by Michael Goldberg
Monday December 24, 2001
2001: The Music That Mattered
Thirty albums that challenged my perceptions, kept things fresh or, at the least, chilled me out.
There are the albums that you have great hopes for. There are the albums that you try so hard to make your own. And then there are the albums that you listen to really listen to, over and over again because you have to, because you have no choice, because they speak to you so strongly, connect so deeply.
This, then, is a column about the new music I really listened to this year. The music that came with me when I traveled to New York or L.A. or Europe, or drove into San Francisco. The music that played constantly, over and over and over, throughout my days.
There are many other good, perhaps great, recordings that were released this year. Off the top of my head I came up with 30 albums that meant something to me this year. And as I looked through my CDs and past columns and other writings, I found others. I have included some of them below my "Top 10," because while my life, ultimately, could have gone on without them, they're certainly worth your time.
I have great hopes for 2002. If things go right, The Strokes will continue to break through and will become a Nirvana-like phenomenon, spurring radio stations to change the music they play and labels, both big and small, to focus on edgy, underground-style rock raw, heartfelt music that matters.
Twelve That Rocked My World
1. The Strokes, "The Modern Age" (XL); The Strokes, Is This It (RCA): When I heard the EP last spring, I heard rocks past, present and future. "Barely Legal" is a truly classic track, the kinda song that, when you hear it, makes you feel like life is really worth living to the hilt. And then some. The album takes longer to kick in, and includes all the songs on the EP. Still, it's that one-two-three punch of the EP that lets you in the door. Once inside, you'll savor rock that tries to sort through the confusion and chaos of living and doesn't pretend to have any answers. Sometimes it's enough just to know that others are mixed up too.
2. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator), (Acony): I'm not sure if this is folk, country or rock, and could care less. Welch sings an often-sad song, but somehow, whenever I listen to this beautiful, thoughtful album I feel refreshed and ready to face whatever new challenges await.
3. Spoon, Girls Can Tell (Merge): When I was a kid, one of my fave albums was Beatles VI; this album reminds me of that one. Spoon capture the feel of the best '60s pop rock (sometimes referred to as power pop), but transform it into a modern sound and context. "Everything Hits At Once," the opening track, is simply the best.
4. Mark Eitzel, The Invisible Man (Matador): The world is often a bleak and sad place through singer/songwriter Eitzel's eyes, but you know what? It looks that way to me quite often as well. As far as I can tell, this is the first time Eitzel has written a song that affirms life. The final song on The Invisible Man is the Dylanesque "Proclaim Your Joy," which, whatever Eitzel's intention, comes across as a glorious, defiant "Yes!"
5. Unwound, Leaves Turn Inside You (Kill Rock Stars): This epic two-CD set, recorded in the basement studio in the Olympia, Wash., house where band leader/singer/guitarist Justin Trosper lives, is proof that the DIY ethic is alive and well. Without a doubt the best guitar-heavy rock album of the year. A masterpiece.
6. Guided By Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT); Airport 5, Tower in the Fountain of Sparks (Faded Captain): Whether he is working in an upscale studio or keeping things lo-fi, GBV mastermind Robert Pollard delivers genius pop-rock. His stream-of-consciousness rock-poetry taps into our collective subconscious. Whether singing about "Glad Girls" or a scientist who fails at delivering a love elixir, Pollard sounds like the fate of the world depends on his communiqués reaching us. And, in fact, it does.
7. Red House Painters, Old Ramon (Sub Pop): Mark Kozelek's slowcore San Francisco quartet's long-awaited (this album was delayed for four years by various record company machinations) Old Ramon finally saw release on SubPop, and it was worth the wait. Timeless and yet always timely, these sonic paintings are heartbreaking, breathtaking and, well, just so beautiful. "River" is possibly the best Neil Young song Neil didn't write. "Why don't you come over to my side," Kozelek sings. "And I'll treat you right." And he does, he always does.
8. Sparklehorse, It's a Wonderful Life (Capitol): When Mark Linkous sings the line "Can you feel the rings of Saturn on your fingers?," it sounds like just about the most beautiful thing you could say to someone you love. This album is filled with his mysterious poetry. Linkous reminds me a bit of Neil Young, if Young were 20 or so years younger and tuned in to the world in a way that only someone who came of age in the '90s could be. Every song kicks it, and the cameos by Tom Waits, PJ Harvey and others are all dope (not throwaways, as some might think). I may have listened to this more than any other album this year. Still sounds amazing.
9. Garbage, Beautiful Garbage (Interscope): You could think that Garbage hangs on Shirley Manson's voice and lyrics, and certainly, without her the guys might be in trouble. But after three amazing albums of modern electronic rock-pop it's clear that this is a band; the music sets up the voice and lyrics, the voice and lyrics make the music matter. The melancholy of "Cup of Coffee," a breakup ballad, will serve as my personal soundtrack for the many novels of Haruki Murakami that I read and loved this year.
10. Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky): The harmonies of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk are as beautiful as that Mark Linkous line, "Can you feel the rings of Saturn on your fingers?" When I think of that line, "Quiet is the new loud," I think of Low, who craft a sound that sometimes feels like love, sometimes feels like sex, sometimes feels like desire, often feels like one of life's mysteries.
11. Sarah Dougher, The Bluff (Mr. Lady): Singer/songwriter folk-rock that really rocks when it needs to and gets quiet and thoughtful when that makes sense.
12. Le Tigre, Feminist Sweepstakes (Mr. Lady): And when the revolution comes, we'll still be dancing.
13. Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album (Barsuk): The new R.E.M.
14. Autechre, Confield (Warp): If you want to hear a new kind of electronic music, this is the real deal. Not an easy ride, but worth the trip.
15. New Order, Get Ready (Reprise): Years may have passed, but they sound the same and that's OK. This is really good New Order, with plenty of guitar.
16. Sam Philips, Fan Dance (Nonesuch): Perhaps this pop (as in Beatles, not Britney) singer/songwriter's best album yet.
17. Mercury Rev, All Is Dream (V2): This one will take you to Saturn so you can put its rings on her fingers.
18. Chris Lee, Plays and Sings Torch'd Songs, Charivari Hymns & Oriki Blue-Marches (Smells Like): Trust me, you've never heard a singer/songwriter/rocker that sounded like this. And you want to, you really do.
19. Bob Dylan, Love And Theft (Columbia): The songs are good and the lyrics great. Too bad he sings like he's got the flu, instead of like it's 1966 and he's about to record Highway 61 Revisited.
20. Four Tet, Pause (Domino): Chill time.
21. Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions, Bavarian Fruit Bread (Rough Trade): OK, this isn't Mazzy Star and that's just fine. It feels more organic, like there was no pressure, just the desire to do good work. And good work was done.
22. Erase Errata, Other Animals (Troubleman Unlimited): This is difficult, angular post-punk rock. Think Captain Beefheart, the Gang of Four and Bikini Kill. Now imagine one band with a consistent sound based on those influences and plenty of others.
23. LiLiPut, LiLiPut (Kill Rock Stars): Reissue of the year. Priceless, essential and very radical songs from a past that we can only wish were the future.
24. Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Silvertone): Blues album of the year.
25. Rufus Wainwright, Poses (DreamWorks): Major labels exist so that elaborately produced albums like this one can exist.
26. John Hammond, Wicked Grin (Virgin): Oops! There are two blues albums of the year. This one features songs and production by Tom Waits. Yes, it's as good as that sounds.
27. Tricky, Blowback (Hollywood): He's back, he's bad. And for us, that's good.
28. Múm, Yesterday Was Dramatic Today Is OK (Thule Musik): Wanna feel like the future?
29. Mark Lanegan, Field Songs (SubPop): With a voice like that, he should be one of the most popular rock stars in the world. He's not, and so we get small, eccentric and very wonderful albums like this one.
30. Kammerflimmer Kollektief, Maander (Temporary Residence): Strange. And I like strange.
I also dug albums released this year by Mouse on Mars, Shelby Lynne, R.E.M., Tara Jane O'Neal, Nobukazu Takemura, Beulah, Champale, Squarepusher, To Rococo Rot and I Sound, Solex, The Shins, The American Analog Set, Loudon Wainwright lll, 16 Horsepower, Radiohead, Dave Fischoff, Silver Jews, Reindeer Section and Heavenly.