Landmarks: The Year 2001
In my recap of the year 2000, I said that I had a tough time, that December, picking my favorite record from the preceeding twelve months. That happens sometimes. But it didn’t in 2001, a year that was, and is, completely owned by a single album, at least in my mind.
My favorite album of 2001– then, now, and always– is Bob Dylan‘s Love & Theft, an absolute monster of an album: An outrageously funny and poetically complex album on which Dylan plows through the entire history of American song with joyful abandon, and cracks knock-knock jokes and silly puns about the end of the world. This is the album by which all other comebacks should be measured– and make no mistake, as great as Time Out of Mind was, this is where Dylan truly regains the full range of his powers. In fact, he outdoes himself in terms of sheer confidence, energy, and cackling wit. Moreover, this album was my gateway drug into what I’ll reluctantly call Americana– specifically, the blues, country, swing, pre-war parlor songs, the works.
As wide a shadow as that album casts over 2001, there was actually a plethora of rich and remarkable records from that year. Two of my favorites represent extreme musical makeovers: Over the Rhine‘s Films for Radio and Sam Phillips‘ Fan Dance. On the former, the Ohio duo— best-known for their quiet, intimate brand of folk– dressed up their sound in bright, vibrant Technicolor, and the result is an enticingly varied and full-bodied pop album that adorns their intimacy in new ways, but does nothing to dilute it. The latter, meanwhile, represents Sam Phillips‘ shift from electric pop to a more folksy, acoustic sound: It’s an album of intimate performances in which the joys come from the sounds of the instruments and the mysteries born in Phillips’ lyrics.
Joe Henry, meanwhile, released the first of what would become a magnificent four-album run in the 2000s: Scar isn’t quite on the same level of excellence as the albums that followed– and in some ways, I think Blood from Stars takes the Scar aesthetic and improves upon it dramatically– but it’s a thrilling album nevertheless. It begins Henry‘s fascination with the dark back alleys of American song, though where Dylan’s album is spirited and rough around the edges, Henry’s is carefully-orchestrated, chilly and cool. “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” might still be his finest song.
On the country-rock front, Buddy and Julie Miller released their excellent, self-titled joint album, which remains a joy to this day. It’s a spirited and heartfelt album that runs the gamut, both musically and lyrically, ranging from traditional country to Stonesy rock, from heartache to sexy flirtation.
2001 was also the year of my favorite White Stripes album– or at least, my favorite for today. It’s hard to choose, but I lean toward White Blood Cells as the perfect distillation of their curious genius, encompassing country and blues, garage rock and bubblegum pop.
Gillian Welch and her long-time cohort, David Rawlings, on the heels of a giant popularity boost from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, released their meditative, reflective folk album Time (The Revelator)— and album so stark and simple that I confess it took a few years before I really caught the fever for it, but its poetry and steady strumming eventually cast their spell on me.
Of course, Radiohead released their follow-up to Kid A, an album that was, at the time, unfairly written off as Kid A‘s lesser, younger brother. But time has revealed it to be much more than a collection of unused songs, or an uninspired sequel: It’s got a character all its own, and its construction speaks of a vision well beyond simply unloadind a batch of B-sides. Sonically, it’s as rich and intoxicating as anything they’ve done.
A few other standouts: Ron Sexsmith teamed with producer Steve Earle for his ragged, country-tinged Blue Boy; Pulp‘s swan song, the lush and beautiful We Love Life, proved to be their best work since Different Class; Nick Lowe released his smooth-talking, late-night seduction album, The Convincer; Spoon created a template they would later perfect on Girls Can Tell; Dolly Parton returned to her roots for the very fine Little Sparrow; and Loudon Wainwright III made what may be his most personal album ever, Last Man on Earth.
That was 2001 for me; what are the records that stood out to you?