BY KEN WALCZAK
Countdown to the ten finest albums of 2001
One thing I have learned about making up these sorts of lists is that it would be all too easy to begin with a mile-long list of disclaimers. I could explain that no human being, least of all a full-time law student working for a non-paying publication, could ever hope to hear and evaluate all of the music released in a calendar year. I could then go on to justify the ultimately personal nature of this kind of list, defending it as a conversation-starter, on the order of VH1’s “The List” (only hopefully much more interesting) … and so on.
But of course you know all that already. You’ve probably seen enough of these to know that they’re never exhaustive or authoritative, and you don’t expect mine to be any different. In which case I will say only that I have adhered to strict criteria of chronology — considering nothing released on Dec. 31, 2000 or Jan. 1, 2002 — and originality — no reissues or collections of previously-released songs. Because I was raised a Casey Kasem fan, I present my 10 Finest Albums of 2001 in reverse (“countdown”) order, with brief remarks about each of the Top 5. I hope you enjoy them.
10. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci — How I Long To Feel That Summer In My Heart
9. Sloan — Pretty Together
8. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott — Miss E … So Addictive
7. Radiohead — Amnesiac
6. Basement Jaxx — Rooty
5. Bob Dylan — Love & Theft
Rock’s elder statesman embarks on a rambling tour of Americana, admonishing naïve tourists and gaping onlookers alike to “throw your panties overboard.” Dylan now writes to suit the new-millennium edition of his singing voice — the 6th or 7th one he’s gone through to date — a whiskey-bottle rasp of downright Waitsian proportions. But oh, what songs he writes. “Lonesome Day Blues” is impeccable, Bob’s triumphant, boastful promise to “teach peace to the conquered [and] tame the proud” hurled sharply enough to kill. On the other side of the spectrum, the woeful “Sugar Baby” just makes you want to die, as Bob laments “You went years without me/ Might as well keep going now.”
On top of it all, his road-tested backing band is the tightest it’s been in years. This disc deserves every word of the praise it’s gotten, and probably a few of the superlatives hastily thrown at Time Out of Mind, too.
4. Ken Stringfellow — Touched
The once and future Posie (and adjunct member of R.E.M and Big Star) couldn’t have chosen a better title for his latest collection of power-pop melancholy. Like the word “touched,” each of these 11 songs are pleasant-sounding, with some innocent surface meaning often obscuring deeper sexual (if not sinister) connotations. Like the word “touched,” they may also suggest a hint of insanity.
Stringfellow owes his success to an uncanny knack for perching the listener precariously on the brink of despair; in 2001 he managed to up the ante without yet pushing us over. Perhaps feeling the need to one-up Beulah, who tried their hands at misery-pop to great effect this year, he began his album with a song about suicide … or rather, with a song about how jealous he is that a friend managed to die first. And it’s a damned good song. Similarly, one of the album’s cheeriest, catchiest efforts (“Reveal Love”) begins with a high-pitched observation: “There’s so much pain …” which entertains no argument. Fortunately, on Touched, it all hurts so good.
3. Daft Punk — Discovery
2001 was a phenomenal year for dance music. While Basement Jaxx grimed up the dance floor to spectacular effect, Daft Punk polished it to a glistening, robot-metal sheen. But while the otherwise-stellar Rooty proved a little uneven, nearly everything about Discovery is a success. The first ten tracks are all bonafide ass-shaking anthems, yet each pales in comparison to “Face 2 Face,” a preppy breakbeat dissection that a friend of mine once admiringly compared to “DJ Premier — if he did house music.”
Knockout blows are delivered by the emergence of singer Romanthony (that’s him you’ve got in your head singing “One More Time …”), and the beautiful suite of narrative music videos which brought anime giant Leiji Matsumoto out of retirement. The Pet Shop Boys — from whom Daft nicked the play on words “disco/ very” — must be very proud indeed.
2. Hayden — Skyscraper National Park
Hayden is from Canada. Last I spoke to him (in 1998, admittedly), he still lived with his parents. He writes songs, plays guitar — mostly of the acoustic and bass varieties. He has a singing voice at least a full octave lower than mine — and I’m no tenor. He’s had two records put out by Geffen, but good luck finding them. In Canada, those two plus an EP are available (widely I imagine) on a label called Hardwood.
Why should you care? Because those three discs are brilliant, and this one is even better. Hayden is still singing about insecurity and over-short relationships, and he still has a tremendous storyteller’s eye, a talent for singling out the single small detail that defines an entire scene. Yet he no longer alternates low, whispered musings with startling basso catharsis. Instead, he’s discovered his falsetto, and it’s perfect. Without any shouting to get in the way, his sketches take on a true, grown-up Canadian poignancy, such that it seems only fitting that he now add nature scenes and philosophical musings to his list of preferred topics. Available only as an import (I suggest visiting www.hmv.ca), Hayden’s best album is hardly a plea for attention. But it definitely deserves yours.
1. Spoon — Girls Can Tell
In something like the sixth consecutive year erroneously billed as “the return of the rock,” one group did remind me that good rock music can still induce drool. That group was not the Strokes, or the White Stripes, but rather a collection of perpetual underdogs from Austin, Texas. When Britt Daniel’s band Spoon was dropped by a major label, the song he wrote about it (“Lines In the Suit”) was more than revenge, it was some kind of Platonic ideal. Raw yet infectious, persistent and somehow off-kilter by just the right amount — you could even call it “angular” if that didn’t conjure Tortoise and all manner of boring “math-rock” — “Lines In the Suit” embodies everything that is great about the music on Girls Can Tell.
As for the lyrics, they are merely wistful, perceptive and charming, without ever straying into pretentiousness. As is his way, Daniel delivers them with a slight drawl, through a slight lisp, and with enough conviction and charisma to erase all doubt. His ability to find in the routine — “The human resource clerk/ Has two cigarettes, then back to work” – a kind of transcendent understanding — “She eats right/ But hurts/ Says ‘it could have been easier …’/’It could have/ Been more than a wage ….'” is at its absolute peak on Girls Can Tell. Fantastic. Easily the best record of the year.