Best Music of 2001 Lists
1. Circulatory System, Circulatory System (Cloud Recordings)
This CD meant more to me than any other album this year, and I don’t know why. I’m not an Elephant 6 groupie, and I’m kind of over my hippie all-is-love stage — but I guess I’m not too cynical for beauty, because this is the most beautiful record released this year. There are too many things happening on virtually every track: weird vocal chanting, clarinet solos, children laughing, psychedelic folk pop madness erupting everywhere. That’s the lyrical thrust, too: way too much optimism, far too much talking about “If you still believe in love” and “We will live forever and you know it’s true” . . . and I fell for it all. I didn’t say it was perfect; my favorite albums never are. Circulatory System is a sloppy conceptual masterpiece that saved my soul on more than one occasion this year. It’s never leaving my changer.
2. Bersuit Vergarabat, Hijos del Culo (Surco/Universal Music Argentina)
I am reasonably confident that no one else will have this album on their Top Ten list anywhere outside Buenos Aires. But that just means that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. This album takes every single kind of music recorded in the last 50 years — “Latin”, reggae, “classic” rock, pop, punk, doo-wop — throws them all into a blender with a couple of habanero peppers and a stinkbomb, and makes it taste like heaven. Shot through with a world-weary political sense that forms the antidote to everything’s-gonna-be-alright-ism, Gustavo Cordera sings about how Argentina sucks, about witches falling in love with astronauts as they ride in a bubble around the sun, about the chaos engendered by tiny girls with big butts. Yeah, it’s all over the place, but it’s more ambitious and accomplished than anything your favorite band tried to do this year.
3. Cannibal Ox, The Cold Vein (Def Jux)
And here I thought my Best Hip-Hop Albums of All Time list was done. This is a revolutionary triumph in three separate ways. First, it introduces a vocal tag-team of great skill and bravery: Vast Aire Kramer and Vordul Megala. They’re goth rap poets on the Thom Yorke tip whose view of the world is the anti-bling: they had shitty childhoods, and they’re neither rich nor good-looking, but they’re gonna rise like “Scream Phoenix!” and seize self-respect from the ashes of the Five Boroughs. Secondly, this album is notable for the disorienting jaw-dropping techno production from El-Producto of Company Flow. He introduces elements of glitchcore and IDM into the machinery but never steps on the lyricists. Third, the fact that they can blend these two elements together for 74 minutes and make you want to listen to it again immediately to catch what you missed. This is the shit for real.
4. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
Holy god do they rock. The White Stripes rock like they made pacts with both God and Satan and are playing both sides against the middle. They are fugly when they need to be, angelic when it amuses them to be so, and just plain radio-friendly ass-kickers when they want to get their ya-yas out. If you think about it, you’ll wonder if Jack and Meg White are the creepy end-of-the-worlders of “Expecting” or the happy-go-lucky bashers of “Hotel Yorba” or the cut-and-pasters of “The Union Forever” (in which every single lyric is taken from various parts of Citizen Kane). But you won’t think about it, much, because why would you want to spend precious time not banging your head to these amazing songs? (Oh, and don’t sleep on Meg’s drumming, either. She ain’t no joke.)
5. Karsh Kale, Realize (Six Degrees)
His name is pronounced KURSH kah-LAY. Get used to it, because he’s going to be around for a long time. He’s an Indian-American percussionist who is just as good behind a drumkit as he is with tablas in hand; he’s a techno deck wizard; he’s a bandleader; he’s brilliant. Kale describes his music as “Indian classical science-fiction music from New York”, and that’s pretty much spot on. His soaring compositions are bootylicious and deep at the same time–he’s got Asian dance divas wailing alongside ancient sarangi players, English lyrics competing with Hindi chants for earspace, and straightahead stuff boogieing with weird touches but it’s all so lovely and heartfelt that you’re never alone. This is an album for meditation and the dancefloor and the bedroom. After all, aren’t they all the same thing?
6. Missy Elliott, Miss E . . . So Addictive (The Gold Mind, Inc./Elektra)
What, we didn’t review this album? What were we thinking? This album did it all, innovating all over the place but still appealing to everyone from E-dropping clubheads and hardcore rap fanatics to TRL kiddies. Yeah, sure, Missy and Timbaland do music for the masses. But please don’t think yourself above the knock-’em-flat electrothump of “4 My People”, the 80s slow dance homage of “Old School Joint”, the freaky d’n’b Indianism of “Get Ur Freak On”, or anything here — it’s all just too good for you to even try to hate. Plus: it’s a concept album with two distinct threads: Missy the Wild Woman and Missy the Good Girl. The tension is lovely. She’s raised the bar. You should be thanking her.
7. Dubchek, Down Memory Gap Lane (Unitone)
David Barratt is an English producer/engineer type. Papa Dee is a rastafied member of the Brooklyn Funk Essentials. I have no idea how they met each other or how they got the idea to construct this wonderful soulful ambient dub album, but I’m glad they did. From the opening easyskank of “Memory Gap Lane” to the 18-minute zen workout “Peace O’ Mind”, Down Memory Gap Lane is heartfelt and witty electronica with a Kingston twist. They name-check Jamaican soccer players, they have children begging their fathers not to shoot anyone, and they boast, “Mi momma tol’ me Lee Perry was mah daddy.” Best guest shots: Everton Sylvester’s hilariously warped slavery monologue on “Reparation” and Josh Roseman’s amazing skatalitic trombone work on “Duppy Train”.
8. Jill Scott, Experience: Jill Scott 826+ (Hidden Beach)
This late arrival has thrown my Top Ten list into a tizzy. Damned if these songs don’t all sound better live than they did on her debut disc; her backup band, Fatback Taffy, is responsible for about half of that difference, with its inventive organic funky groove. But the rest is all Jilly from Philly: she flirts, she teases, she preaches, she teaches, and holy cow does the woman sing! And the second disc, with its new songs and pair of remixes, ain’t no slouch either — none of the songs are predictable in the least. With this album, Jill picks up the gauntlet thrown down by Erykah Badu–we could be looking at a whole Beach Boys vs. Beatles battle thing going on with the heavy hitters of neo-soul. They’re going to spur each other on to great heights and I’m front row.
9. Susheela Raman, Salt Rain (Narada)
Twenty-eight-year-old Tamil-Australian Susheela Raman and her British musical director Sam Mills pull off something sweet here. They take ancient Indian devotional songs sung in the original Sanskrit and Hindi and Telegu — and a few originals written in English–and make ’em funky, with an international band of skill and wisdom and chops up the ying-yang. Then on top of it, they float Raman’s voice, which has been classically trained and dance-hall tested. These pieces sound like nothing else I heard this year, or really ever: deep as the Ganges but clear as a mountain stream. It’s healing music, holy music, but it kicks a hell of a wallop. Plus, we get the best cover ever of “Trust in Me” from The Jungle Book. Very sexy stuff.
10. Love As Laughter, Sea to Shining Sea (Sub Pop)
Sam Jayne might not be a rock and roll genius, but if he’s not then no one ever was. Check it out. This album contains a rock-band-on-the-road song (“Coast to Coast”), a singer-urges-someone-to-shoot-him-in-the-head song (“Sam Jayne = Dead”), a great pop song named after one of the worst TV shows in history (“Temptation Island”), a track in which Jayne out-Elliot Smiths Elliot Smith (“Miss Direction”), and six more tracks of great lyrical weirdness and twisty melodies that shift halfway through and make you feel all funny. Plus, this album features the only time in history that a songwriter has described his fear of his own head turning into a cardboard box and getting recycled. Sam’s a freak. Love them freaks.