One for Each Season of Life
362 · 3 January 02
Runrig: The Stamping Ground
I buy eleventh albums, by bands on their third decade and second lead singer, hoping for many of the same great things of which first and third and fifth albums are capable, but not, obviously, the thrill of discovery. Eleventh albums are for confirmation, not transformation, made for the most part by people long past the last day when anybody expected them to change. But the best eleventh albums can be among our most redemptive triumphs of human will, and that could be enough for the best album of a year burdened by too many reminders of human frailty. Runrig, in particular, would be a magnificent, defiant choice for band of the year, resolute and uplifting against the almanac of wounds and disappointments. But that's why they would be good at number one in my yearly meaningless ritual of ranking the inherently subjective and unrankable, not why they are. They are here because an eleventh album by a band on their third decade and second lead singer electrified me just as startlingly as any debut ever has. Polarizing art into confirmation and transformation reduces movement to standing still or changing course, and put that way the third option is suddenly obvious. The Stamping Ground, nominally a retreat, was for me the year's most enthralling album of quiet, assured progress, not the conclusion of anything, triumphant or otherwise, but a deliberately open-ended anthem of infinite capacity against finite trials. Had I the authority to issue trophies, every TV awards program for the next year would begin with me handing Runrig the Grail of the band to which a world one better than this would ecstatically assign its conscience and heart. Without that platform, I will do the closest thing I'm allowed. As we mark off an end and a beginning, and draw ourselves in wondering how badly we've been hurt, I am opening my own life a little instead. I got through 2001 with only one favorite artist, and she even made a bad record. I need more. Or, more accurately, I am willing to risk more. Why you should care about my lists, I don't know, but this is the most significant statement of internal philosophy I make to myself: I now am going to face the future with four sources of music I treat as components of my own identity. Tori is fearlessness and the limits of logic. Runrig are boundless faith in ourselves, and thus sustaining awe.
Low: Things We Lost in the Fire
Low are the third. When I wrote about this album the first time, I thought it would mischaracterize and misjudge it to call it the record that made Low one of my favorite bands, and since that sounds like a falling short, my first drafts of this list attempted to leave it off completely. Surely I could find ten albums defined by what they did, not something they didn't. But then I listened to Things We Lost in the Fire one more time, just to be sure, and where listening through the question "Is this one of my favorite bands?" didn't yield a clear answer, listening with "There were ten better albums than this" proposed was instantly and violently definitive. Pairwise juxtapositions were equally unambiguous all this way up the ladder, and in the end Runrig open my heart and Low follow them in after all. They are my standard-bearers of haunted grace, and the explanation of the flaw in the literal definition of restorative silence.
Jewel: This Way
Jewel will have to make more than one great album to atone for some astray years, to me, but they have to be made one at a time, and this is a start. I wouldn't have guessed, when she and Alanis emerged, how quickly my insistence on their importance would come to seem controversial, nor would I have guessed that the escape-route from Jewel's specimen-case imprisonment would involve Nashville, but I still believe I'm right. Forget the missteps and log my prediction that this is the second milestone album in a career that will outlast skepticism.
Emm Gryner: Girl Versions
I have a separate category for covers, and I fully expected Emm's cover album to be a footnote to Tori's anyway. Not only was it the other way around for me, but Emm's spare, quiet, measured tour of songs apparently nobody but her really understood transcends the gimmick and ends up with enough of her unmistakable presence in it to qualify as a real album in its own right, poignant and poised. If my confidence in Emm is a tiny sliver less complete than my confidence in Alanis and Jewel, it is only because they have so much more help. But Emm has chosen the same difficult path I would have, independence first. We'll see where it leads.
The Blake Babies: God Bless the Blake Babies
The Blake Babies weren't especially spectacular the first time around, and even with the lever of Juliana Hatfield's minor solo celebrity, a reunion album was a dubious proposition on nearly all grounds. And maybe low expectations were liberating, because to me the uncluttered, unpretentious album the reunited trio assembled is both effortlessly enthralling and perhaps evidence that there is magic to be found in any simple thing, once you have enough wisdom to go back and find it. And I haven't decided whether the fact that this album revives my crush on Juliana every time I play it is the ultimate compliment or a bizarrely persistent tangent, but what was the last album that made you hold onto something you neither want nor benefit from?
Lloyd Cole: The Negatives
The year's second-simplest great album, for me, is this set of sparklingly old-fashioned pop songs by another musician who learned old-fashionedness back when it was new. Grafting them to a deftly observed portrait of ruefully confused and arguably self-perpetuating melancholy isn't exactly ingenious, since that's one of the emotional equilibria around which pop songs seem to gravitate by their own nature, but neither the inertia nor the accompanying dissatisfaction have often been described with such candor or compassion. It's a rare artwork that makes somebody else's problems seem alluring enough that I move from sympathy to empathy to a strange form of envious admiration as it plays.
Life Without Buildings: Any Other City
In one early draft this was my album of the year. The next draft, in which it wasn't, followed quickly, since a moment's reflection reminded me that this is fundamentally a record based on a single novelty, and not a novelty that ever had any ambitions to epitomize my year. But one gimmick is enough for one album, if it's sufficiently inspired, and for me Sue Tompkins' erratic stream-of-consciousness singing, less like a performance than a blast of involuntary telepathy, is breathtaking in one of the ways for which breath is made to be given.
Ben Folds: Rockin' the Suburbs
I hate glibness in music about as much as I hate anything, and once I've become convinced that an artist and I disagree on this point we are rarely later reconciled. Ben Folds is one of the few to win me back, by coming up with perhaps the only use of glibness I condone, as a protective veneer over a vulnerable core of gallant affection.
Given my traditional fondness for gadgetry in music, it's probably odd that my favorite albums this year were almost all basically traditional in structure. The only significantly synthetic exception in the top ten is this US reworking of two previous UK albums and numerous associated remixes of Mandalay's brittle, intricate, ethereal post-rave studio miniatures. And even here, the thing by which I'm mesmerized is less Saul Freeman's icicle-bright arrangements in themselves than it is his and singer Nicola Hitchcock's exquisite evocation of the perennial tension between glittering, imperturbable mechanism and fragile, enchanted humanity.
Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American
I resisted this one for a while, resenting all the deliberate concessions Jimmy Eat World made in the interest of maximum puppy-punk accessibility (including later changing the album title), but finally had to admit that I am not as immune to them, myself, as I might snobbishly have wished.
Last year's improvised idea of pairing twenty songs into ten imaginary singles worked so well again this year that I suspect it will be my song-list format from now on.
Puffy AmiYumi: "Love So Pure" (from Spike)
Nanase Aikawa: "SEVEN SEAS" (from Purana)
The year's most irrefutable demonstration, for me, of the claim that if you can't find any great music you aren't looking hard enough, was that after one random MuchMusic video led me to discover that Japan has a whole pop-music industry of their own they don't tell anybody outside Asia about, even my incredibly haphazard and underinformed early investigation of it almost immediately turned up my two favorite songs of the year. "Love So Pure" is the jangly, impish, Americanized pop a-side, written by Jellyfish's Andy Sturmer and re-recorded in English for Puffy's first attempt at a US J-Pop crossover; Nanase Aikawa's alternately blistering and soaring "SEVEN SEAS" is the ambitious rock complement, as bracing and epic as Puffy are infectious and cute.
Roxette: "Jefferson" (from Room Service)
Roxette: "Entering Your Heart" (from The Centre of the Heart #1)
My other new favorite-band inductee is Roxette. As I've conceded before, Roxette albums rarely have much albumness, but I take Roxette songs any way Per and Marie want to ship them. My favorite pair from this set are the careening, exuberant "Jefferson", maybe the most upbeat eulogy in musical history, and the elegant, twittering b-side "Entering Your Heart", something like a new "Heart of Glass" for the next century. If Tori is fearlessness, Runrig are awe and Low are grace, Roxette are my avatars of pure, indivisible joy. Listening to these songs, I am as happy as I know how to let a few short moments make me feel.
Tugboat: "Just Like That" (from All Day)
The Relict: "Held in Glass" (from The Clientele / The Relict split single)
In the year I accept Low into my pantheon, in part as an acknowledgement of how important quiet music has become to me, my two favorite quiet songs they didn't do are Tugboat's stark and poignantly unsteady surrender, and Abi Marvel's elusive guest duet on the Clientele spin-off The Relict's most Clientele-like rainy-afternoon lullaby.
Manic Street Preachers: "Baby Elian" (from Know Your Enemy)
Idlewild: "Let Me Sleep (Next to the Mirror)" (from 100 Broken Windows)
This was also the year the Manic Street Preachers did not become one of my favorite bands, as I've finally decided they aren't quite smart enough to be the band they think they are. Their booming, cathartic, idiotic anthem for Elian Gonzales is a compact exhibition of both their spastic politics and the seething best-rock-band-ever potential it mars. And as musical fellow-travelers Idlewild's stomping, expansively bleary plea reminds me, grand rock songs can get along fine without politics at all.
Red House Painters: "Byrd Joel" (from Old Ramon)
The Red Telephone: "Teenage Mother Earth" (from Cellar Songs)
Mark Kozelek writes a few too many songs about his cat for my tastes, but when he concentrates he's one of the best storytellers outside of folk, and in another of his modes, as on this long, humming mood-piece from the much-delayed Red House Painters album, he is one of the grand masters of the controlled burn. Meghan Toohey's brother's band, The Red Telephone, provide what I think of as the companion piece, a sweeping end-of-the-night meditation on centerless towns and suspended aspirations.
Lucinda Williams: "Essence" (from Essence)
Kelly Hogan: "No, Bobby Don't" (from Because It Feel Good)
Exotica of various sorts crowded most of the gritty Americana out of my year, but couldn't dislodge Lucinda's aching waiting-song or Kelly's ornate Shangri-Las-via-Patsy-Cline-via-Maria-McKee period melodrama.
Curve: "Perish" (from Gift)
Curve: "Want More Need Less" (from Gift)
I don't why anybody buys Garbage albums, and I don't know why anybody is still waiting for My Bloody Valentine to finish theirs (nor why they just don't).
Gay Dad: "Plane Going Down" (from Transmission)
Jesus Jones: "In the Face of All of This" (from London)
Everything I really want to keep from this year has less to do with world events than with what we do or don't allow them to mean to us, but here are two small songs for the giant chaos itself, Gay Dad's unwitting requiem for those four planes' passengers, and Jesus Jones' prescient perspective on an "all of this" that was about to get a lot bigger without its essential nature changing in any way.
Rainer Maria: "Thought I Was" (from A Better Version of Me)
Helicopter Helicopter: "By Starlight" (from By Starlight)
I heard a lot of emo records this year, but my favorite emo-ish moments were all out on its fringes, Jimmy Eat World's intent polishing and these two pealing and decidedly un-shouty songs, Rainer Maria's galloping under calm vocals, Helicopter Helicopter's edging tentatively into rearing choruses.
Prefab Sprout: "Cornfield Ablaze" (from The Gunman and Other Stories)
Grant-Lee Phillips: "Spring Released" (from Mobilize)
The award for best production, if I had to give one, would probably go to Tony Visconti and Prefab Sprout for the fluid elegance they lend Paddy McAloon's desire-addled pyrotechnic metaphor. The one for the song I was most surprised didn't become obnoxiously ubiquitous would go to Grant-Lee's cheerfully wheezy party-pop trifle.
Life Without Buildings
I have absolutely no idea whether they have a second album in them, or what it might sound like if it doesn't sound exactly like the first one, but they'll have my passionate support for whatever they opt to try.
Steve Earle / Townes Van Zandt / Guy Clark: Together at the Bluebird Café
Townes sounds exactly as close to death as he in fact was, Guy sounds like the kid who's in the band because his mom lets them use her station wagon, and Steve is no paragon of health or confidence either, but together they help each other through a hypnotically unadorned 1995 ensemble set with heroically unshakable dignity.
Melissa Ferrick: Skinnier, Faster, Live at the B.P.C.
She should give up making studio albums.
Too Much Joy: Live at Least
A band who loved performing too deliriously much to be any good at it a lot of the time turns up a tape of one of the nights they managed to keep it all together. I do not receive any royalties from the liner notes.
Tugboat: "Love Goes Home to Paris in the Spring" (The Magnetic Fields; from All Day)
Dean and Varcoe turn a misanthrope's told-you-so into a couple's resolve without changing the words. Anybody attempting comparatively simple tricks like switching narrative genders should take notes.
Kings of Convenience: "Free Fallin'" (Tom Petty; from Failure #2)
Maybe rapture can come in the repetition of any three syllables.
Nightwish: "Over the Hills and Far Away" (Gary Moore; from Over the Hills and Far Away EP)
The difference between tragedy and comedy is that tragedy cares what happens to people.
The Skids: Days in Europa
I already believed this was one of the great punk albums. Now I know what it actually sounded like.
K's Choice: Almost Happy (2000)
In order to believe the title, you have to believe that one breath away from happiness lurk sadnesses vast enough to swallow the world. But maybe that's also necessary to believe in happiness in the first place. And maybe, too, deciding to cross from one to the other, when you're close enough, is far more complicated than it seemed from afar.
Nightwish: Wishmaster (2000)
Or maybe we imagine half the complications. It's appealing to believe that problems are complex, because we are smart. But maybe the important problems are merely large, and we're small. But the biggest music is the biggest art, and art is the biggest thing we do before dying, and so nothing will stall us long.
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see: