On Monday Aim invited me to join her at a Radiohead concert. The concept of it nearly rolled my eyes back into my head; an arena of young urban hipsters as or more obsessed with their band as I am with Tori Amos, all with overt political or stylistic agendas, all of whom would undoubtably frown at me for having bought the new Michelle Branch album.
It sounded like a challenge, not to mention a good time.
Poured into my tightest blue jeans and snuggest brown t-shirt, as we walked to our seats i scanned the crowd of trendy young men and realized that i have resorted to co-opting a slightly queer style of dress and carriage because it just works for me … i am small-framed and relatively slim and no longer trying desperately to attract strange women wherever i go. If pressed i could not explain it; it’s just my need to feel wanted, i suppose. I’m not sure what stops me from showing up in cargo pants and a stained flannel shirt. Maybe it’s that i spent the 90’s wearing that, or maybe it’s that i like to approximate an accurate interior self-image so that i feel as though i actually stand out in a crowd as me.
Ultimately, all eyes were on the stage and none on my inanely logoed tee or my inordinately tight ass-hugging pants. I have rarely seen such a polite audience held in rapt attention at such a huge rock show. I am not good with Radiohead’s titles – ever since hearing Kid A their albums pass by me like symphonies – but some songs still stuck out just by virtue of how they were achieved. A hypnotic electronic piano version of “Like Spinning Plates,” a spastic and brittle “Idioteque,” chiming xylophone and the faint singing of the lawn section on “No Surprises,” and “Everything In It’s Right Place” prefaced as “this is a song about the good old days.”
As it echoed back at me from Thom, and then the effects pedals on the stage, i just thought … Yes.
Favorite post-Radiohead concert trying desperately to exit the parking lot quote: Peter – “Aim, if she hits this car we are going to get out and jump on her hood like monkeys at Six Flags Safari.”
Runner Up: Aim – “Hey, you, Urban Trendsters, come here!”
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?
So, we’ve established how pretty much everyone i know has heard “Under My Skin,” right? And, why not? It’s cute, it bops, it’s got some background vocals, and i’m singing it like i mean it (because i do). Tonight as i took a quick scroll through my lyrics folder i had to remind myself that there was life before “Under My Skin,” and that life included writing and singing and playing guitar just as much as this one does. There is one song more representative of that than any other, and that is “Touch.”
Life was on a smaller scale when it came to my guitar Senior Year… writing a good song sometimes meant that three or four people might hear it ringing out against the tile of the basement hallway, and “Touch” was my relative success. With it’s nonexistent nonsense lyrics that were practically ad-libbed every time and it’s chiming verses that spun out to the simplest of choruses, “Touch” was just about the utmost of what i could offer, and hardly anyone knew about it. Three years ago this week a mere handful of people had heard it, and two years ago the number had only improved by another couple handfuls. And, now, this once-stalwart of my collection is buried under dozens of songs that i like more with little hope of anyone ever really getting to appreciate it. My life is weird that way… hits rise and fall in my own mind. The chances of “Under My Skin” making a repeat appearance on my next demo recording are slim to none, which means a year or two from now even it’s listening public of over a hundred people will (hopefully) pale in comparison to what songs like “Excuse” or “Tangling” will know.
Radiohead mostly stopped playing “Creep” after everyone screamed for it at every show, and at last month’s Ani DiFranco concert the oldest song she played was from her fifth album. Point being, not even fame necessarily cures the case of lost songs because they are either “Under My Skin” or “Touch” — you’re sick of them, or have too many other songs crowding them out.
And, so, i am almost afraid to write down what i feel, because it will have a life so much shorter than mine despite my attempts to immortalize it. I sang “Touch” tonight because it had somehow slipped through the cracks of Trio for over a year despite its only being two years old last fall. I wonder if it’ll ever appear again…