UNLESS YOU'VE GOT MORE disposable income than you know what to do with, music critics have an edge on you. They're exposed to ridiculous amounts of music every year and, perhaps due to writer's salary blues as much as record companies looking for a little ink, they get their discs for free. So even if you take issue with the role of the critic, rest assured they're there for a reason--even if it's just to turn you on to a record you haven't heard before.
On that tip, we've asked four of our music writers for lists of their favorite albums of 2001. Not the best albums of the year, mind you, just the ones they like the best. Here's what they gave us.
STEPHEN SEIGEL'S PICKS:
1. Bob Dylan: Love and Theft (Columbia). In which St. Bob trades in the hauntingly bleak treatise on doomed mortality and lost love found on 1997's Time Out of Mind for the sheer wink-and-nod ebullience found in his live performances of recent years. That, at a very publicly feted 60 years of age, he can make an album that sounds unlike any he's done before, and one that is so vital, is nearing miraculous. "More lives than a cat," indeed.
2. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry). How a brother and sister from Detroit can take so little--guitar, drums and voice--and create a pissing contest between the Pixies and Led Zeppelin, yet remain wholly modern and unique, rocking like a motherfucker all the way, is really beyond me. Jack White's quavering howl of a voice has rock god written all over it.
3. Mercury Rev: All is Dream (V2). Like a David Lynch film, the latest installment from Jonathan Donahue and co. has a shiny outer shell that conceals an unsettling core. Nobody does gorgeously creepy grandeur like these guys, as much Walt Disney as the Flaming Lips, Broadway as rock and roll. Producer Dave Fridmann, who has also worked with Sparklehorse, Weezer, Mogwai and the Lips, as well as many others, and whose stamp is all over this, is the most under-recognized sonic sculptor in the biz.
4. Stephen Malkmus: self-titled (Matador). Admittedly, Malkmus could (figuratively) fart into a mic for 45 minutes and I'd still plunk down my cash. Luckily, as his solo debut testifies, I needn't worry. With the Pavement monkey off his back (at least in his own perception), Malkmus settles into the role of wry storyteller, smart as he ever was, only now he orders his eggs sunny side up. And the lines about the bullets from Afghanistan are ridiculously prescient.
5. Beulah: The Coast is Never Clear (Velocette). Degree in hand from Elephant 6 University, Beulah doesn't give a rat's ass that flutes are for wussies. Unrepentantly retro and thoroughly modern, it appeals equally to those who get the reference "I heard he wrote you a song, but so what? / Some guy wrote 69 / And one just ain't enough," as it does those corn-fed on '70s radio, both AM and FM, only to later have their lives changed by punk rock. If this is you, then this is the sound of your childhood being served up on a shiny silver platter.
6. The Strokes: Is This It (RCA). No, they don't really sound like the Velvet Underground or Television or Blondie or any other band that played CBGB in the '70s, but then, yes, they sound like all of that and more. In other words, they sound quintessentially New York, and, perhaps, constitute the most important band to emerge from there since the aforementioned wave of importance. Along with the White Stripes, the only overhyped band the British press has called correctly in recent memory.
7. The Moldy Peaches: self-titled (Rough Trade). Just when you thought lo-fi was as played out as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a 20-year-old kid from Brooklyn and his former babysitter cook up a shambling mess of in-jokes and couplets both worthy of juvenile guffaws ("Who mistook the steak for chicken? / Who'm I gonna stick my dick in?") and heart-wrenching empathy ("And besides you're probably holding hands / With some skinny, pretty girl that likes to talk about bands") that remind you why you used to love K Records so much.
8. La Cerca: Goodbye Phantom Engineer (The Unlike Label). Talk about hooks, Andy Gardner has amassed a pile of indelible emo-ish indie pop tunes that'll have you humming for the next year. They have me. Not just a great local album, a great album period.
9. Shins: Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop). Delivering on the promise shown by its earlier incarnations as Flake and Flake Music, and by its dynamic live show--Shins opened for Modest Mouse on its last Tucson stop--Albuquerque's finest have created an organic aural wonderland that references the Beach Boys, vintage power pop and emo, all in the same breath. Play it a hundred times--instead of growing tired of it, you'll still be discovering its sonic delights.
10. Call and Response: self-titled (Kindercore/Emperor Norton). Consistently breezy, funky and catchy as all get-out, the songs on this San Francisco quintet's debut were obviously crafted by vinyl junkies who have heard it all: the Jackson 5, Enoch Light, French pop, Linda Ronstadt, Stereolab, George Benson, the Cardigans, Bob Dylan, the Human League and rollerdisco, never mind every song to ever hit the Top 40. They took damn good notes.
BRIAN MOCK'S PICKS:
1. Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Ease Down the Road (Palace). Another installment in the long and winding catalog of Will Oldham's country/indie-folk/whatever career. And probably his best yet.
2. The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop). An amazing (and original) amalgam of Modest Mouse, the Beach Boys and the Who! Chalk one more up for good bands with silly names.
3. A Drag City Super Session: Tramps, Traitors & Little Devils (Drag City). The Déjà Vu of the new millennium, indeed. Featuring SMOG, Neil Michael Hagerty and Edith Frost (oh my!).
4. Edith Frost: Wonder Wonder, (Drag City). The perfect gift to warm your heart and soul on a cold winter day. Even better than chicken soup!
5. Fugazi: The Argument (Dischord). Always moving in new directions while keeping one foot in the Fugazi formula, they remain interesting, current and, well, Fugazi. Naysaying hipsters be gone!
6. Love As Laughter: Sea to Shining Sea (Sub Pop). Chock full of riffs you swear you've heard but just can't place (read: the Who, Beatles and Stooges), LAL perfects its slop-rocky sound, with a little psychedelia thrown in for good measure.
7. Nels Cline: Destroy All (Atavistic). So many musical geniuses go virtually unnoticed by the masses until long after their death. Sadly, free-jazz, noise-guitar virtuoso Nels Cline will probably be one of them. Go out and get this so you can say you liked him when he was alive.
8. Zeke: Death Alley, (Aces & Eights). The energy and zeal of Motorhead (but twice as fast), plus the guitar chops of the Nuge and Angus Young. Oh, and don't forget Satan. Lock up your daughters, lock up your wives and crank it!
9. Radio Birdman: The Essential (1974-1978) (Sub Pop). No longer a rarity or expensive import, this includes unreleased tracks and great liner notes and photos. The result? Australia's own punk legends are brought back to life!
10. X: Los Angeles; Wild Gift; Under the Big Black Sun (reissues) (Rhino/Elektra). Three of the best from one of the best. Patsy Cline, Eddie Cochran and the excitement of the early 1980s L.A. punk scene all rolled into one (I mean three). The extensive liner notes and photos are well worth the price alone.
RON BALLY'S PICKS:
1. Charley Patton: Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues (Revenant). A stunning, exhaustive and incredibly packaged seven-CD box set (including a deluxe 78 rpm-album-style hardcover book of John Fahey's fascinating Patton bio) on one of the under recognized Delta blues geniuses of the early 20th century. Time for the much-revered ghost of Robert Johnson to step aside to give Charley Patton's fearsome Paramount/Vocalion recordings a chance at the limelight.
2. Dictators: D.F.F.D. (Norton). The highly influential NYC proto-punk band is back together with its greatest triumph since 1978. A furious, nonstop junk culture and humor-inflected shebang from Handsome Dick Manitoba & Co. puts the fun, balls and street attitude back in legitimate rock and roll where it rightfully belongs. Hey Strokes, are you listening?
3. Lazy Cowgirls: Here and Now (Sympathy for the Record Industry). This longtime L.A. band of Dolls-meets-the Stones in a back alley brawl finally triumphs with a proverbial ass whipping. Led by Pat Todd, the unmitigated Energizer Bunny of front men, the Cowgirls are captured at their raw-as-sushi finest. Live, bittersweet anthems of frustration, tragedy and lies pack a mighty wallop that would revive the corpses of Johnny Thunders and Brian Jones.
4. Pagans: Shit Street & Pink Album ... Plus! (Crypt). This vastly underrated outfit of dope-sniffin' Cleveland misfits from 1979 is finally given its due on these two collective slabs of supercharged gutter punk that rivals the Dead Boys and Ramones in gnarly energy, hooks and dopey street credo. "What's This Shit Called Love" indeed.
5. Thee Michelle Gun Elephant: Collection (Alive). Think Dick Dale and Pete Townsend fronting a squadron of kamikaze pilots during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A squalling, sneaky and riotous Japanese Zero-dropped aerial bomb that destroys everything that crosses its path. Nastier than a wall plastered with White Stripes.
6. Radio Birdman: The Essential (1974-1978) (Sub Pop). The greatest rock-and-roll band to emerge from Australia during the first wave of punk, fusing surf and garage with the Stooges and MC5 into a napalm fueled rawk attack unmatched since in the land Down Under. Not a single dud in the decidedly volatile bunch.
7. Jucifer: The Lambs EP (Velocette). Beautiful chaos from a sweetly tortured trailer trash couple from Athens, Ga. that coos like lovebirds one minute while rampaging out of control like those homicidal maniacs from Natural Born Killers the next. Extreme noise-punk for lovers only.
8. King Brothers: self-titled (In The Red). An insane, wall-of-fuzz guitar-driven Japanese trash punk trio that vociferously melds the hip soul-punk recklessness of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with the snarling Northwest stomp of the Sonics circa 1963. Fellow noise monger Guitar Wolf sounds almost polished next to these raging lunatics.
9. Neu!: Neu!; Neu! 2; Neu! 75 (Astralwerks). A trance-inducing trio of exhilarating, experimental and groundbreaking reissues from this early '70s, electronics-minded Krautrock duo that influenced everyone from Bowie to Stereolab. Harsh, repetitive and thoroughly hypnotic electronic minimalism.
10. Liliput: self-titled (Kill Rock Stars). These Swiss pre-Riot Grrrls, who began innocently as Kleenex, played some of the most adventurous, invigorating and critically ridiculed music of the late '70s punk era. An aggressive, jerky pop clamor that was equal parts noise, anarchy and pure joy.
CURTIS MCCRARY'S PICKS:
1. Spoon: Girls Can Tell (Merge). I worried ever-so-briefly that lead Spoon-man Britt Daniel would decide to pack it in after Elektra records gave him the ol' "Rikers Island Initiation." Fortunately, Daniel is a resilient sort, and after his rough break "sent [him] back home to mom," his recovery began to take the shape of this brilliant album. In particular, it's clear he's mastered the delicate art of understatement, and his richly textured but subtle songs are akin to what Hemingway thought writing should be.
2. The Strokes: Is This It? (Rough Trade). At long last come the Strokes, a band of grubby New Yorkers who actually bother to look like the rock stars they're in the process of becoming. Their debut album may be the best true rock album to come down the pi--ah, aqueduct--since Nevermind. This is the kind of band that can be all things to all people. Catchy, hooky singles? Check. Rock hairstyles? Check. Indie cred? Check. Dreamy lead singer with an amazing voice? Check. Is this it? Check.
3. Tenacious D: S/T (Sony). This next band asked me to, uh, write this: "Warning: this album is so potent with psychocryptocomedo-power and raw Satanic sexuality, it could quite possibly get you laid. Not likely, but hey, anything can happen." Oh, and try not to think of the lyric "Man, I'd like to place my hands / upon your fuckin' sexy ass and squeeze" the next time you're makin' out. It's nigh impossible.
4. Lucinda Williams: Essence (Lost Highway). If Williams were an obese dwarf with one eye and a cleft palate, I'd still be in love with that incredible voice. This grand dame (she's 54 or somethin') of "alt country" (har) actually trumps 1998's masterly Car Wheels on a Gravel Road with Essence. Williams knows the power of her siren song. Just listen to "Blue" and try not to succumb.
5. Pernice Brothers: The World Won't End (Ashmont). Sweet, sweet cognitive dissonance resulting from the juxtaposition between the impossibly gorgeous pop melodies and the jarringly morose lyrics of leader Joe Pernice. Music for the lit geek in all music fans who can't decide if he's happy or sad. And yes, those glasses do make you look more intelligent.
6. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (SFTRI). Hands down, Zeppelin's best album since CODA, I mean Physical Graffiti. In all seriousness, this boasts AC/DC's best song since "Big Balls" in the form of "Expecting". They also rip off Willie Dixon than David Cov--I mean Robert Plant ever ever did.
7. The Sadies: Tremendous Efforts (Bloodshot). Add the Sadies to the short list of things from Canada that do not suck (The rest of the list: LaBatt's, Canadian bacon and Neil Young). From the opening riff of the anthem "Empty the Chamber" (which could easily pass for a Calexico instrumental) to the cover of the King's classic "Wearin' That Loved-on Look" from the '69 comeback album (replete with shoop-shoobies and everything), the Sadies clearly mean some eclecto-twang business.
8. Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol). Some "pun"dits called this album "Kid B," get it? In reality, with which I am fully acquainted, it's more "Kid A II." You understand the difference, right? Anyway, you know if you like Radiohead or not already. If you have no idea, here's a helpful guide: You Probably Do.
9. The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop). This helps New Mexico make up for all the crappy things it churns out, like kachina dolls. As a Tucsonan, however, I want to know, "What gives? Why can't we trouble the Southwest's finest approximation of an Elephant 6 band to stop in our bustling desert port? Don't they like the beach?"
10. Mark Eitzel: The Invisible Man (Matador). Yikes, almost forgot to include this one. Eitzel has accrued a sort of timelessness that I associate with the Holy Trinity (Elvis, Beatles, Stones) such that his new albums instantly seem like they've been around awhile. This is not to say what he does isn't fresh (flaking out and doing a Pro Tools quasi-synth album is fairly ballsy for Eitzel), but rather so good they seem classic already. And not in a classic rock kinda way, Holy Trinity reference notwithstanding. Aha, now I get the album title.