s infusion of weighty Prog pretension is one of the very few interesting things to happen to metal in a number of years (and by this I mean commercial metal – there have been all kinds of fascinating things happening on the Goth and Industrial fringes, but that’s another conversation). Granted, Maynard’s lyrics can be a tad obtuse at times, but I’ll take a smattering of obscurity over the adolescent clarity of Kid Rock any day. Lateralus is hard for me to dissect, though, because even after a couple dozen listens it still insists on being considered as an end-to-end whole, one that works more on sonic accumulation than individual detail. It’s not that the whole is more than the sum of the parts – rather, it’s almost like there aren’t any parts. The critics I’ve seen don’t think this one stacks up to Aenima, and that’s probably fair. But there a richness and intuitive depth about Lateralus that makes me think it will age well.
6: John Mellencamp – Cuttin’ Heads
Once upon a time Johnny Mellencougar was one of my very favorite artists – from his first appearance on The Midnight Special in the late 1970s (doing either “Small Paradise” or “I Need a Lover,” I can’t remember for sure) pretty much up through about Big Daddy. And then I guess we grew apart – some of his late-‘80s/early-‘90s stuff didn’t do much for me. In retrospect, our estrangement was my fault, because John always remained true to himself, even when he knew it was going to hurt him in the sales department. But with his latest, Mellencamp has made it just about impossible for me to ignore him. Cuttin’ Heads is sharp and substantive, alternating between commentary on race (the title track, which features some in-your-face from Chuck D, no less), the nuances of personal and sexual politics (“Shy”), and some occasional self-effacing auto-bio (the tragi-comic “Women Seem,” which is worth the price of the disc all by itself). There are plenty of artists whose successes afford them all the time they’d ever need for thoughtfulness and reflection. It’s a shame more of them don’t use their leisure the way Mellencamp does.
7: Don Dixon – Notepad #38
Anybody who knows me or pays any attention at all to the Lullaby Pit knows I’m a hardcore Don Dixon fan, and have been for years. In addition to being one of the best producers alive, he’s also one of popular music’s best-kept secrets as a performer in his own right. So a new Don Dixon CD is always at the top of my shopping list. That said, I didn’t really have terribly high expectations for Notepad #38, at least not by Dixonian standards. It was billed as a collection of things he’d done through the years that didn’t wind up on any of his studio releases, so I was anticipating something in the Dead Letter Office range, although with better individual songs. What I got instead was a collection that holds up pretty well as whole – in fact, if Don had trotted Notepad #38 out as a new studio CD, I’d probably have fallen for it. My favorite thing about the disc is that you have two versions of one song – “(If I Could) Walk Away” – with the fast version being Don’s original take, and the slower version (according to the liner notes) being produced in an attempt to entice another performer into recording it. Dixon has always been about the songs, and the inclusion of both versions here allows the listener a neat insight into how songwriters relate to the multiple faces of a single string of chords and words. Don’s Web site…
8: Adam Schmitt – Demolition
I’d been waiting on something new from Adam Schmitt for eight freakin’ years. His 1991 debut was just superb, and the 1993 follow-up (Illiterature) was most wonderful primarily because Schmitt refused to rest on convention. A lot of Power Poppers get a nice, hooky little formula working and you can pretty much predict what the next record will be like based on the last three. But Schmitt worked hard to expand his sound, working in some longer-form tunes and introducing a bit of sonic fuzz into the guitar production. It wasn’t as pretty, and almost nobody liked it as much as World So Bright, but it signaled that Schmitt was intent on growing and challenging himself to transcend the genre. I was a bit worried that nearly a decade of anticipation might cause me to build up expectations that couldn’t be met, but Demolition delivers on all fronts. The new disc sounds more like the first one in terms of song structures and production, but the apparent simplicity of the songs belie their lyrical nuance. I won’t say Demolition was worth the wait, though, because eight years is too damned long to wait on a rock & roll record, even one this good. Parasol Records site…
9: Garbage – Beautiful Garbage
I didn’t even know there was a new Garbage CD until I saw a story in the local paper about how bands that were the darlings of alt.radio five years ago can’t even get a listen now. But I figured that as good as the first two CDs were, the new one was probably worth the cash, too. It was an odd first listen, though, as the band spends a good deal of time experimenting with everything from faux hip-hop to neo-Motown girl pop, but after about three spins it all started to make cool, playful, pop-coated sense. It’s a shame about radio, too, because I can’t help thinking listeners would have loved “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)”
10: Paul Lewis – Get On With It
It’s always difficult being objective about new CDs when the performers are not only artists you respect, they’re also personal friends. So do I like Get On With It more than it deserves because I’ve known Paul Lewis for so long? Am I not giving it enough credit because I’m bending over backward trying to maintain my “critical credibility”? Or maybe it all averages out? In any event, Get On With It is the solo debut for the former frontman for YNOT?!, a band that routinely packed every club on the Eastern Shore (and D.C. and Baltimore…) during their early- to mid-‘90s salad days, and which still ranks in the top five of my list of greatest bands that never made it. Get On With It is chocked full of songs that make you want to put the top down and cruise around the beach until sunrise, and it’s energized by a certain East Coast/Left Coast tension (which is probably to be expected of a Maryland boy who’s now struggling to make a name for himself in Hollywood). The Melrose vibe evident early on gives way in the middle part of the disc to what I would almost describe as an Asbury Jukes/Jersey Shore interlude, except that Paul swears he’s never listened to Southside Johnny. Go figure. The disc concludes on a down tempo, with a gorgeous trilogy devoted to his wife and daughter. Get on With It is about as genuine as popular records get – a labor of love in its purest sense – and the more you learn about the stories behind its making the better it gets. Paul’s Web site…
11: The Autumns – In the Russet Gold of This Vain Hour
Technically a 2000 release. I had never heard of The Autumns before earlier this year, but immediately fell in love with their swirling, atmospheric breed of neo-shoegazer pop. In the Russet Gold of This Vain Hour is one of those rare records that works really well as ambient background (very important for people like me, who like to have some music on while they’re working), but also rewards closer listening.
12: Gorillaz – Gorillaz
Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, Blur’s Damon Albarn, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from Talking Heads and Del tha Funkee Homosapien are (some of) the musical personae behind the curtain for this trippy, chirpy virtual quartet, which is probably the coolest idea of the year. Given the range of creative styles involved, it’s not surprising that the CD is stylistically jarring in places, but on the whole the effort is one that transcends its own novelty (I mean, come on, the band is animated) to stand as a serious musical effort. I hope this isn’t a one-time project…
13: Built to Spill – Ancient Melodies of the Future
Another act that was new to me during the year, and based on the descriptions I was hearing I was expecting something vaguely up Luna’s alley. While there’s certainly a measured reserve and sparseness to Doug Martsch’s songwriting, I was a bit surprised at the Beatlesque character of some of these tracks – wonderful stuff, as if John/Paul/George/Ringo had grown up in Idaho….
14: The Cult – Beyond Good & Evil
I was ready to scrape The Cult into a hole and shovel dirt over them after 1994’s abysmal eponymous release, and when I started hearing that the band had reformed I didn’t much care. But Beyond Good & Evil proved a pleasant surprise, hearkening back to the verve of Electric (without slipping into self-parody). Other critics have credited this newfound energy to the influence of bands like Tool, and perhaps Trent Reznor, and while I’m not sure I hear it quite that way, there’s no arguing with the edge on Billy Duffy’s guitar work this time around.
15: The Go-Go’s – God Bless the Go-Go’s
This year’s musical equivalent to seeing all your old friends at a high school reunion. While breaking no new ground, God Bless the Go-Go’s is warm and sunny (despite Belinda’s lyrical venting over a relationship that apparently ended badly – the gods help us if she ever hooks up with Christopher Hall of Stabbing Westward…), and affords everybody in the band a chance to revisit the best creative ride of their careers. The disc manages to sound 1984 without being self-consciously retro, and I couldn’t help thinking how happy I am that things seem to be going so well for a band I played to death when I was in college.
16: The Rosenbergs – Mission: You
Not only is this a really catchy collection of guitar pop coolness, Mission: You also represents an entirely new kind of relationship between band and record company. Robert Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile label takes an unconventional stance regarding who owns rights to what and how funds are divvied up (in some ways, the deal looks more like a management relationship than a recording contract) and if the model proves successful (fingers crossed) it could drive some much-needed change through an industry that, more than anything, just needs killin’. And did I mention the guitar pop coolness? Great songs, great singing, great playing… The Rosenbergs on DGM Web site…
17: Rhea’s Obsession – Between Earth and Sky
Moody, dark, and very pretty, this Canadian Goth/Darkwave duo draws heavily on Celt, Balkan and occasionally South Asian motifs. Like contemporaries Love Spirals Downwards, Lycia, Raison d’Etre and Love is Colder Than Death, their music is more about sumptuous, haunting aural textures than tightly-crafted songs – which by itself probably precludes even the faintest hope of airplay – but anybody who likes Enya, Delerium and Enigma would do well to give Rhea’s Obsession a listen.
Honorable Mention and Unrated
The Pit’s annual “Best of” list only rates full studio releases by a single artist or band, so soundtracks, compilations, live CDs and EPs are not included. However, that doesn’t mean some aren’t worth mentioning. So here are some other discs worth noting from last year.
New Order – Get Ready
Nicely crafted, updated sound, but it’s unlikely they’ll ever match Substance.
ELO – Zoom
This wasn’t really an ELO record at all – it was a Jeff Lynne solo CD trying to attract market share by trading on ELO notoriety. Still, Jeff Lynne writes pretty good songs and is a great producer.
Apoptygma Berzerk – APBL2000
Live release from one of Techno/Industrial’s best artists, whom I’m told put on one hell of a show.
Penetrator – Prettier
Thoughtful, home-produced experimental Industrial from Denver’s Jonny Global. It’s remarkable how far home studio tech has come.
Jeffrey Dean Foster – The Leaves Turn Upside Down
Live EP from former Pinetops frontman. A new studio release is promised for 2002, and having heard five or six “rough” tracks from it, I can tell you it’s already an early favorite for the Best of 2002. The Leaves Turn Upside Down, though, is just amazing. No effort was made to filter the background noise, so not only do you get beautifully spare solo performances from one of popular music’s best undiscovered storytellers, you also get the occasional dose of audience apathy. You know them, you hate them, you wish somebody would break a guitar over their heads – jackasses who go to a show, stand near the stage, and yap their fucking heads off so that you can barely hear the performer. There’s an admirable honesty at work when the artist acknowledges indifference in this manner. Foster’s Web site…
Various Artists – O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I can’t quite believe the Grammies figured one out, but all the accolades heaped on this disc were richly deserved. Artists like The Fairfield Four, Ralph Stanley, The Whites, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris are authentic, as opposed to Authentic®, and while the movie was laugh-out-loud funny, the soundtrack itself told an extended tale of despair, of a life where the only possible hope awaited in the Great Beyond.
Various Artists – Moulin Rouge
Who knew Ewan McGregor could sing? As much as I liked the contributions from Bono, Bowie and Massive Attack (and I was even able to stomach the remake of “Lady Marmalade” by Pink, Mya, Lil’ Kim and Christian Aguilera), the real revelation of the soundtrack was McGregor, whose wonderful turn in the campy “Elephant Love Medley” was the highlight of the film, and whose rendition of “Your Song” did more for Elton John than Elton has done for himself in 25 years.
As noted above, I was unable to get my hands on everything I wanted to buy last year. Even after I stocked my holiday wish list with pretty much nothing but CD requests, I still came up way short of where I am most years. So, here are some of the artists I feel guilty about slighting in this year’s ratings. I have no doubt that some of them would have found their way onto the list if I’d had more cash on hand.