On the other hand, irrepressible singles do show up on spotty CDs (see the latest from Pink, DMX and Stone Temple Pilots) and the best songs arent necessarily the radio singles (see almost any metal or hardcore rap act), necessitating that each track be given at least a cursory listen. Given that about thirty albums get released each week (and thats a conservative estimate), that leaves more than 1,500 titles to sift through at years end. And it turns out that, at the very least, 10 percent of those rank between damn good and borderline excellent, with almost every genre producing a few gems.
Hip-hop rode a fourth-quarter rally to an impressive showing. Jazz offered lavish reissues and fresh approaches. Bluegrass lassoed a massive audience thanks to a dark-horse soundtrack. Hard-rock shrugged off its dunce cap on the way to producing the years three most intelligent releases. And regular rock, courtesy of the Strokes and the White Stripes, generated hype about albums that actually deserved it. Doubtless, all of the Pitchs writers still harbor some frustration about the worthy discs they just didnt have room to tout, but none has any regrets about selecting the standouts found on the lists that appear in the following pages.
Top 20 Albums
1. System of a Down
Wake up, singer Serj Tankian shouts at the opening of System of a Down's alternately jagged and sadly poignant single "Chop Suey!" It's an appropriate rallying cry from a band that serves as an alarm clock for the heavy-music scene, alerting fans lulled into accepting mediocrity by waves of inessential rap-rockers and grunge revivalists that it's time to open their eyes and experience real innovation. A socially conscious band with a master satirist's feel for subtlety, System of a Down cloaks its commentary with metaphors and lightens the mood with absurdist humor. Other change-minded acts have turned their albums into straight-faced rallies; SOAD prefers to throw a political party.
Director's Cut (Ipecac)
When crafting a covers album, some artists pride themselves on being able to retrace the selected songs without ever straying outside the lines. But to hear Mike Patton update movie themes is to imagine Jackson Pollack recreating a staid still life. While maintaining the music's inherent spookiness, Patton and his cohorts (Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins, former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Mr. Bungle's Trevor Dunn) magnify its menace with thrash outbursts, plodding downtuned dirges and anxiety-inspiring keyboard accents, often within the same tune. But the group's most important weapon is Patton's malleable voice, which lends a creepy calm to Henry Mancini's "Experiment in Terror" and a demon-possessed mania to "The Omen."
3. Masta Ace
Disposable Arts (JCOR)
Write your rhymes in the shower/You're washed up, raps Masta Ace, sneering at himself during the scathingly self-critical "Dear Diary." He needn't have worried -- despite the seven-year hiatus since his last release, the Masta still ranks among hip-hop's top lyricists. He has abandoned his on-beat, off-beat flow, sporting an efficient, snippy delivery that makes him sound like Slim Shady's positive-minded twin. And he's ditched his bass-loaded attack, which made speakers shiver as his disc approached the player. Now he opts for smooth backdrops that massage his robust verses rather than smother them.
4. Ghostface Killah
Bulletproof Wallets (Epic)
The passionately dramatic, dizzyingly abstract lyricist behind last year's best album, Supreme Clientele, has fallen off ever so slightly, but Ghostface's latest joint still tops all but three contenders. Willfully mysterious (the track listing on the back of the disc doesn't correspond with the actual order in which the songs appear) as well as amazingly expressive and unmistakably real, Ghostface delivers his narratives with cinematic clarity. Wu-Tang producer RZA, who always does his best work when teamed with Ghostface, stacks classy samples onto formidable solid blocks of soul, then decorates these hard-driving beats with intriguing piano loops and horn bursts.
Radiohead continues to confound listeners who want easy musical answers, but that doesn't mean Amnesiac is inaccessible -- its melodies float near the songs' surfaces in clear view. Still, focusing on the immediately evident features of Radiohead tunes is like watching Mulholland Drive with the sound muted: It's still a beautiful experience, but there's much more available for those willing to dig deeper. Tool's first album in four years offers a different sort of challenge. With its two-part compositions, recurring musical themes, startling mood swings and slow-developing ebbs and flows, it's a seventy-minute behemoth that's best consumed as a whole.
7. Rufus Wainwright
8. Loudon Wainwright III
Last Man on Earth (Red House)
Opening with a definitive examination of self-destructive behavior during which Rufus Wainwright admits he's a little bit Tower of Pisa, the album Poses brims with riveting first-person character studies. Using nuances and inflection, Rufus communicates countless moods using a voice that's amazingly effective given its narrow range. While Rufus' piano arrangements result in graceful, ornate compositions, his father, Loudon Wainwright III, uses his acoustic guitar to craft spare backdrops that place the emphasis where it should be -- on his insightful lyrics.
9. Billie Holiday
Lady Day (Columbia/Legacy)
10. Various Artists
The '70s Soul Experience (Rhino)
Stunning in its magnitude without seeming even slightly overdone, Lady Day fits Billie Holiday's Columbia recordings between 1933-1944 on ten equally enthralling discs, wrapping the music inside deluxe packaging that reflects the singer's delicate, understated grace. Informative and essential, Lady Day comes with a hundred-plus-page book that provides the often-vivid stories behind the songs. The '70s Soul Experience's box is tackier, and appropriately so -- the fake eight-track cartridges poking out of the false-wood carrying case summarize the era that these tunes recreate. All the greats appear on this six-disc set -- Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye -- plus an impressive sampling of one-hit wonders and a booklet that includes a jive glossary. Outta sight!
11. The Strokes
Is This It (RCA)
12. The White Stripes
White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
While the Strokes' largely stationary appearance in Lawrence didn't do much to justify the band's rep as live killers, it did serve as an effective advertisement for the band's much-hyped album. There was just enough motion on stage to distract audience members from the game of spot-the-influence that many of them play while listening at home, so it was easier to appreciate the smart, catchy (four-car-) garage-rock. The White Stripes make spot-the-influence much simpler, appropriating entire chunks and riffs from their blues and rock ancestors. Jack and Meg White could have become indie-rock's Puff Daddies; instead, they're more like the RZA, injecting enough personality into their sample-heavy creations to make them seem raw and original.
13. Various Artists
The Gift (Will)
Much has been made of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack's triple-platinum success, and rightfully so -- achieving such sales without radio support or a hit parent film is an incredible accomplishment. But The Gift, the haunting musical partner to Sam Raimi's ignored Southern Gothic suspense flick, also deserves accolades. Despite its numerous versions of "A Man of Constant Sorrow," O Brother can't match this album's desolate outlook, best summarized by Willie Nelson's brilliantly bleak "Great Divide" and Loretta Lynn's "Mamma Why," a plot-hugging theme song for the film's orphaned child. Mostly composed of well-aged tracks from legends, The Gift also features some young blood, including two haunting numbers from Neko Case and Amy Nelson's morbid farewell, "In Case We Die."
14. The Coup
Party Music (75Ark)
To call this the year's best political hip-hop disc is to damn it with faint praise -- sadly, there's not much competition. But Party Music is more than the king of a tiny province. It's a series of genuinely revolution-minded outbursts set to deep-grooving funk from a real live band, another asset that distinguishes the Coup from the rest of the rap pack.
15. Mem Shannon
Memphis in the Morning (Shanachie)
16. Saffire -- The Uppity Blues Women
Ain't Gonna Hush (Alligator)
While most of his contemporaries stick to singing about lost love, new love and love lost again, Mem Shannon, though not above such songs (see the back-to-back "I Love the Way You Love" and "Unconditional Love"), makes room for topical numbers, too. from the vantage point of his '71 Maverick, Shannon chides those SOBs driving these SUVs and trying to run over me. He's also the funkiest bluesman around, opening most tunes with thundering bass grooves. Saffire, a veteran blues trio, epitomizes full-grown woman power. The members are saucy ("Nobody Ever Touched Me There"), sassy ("Ain't Gonna Hush") and witty (the title of "It Takes a Mighty Good Man" leaves out the song's punch line: to be better than no man at all).
17. Vann Tiersen
18. Tosca Tango Orchestra
Waking Life (TVT)
Without its giddy accordion-heavy score, Amelie couldn't have been so effortlessly uplifting, so unfailingly endearing. And without the Tosca Tango Orchestra's dreamy orchestral companionship, Waking Life, for all its visual stimulation, would have become insufferably dialogue-laden.
19. Bobby Conn
The Golden Age (Thrill Jockey)
20. Ryan Adams
Gold (Universal/Lost Highway)
Conn and Adams set this year's Gold standard with two very different albums, but their discs have one important thing in common -- more variety than a major-label sampler. Conn can be a bitterly observant cynic one moment and a helium-toking funky white boy the next, and he's equally adept at wearing both hats. Adams' eccentricity is more maddening because while he's clearly better at being an emotive songwriter than being a Southern-rock bad boy, he insists on occasionally auditioning for the Black Crowes. As a result, Gold is the only album on the list with must-skip tracks, but its size (21 songs, including the five on its bonus disc) and the exquisite delicacy of its ballads make these lapses much easier to bear.
Top 20 Songs
1. Missy Elliot
"Get UR Freak On," from Miss E ... So Addictive (Elektra)
2. Bubba Sparxxx
"Ugly," from Dark Days, Bright Nights (Interscope)
"We Need a Resolution," from Aaliyah (Virgin/Blackground)
It takes a clever application of the Midas touch to enable a producer to recycle the same basic beat without stretching it thin, as Dr. Dre did with "Forgot About Dre" and "The Real Slim Shady" and Timbaland does with Missy's "Get UR Freak On" and Bubba Sparxxx's "Ugly." Timbaland's signature backdrop, a high-pitched hook swaying like a charmed snake over an immense bass line, carries both Missy and Bubba, neither of whom qualifies as an upper-level MC. But his partnership with the late Aaliyah is an equal one: He drops her off in a mesmerizing labyrinth of erratic programmed beats and orchestral samples, and she brings it home with confident sass and versatile vocals.
4. Nathaniel Merriweather
"Anger Management," from Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By (75Ark)
The most prolific members of music's version of Mensa, Mike Patton (Fantomas, Mr. Bungle) and Dan the Automator (Handsome Boy Modeling School, Gorillaz) collide with predictably brilliant results. Stretching out on a satin-sheet-covered beat from the Automator, Patton gets melodramatic as only he can, whimpering Why must God punish me? like a sleazy lounge singer hoping to get sympathy sex from a duped barfly.
"Space Dementia," from Origin of Symmetry (Mushroom)
Radiohead fans, this band will own you in 2002 when Origin of Symmetry comes stateside courtesy of Maverick Records. Currently available only overseas (try amazon.co.uk), the sophomore effort by this ambitious art-rocking outfit takes falsetto vocals, cathartic guitar crunch and spacey lyrical oddities to peaks unscaled since The Bends, especially on this frightening pledge of devotion. I'll cut your name in my heart, Matthew Bellamy croons menacingly; we'll destroy the world for you. He's a creep, he's a weirdo.
6. Tech N9ne
"It's Alive," from AngHellic (JCOR)
Tech N9ne answers everyone who's slept on Midwest hip-hop by proclaiming his city's virtues and siccing Toto on haters. Meanwhile, producer Icy Roc works soft-and-loud dynamics like a club DJ, follows up his choruses with sizzling drum and bass breaks and adds enough thump to keep Tech's declaration of civic pride blasting out of car windows on every main drag in Kansas City.
7. Belle & Sebastian
"I'm Waking up to Us," from I'm Waking up to Us (Matador)
Belle & Sebastian, one of the few groups that still releases honest-to-goodness three-song singles, demonstrates the potential beauty of the format with this stunningly solid twelve-minute lush pop showcase. The tunes each conceal sharpened fangs behind their pretty closed-mouth smiles -- "I Love My Car" is a list of possessions, inanimate objects and animals that the singer favors over the unfortunate lover he's serenading -- but "I'm Waking up to Us" offers the sharpest contrast between sweet string arrangements and sour sentiments.
"It's a Wonderful Life," from It's a Wonderful Life (Capitol)
Anyone who has seen Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" paired with harrowing footage of natural disasters, poverty-stricken neighborhoods or bombed-out war zones knows the indelible impression that the combination of optimistic music with depressing imagery can make. "It's a Wonderful Life," which seems to be hiding unspeakable sorrow beneath its airy facade, could add another level of pathos to these devastating displays.
9. Bill Withers
"I Can't Write Left Handed," from A Break from the Norm (Restless)
This live track, unearthed by Fatboy Slim for inclusion on his compilation disc A Break from the Norm, is a rare political statement from soul's most underrated master. After recounting his meeting with a wounded soldier ("getting shot at didn't bother me," he's told, "it was getting shot that shook me up"), the charismatic Withers places himself in the young serviceman's combat boots and offers this transcription of a letter from a soldier who lost his right arm to enemy fire. A sobering listen given the current climate, "I Can't Write Left Handed" pays tribute to the armed forces while still emphasizing that war is hell.
10. Tori Amos
"'97 Bonnie and Clyde," from Strange Little Girls (Atlantic)
With her cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Tori Amos served as a translator for Nirvana fans, her hyperarticulate phrasing erasing all of Kurt Cobain's mumbled mysteries. Eminem speaks quite clearly, thanks, but Tori strips bare his sociopathic intent by placing his lyrics in the slit throat of this tune's murdered wife. It works -- her beyond-the-grave whispers and moans are nightmare-inducing.
11. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
"Christina," from How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart (Mantra)
Seemingly pieced together from snippets of several equally gorgeous songs, "Christina" is an overture for some grand yet-to-be-made pristine piano-pop production. It opens with a sweeping symphonic wave, but after twenty seconds, it evolves into an easygoing ode to a ballerina. Later, it becomes even more sparse, as if the tune's lovestruck protagonist hired an orchestra for a serenade, blew his budget and was left to finish alone with his piano.
"Purple Pills," from Devil's Night (Interscope/Shady)
Eminem's six-man crew's mildly shocking rhymes became milder still when MTV memorably turned the tune into "Purple Hills," complete with maroon mountains on the horizon. But the lumbering bassoon-and-bass beat, wicked-nasty even before the harmonica kicks in, remained uncensored.
"Drowning," from Sometimes (Dreamworks)
One-man-band Jimmy Gnecco's occasionally overwrought vocals grate over the length of an entire album, but his wide-jawed wails fit this downbeat tune perfectly, even after it bleeds into a seemingly unrelated yet engaging acoustic epilogue.
"Disciple," from God Hates Us All (American)
Hate heals/You should try it sometime, Tom Araya screams during this tune's multilayered, technically flawless thrash-punk assault. It's unfortunate advice, especially coming from an album released on September 11, when the nation sought consolation. But when Araya later elaborates with I hate everyone equally, Slayer's brand of menace becomes strangely comforting. It's just a harmless caricature of the hellish conditions encountered on a daily basis in other countries, and, now that the group is touring months after the attacks, it's also a reminder that Americans have gone back to amusing themselves with potent fake evil instead of staying at home, petrified by the threat of the real thing. God bless you, Slayer.
"Izzo," from The Blueprint (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella)
Freaking a more refined version of the Jackson Five sample that powered Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P.," Jigga spits lines such as Fo' schizzo my nizzel used to dribble down in VA, sending suburban kids out on a sheepish search for an urban-slang decoder ring.
16. The Flaming Stars
"Ten Feet Tall," from Ginmill Perfume (Alternative Tentacles)
What song released in 2001 did the most convincing impression of a Velvet Underground composition? If you named anything by the Strokes, sorry -- they were just second-bananas compared with the Flaming Stars' acid flashback "Ten Feet Tall." Singer Max Décharné nails Lou Reed's coolly detached delivery, and the band's simple attack -- an intoxicating organ hook, a running-in-place drumbeat that teases but never erupts and a precious few guitar strums used to maximum effect -- captures the essence of the original alternative outfit.
"Get the Party Started," from Missundaztood (Arista)
Looking to make fledgling R&B star Pink more soulful, an Arista official heard Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and declared, "She should sound more like this." The intern in charge of this task, who must have "missundaztood," came back with Linda Perry, of 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up" fame. Eh, all's well that ends well. Perry sharpened Pink's pop hooks, resulting in irresistible fluff like this club-hopping jam.
18. Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards
"To Have and to Have Not," from Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards (Hellcat)
The voice of Rancid (the intelligible one, anyway) steps out on his own, tweaks a Billy Bragg tune and rides a Springsteen-style riff to working-class redemption.
19. Stone Temple Pilots
"Wonderful," from Shangri-La Dee Da (Atlantic)
"Wonderful" had two major obstacles on its way to becoming one of the year's sweetest, most sublime pop confections: 1) It's an earnest love song; and 2) It's by Stone Temple Pilots. But somehow, Scott Weiland managed to channel George Harrison instead of Eddie Vedder, coming closer than any grunge-affiliated act ever has to creating that certain special "Something."
20. Michael Fracasso
"Back to Oklahoma," from Back to Oklahoma (India)
I'm going back to Oklahoma, promises singer/guitarist Fracasso; Jesus is not ready for me now. But to hear his protagonist's desperation, as communicated in vintage Dylan fashion by urgent harmonica solos and a voice thick with world-weary resignation, is to wonder if he'll ever reach his destination.