Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Best Songs and Albums of 2001

As I was writing my ‘Brain vs iPod: 2002’ piece a few weeks ago, I kind of knew in the back of my head that this would cause me to do one for every year of the decade, and sure enough, it has. Here is be followed, I’m sure, by 2003-2006. I’m not going to go with the ‘Brain vs iPod’ thing, though, as the interesting part is simply the ranking itself. So without further adieu...

2001 was an okay year for music. Compared to 2002, it was mediocre at best, but as with even the driest of years, there’s still a lot of quality in the Top 10 or 15. Hip hop was almost nonexistent in 2001—you can see exactly why Jay-Z manufactured a feud with Nas...there was nothing else worthwhile going on—though as we saw in the 2002 piece, that was only temporary. As for music as a whole...well, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finished #8 on my 2002 Albums list. Had it been released in 2001 as originally intended, it would have been #2 in 2001. That pretty much says it all. Still, it’s not like I dislike any of the albums I’m about to discuss or anything.

Best Albums

1. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft. For a long time, I associated this album with its release date—9/11—but enough time (and listens) have passed by now that now I just associate it with being awesome. Whereas I think 2006’s Modern Times was a bit overrated, it’s really hard to overrate Love and Theft. He showed that he still had a lot of wit and talent left on 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but that album was saturated with an overall feeling of illness and mortality (“It’s not dark yet/but it’s getting there.”) With Love and Theft, Bob just reared back and decided to have a good time. It’s such a fun album, from the “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” opener to “Honest With Me” to “Summer Days.” Even some songs that feel like they should be more downbeat—“Cry a While”, “High Water (For Charley Patton)”—have a quaint looseness to them. Actually, Modern Times was probably a great’s just that my standards were set so high with Love and Theft that it was going to be impossible to live up to my expectations. There really isn’t much competition here—it is far and away #1 for 2001.

2. North Mississippi Allstars, 51 Phantom. If I ever actually finish a piece I’ve been writing about R.L. Burnside and Mississippi blues-rock, you’ll see that I discovered NMAS in 2000 when I happened across their set opening for a jamband at the Blue Note in Columbia. After happily digesting their 2000 album of blues covers—Shake Hands with Shorty—I started looking forward to the fall 2001 release of their next album. Even though I expected to enjoy it, I had no idea it was going to be as good as it was. Mixing in a few originals with their variations of some more blues standards, NMAS makes the whole thing sound both laid back and energetic, original yet totally observant of history. Originality is tough in the blues genre, but NMAS continues to push the envelope.

(3. Dave Matthews Band, The Lillywhite Sessions. I’ve talked about this one before. I put this one in parentheses because, even though I want to count it in the 2001 releases, I know that I already put their 2002 album, Busted Stuff, near the top of that year’s list, and about 90% of BS’s songs are the same as on the Lillywhite Sessions. So for now we’ll just say that this is where it would have ranked if I’d ranked it.)

3. Rilo Kiley, Take Offs and Landings. Rilo Kiley released a few different versions of their debut EP, Initial Friend, and though Initial Friend was pretty damn close a full-length album (9 songs, I believe), Take Offs and Landings was their first official LP release. Jenny Lewis hadn’t totally discovered and developed her amazing voice yet—there’s a little more quirk and a little less beauty here—and she was still splitting the lead singing load with guitarist Blake Sennett, but Take Offs is still a hellaciously good effort. It’s hard to come up with original takes in lovesong lyrics, but songs like “Plane Crash in C” (one of the best titles ever), “Science vs Romance,” and “Go Ahead” are really quirky and unique. This was a prolific time for Rilo Kiley, as they would release the even better The Execution of All Things the very next year...and More Adventurous only two years later. Granted, the Beatles put out like 19 albums a year in the mid-‘60s, but for the 2000’s three great albums—each better than its predecessors—in four years is quite a feat.

4. R.L. Burnside, Burnside on Burnside (Live). I argue with myself a lot about which live albums to include on these lists. I included 2002’s Live from the Wetlands from Robert Randolph & The Family Band, but I’m not including the outstanding Live from Mars release from Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals or Jay-Z's MTV Unplugged on this list. I guess the main criterion is this: if the album is intended to introduce an artist(s) (as Live from the Wetlands does)—and if the songs on said album aren’t really available in any other form to a music buyer—then it counts. That explains Wetlands. R.L. Burnside had been putting out minor releases (my favorite: A Ass Pocket of Whiskey) for a while, however if it weren’t for the marginal success of Burnside on Burnside, not only would I not have heard of any of his other releases, they wouldn’t have been available to me even if I had. In other words, this was, for all intents and purposes, the introduction of R.L. Burnside to the world.

All that said, this album is really, really fun. Burnside took a bunch of songs that I’d heard before in one form or another—North Mississippi Allstars hold him up as their god and perform quite a few of his songs—and crafted a great live show out of them. Plus, he was a dirty old man when this was recorded. Burnside was someone who enjoyed life—despite the obstacles thrown his way—and it just radiates from this disc. “Jumper on the Line” and “Snake Drive”, in particular, are just phenomenal.

5. Ryan Adams, Gold. This one surprised me. Every time I think of this album, I underrate it. It’s as uneven as every other Adams album—when you’re as freakishly prolific as he is, not nearly everything you come up with is going to be as good as you hope it will be at the time—but the quality extends pretty far beyond the two radio songs, “New York, New York,” and “Listening Bell,” which, as you’ll see, are two of my favorite songs of the year. I love how Adams’ sound and voice just naturally rotate between country, rock, and R&B on songs like “Firecracker” and “Gonna Make You Love Me.” He let himself have some fun on this one (that’s not always the case), and the results were strong, especially on the aforementioned “New York, New York.” I always loved Denis Leary’s 1990s comedy routines, and he talked a lot about his love for New York, both its good and its bad. Adams’ musical tribute here falls into the same “You take the good with the bad, and I love this place” category...only significantly less funny, of course.

6. India.Arie, Acoustic Soul. Peruse this list, and you’ll see that there’s no Alicia Keys here...other than the presence of “Fallin’” on the Top 50 list. I ended up with both Acoustic Soul and Keys’ Songs in A Minor at the same time. I was blown away by Acoustic Soul’s originality and quality, while A Minor told me that Keys was just a one-trick pony. I love “Fallin’” as much as the next person, but there just wasn’t much else on Keys’ album. So it really really pissed me off when Keys basically won all the Grammys for which India.Arie was nominated. Of course, Arie’s next album was completely and totally bland and uninteresting, while Keys took a gigantic step forward with The Diary of Alicia Keys, so for once maybe the Grammys were smarter than I was. Then again, A Minor just really cannot hold a candle to Acoustic Soul, so...yeah, screw the Grammys.

7. My Morning Jacket, At Dawn. Another one I apparently like more than I thought I did. I love every song on 2005’s Z (off the top of my head, I have to figure it will be the #1 album on my 2005 list), and I’ve always regarded 2003’s It Still Moves as a major step forward for MMJ. However, it turns out that At Dawn is pretty damn good. While Jim James’ songwriting (and singing, for that matter) has taken major steps up the pyramid since 2001, songs like “Just Because I Do” and “Phone Went West” are still top-notch.

8. John Mayer, Room for Squares. Being that I sacrificed all of my music nerd cred when I admitted that I like Mandy Moore a while back, I guess it’s safe for me to admit that I occasionally enjoy John Mayer as well. Never mind that he’s one of the funniest, wittiest musicians around...he’s a pretty damn strong singer-songwriter as well. Some of the songs on Room for Squares haven’t aged very well, but a) I sure did like them in 2001, and b) plenty of the songs—like “3x5” and “Not Myself”—are still perfect examples of early-‘00s singer-songwriter pop. And the dude has some chops on the guitar, he really does. That helps.

9. Cake, Comfort Eagle. Another surprising one. Cake are one of the rarest creations in music: a band with a sound that is 1000% their own. You hear three seconds of a Cake song, and you know it’s a Cake song. The bass sound is ska-ish, but totally original, and lead singer John McCrea is a complete and total enigma. That said, while they’ve put out some fantastic songs (“Never There,” “The Distance,” “Let Me Go,” “Sheep Go to Heaven,” their great cover of “I Will Survive”), in my opinion they’ve really only put out one truly strong-from-start-to-finish album: Comfort Eagle. Which is funny, since it didn’t sell nearly as well as 1996’s Fashion Nugget or 1998’s Prolonging the Magic. Known mostly for “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” and the really cool, creative video for that song, Comfort Eagle really does have numerous great moments, from “Meanwhile, Rick James...” to “Arco Arena” to “Long Line of Cars” and “Love You Madly.” I don’t know what makes this album better, really—the sound is still purely Cake, and the lyrics and song titles are just as strange as ever—I just know that it’s better.

An aside: I saw Cake at a free show in DC in 2002, and for the encore McCrea announced that they were taking requests. He responded to requests as they came up. “ not...yeah, we can probably do that one...NO, F*** YOU, I’M NOT TAKING YOUR REQUEST—YOU WEREN’T SINGING ALONG DURING THAT LAST SONG.” No idea if he was being serious or just messing with the guy (likely a bit of both), but it was one of the more startling and awkwardly funny things ever I’ve seen at a concert.

10. Black Crowes, Lions. I freely admit that my view of this album is probably influenced heavily by the fact that 2001 was when I saw the Black Crowes live for the first time, and they blew me away. That said, this is a good reminder of just how effortless the Crowes appear to make solid blues-rock music. They took some chances on Lions, and for the most part it paid off. Of course, then the Robinson Brothers remembered that they hate each other, and the band broke up for a bit. So maybe they didn’t like the album as much as I did. Either way, I could listen to “Soul Singing” all day long.

11. Radiohead, Amnesiac. When a group earns my respect, that tends to carry over when they do something I’m not sure I get or like. I don’t immediately proclaim their next album the greatest thing ever (unless it is), but I’ll give it more opportunities to impress me than it might seem like it deserves at first. With The Bends and OK Computer, Radiohead earned my lifelong respect; therefore, when they made an album almost entirely devoid of melody or understandable words, like Amnesiac, I gave it repeated listens until I could start to understand what they were aiming for with it. I’ve come to appreciate the melody of songs like “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” and the guitar lick of “I Might Be Wrong” is just sickeningly good. However, just because they’re Radiohead doesn’t mean this album is anything better than #11 for the year.

And yes, I did just rank a Black Crowes album ahead of a Radiohead album.

12. Incubus, Morning View. I feel like Incubus is one of those hard rock bands I shouldn’t like. Lead singer Brandon Boyd often makes the “I think my words are deeper and more meaningful than they are” mistake, and...well, we’ll just say that his beautiful abs don’t really do anything for me. That said, Incubus actually does make some meaningful music occasionally, never moreso than on Morning View. The three singles—“Wish You Were Here,” “Nice to Know You,” and “Warning”—are the best this album has to offer, but all three are quite solid, and mixing in a few more decent songs like “Circles” and “Mexico” is enough to get them the #12 slot on the list.

13. Jay-Z, The Blueprint. The first hip hop album on the list! Like most Jay-Z albums, there are moments of brilliance followed by dullness. You remember the singles, and you think the album was great...but then you realize that there really wasn’t much else to the album beyond the singles. The exception to the rule is 1998’s unbelievable Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life. That said, songs like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “The Takeover” are strong and memorable. Now...if I’d included Jay’s MTV Unplugged release with The Roots as backing band on this list (it didn’t meet the criteria, though it’s unique enough that I had trouble making that call), then that album would easily be in the Top 5. You can hear in his voice the energy and excitement coming from getting to play with such a great live band, and it takes songs like “Big Pimpin’” and “Give It 2 Me” to a level I didn’t think those songs could attain.

14. Ozomatli, Embrace the Chaos. Ozo’s debut album, Ozomatli, positively blew me away.

Actually, a correction: their live show blew me away the first time I saw them in 2000, and their debut album simply backed up the impression of them that I was already forming. They have an energy and depth to their sound that almost no band of the ‘00s can match. Their second album, Embrace the Chaos, is solid, but not as strong as Ozomatli (and not NEARLY as strong as their next album, Street Signs). A lot of songs need an extra ounce of energy to them, and there’s just not as much to keep your attention. However, despite the lack of great songs, there are plenty of good ones (best: “Dos Cosas Ciertas”), and Embrace the Chaos sneaks onto the list.

15. Gorillaz, Gorillaz. When I first heard “Clint Eastwood,” I thought this whole Gorillaz experiment was going to one of the greatest ideas ever. The song was great, the video was great...the whole idea of a cartoon group making interesting music was just so cool. And then I listened to the rest of the album. “Clint Eastwood” = fantastic. “19-2000” = great. The rest of the album = It’s moody and experimental, which is fine; it’s just that...well, it’s boring. Those two songs and a couple other decent ones, though, are enough to get Gorillaz into the Top 15, though.

Honorable Mention:

Charlie Hunter Quartet, Songs from the Analog Playground. Surefire way to get me to buy your cd: put a “Featuring Mos Def and Norah Jones” sticker on the cover. I discovered this when I first started working part-time at Barnes & Noble in 2003 (after Norah had established herself), and when I stumbled across this in the jazz section, I had to give it a shot. It doesn’t disappoint. This is technically jazz, but there’s a dominant groove to most of the songs, something unseen in most of today’s “Miles and Coltrane did everything you can do in jazz—therefore our job is simply to recreate what’s already been done” jazz sound.

Dave Matthews Band, Everyday. Yes, it’s the worst album DMB has made. However, I’m a DMB fan, therefore I still find some things to like about this album. “Everyday” is fun (though 1000x better live than on the album), “So Right” is good, even “I Did It” has a fun guitar lick to it even though “Make a bomb of love and blow it up” is a lyrical lowpoint for anybody, much less a musician I significantly respect.

Nas, Stillmatic. In the likely made-up ‘feud’ between Jay-Z and himself, Nas landed the hardest single blow with “Ether,” a song so full of personal insults that it almost becomes uncomfortable at times. However, as with Jay-Z’s albums, Nas’ are mostly uneven as well. There are highlights here in “Ether” and especially “One Mic”, but for some reason I never really agree with his beat selection. Most songs here tend to blend in with one another after a while.

Train, Drops of Jupiter. In his lyrics, Train frontman Pat Monahan so closely toes the line between ‘witty’ strange and ‘stupid’ strange that he can’t help but stumble (or fall, or plunge) off the edge a few times. In that way, his songs and lyrics haven’t aged tremendously well. However, “Drops of Jupiter” is annoyingly catchy despite the “The best soy latte that you ever had/And me” line, and his unique melodies go in unexpected directions and make songs like “She’s On Fire” and “Whipping Boy” solid listens.

Aesop Rock, Labor Days. Whereas I feel I shouldn’t like Incubus but I do, I feel I should like Aesop Rock way more than I do. He’s got everything I bitch about hip hop lacking—originality in flow and subject matter, interesting beats, etc. But it just doesn’t click with me as much as you would think it does. Labor Days is an interesting album, and it scores all sorts of originality points, but...his delivery just wears me out after a couple of songs.

Now...on to...

Best Songs of 2001

1. “Honest With Me,” Bob Dylan (It just plain rocks.)
2. “51 Phantom,” North Mississippi Allstars (I’m not sure what I find so amazing about this straight-forward rock-blues song...I just know that I love it.)
3. “Clint Eastwood,” Gorillaz
4. “New York, New York,” Ryan Adams (Just about the strangest timing for a video filming ever.)

5. “Jumper On the Line,” R.L. Burnside
6. “Soul Singing,” Black Crowes
7. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” Jay-Z
8. “3x5,” John Mayer
9. “Answering Bell,” Ryan Adams
10. “Everyday,” Dave Matthews Band
(In mid-September ’01, DMB was prepared to release as a single a song called “When the World Ends,” complete with a lyric that said “I'm gonna rock you like a baby when the cities fall/We will rise as the building's crumble”. After 9/11, they decided that would be, shall we say, a bad idea. So they released “Everyday” instead, replete with the single happiest video ever.)

11. “Fallin’,” Alicia Keys
12. “Warning,” Incubus
13. “Plane Crash in C,” Rilo Kiley
14. “I Might Be Wrong,” Radiohead
(To the guitar riff in this song, I say—in the words of Lloyd Dobler’s best friend Corey from Say Anything—“I love you. You invade my soul.” And yes, I just made a Say Anything reference. Bite me.)
15. “Science vs Romance,” Rilo Kiley
16. “Just Because I Do,” My Morning Jacket
17. “Not Myself,” John Mayer
18. “Dos Cosas Ciertas,” Ozomatli
19. “More Than This,” Charlie Hunter Quartet & Norah Jones
20. “Cry a While,” Bob Dylan
(Bob Dylan saying “booty call” = surefire Top 20 song.)
21. “19-2000,” Gorillaz

22. “One Mic,” Nas
23. “Video,” India.Arie
24. “Sugartown,” North Mississippi Allstars
25. “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” Cake
26. “Wish You Were Here,” Incubus
27. “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” Bob Dylan
28. “Snake Drive,” R.L. Burnside
(I thought one time that I had come up with a killer guitar lick for a blues song, then after getting all excited about it, I realized it was the lick from “Snake Drive.” Bitches, man. And yes, that was another Say Anything reference.)
29. “Ship,” North Mississippi Allstars
30. “Gonna Make You Love Me,” Ryan Adams
31. “So Right,” Dave Matthews Band
32. “Survivor,” Destiny’s Child
(What can I say...I’m a survivor. I’m not gon’ give up. I’m not gon’ stop. I’m gon’ work harder.)
33. “Love You Madly,” Cake
34. “Bulletproof,” Rilo Kiley
(Jenny Lewis’ vocals at their quirkiest and cutest. She aims a lot less for ‘cute’ and a lot more for ‘hot’ nowadays.)

35. “Shake ‘Em On Down,” R.L. Burnside
36. “High Water (For Charley Patton),” Bob Dylan
37. “Summer Days,” Bob Dylan
38. “Go Ahead,” Rilo Kiley
39. “Drops of Jupiter,” Train
40. “Firecracker,” Ryan Adams
41. “Phone Went West,” My Morning Jacket
(Jim James’ voice is never whinier than right here, but there’s a lot of drama here, and I think he pulls it off.)
42. “Nice to Know You,” Incubus
43. “Shadow Stabbing,” Cake
44. “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” Jay-Z
45. “Goin’ Down South,” R.L. Burnside
46. “Mud,” North Mississippi Allstars
47. “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” Radiohead
48. “Lickin’,” Black Crowes

49. “Mississippi,” Bob Dylan (How many artists have covered this song now? 139?)
50. “Ether,” Nas

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