Editor's Choice: The Top 19 Albums of 2001
by Julio Diaz
I love lists.
There's nothing more fun for me, as a life-long music geek, to make and pick apart lists. It probably comes from growing up with Casey Kasem counting down the hits every weekend, but I'm a sucker for every "greatest songs ever" list, every "readers' choice" poll, and every year-end list that's out there. They're the ultimate argument starters, because they're so subjective that no two lists are ever going to be exactly alike. And we all think we know better than those guys at Rolling Stone, Spin, and MTV (OK, in the case of the latter, we probably do, unless we're talking about Iann Robinson). Now I have a forum for my own list, and I'm gonna use it.
Yes, I'm the one that instigated this year's Top 19 lists. I've been bugging the rest of the editorial staff about doing lists for years, and this year, they finally gave in -- probably to shut me up. Suckers.
Thing is, it seems that most of the staff love the idea, too, because we got some really creative and intelligent lists from many of our staffers. And it seems you readers liked it, too, if our traffic over the last month has been any indication. I hope you've enjoyed these lists as much as we've enjoyed counting 'em down; if you'd like to see 'em return next year, please let us know.
Since this is my baby, I opted to post my list last. It's a good, old-fashioned Top 19 Albums list, counted backwards, Casey-style. Yep, that means the hits don't stop 'til we get to the top -- or in the case of page layout, the bottom -- so you'll have to read all the way through to get to my top pick for 2001. It's a surprise!
Another note: all through 2001, I set aside the records I liked the best (the links throughout this list are to my original reviews, where available). At the year's end, I sorted through them all again to come up with this list. I made the decision to only include full-lengths, which put out some great EPs from the likes of bis, The Beatings, The Exit, and others that surely would have made this list otherwise. I also excluded reissues, best ofs, and box sets (we'll have a recap of those in our In Perspective column in the near future). Even then, 2001 turned out to be a good enough year for music that several worthy efforts had to be left out -- The Incredible Moses Leroy, Chris Murray, Brian Setzer '68 Comeback Special, Suzanne Vega, Depeche Mode, D12, Hayseed Dixie, Tricky, and Ultrababyfat chief among them. Great records all, but they just missed the cut.
Here then, without further ado, is the cream of 2001's musical crop, according to me. You're sure to disagree, and hey, don't be afraid to tell us so! We welcome your letters at email@example.com.
Everything that punk rock should be in the new millennium, The Living End's Roll On runs the gamut from anthemic protest songs (the title track) to boozy shout-alongs ("Uncle Henry"), all flavored with some tasty rockabilly flourishes. In the tradition of The Clash, Rancid, and The Dropkick Murphys, standup bassist Scott Owen, drummer Travis Demsey, and singer/guitarist Chris Cheney are a tight three piece that are unafraid to deliver a message with their driving, anthemic punk rock, and like those bands, do so in a manner that's both distinctively theirs, yet respectful of the core of punk rock. And it sounded great over Stanley Cup highlights, too.
Ably overcoming the loss of DJ Cut Chemist and rapper Chali 2Na to the brilliant hip-hop combo Jurassic 5, LA-based multi-culturalists Ozomatli came darn close to equaling their brilliant 1998 self-titled debut with this sophomore effort. A solid Latin feel is the base for a sonic stew that throws in everything and the kitchen sink, and still holds together. Guest appearances from the likes of De La Soul, Will.I.Am, and Common certainly don't hurt, either.
I picked this record up solely because the name sounded cool, and quickly fell in love with the jazzy grooves within. Multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin teams up with a plethora of friends (including such notables as Sean Lennon, Flea, and Miho Hattori) to produce a fresh, funky, jazzy batch of tunes that sound something like what might happen if The Propellerheads partied with Steely Dan and Esquivel.
This never got reviewed in our pages because of some internal confusion, but it certainly deserves the recognition. Jon Spencer's little sister fronts a funky combo that tries to fill the massive void left by the untimely demise of Luscious Jackson, and largely succeeds. As they say on "No Competition," "nothing can compete with the B-R-A-double-S-Y beat."
With Progress, Rx Bandits went from being just another Southern California ska-punk band to a diverse, intelligent group that can take on serious issues and still rock out. Mixing ska, punk, reggae, hardcore, indie rock, and messages of social change, the band turned out the year's most aptly titled record.
This record got lost in my always-massive review pile until just a few weeks ago (so long that my copy has the original, pre-9/11 title of Bleed American on it), and I really regret that, because it's an amazing record. Equally adept with driving rock ("Bleed American") and tender, pretty ballads ("Hear You Me"), Jimmy Eat World have created an infectious, eminently listenable album worthy of praise. And hey, any band that lyrically checks both Madness and They Might Be Giants (as they do on the brilliant "A Praise Chorus," with guest vocals from The Promise Ring's Davey Von Bohlen) gets extra points in my book.
Atom Goren too often gets dismissed as a mere joke (he's been called "the punk rock Weird Al"), but on Redefining Music, he shows that you can be funny and still address serious topics. "Anarchy Means I Litter" and "If You Own the Washington Redskins, You're a Cock" are snot-nosed, sarcastic, and funny, but it doesn't lessen the power of the scathing message behind the songs. And yeah, Atom still does the silly story-songs ("Shopping Spree" is not to be missed), tributes to friends (the heartfelt "For Franklin"), and wacky covers (Madonna's "Open Your Heart") that made him popular on the punk rock scene, but Redefining Music is a much more mature effort than anyone would likely give Atom credit for -- including himself.
If you miss Camper Van Beethoven, you need to own this record. A masterpiece of quiet, twangy melancholy and witty lyrical play, Clem Snide recall the beloved CVB without sounding derivative. I've read a review of this record that called it "the best country record made by a bunch of indie rockers," and I can't think of a more apt description. This record would have made my list on the basis of the brilliant "Joan Jett of Arc" alone.
Dan The Automator caught lightning in a bottle twice this year. First, he joined forces with Blur's Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett to unleash the cartoon band Gorillaz on an unsuspecting world, and while I was initially lukewarm on the record, it's grown on me as the year's gone on -- certainly, "Clint Eastwood" is one of the year's greatest singles (and videos), but the album's eclectic mix of hip-hop, electronica, and indie rock sounds is undeniably cool. As is The Automator's second effort of the year, which finds his Handsome Boy Modeling School alter-ego of Nathaniel Merriweather joining forces with Faith No More's Mike Patton and Elysian Fields' Jennifer Charles as Lovage. Lovage is all smooth, sexy, and cool, downbeat without ever being dull. One of the sexiest records of the year -- and that's even discounting the slinky cover of Berlin's sleazy classic "Sex (I'm A...)."
On which Jeff Baker once again proves why his stage name is no idle boast. What was once described by some as the ska master's "dancehall record" is in fact a stunning mix of electronica, jungle, punk, hip hop, and multiple Jamaican music styles easily as diverse as anything by the aforementioned Ozomatli. Even when revisiting old themes ("Nex Season") or rerecording older tracks ("LKO"), everything about Reason is fresh and new.
While Comfort Eagle was not a dramatic change of pace from Cake's previous efforts, they're so good at their distinctive, sardonic sound that it hardly matters. The eleven tracks here sounded familiar from the first listen, which made it that much easier for them to worm their way into my head. In short, instantly classic.
You always hear that The Go-Go's started out as a punk rock band, but God Bless is the first record where you can actually hear it. 17 years after their last studio album, and one vicious breakup behind them, the girls sound better than ever -- raw, rough, and worldwise, yet still finding that irresistible pop and crackle that made them America's sweethearts. It bubbles, pops, and rocks, often all at the same time. And Jane Wiedlin's still a babe, too!
Freezepop is probably the most aptly named band I've come across this year. Their music is as icy and sweet as the frozen treat they're named for. It's also loaded with charm and cute, making Forever the best synth-pop record not made in the '80s. This record would have made the list based on the strength of ultra-cool tracks like "Get Ready 2 Rokk," "Robotron 2000," and "Freezepop Forever" alone, but the whole record is a wonderful little gem.
Call And Response's gorgeous self-titled debut originally came out on the wonderful little Athens, GA label Kindercore early in 2001, and I instantly fell in love with its rich, dreamy harmonies and mellow California vibe. The record found an audience, and was remastered and reissued (plus a couple new tracks) on Emperor Norton late in the year. It's worth it to make sure you get a copy of the reissue, not so much for the extra songs (which are great), but because the remastering really brings out the record's highpoint -- the tasty and full harmonies. This record sounds like summer: sunny, warm, and laid back. Pure goodness.
One of 2000's best records was Heroes And Villains, a collection that found some of indie's greatest lights (Apples In Stereo, Frank Black, bis, Devo, Dressy Bessy, Shonen Knife, and others) paying musical tribute to the cutest superheroes ever to save the day. This year, the show's composer, Jim Venable, and his crew took the show's theme and incidental music and remixed it into 17 dance-floor anthems, and darned if it isn't just as good. And my 18-month-old daughter loves it, too.
Cole named his new record after his new band, and about the only thing negative about both is their appellations. The band is a tight five-piece unit that includes Michael (Eve's Plumb) Kotch on guitar and Jill ("I Kissed a Girl") Sobule on guitar and vocals. The record is a surprisingly musically diverse eleven tracks of classic Cole story songs, singular vocals, and trademark "Negative Attitude." Both are as bloody brilliant as Cole himself.
Before we move on to the top three, a brief note. I spent almost as much time compiling this entire list as I did trying to figure out the order that these three albums would appear in. The difference in quality on the top three is negligible -- all three are as perfect as they can be, and any one of them could have easily taken the top spot. To call them numbers 1a, 1b, and 1c would not have been inaccurate. In the end, I finally ranked them, but these next three albums are virtually the equal of each other, and on any given day, the order could change.
After 1999's Emergency & I, they could have rested on their laurels. A virtual clone of that record would have easily found a home on this list. And yes, the ingredients that made Emergency so great are here: multi-layered keyboards, skittering, chiming guitars, danceable grooves, Travis Morrison's distinctive vocals. But the band didn't settle for just that, and that's what gets them so high on the list. Change found the band reaching for new heights and not only achieving them, but going above and beyond them. And it's the best sequenced record of the year, too.
Anything They Might Be Giants would have released would have been likely to find a home on my list -- they've been my favorite band for well over a decade. But their first "official" studio album in five years turned out to be their best in twice that, and a spiritual cousin to one of their all-time best, 1989's Lincoln, all awash with crackling energy and eclectic experimentalism, making it the stuff that the tops of the charts are made of.
Part concept album, part protest record, part radio play, and full of more soul than anything else to come across my desk this year, Stay Human takes the prize. I originally reviewed this record in the shadow of the Timothy McVeigh execution. That did nothing to diminish its power, and neither do the events of 9/11. And the obvious allusions the album makes to the Mumia Abu-Jamal case are even more relevant given the new attention focused on his case by the courts' decision to review his sentence. Far from being here only for the politics, though, Stay Human earns its spot not only with its lyrical content, but with a vibrant, alive set of R&B, funk, hip hop, and pure soul. The record never falls into the one-note trap of many concept albums and political records, and holds up to repeated listens long after you're familiar with the fictional tale of Sister Fatima. And most importantly, it never sounds dour or depressing. It's a brilliant, intelligent, and Important piece of art, and that earns it a place at the top.