J.J. Hensley

Best Albums of 2000: Critics' Picks 

J.J. Hensley

Okie Rock Records of the Year
Starlight Mints
The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of (SeeThru Broadcasting)

Chainsaw Kittens
The All American (Four Alarm Records)
Oh, Oklahoma -- where the wind comes sweeping down the plains and bands capture this high and lonesome sound with peculiar soundscapes that appear simple at first glance but hide layers of strange and unique nuances.

Afro Pop Records of the Year
Fela Kuti
Reissues (MCA)

Femi Kuti
Shoki, Shoki (MCA)
Although Fela Kuti died more than three years ago, his name was alive in 2000, as a result of a massive reissuing of his catalog and the emergence of his son Femi Kuti, who fuses afrobeat jam with '70s-era funk.

Quiet Grrrls of the Year
Eleni Mandell
Thrill (Space Baby)

Erin McKeown
Distillation (TVP)
With all these cowboys and American badasses running around paying homage to the chocolate starfish, it's refreshing to hear a woman's take on life in Springer's world. Erin McKeown's superb debut, Distillation, and Eleni Mandell's excellent sophomore effort, Thrill, show that men aren't the only ones fighting such demons as cocaine and loveless sex; they just do it louder. Instead of pummeling listeners with trunk-rattling teen anthems, these ladies lay out similarly twisted tales with a subtle, less sophomoric slant.

Brit Rock Records of the Year
Travis
The Man Who (Epic)

Radiohead
Kid A (Capitol)
While Travis' The Man Who was taking America by storm in the summer, earning comparisons to Radiohead every step along the way, Thom Yorke and friends were abroad, watching their stock rise with every piece of Travis press and waiting to unleash Kid A. Fittingly, while The Man Who seemed to pick up where The Bends left off (and appeal to those fans), Radiohead left that guitar-rock sound behind, concentrating on crafting one of the best electronic-influenced records to date.

Codger Rock Records of the Year
Johnny Cash
American III: Solitary Man (American)

Neil Young
Silver and Gold (Warner Bros.)
According to the government, Johnny Cash should have retired almost 15 years ago, while Neil Young's due to hang it up in another 10 or so. Actually, given some of the albums these men put out in the late '80s, it's surprising more music fans weren't requesting they retire, but it's a good thing they didn't. Cash, now on his third record with Rick Rubin behind the knobs, has stumbled onto a simple formula that is a perfect fit for his role as the sage storyteller. Neil Young might have set a similar transformation in motion with Silver and Gold, a collection of soft-spoken songs that sound like outtakes from his On the Beach.

Live Records of the Year
Black Crowes with Jimmy Page
Live at the Greek (TVT)

Built to Spill
Live (Warner Bros.)
In my younger years, Led Zeppelin's soundtrack to The Song Remains the Same was the be-all, end-all of live rock records, and it maintained that status until this year, when Jimmy Page decided to team up with the Black Crowes and create a little competition for himself. Live at the Greek is arguably a better record than the soundtrack, and the difference lies not in improved production and recording technology but in Crowes crooner Chris Robinson's ability to beat Robert Plant at his own game. Gone are Plant's mystical, rhetorical questions in the middle of songs ("Does anyone remember laughter?"). Instead, the Crowes concentrate on the basics -- rocking hard -- and in the process, Robinson makes the songs all his own.

On the other hand, Built to Spill released a live record of all original material (save the stellar cover of "Cortez") that went virtually unnoticed by its record label and, subsequently, the record-buying public. But for anyone who has ever appreciated Built to Spill's swirling guitars and Doug Martch's tortured lyrics, hearing the band duplicate its studio wizardry in a concert setting should be a real treat.

Local Records of the Year
DVS Mindz
Million Dollar Broke Niggaz (No Coast Recordings)

The Casket Lottery
Moving Mountains (Second Nature)
Eschewing Kansas City's hardcore sound might have been easy for DVS Mindz to do, given that the crew hails from Topeka, but its collection of raw, tough-talking, and introspective songs on Million Dollar Broke Niggaz showed KC listeners that rap could be about more than simply getting fucked up.

Similarly, The Casket Lottery managed to impress with both what it did and what it didn't do. Moving Mountains saw a group aware of its members' talents and limitations perfect its loud/soft dynamic, mix in a few subtle time changes, and produce a well-rounded and refreshingly unpretentious album.

Hip-Hop Records of the Year
Black Eyed Peas
Bridging the Gap (Interscope)

Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek
Reflection Eternal (Rawkus)
Bridging the Gap is a great party album, with a series of cuts such as "Request Line" that would have ended up on TRL had they been released in the summer. On Reflection Eternal, Talib Kweli proves, as his former partner Mos Def did last year, that it's possible to make an album that's at once enjoyable, danceable, and socially conscious.

Remix Rock Records of the Year
Macha Loved Bedhead
Bedhead Loved Macha (Jet Set)

The For Carnation
The For Carnation (Touch and Go)
Before they broke up, or even had any intention of doing so, the Bedhead brothers (Matt and Bubba Kadane) mailed off some eight-tracks with drum and guitar parts to their old pals in Macha (Joshua and Mischo McKay), who filled in the space with an experimental, ethereal mix of loops and synths, turning it all into 86 mesmerizing and seamless tracks (though 80 of them average five seconds).

The For Carnation, made up of two former members of Slint (Dave Pajo and Brian McMahan) and two of Pajo's current bandmates from Tortoise, has consistently put people off with its jazz-inspired post-rock -- until the release of its self-titled third album this year. The ghosts of Slint were finally visible through the smoky haze Tortoise's influence can cast over any project, and this combination led to an emotionally intense atmospheric record that's uncharacteristic from the detached Chicago art-rock scene.

Orchestral Maneuvers in Indie Rock
Grandaddy
The Sophtware Slump (V2)

Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Kranky)
The popular conception of indie rock used to be Converse-clad kids making lo-fi, shoddily produced material because they didn't care enough to make good records. Of course, in many cases, the bands and labels on which they recorded were making the best records they could afford. But like the Flaming Lips last year, both Grandaddy and Canada's (yes, Canada!) Godspeed You Black Emperor! released albums that help expand the possibilities of that genre. Sure, Grandaddy did it with a major's money (like the Lips before it), but neither record was embraced by these commercial powers. Yet both, with their fusion of a lo-fi mentality and high-tech gear and production, went on to be considered landmark releases in their respective years among fans of independent music.

GYBE! has achieved a similar feat with its second full-length, which is all the more impressive considering the funding from Chicago's tiny Kranky Records and the songs' complex nature. Where other bands try to incorporate strings into their songs to heighten the atmosphere, GYBE! has taken its preferred craft (orchestral music) and allowed certain rock elements (namely the rhythm and power) to take center stage. Instead of studio gimmickry, GYBE! relies on its array of instruments (three guitars, two basses, French horn, violin, viola, cello, and percussion) to carry out its rich but palatable arrangements.

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