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Favorite Albums, 2001

(No real order implied - the numbers are just handy placeholders.)

1) Park Avenue Music - To Take With You

Label = Devil in the Woods

    If we're judging favorite in terms of number of times a CD has been listened to, then it's fair to say that 'To Take With You' was probably top of my list this year. But I have to admit I'm cheating a fair piece to include it in 2001 as it's not technically going to be released until 2002. But who's counting? I think it's really hard to make electronic music sound organic - so easy to be seduced by precision, perfectly cutting a sequence of beats - so easy to head down the cold path of techno body machine music. Hard to create something alive and warm, something you can embrace and hold. But the Park Avenue Music duo of Wes and Jeanette manage it. It's a quiet affair. One with washes of electronic sound flowing into melody, rhythms that melt and mutate from regular form to wandering, and Jeanette's vocals that ooze between words and sound. It's a precious organism, and one that I seem to invite in again and again. So, sorry for cheating and putting this on the list a year early - but think of it as advance warning for when it comes out in March (don't worry, I'll remind you).

2) Fugazi - The Argument

Label = Dischord

Fugazi - Furniture EP

Label = Dischord
    Has it really been 10 years since I've listened to a "new" Fugazi album? How embarrassing. I guess I just kept going back to 'Steady Diet of Nothing' and '13 Songs', savoring the discordant guitar gnashing and Ian MacKaye's telltale not-quite singing in a key not-quite yelling - well, OK, often outright yelling. There's something great and raw about punk rock, and in the punk vein, something great about a band like Fugazi that understands you can't appreciate loud without tackling quiet, too - that's not afraid to experiment - that's not afraid to make interesting music while making a statement. And so on 'The Argument', you find what could be some of the best cello and acoustic guitar in punk rock, and some excellent quiet, melodic moments interspersed among the yelling and the rock - and as a whole, I find myself liking it even more than their early albums. But in case you were worried that Fugazi couldn't still rip it up, there's also the 3 song 'Furniture' EP which is a quickie at under 9 minutes, but a real burner.

3) Calexico - Even my Sure Things Fall Through

Label = Quarterstick

    As much as I love tracking down hard-to-find gems, I'll admit that I do tire sometimes of searching for that one amazing song that shows up on an obscure compilation, on the flip-side on a single released in Germany, or sold as a limited-edition of 500 copies while a band is on tour in Brunei. For several years, I've been a fan of Calexico's southwestern country flavors that evoke the heat of the desert and its broad expanse through twang of nylon-stringed guitar, maracas, and distant mariachi horns. And I was about to start the tedious process of tracking down the numerous b-sides and compilation tracks that appeared in various places after the release of their last album 'Hot Rail' - when they did the work for me, and put out this great collection of those songs. Thank you thank you thank you! This is a great place to start as an introduction to the band, but be forewarned, you'll finish listening wanting more...

4) The White Stripes - White Blood Cells

Label = Sympathy for the Record Industry

    Somehow, even though the band is comprised just two people - brother Jack (guitar) and sister Meg White (drums) - they manage to create enough ruckus to channel the stadium-sized blues rock spirit of Led Zeppelin. I don't say that lightly. Now, don't get me wrong - Zeppelin, they're not. But they're immensely fun, immensely catchy, and immensely loud. And the thunderous opening track - "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", might just be one of the greatest rock songs of the last decade. I don't say that lightly either.

5) Kelly Joe Phelps - Sky Like a Broken Clock

Label = Rykodisc

    As a fan of Kelly Joe Phelps's solo acoustic guitar plucking and slide work, I was somewhat skeptical that I would enjoy quite as much anything he recorded with accompaniment. I worried that all his wonderful tones and deft flourishes would get buried in the murk of too many other instruments, but the folks who accompany him on 'Sky Like a Broken Clock' really understand his version of acoustic folk blues, and give him a landscape to play against that he couldn't reach by himself.

6) Lucinda Williams - Essence

Label = Lost Highway

    For me, it's all about Lucinda Williams's warm, dry, road weary voice. There are times that I think she could get away with singing from a random selection in the yellow pages, and that would be right fine with me. I think the more reflective, acoustic songs that comprise 'Essence' make the perfect complement to the more uptempo, countrified rock of 'Car Wheels on a Gravel Road' which came out a few years ago.

7) Gillian Welch - Time (the Revelator)

Label = Acony

    There is something simple and pure about Gillian Welch's bluegrass twang - something so clean about the beautiful harmonies she weaves with partner David Rawlings and the interplay of her acoustic guitar with his. But there's something deeper than that clean, pure sound - a timeless element that lingers as well. I think it was Emmylou Harris that described Gillian Welch's songs as sounding as if they've always been there - and she's right, it's almost as if they've existed through the years, and have just been waiting for the right voice to bring them to song. As with the raw, visceral sound of Mississippi delta blues, I fear that the high, lonesome sound of Appalachian bluegrass is a generation away from passing on. Thank goodness for Gillian Welch's bluegrass revival.

8) Low - Things We Lost in the Fire

Label = Kranky

Low + Dirty Three - in the fishtank

Label = Konkurrent
    It must be an enormous surprise to find yet another Low album on my "best of" list again. It's not like they're my favorite band or anything. OK, it is exactly like that. It would frankly be a whole lot easier if everybody would just give them a try, already - then I could be quiet about the whole thing. Anyhow, Low took a bit of a different turn with "Things we lost..." - there's a bit more dynamic sound than their past arenas of quietude. There's a bit more instrumentation, with strings and keyboards adding layers to their typically sparse drum, guitar, and bass orchestration. And their songs are even a bit more upbeat than usual - dare I say even a bit poppy? If you've ever wondered why I'm so enthralled by Low, "Things we lost in the fire" is absolutely the right place to start your investigation.

9) the American Analog Set - know by heart

Label = Tigerstyle

    A friend of my sister's suggested that "know by heart" is maybe the best makeout album of 2001 by an independent rock band. That might be pushing it a little bit. For me, "know by heart" is sexy like hot chocolate. It's a rich, warm thing that sort of rolls and wraps comfortably around you - made the old fashioned way, with bass, guitars, and drums, with just enough electric piano and vibes for flavor, and quiet vocals over top.. I find it goes just right with a late afternoon at the office or a quiet evening at home - just the times I like hot chocolate, come to think of it.

10) Boozoo Bajou - satta

Label = Stereo Deluxe

    Imagine if you will reggae mellowed waaaay down, cut back a little on the rasta lyrics, and blended with some downtempo electronic beats. The resultant slow and swampy concoction would yield you something close to Boozoo Bajou's 'satta'. The perfect thing for the backing soundtrack to a hip club - or to make your house / apartment feel cooler. Truth be told, sometimes I put 'satta' on before I go to sleep - it's great to relax to.

11) Morcheeba - Back to Mine

Label = Ultra

    I find the DJ mixes I enjoy most are the ones that I listen to and find myself thinking "This is the kind of thing I'd love to put together myself if only I had more time and knew more about music." Such is the case of the "Back to Mine" mix by Paul Godfrey, of the British trip hop band Morcheeba. It's an incredibly diverse collection of tunes, from southern blues (Dr. John and Taj Mahal), to mellow hip hop, to Brazilian psychedelia (Os Mutantes), to folk (Jim White and Lambchop), to Indian soundtrack music. But in all of these eclectic elements lies a common thread of laid back chilling - just the right thing to put on when you've got friends over and the hour is late.

12) Truby Trio - DJ Kicks

Label = Stud!o K7

    For those of you who are familiar with DJ Rainer Truby's exceptional Glucklich compilations in which he presents a great array of fusion jazz, retro Brazilian jazz, and brazillified downtempo beats - you may be somewhat surprised, as I was, to find that this mix he and his partners from the Truby Trio have put together actually has quite a bit of thump to it. Gone are the downtempo beats - this is the kind of thing you could dance to, if you were so inclined. But as with everything that Truby touches, it is very smartly done - this isn't your typical electronic dance CD with a 4/4 beat and little electronic bloopy bloopy noises. There's loads of subtlety to the songs behind the thumping rhythm, which, for me, is what makes this such an enjoyable mix.

13) Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information

Label = Luaka Bop

    When Shuggie Otis was a teenager, he played guitar in father Johnny Otis's band - but wore sunglasses and painted on a mustache so that no one would think that he was really just 14. He sat in on a few sessions with Frank Zappa. He was offered (and declined) the guitarist slot in the Rolling Stones when Mick Taylor left the band. But perhaps most interestingly, he released a remarkable album in 1974 called "Inspiration Information" which appears to have been largely ignored by the masses at the time. I'm not sure why - it's a wonderful mix of relaxed soul and blues, lightly touched with funk. Listening to the recent re-release by Luaka Bop Records, it sounds remarkably fresh and current, as if it had just been recorded today. Perhaps it was just too forward-looking for the times in which it was created - but it has influenced loads of current groups, from elctro-tweakers Stereolab to jazzrock masters Tortoise to the latin electronica folks in Da Lata. I realize it's sort of cheating to put it on my 2001 "best of" list given that it was released 25 years ago, but the original vinyl version is nigh impossible to find, so I think the 2001 re-release is technically fair game.
PS - As always I have to draw the line somewhere - there were also really wonderful new releases from Paul Ruderman (I keep getting emails from people who love his CD, by the way), Mogwai, Tortoise, Niccola Conte, DJ Food + DK and many others this year, which I encourage you to check out in your free time...

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