Tonight i’ve been assaulting various and sundry instant message windows with my wandering attempts at creating a list of five favorite albums of 2001. I bought more cds during this year by a factor of nearly four over any other calendar year in history, but the great majority of them were filling in blanks in my collection — that is to say, they weren’t new releases. 2001 saw me adding records by Radiohead, Weezer, Ben Folds Five, Death Cab for Cutie, Erin McKeown, Velvet Underground, Magnetic Fields, Juliana Hatfield, and many more than a dozen other artists i had never bought before. Even of the acts i just named, only four of them released new discs this year in the midst of the 27 purchases i made from their catalogues. Point being, compiling a top five involves a lot more sifting than i thought it would — and that’s still before i have to actually decide on five discs.
The most obvious choice is Garbage’s Beautiful Garbage, which happens to be an excellent record in addition to being by my favorite band. Garbage didn’t make a record of the year, though; it’s consistently ranking on critic’s polls, but not in the top slot. I’ve honestly felt the same way about it since i bought it: it’s great, but it isn’t “best.” Something about the genre-hopping the band partakes in rubs my ears the wrong way, as if an album that at once acknowledges Phil Spector on “Can’t Cry These Tears” and Radiohead on “Nobody Loves You” while engaging in its own mischief on the instant-trash-classic “Silence is Golden” cannot possibly be my favorite of anything.
Speaking of Radiohead… must we? Over a year after first hearing it i’ll finally acknowledge that Kid A isn’t a piece of garbage, but i still remain remarkably undecided about Amnesiac Despite featuring a more intelligible set of songs, it is definitely a less cohesive piece, and I seem to be holding that against it … i want the compelling nature of the humming “Packt” and the falling forward of “Pyramid Song” combined with the howling “Idioteque” and grooving “Optimistic.” Is the middle ground represented by the live record i have yet to get my hands on? Or, more likely, should i forget that the previous record ever happened and try to place this one in my cannon without comparison?
If there’s any record comparison is helping its subject, it’s Photo Album by Death Cab for Cutie. Less aggressive and more cleanly produced than its predecessor, every song on it is a song in motion. It’s an album meant for a road trip, and i found myself playing it on every vehicle that got me to, around, and back from Florida with premeditation. Especially of note is the chiming “Movie Script Ending” and the biting romance-hinting travelogue “Why You’d Want to Live Here” (its having been written by someone who lives on the West Coast totally boggles me…). Photo is once painfully up-close and expertly rendered with broad enough strokes to allow a listener’s empathy. Of course, i have qualms about picking slight ten song albums by emo bands to top such a luminous collection … but i can’t very well ignore something i listened to every day for an entire month, can i?
If we were to award spots to all of my most listened-to records, Ani and Tori would be shoes in. They aren’t. As for Tori Amos, Strange Little Girls simply just isn’t an album that distinguishes 2001 in any way. The explosion of opener “New Age,” the roiling and aggressive “Real Men,” and the title track stick out of it as incredible, but the on the whole the record is sleepy and off-its mark (as you can hear me detail at length elsewhere). Ani DiFranco isn’t so surely crossed off the list; her double-length effort is intensely personal, unexpectedly funky, and eminently arranged. At the same time, its length acts against it through Ani’s inclusion of sleepy instrumentals and a handful of wince-worthy tunes that she might not have engaged in on a shorter record. Condensed to a single LP featuring such swiftly flowing jams as “Ain’t That the Way” and “o.k.” combined with more thoughtful ballads like “Marrow” and “So What,” Revelling and Reckoning might have wound up as my favorite DiFranco disc of all time. As it stands, even its place in my yearly pantheon is uncertain.
Ani has some stiff competition for her requisite folk-slot on my list from close associates. One threat is in the form of the Ani-produced Bitch and Animal disc Eternally Hard, which is too self-aware of its knotted sexuality and ironic lyrics to be anything but a hilarious listen. How can you dislike “Best Cock on the Block,” a sordid tale of a oft-beeped transgender and her collection of variously sized dildos? Rest assured, there’s more standard folk-fare within — albiet, rendered in bass, fiddle, djembe, and chick-rap. The second folk threat is from Erin McKeown and Peter Mulvey associate Rose Polenzani, whose self-titled disc veers from PJ Harvey stomp on one end to fluttering Joni-descended folk on the other. Sideman extraordinaire David Goodrich enhances throbbing opener “Fell” and the frollicking “Orange Crush,” but the purer acoustic songs inbetween are not quite as momentous. The missing momentum can be found carrying “Heaven Release Us” on Rose’s collaborative effort Voices on the Verge, which finds her sharing a Philadelphia studio with Erin, Beth Amsel, and Jess Klein. Voices is inconsistent by nature (Erin’s songs are mysterious in comparison to Jess’s, and Beth’s are especially plaintive) , but alluring all the same. All three of these discs easily outpace Ani when viewed as cohesive efforts, but they all have their flaws just the same.
I suppose there’s no such thing as a flawless record, though. Right? Really, it depends on the listener’s idea of a flaw. For me, a flawless record can be flawed in its own perfection. Case and point is Leona Naess, who easily produced the most effortlessly intricate disc i bought this year in I Tried to Rock You, but You Only Roll — a collection of folk guitars, electronic blips, and sugary melodies from a performer whose debut album i just as effortlessly declared as “Fiona-esque.” But, this disc is almost too-sweet … without anything jagged to get hopelessly hooked on. Similarly, Ivy’s Long Distance is a set of songs as excellent as it is undistinguished — when i listen to it i hear it as an entire album without isolating more than a song or two as it passes me by. Ben Folds puts in a similar performance, if an opposite one: all of Rockin’ the Suburbs‘s songs are memorable, but most of them sound like they could come from entirely different albums from each other (while lacking the overall arc that Garbage’s disc has to make up for its similar problem).
Alicia Keys’s Songs in a Minor is in a similar mess of songs, but is notable for hitting home with more hooks than the preceding. Closer still to perfection is Rufus Wainwright’s sophomore effort Poses, which suffers only from the fact that no album i own could keep up the pace that his first few songs set: “Poses” is a slice of melancholy perfection, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” a lurid sounding list of things he’s avoiding an indulgence in, the faux-funk of “Shadows,” and “California”s hilariously extolling the not-quite-virtues of said state. By contrast, the back half of the album floats by in a haze while i’m still caught on the vicious riffs and open-mouthed pronunciation of the first few.
And then there are the albums i was too stupid to notice when they came out last year… Erin McKeown’s Distillation, Coldplay’s Parachutes, Sarah Harmer’s You Were Here, Andy Stochansky’s RadioFuseBox, and the aforementioned Death Cab for Cutie’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes — a top five in their own right. Next, there are the almost-albums from this year — the discs that didn’t quite make an impact on me. This group is lead up by the lamentably lengthless Weezer disc, the inconsistent Moulin Rouge soundtrack, and the sleepy Skin by Melissa Etheridge. And, finally, the top-five albums i’ve managed to miss: Dylan’s Love and Theft, Jewel’s This Way, Elton’s Songs From the West Coast, and the ever-intimidating Bjork’s Vespertine.
So, somewhere in that litany of stumbling blocks, chinks in sonic armor, and laments at unremarkability are my favorite five albums of 2001. What were they?