Top Ten Albums
1. Ben Folds
Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic)
What a relief. Missing only the manic energy and harmonies of Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse, the other two-thirds of Ben Folds Five, Folds' solo debut refines his former group's formula rather than starting from scratch. He's his own remarkably effective power trio, playing all the bass and drum parts -- and most of the guitar -- in addition to his primary instrument, the piano. The songs, a mix of Don't Shoot Me-era Elton John and medium-strength Randy Newman, are marvels of compact character analysis set to foolproof hooks.
2. Elton John
Songs From the West Coast (Universal)
It's no surprise that Elton still has songs like these up his Versace sleeves or even that lyricist Bernie Taupin still remembers how to be blunt when it counts. What's brilliant about Songs goes beyond the reconvening of these writing partners to fashion their tightest songs in 25 years; the playing, production and, especially, John's singing jell perfectly and refuse to yield to the studio frippery that marred post-1983 albums of otherwise strong songs. And in "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore," John has a "My Way"-like career-capper good enough to warrant forgiveness for his every Disney excess.
3. Bob Dylan
Love and Theft (Columbia)
Is it lowered expectation that makes Love and Theft -- on the heels of 1997's Grammy-winning Time out of Mind and last year's deserved Oscar for "Things Have Changed" -- feel like a hot streak? Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde came out less than a year apart, for crying out loud. Or is it possible that the AARP-model Dylan is not only worth the wait but an improvement? Splitting the difference between the dryly witty World Gone Wrong and Time's sepulchral heartsickness, Love and Theft is as playful as that ridiculous vaudevillian's pencil-thin mustache Dylan sports on the back cover and as permanent as the black-and-white image on the front.
The biggest challenge to pop culture's deceptively conservative sensibilities since Reagan-era Prince, Bjork has become such a household name that Ellen DeGeneres earned the night's biggest laugh during this year's Emmy Awards telecast just by wearing a knockoff of a certain goose-neck gown. She remains mannered and precious and easily lampooned (DeGeneres, not Bjork; well, both). And fearless (just Bjork). Plays like art, tastes like sugar.
Reveal (Warner Bros.)
Reveal's superficials are laughably ironic: The cover artwork is a blight on the music and the song titles ("Saturn Return," "Beachball") are dumb. By now, though, such camouflage is useless. Every step that the now-three-member R.E.M. takes toward admitting it cannot and should not rock is a positive one. Every attempt to fend off the perception that it's a corporate-music icon is a stumble. From this point on, the fewer records R.E.M. sells, the better its music will be.
Who says Thom Yorke is no fun? The Radiohead singer cheerfully showed up this year on cable's Space Ghost and, with the band, bolstered South Park's sagging credibility with a similar appearance. Yorke's I'm a reasonable man; get off my case mantra on Amnesiac's opening cut isn't unfathomable irony or chilly non sequitur; it's a you've gotta fight for your right to party for people (Radiohead, its fans, its detractors) who, bless 'em, rightfully dread being labeled postmodern. Amnesiac is party music, slow-burn Motown for eggheads.
7. Tori Amos
Strange Little Girls (Atlantic)
Just when a suddenly Tolkien-obsessed world might be looking to stock its refrigerator with Tori Amos' faerie-goddess mead, the self-consciously ethereal singer leaves her enchanted forest to walk on blood-stained pavement. Her misfired version of the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" could have scared John Lennon straight out of sonic collage, but the rest of the disc is unerring in its instincts, turning the murdered harpy of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" into Banquo's ghost and recasting Slayer's "Raining Blood" as a solemn epitaph. A covers disc, concept album and product of Amos' overambitious but inarticulate imagination, Strange Little Girls should have been a disaster. It's her best album.
8. Joe Henry
That this is Henry's worst album in a decade only goes to show that Madonna's brother-in-law (and the author of her "Don't Tell Me") lives up to the clichéd boast that one artist's dregs are better than the empty foam most other acts serve their fans. It's hard not to feel warmly tipsy listening to the stunning Ornette Coleman-adorned opener, "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," a watermark the rest of the disc honorably fails to surpass. Where 1996's Trampoline and 1999's Fuse thrillingly bastardized Tom Waits' hellish kling-klang-king-of-the-rim-ram-room sonics and cranked up the electron microscope of Henry's lyrical observations to make something innovative, Scar just settles into the groove those discs etched; on first listening, it might be called Scraps. It was a nice place to revisit, but he shouldn't live there.
9. Mark Eitzel
The Invisible Man/Superhits International (Matador)/(self-released)
So ends the longest stretch between Mark Eitzel recordings since well before his American Music Club stumbled into major-label quicksand. Living up to its title, The Invisible Man is maddeningly abstruse (and sometimes forgetful of Eitzel's underrated knack for melody), as though after years of leaving his diary open, the singer has begun to record his entries in code. But repeat listenings unravel the gauze around Man, allowing listeners to make out more than just the outline of these thirteen skeletal songs. Even better is Superhits, which was sold at a few shows and, briefly, online. It's not a good sign that Eitzel or someone at Matador preferred the songs on Man to the four or five selections from Superhits that rank with his best work, but if you can track down a copy of the latter on eBay, the two sets complement each other brilliantly. If not, Man's "To the Sea" alone is enough to justify both discs.
10. The Chamber Strings
Month of Sundays (Bobsled)
This brightly hued gem leaps out of the speakers from the first song, an original that's part Burt Bacharach and part Carole King -- with a dash of the Mamas and the Papas. Yes, the lyrics are slight. Yes, the time-capsule arrangements sometimes border on silliness (yeah, baby!). But on only its second album, the group achieves such unabashedly warm prettiosity that such complaints are rendered irrelevant.
Top Five Songs
1. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
"Where Does Yer Go Now?" from How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart
No one in this pop-exotica outfit can sing well, but damned if this isn't the year's flat-out prettiest melody (boosted by a soaring, imaginative -- and surprisingly minimal -- arrangement), no matter how shaky the delivery.
2. Arab Strap
"Haunt Me," from The Red Thread
That this brooding Scottish group saved its best song for next to last on its smoothest album is just another sign of maturity outweighing the dyspepsia that was almost too much on its previous albums. The other songs on this list come first on the albums they represent -- arguably a must to gain the attention of fickle listeners. This number, all addictive orchestral loop and hemorrhaging heart, is a small miracle of barely controlled turbulence so transcendent that to have put it first might have caused brain damage in unprepared listeners.
"Undertow," from Long Distance (Nettwerk)
Pop hooks are tricky; repeat them too often, and the song becomes obvious and boring. Ivy opens its third disc with a hook that won't quit, one so good that you don't mind hearing it as often as the group wants to restate it. Which is a lot.
"The Sun Keeps Shining on Me," from The Strange and the Familiar (Hidden Agenda)
This could be the B-side to Ivy's "Undertow"; the tonal difference between the groups' coldly efficient chanteuses is minimal.
5. Rebecca Gates
"The Seldom Scene," from Ruby Series (Badman)
With just this much less quirk, Gates' Spinanes might have earned some deserved attention in the marketplace. This is what Gates sounds like with this much more quirk. The best song on an outstanding solo debut.
Top Ten Albums
1. Rodney Crowell
The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill)
Nothing in 2001 could touch Rodney Crowell's The Houston Kid. His story songs about growing up poor and white are gripping and complex, his character sketches generous and insightful. Throughout, his twangy guitar-based arrangements rage and exult, empathize and forgive -- and rock out like lightning bolts [splitting] pine trees down to the roots. I know love is all I need, Crowell sings, rendering that cliché hard-won rather than romantic. Is this country-rock, roots-rock, alt-country? Label it how you please, but this might just be the genre's finest album in a quarter century.
2. The Coup
Party Music (75 Ark)
What happened to rap that gave a shit about something besides bitches and Benjamins? The Coup (MC Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress) addresses that old fart's lament with an on-the-one antidote. Musically, its wicked samples and dance-floor-packing beats allude to old-school science-droppers, from Arrested Development to KRS-One to X-Clan, without ever feeling nostalgic. Indeed, this Party campaigns for the future, championing female equality and blue-collar dignity while dispensing advice both sanitary ("Wear Clean Draws") and revolutionary ("5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO"), the best being we could all at once retire.
3. (tie) Patty Loveless
Mountain Soul (Epic)
The Storm Still Rages (Rounder)
In a stellar year for bluegrass, Vincent's and Loveless' albums were the cream of the crop. But they're quite different recordings. Check out what each singer does with "Just Someone I Used to Know," a 1969 Porter-and-Dolly hit that somehow wound up on both discs. Loveless' version is stark and bluesy, emphasizing Patty's soulful mountain harmonies with duet partner Jon Randall. Vincent, on the other hand, spotlights her band, the Rage, via an arrangement steeped in sophisticated trio harmonies and timing that makes the rhythm hop and scoot. Mark both albums as for-the-ages classics.
5. Bruce Springsteen
Live in New York City (Columbia)
In less cautious moments, I'm calling this Springsteen's best album. The themes and narratives that have driven his career for a quarter century crystallize here as never before. He carries us, and his band and audience carry him, from the idealism of "Prove It All Night" to the harsh realities of "Atlantic City" -- and still he finds reason to believe in a "Land of Hope and Dreams." Neither The E-Street Band nor Bruce's strangled guitar solos has ever sounded better on record. No wonder. A few studio masterpieces notwithstanding, live performance has always been Springsteen's real medium.
6. Nick Lowe
The Convincer (Yep Roc)
Now this is pure pop for now people, and for future ones, too, if they're smart. Elegant and slyly soulful, delivered with uncommon craft, unexpected sincerity and, as always, an unrivaled sense of humor, The Convincer is the sort of heartbreakingly beautiful pop record fans figured Lowe had in him all along.
7. Bob Dylan
Love and Theft (Columbia)
You can't repeat the past, someone insists, to which Dylan replies, of course you can. He makes this point throughout, looting melodies and licks from minstrelsy, Tin Pan Alley, and the Chicago and country blues. Still, his repetitions never descend to mimicry, thanks (finally!) to a band he deserves. The sonics are a tad thin -- as a producer, Dylan makes a great singer-songwriter -- but that hardly matters because of his singular voice, by turns hilarious, sweet and horribly prescient. How did he know to write Judge says to the high-sheriff, 'I want him dead or alive/Either one, I don't care'?
8. Shea Seger
The May Street Project (RCA)
Shea Seger's debut is an unusually adult summation of adolescent heartaches. With state-of-the-art pop arrangements and production -- all R&B drum loops and swirling strings, skipping synthesized bleeps and brooding acoustic licks -- The May Street Project features some of the year's most beguiling soundscapes. Even better, it proves that you needn't sacrifice emotional intimacy to move the crowd.
9. Scott Miller
Thus Always to Tyrants (Sugar Hill)
Leaving home behind, this former V-Roy sets off to become a brand new man, and his solo debut recounts the messes he creates along the way. The occasional old-time diversion aside, his narratives are presented as fierce rock and roll. The cataclysmic "Across the Line," for instance, includes menacing electric guitar fleshed out by crashing organ fills and hyperventilating violins. But the best moment is "Daddy Raised a Boy," a father-son saga that elucidates the seeds of a young man's rebellion (Every drunken word was his command/The standing order was to understand) and the stirrings of reconciliation.
10. Etta James
Blue Gardenia (Private Music)
On this follow-up to 1994's Grammy-winning Mystery Lady, Etta James doesn't rock the house. Instead, she makes it swing and sway, swoon and sweat, with a subdued collection of standards. Yet Blue Gardenia's dusky ballads are no hothouse flowers. She renders "He's Funny That Way" chillingly ironic, as if her guy might just be crazy about her, literally. And her five-and-half minute "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" is so confidently dismissive of a lover that Etta only needs to raise her voice once.
11. Angie Stone
Mahogany Soul (J)
12. Alejandro Escovedo
A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot)
13. Pernice Brothers
The World Won't End (Ashmont)
14. Webb Brothers
15. Ian Hunter
Top Five Songs
1. The Soggy Bottom Boys
"I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Mercury Nashville)
A symbol of 2001's most unexpected success story: With virtually zero assistance from country radio and not much more help from its less-than-popular parent film, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack went triple platinum. When Dan Tymisnki moans the opening line I've seen trouble all my days, he's not just playing some poor sap down on his luck. Rather, this is a statement of the human condition, the hard and ineluctable reality of any life, fully engaged.
2. Alicia Keys
"Fallin'," from Songs in A Minor (J)
In the video, Keys often comes off as one more stunning, stylish diva gesticulating wildly at the camera because that's just what people in R&B videos are supposed to do. But catch this piano-based, gospel-inspired single on the radio, free from the tyranny of image, and it instantly announces itself as emotionally complex, musically distinctive and even idiosyncratic. Back in the day, they called that soul.
3. White Stripes
"Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," from White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
Jack White rips through shrieking, snarling, feedback-laced electric guitar while ex-wife Meg White bangs out primitive bass and snare drum parts that, bless her heart, are in time almost always. If you can hear a piano falling, you can hear me coming down the hall, Jack offers, which is a pretty swell description of the Stripes' energy and sound. It's been said before, but it bears repeating: One way to shape up rock when it has turned flabby is to work out in the garage and bring it all back home to the blues.
4. Lee Ann Womack
"Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," from I Hope You Dance (MCA Nashville)
Lee Ann Womack's current single is the antithesis of what passes these days for commercial country music. Brooding, spare and honest-to-god twangy. Emotionally tangled and bitterly felt. And not a happy ending in sight. If Womack makes a dent at radio with this Buddy and Julie Miller song, there just might be hope for mainstream country yet.
"Already Broken," from In My Head (Slewfoot)
The best moment yet from this local alt-country outfit. Singer-songwriter Fred Wickham empathizes with a beat-down ditch-digger crying uncle -- to his wife and job, to what he sees as his whole miserable life. An inch of water don't seem like a lot, he confides, Until you're drowning an inch from the top/And you see the sun shine/Above the water line. As he stares out of his hole, this four-piece is augmented by mandolin, organ and the dull moan of a bowed bass cello. Together, they sound a little like hope, but by then, the guy's not listening.
Top Ten Albums
1. Record of the Year
Maxwell's third studio release overflows with beautifully written poems for lovers. The magnificent blending of gorgeous piano loops and sexy guitar licks creates gloriously passionate templates for Maxwell's seductive falsetto.
2. Freakiest Experience
The Id (Epic)
Macy Gray's brutally honest imagination soars on her second album, allowing listeners to swirl inside her complex head. Her lurid tales about fragile relationships and sexual exploration are always awkwardly interesting, and she sings like a wounded angel.
3. Best Live Experience
Experience: Jill Scott (Epic)
Jill Scott ain't a trend chaser. She doesn't lip-sync or mimic some high-dollar choreographer's overblown moves. She just sings, and her deep, husky, soulful voice can lift moods and trigger emotions folks didn't know they had. Scott's debut last year was magical (as are the eight studio tracks on the bonus disc attached to this album), but she shines like newly minted money on this live recording. Scott feeds off the freedom to improvise, playing a terrific game of cat-and-mouse with her super-tight band.
4. Hottest Lyrics
Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom (JCOR)
Twenty-seven-year-old Mystic, born Mandolyn Ludlum, heals souls and ignites intellects with her poetic wordplay and fresh feminist perspective. Rhyming over easygoing jazzy backdrops, this San Francisco native tells superbly engaging stories filled with wide-eyed detail and biting social commentary.
5. Best Ear Candy
The Blueprint (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella)
The subject matter might be familiar on Jay-Z's The Blueprint, but his lyrical skills are on point. Rhyming over forgotten soul jams, Jigga glides over the snappy hooks and uses the breaks as choruses. The entire album is completely melodic, but Jay keeps it real with compelling street stories delivered in his trademark conversational tone.
6. Best Double Feature
Rule 3:36/Pain Is Love (Def Jam)
During a down year for rap, Ja Rule managed to drop two bangin' albums, mastering the art of pop-rap in the process. His formula: a bouncy track, a super catchy hook, a blazin' chorus sung by a blazin' hot female vocalist (Jennifer Lopez, Vita, Lil' Mo and Ashanti) and delightfully playful lyrics.
7. Rookie of the Year
Stranger on Earth (Atlantic)
Everyone went goo-goo over Alicia Keys' debut disc, but Lina's first album is far more daring and interesting. Lina borrows musical elements from the golden era of jazz (late '20s, early '30s), then puts a modern spin on the sound. Her sultry voice recalls Ella Fitzgerald's and Sarah Vaughn's, and her timbre complements the Louis Armstrong-inspired horn loops and New Orleans-style piano riffs.
8. Best Comeback
Luther Vandross (J)
A lot of old-school artists attempted comebacks this year, but balladeer Luther Vandross made the most spectacular return, sounding just as good as he did in his mid-'80s prime. Perhaps he never really faded -- he was just waiting in the cut until he could get his hands on some solid material.
9. Most Underrated
Broken Silence (Def Jam)
A gang of folks must suffer from narcolepsy, because mad people slept on Foxy Brown's third album. As a rhyme-slayer, she's superior to contemporaries Lil' Kim, Missy Elliott and Eve. Foxy turned her personal pain into an intensely introspective audio journal full of memorable moments. She confidently deals with a busted relationship, a troubled split from her rap clique and the backlash she has encountered because of her sexually explicit lyrics.
10. Best Boxed Set
Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in America (Rhino)
The African-American influence on every genre of American music is too vast to be contained in a boxed set, but Rhino's six-disc collection works as a wonderfully detailed starter kit, sort of a Cliff's Notes guide that ranges from Missouri-native Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" to Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage." There are flaws, but overall the selections can be universally appreciated. The most fascinating aspect of the set is the book that accompanies the disc and the historical timeline that chronicles important dates in black American history, musical and otherwise.
Top Five Songs
"We Need a Resolution," from Aaliyah (Virgin/Blackground)
Producer Timbaland, the man responsible for 2001's hottest hip-hop songs (Petey Pablo's "Raise Up," Missy Elliott's "Get UR Freak On" and Bubba Sparxxx's "Ugly"), had another banner year. But he always seemed to do his best work when teamed with the late R&B songtress Aaliyah. Their finest moment together is the hypnotic "We Need a Resolution," on which the singer displays tremendous maturity, exuding sensuality as if she were making love to Timbaland's gorgeous composition. The track's futuristic drum pattern, staccato bass line and sinister synth loop represent R&B's future, but it's Aaliyah's whispery vocals that elevate this song to the next level.
2. Tech N9ne
"It's Alive," from AngHellic (JCOR)
Local rapper Tech N9ne has one of the best stage personas in the business, but he'd always had trouble capturing his energetic flow and lyrical adrenaline on wax -- until he recorded "It's Alive." The song features a dozen references to his home turf, with Tech even rhyming backward in the process. Icy Roc's production work is equally daring, combining Southern bounce, jungle beats and penetrating speed-metal percussion. It's calculated mayhem that results in beautiful noise.
"Video," from Acoustic Soul (Motown)
India.Arie's "Video," a beautifully written song about womanhood, inspires in much the same way as Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman" and Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman." India.Arie sings the self-empowering lyrics with an almost religious conviction. The future for this postmodern folk singer should be airtight, but if it isn't, she'll long be remembered for crafting the "Fast Car" of a new generation.
4. Ghostface Killah
"Ghost Showers," from Bulletproof Wallets (Epic)
I need Viacom money but rhyming ain't enough, Ghostface Killah spits on "Ghost Showers," the hottest track from his latest joint, Bulletproof Wallets. And if any rhymer deserves to make bank like that giant media conglomerate, it's Ghostface, a lyrical genius who inspires Wu-Tang Clan beat maestro RZA's best work.
5. The Isley Brothers
"Contagious," from Eternal (Dreamworks)
It has always been gimmicky for Ronald Isley to parade around as Mr. Biggs, but despite the stupidity of a musical legend's reducing himself to a video-clip character, you can't knock the creativity of this urban operatic gem. The high drama of Mr. Biggs and R. Kelly's fighting over a vixen voiced by Shante Moore is classic cinema. Pass the popcorn.
Top Ten Albums
1. Blood for Blood
Wasted Youth Brew (Victory)
A classic street-punk record built on the holy triumvirate of fighting ("Hurt You"), drinking ("Goin' Down the Bar") and abject hopelessness ("Piss All Over Your Hopes and Dreams"), Wasted Youth Brew showcases these Beantown hooligans at their antisocial finest.
2. Now Time Delegation
Watch for Today (In the Red)
What happens to punks when they're too old to rock? Well, the successful ones (see John Lydon) can coast on their reputations while continuing to release crappy songs. But the less-than-iconic, including BellRays vocalist Lisa Kekaula and her friends from bands such as the Gospel Swingers and Monkeywrench, have to make a living, too. So Kekaula and company formed the Now Time Delegation, which fuses their latent rock sensibilities with a heavy dose of Booker T & the MGs'-influenced '60s soul, stuffing Barry Gordy's Music Factory into a garage. With some well-chosen covers from heavyweights like Curtis Mayfield and the TSU Tornados, the Now Time Delegation gives a nifty nod to the past and, one hopes, a premonition of what will come in its future.
3. White Stripes
White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
The White Stripes were Y2K's version of the Strokes -- every critic's "it" rock saviors, pegged to change the face of mainstream music. And though the duo's follow-up to 2000's De Stijl might have gone unnoticed by these bandwagoneers, it is by any measure a better record. White Blood Cells is more polished than either of the Stripes' previous releases, but it manages to maintain the group's minimalist magic while exploring new arenas, such as country and folk-infused pop.
10,000 Hz Legend (Astralwerks)
After Moon Safari and the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, it seemed as if Air, the preeminent French band, were running out of room to grow. After all, electronic bands usually last about as long as radio-friendly rap stars. But on 10,000Hz Legend, Air taps into its collective orchestral inner-child and comes up with a lush and complete album.
5. Brent Berry
Inland (Kick Save)
White boys playing reggae in Kansas: It ain't supposed to happen. But there are exceptions to every rule, and in the world of reggae, Brent Berry is one of them. Smooth throughout, with midtempo grooves and funky reggae rhythms, Inland could either lull listeners to sleep or make them feel irie. Berry and friends aren't trying to reinvent the wheel; they just want their fans to exist on the same mellowed-out plain they occupy.
6. Appleseed Cast
Low Level Owl: Volume II (Deep Elm)
Until recently, the Appleseed Cast seemed intent on being too obtuse to let casual listeners in on its little secrets. Its members were musicians' musicians. But with the release of Low Level Owl: Volume II, the Appleseed Cast has finally opened the door to reveal what a lucky few already knew: This is one of the most talented bands to grace the Kansas City/Lawrence scene. With stellar production from Ed Rose, the group creates a mesmerizing, neopsychedelic wall of sound on Volume II. And, as if to prove how talented its members really are, Appleseed Cast mostly does it with instrumentals. (Only four of the twelve tracks have words.)
7. Adam West
Right On! (People Like You/The Telegraph Company)
Dirty, raucous and bent on having a good time, Adam West makes rock and roll the way Kiss intended. Released in Europe in 2001 and slated for stateside release in February of next year, Right On! takes all the raw energy of the DC-area band's live show and captures the machismo magic of its stripped down, blues-based hardcore songs. Titles such as "C'mon and Bludgeon Me," "Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail" and "Sultry Motherfucker" could make Gene Simmons proud, but the fact that the tunes deliver the intimidation promised by their names would make him even prouder.
8. The Gadjits
Yes I Are (VMS)
Short and sweet at a mere six tracks, Yes I Are might be the briefest album to surface in this entire poll. But the fact that it captures a Kansas City band during its finest half hour should earn it a spot on any year-end list. It took the Gadjits quite a few years to grow from those lovable ska scamps who appeared in Rolling Stone to a band that garage-rockers could embrace. Building on their two-tone heritage, the Gadjits reinvented themselves as a dynamic soul-inflected band capable of displaying great emotional depth with only a few easy chords. And the band members continue to douse their live performances with frenetic energy.
9. Bob Dylan
Love and Theft (Columbia)
Who would've thought the old man could have put out one of his most impressive records in his fifth decade as a recording artist? Apparently not many, which is why 1997's Time out of Mind made so many top-ten lists that year. Even more impressive, though, is that he surpassed that effort in his sixth decade with Love and Theft. Dylan continues to dig into basic human issues such as power, loss and love, doing his dirty work with the same depth and wisdom that he first flashed 43 albums ago.
10. Kirk Rundstrom
Blue China (Catamount)
Raw, meandering and completely void of any of the kitschy country sounds that have been largely associated with his two most popular bands, Scroatbelly and Split Lip Rayfield, Blue China showcases Kirk Rundstrom's musical and emotional depth in a way that's disheartening only because it rings true.
Top Five Songs
"Short Skirt/Long Jacket," from Comfort Eagle (Columbia)
What red-blooded hetero male doesn't want a girl wearing a short skirt and a long jacket? What Cake lacks in depth and originality, it compensates for with wit.
2. Ryan Adams
"New York, New York," from Gold (Lost Highway/Universal)
It's interesting to think of what would've come of this song if the tragedy of September 11 had never happened. After all, it's a song about a girl, with Adams' wryly replacing the femme fatale's name with a city that can eat you up and spit you out just as easily as his muse had done to him. Now, though, it's become an anthem; and in more ways than one, that's sad.
3. Ben Folds
"Rockin' the Suburbs," from Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic)
It's always fun when someone else says what you've been thinking for quite a while, and leave it to Folds to express it better than anyone else: I got shit runnin' through my brain/It's so intense that I can't explain/All alone in my white-boy pain/ Shake your booty while the band complains.
4. Nate Dogg
"I Got Love," from Music and Me (Elektra)
You gotta feel sorry for Nate Dogg, caught up all these years in the shadow of Warren G's "Regulate" and the Death Row Records fallout. But he's still the only man around who can sing about getting play and make it sound like a hymn from a church choir.
5. Sum 41
"Fat Lip," from All Killer, No Filler (Island)
This single might have destined these cheeky youngsters from the Great White North to one-hit-wonder status, but if it comes to that, at least the tune's hair-metal benediction proves that Sum 41 can laugh at itself.
Top Ten Albums
1. Sigur Ros
Agaetis Byrjun (Pias)
Top reason to move to Iceland: This album was released there in 1998, only making its way stateside earlier this year. Then again, it's not so much an album as it is wave after wave of soothingly anarchic sonic experiences. Strings rise alongside beautiful feedback and otherworldly gurgles before giving in to gently strummed guitars and metered percussion; then horns implode and an organ drones while indistinguishably foreign vocals communicate raw emotion rather than concrete sentiment.
2. Bob Dylan
Love and Theft (Columbia)
Dylan still does Dylan better than anybody, probably because the concept of Dylan is constantly redefined. His grizzled delivery always sounds as if Dylan knows the score but is only going to tell what he must because somebody's getting ready to pull a fast one, and he's not about to get rooked. Recorded with his road band and self-produced without frills under the pseudonym Jack Frost, Love and Theft, like Dylan's previous classics, enlightens as it enigmatically entertains.
3. Onward Crispin Glover
The Further and the Faster (Anodyne)
There's a fifty-fifty chance that these songs might fall apart at any given moment, and many do, the brakes failing and leaving the out-of-control rock machine to slam into the next song. It's that teetering uncertainty that makes every track on The Further and the Faster hit even harder, as the verses anxiously build into choruses before triumphantly disintegrating.
4. The Avalanches
Since I Left You (London/Sire)
Built from the ground up on a dense foundation of innumerable samples, Since I Left You raises the roof with its potent dance beats. Some tidbits -- Madonna's "Holiday" and Kid Creole and the Coconuts' "Stool Pigeon" -- are instantly recognizable; most aren't. Gimmicky? Well, yeah, but only a party pooper would complain when the gimmick is done this well.
5. Cry Baby Cry
Jesus Loves Stacey (Skoda/Dischord)
Fueled by sinister urgency and guitars so raw they probably shouldn't be allowed out of the garage, Cry Baby Cry's primal melodies are so devilishly simple they're complex. To get too caught up in the frenzy, however, is to miss out on some wise words from smooth talker James Brady, who makes caustic observations such as Alas/Some people take it in the ass/So some cracker billionaire can make a fortune in gas while inhabiting the role of Jesus on the title track. Plus he gets impressive mileage out of the two most important words in rock: "yeah" and "c'mon."
6. The Welterweights
Here Goes Nothing (self-released)
Every jukebox in every dive bar should be required to stock a copy of Here Goes Nothing, the perfect soundtrack for those rough and ragged souls who spend their nights in such surroundings. The Welterweights cause a commotion halfway between country and rock, reveling in pithy observations and gloriously unrefined melodies.
Girls Can Tell (Merge)
Spoon caught the rawest of deals when Elektra dropped it, but when records like this come out of such tribulations, it's almost enough to make fans thank the heartless record industry for playing muse. Its vigor renewed, this now-actually-indie indie-rock trio crafted tunes that are brittle and tense under nervously grinning exteriors. In fact, maybe more bands should get screwed out of their contracts.
8. Helicopter Helicopter
By Starlight (Wicked)
Chris Zerby and Julie Chadwick, vocalists as well as guitarist and bassist, respectively, harmonize on edgy, sometimes goofy pop nuggets that veer toward outer space, roaring like a rocket on a mission to the big chorus, where duel guitars explode into whiz-bang fireworks.
Filled with loungetastic grooves and exotic instrumentation, Sound-dust presents a cocktail jazz soundtrack for a utopian future that will never come to pass.
10. Various Artists
Moulin Rouge (Interscope)
Now this is where the kitsch is, and in abundance. It's a giddy thrill to hear the Police's "Roxanne" recast as "El Tango de Roxanne," or to spot the startlingly out-of-context line from U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" sneaking into "Elephant Love Medley." Listen closely, and you'll hear the faint but distinct sound of Sting's and Bono's self-importance being sucked away. Other sources of high camp include the overwrought "Come What May" (ably sung by actors Ewan MacGregor and Nicole Kidman) and, of course, the "Lady Marmalade" remake, with Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink. Willingly over-the-top and irredeemably trashy, Moulin Rouge is bad for you -- and that's good.
Top Five Songs
1. (tie) The Incredible Moses Leroy
"Anthem," from Electric Pocket Radio (Ultimatum)
The New Pornographers
"Letter from an Occupant," from Mass Romantic (Mint)
"Letter From an Occupant" goes crunch while Neko Case coos and the boys follow the chorus with falsetto ooohs. "Anthem" soars using only a few simple chords and Leroy's bizarre rhyme scheme, which he seemingly composed while half asleep. Both were blacklisted from the radio because too many people singing along equals too many wrecks.
2. Tenacious D
"Tribute," from Tenacious D (Epic)
From "the greatest band in the world" comes a tribute to the greatest song in the world, which Kage and Jables promptly forget after playing it to save their souls from a shiny demon. The mind boggles at what it must've sounded like. Be you angels? the duo is questioned. Nay, we are but men, they reply. Rock. Indeed.
3. Blu Cantrell
"Hit 'em Up Style," from So Blu (Arista)
Note to self: Don't cheat on Ms. Cantrell. Can't afford it. At least cancel all the credit cards first and take her name off all shared accounts, from Mastercard to Blockbuster. Yeah, now there's a plan. Resume getting biz-zay.
4. Daft Punk
"One More Time," from Discovery (Virgin)
One more time we're going to celebrate. Do as the strange vocodered man says, dear.
5. Crooked Fingers
"The Rotting Strip," from Bring on the Snakes (Warm)
Neil Diamond, or at least sole Finger Eric Bachman, who sounds uncannily like him, does cocaine and hopes for redemption while dragging a girl down with him. It's droning and cathartic, while maintaining a vague sense of optimism.
Top Ten Albums
1. System of a Down
First of all, this album kicks more ass than anything else released this year, all while trying to make listeners laugh and learn. That alone would be enough to make this Record of the Year, but extraordinary circumstances make it even more essential. Released on the date of the worst attack in American history, Toxicity spells out the conflicted worldview of a group that comes from Los Angeles by way of Armenia, a band that decries Middle East genocides while accusing America of becoming a police state. What's creepy is how an album written months before September 11 would produce lyrics so in tune with the country's current struggles. Examples: My self-righteous suicide; We cannot afford to be neutral on a moving train; and Where were the eyes of the horizontal jet pilot/Laughing as he flew over the bay? System of a Down defined the year without even trying.
2. Bob Dylan
Love and Theft (Columbia)
Knock, knock/Who's there?/Freddy/Freddy Who?/Freddy or not, hear I come. No, it's not the Blink-182 album. Later, Dylan even makes a booty call. Not bad for an old man.
Side projects are usually forgettable at best, but very little is usual once producer Dan the Automator gets involved. It's not only the soundtrack to a cool cartoon but also a shrewd blend of every conceivable genre on one hip-hop platter.
By using delicate beats that sound like kisses, a voice that barely rises above a whisper and harp sounds captured from some lost Disney fairy tale, Bjork makes the year's best soundtrack for drinking cocoa on a gloomy Sunday afternoon.
5. The Dismemberment
Plan Change (DeSoto)
The drummer plays as if he'd rather be in a techno band, the singer writes lyrics as if he'd prefer to be a novelist and the rest of the group makes every time change as jarring and abrupt as a sudden electric shock. But when the finished product sounds so magical, it doesn't matter that the pieces don't quite fit.
Yes, the songs challenge you to pay attention, and the band is arguably too intelligent and indulgent for its own good, but that's still exponentially preferable to most of Tool's followers, whose idea of stretching themselves artistically is adding a crappy DJ to the band. Plus, Maynard James Keenan still sings like no one else.
7. (tie) Weezer
Jimmy Eat World
Bleed American (Dreamworks)
For a no-frills good time, call Weezer, who delivers a double album's worth of hooks in less than thirty minutes. And those who want something hummable yet cathartic need look no further than Jimmy Eat World, back from label exile and rocking away as if it no longer cares what anyone has to say. During "The Middle," Jim Adkins sings Just be yourself/It doesn't matter if that's not good enough for someone else; the group has clearly taken its own advice.
Reveal (Warner Bros.)
Just because no one bought Reveal doesn't mean it's not one of R.E.M.'s most consistently amazing albums. And "Chorus and the Ring" might be the band's best song since "Drive."
Not as consistent as Kid A, but who expected two perfect albums from one session? Even when functioning at less than peak level, Radiohead still crushes all pretenders.
10. Kool Keith
America's greatest living poet strikes again, with songs about his multiple personalities (each new album offers a few), graphic tunes about freaky sex and public-service announcements about how Kool Keith is so much better than whatever rapper you're listening to, all set to obscene booty beats and alien-channeling keyboards.
Top Five Songs
Political commentary, free lap dances and a massive beat (standard issue with each Neptunes-related release): What more could you need?
"Hash Pipe," from Weezer (Interscope)
It's about time Rivers Cuomo addressed his fans' desire to become male prostitutes who swap ass for hash. Loved the video, in which MTV censored the drug references while leaving the sex talk alone.
3. Tenacious D
"Fuck Her Gently," from Tenacious D (Epic)
Fellas, pay attention.
4. Alien Ant Farm
"Smooth Criminal," from ANThology (Dreamworks)
Don't think you're too good for this, because you're not.
5. Joker the Bailbondsman
"Let Me See Your Ass Drop" (self-released)
Straight outta Anchorage, Alaska, comes the best track yet to be unveiled on BET Uncut.
Top ten albums
1. Spike Priggen
The Very Thing That You Treasure (Volaré)
6. Kelly Hogan
Because It Feel Good (Bloodshot)
Jeff BrownTop ten albums 1. Rufus Wainright
4. The Strokes
Is This It? (RCA)
6. The Faint
Danse Macabre (Saddle Creek)
"Alive," from Satellite (Atlantic)
4. Jimmy Eat World
"Bleed American," from Bleed American (Dreamworks)
5. Tenacious D
"Wonderboy," from Tenacious D (Epic)
Greg FranklinTop ten albums 1. Creeper Lagoon
9. The Multiple Cat
The Golden Apple Hits (Plow City)
Top ten albums
1. Bob Dylan
Love and Theft (Columbia)
4. Joshua Redman Quartet
Passage of Time (Warner Bros.)
5. John Hiatt
The Tiki Bar Is Open (Vanguard)
10. Ani DiFranco
Revelling/Reckoning (Righteous Babe)