I hereby issue my 10 fave CDs of 2001:
10. Jamiroquai: A Funk Odyssey (Epic/Sony) — I'm not even kidding. England's soul-hat has-beens returned from the ether this year with the most unabashedly cheesy disco-funk party soundtrack this side of a mid-'80s porn flick. And it's good, too! Unobtrusive wah-drenched guitars, freaky horns and those simple, groovalicious rhythms we all know and love permeate A Funk Odyssey. Who knows if they were kidding, and who cares? If you want a hip party, put on The Avalanches; if you want a fun one, slide this into the player when everybody's just past halfway there. File under "ass-inspiring guilty pleasure."
9. Hot Water Music: A Flight and A Crash (Epitaph) — Over the past six years, Gainesville quartet Hot Water Music has gradually refined its gut-grabbing primal scream, evolving as a songwriting unit without ever tempering a ferocious compulsion so immediately recognizable that it might as well be trademarked. Their alliance with punk clearinghouse Epitaph late last year arched many a cynical eyebrow, but the band ignored both scene supposition and fan expectation to deliver their most diverse and challenging album to date. A Flight and A Crash flirts with moody low-key indie-rock and dynamic dissonance as often as it delivers the big, cathartic shout-along. But the gents haven't exactly mellowed; the barking ventage, unlikely guttural harmonies and Les Paul thrashing remain blissfully intact, driven by what may be the best rhythm section in posthardcore. File under "violently earnest underground rock."
8. Kool Keith: Spankmaster (Overcore/ TVT) — Has the bouncy bling-bling blizzard got you down? Turn to hip-hop's oddest, spaced-out porn-freak for something fresh. Kool Keith followed up 1999's masterful Black Elvis/Lost In Space this year by blending his infamous Sex Style persona with a whole lot of whatever he's on his way to becoming next. KK's disjointed, Syd-Barrett-from-the-South-Side rhyming finds more cohesion than ever, doling out disses to corporate-sponsored tours, the NBA, chicks who don't get him, and (of course) the legions of whack MCs with less vision and more money than he. Sure, he gets down to some simple, nasty vulgarities, but the beats are original, the flow iconoclastic, and the disc utterly devoid of anything even remotely approaching the kind of generic bounce that saturated 2001's urban airwaves. File under "weird hip-hop that basically only white folks like."
7. Jimmy Eat World: Jimmy Eat World (DreamWorks) — In here, it's always summer. Originally released pre-9/11 as Bleed American (Ebay! EeeeeeBaaaayyy!), their third full-length broke the major-label band with the indie-kid fans through to mainstream audiences in a big, big way with its title track and follow-up hit "The Middle." Earnest and blatantly uncomplicated, Jimmy Eat World found the foursome ousting most of their more "emo" tendencies in favor of perfecting the three-minute pop-rock gem — like Cheap Trick but, you know, young and hip. Surprisingly, it hasn't hurt their fringe credibility at all — thousands of underground aficionados confirmed the band's status as something of a bridge between The Get Up Kids and Weezer. When it's this good, the usual music-snob arguments really do seem kind of pointless. File under "she broke my heart, but it's sunny outside, so let's rock."
6. John Vanderslice: Time Travel Is Lonely (Barsuk) — Former MK Ultra frontman and eminently nice guy John Vanderslice has reinvented himself as something of a San Francisco pop-scene patriarch, through recording bands at his Tiny Telephone Recording studio, pimping open-source mp3 distribution at tinytelephone.com and releasing a couple of immaculately constructed and beautifully skewed solo discs. Time Travel is Lonely is ostensibly the story of a disaffected scientist marooned in Antarctica and slowly going mad under the weight of remorseful memories, but fuck it — take the album as a collection of loosely linked evocative aural images, and you'll be fine. While most records influenced by the work of such masters as The Beatles and Gram Parsons never really live up to their inspirations, the quality of Vanderslice's material is damn near timeless. File under "incredibly good pop for headphones."
5. Alkaline Trio: From Here to Infirmary (Vagrant) — Chicago substance abusers Alkaline Trio justified a massive barrage of underground hype in 2001 with their third full-length (and first for Indie Profit-Turner of the Year Vagrant Records). Infirmary is a fast and tuneful morning-after paean to broken hearts and failing organs. Most punk 'zine reviewers wrote 'em off as mere Green Day wannabe's, neglecting the threesome's knack for injecting inventive rhythms and a singularly up-front personality into a genre overrun by major-key formulas. The band is also light years ahead of its peers, lyrically speaking; lines like "Never met a drink that I didn't like/ Got a taste of you, threw up all night" and "If assholes could fly/ this place would be busier than O'Hare" are worth the price of admission alone. File under "like the Ramones, but clever."
4. Jay Farrar: Sebastopol (Artemis) — While the American alt-country establishment was busy going apeshit over Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams, former Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt motivator Jay Farrar quietly released a dynamic, introspective disc that sounds like nothing the genre has heard thus far. By using rare, irregular and even downright made-up guitar tunings, Sebastopol gives new food for thought to a style traditionally governed by three chords and a bottle of whiskey. It's also Farrar's most emotionally expansive work, running the gamut from lament to redemption on a cohesive, intimate vibe. Look for this engrossing release to prove one of 2002's sleeper hits within the Americana community. File under "still blowing minds, with a twang."
3. Rival Schools: United By Fate (Island/ Def Jam) — It doesn't matter whether or not NYC hardcore institution/Some Records principal/former Quicksand main-man Walter Schreifels put this unit together solely to work off his Island contract, because the music is pretty much unimpeachable. Schreifels called in some fellow scene veterans to flesh out his ideas, and the result packs more rock 'n' roll spirit and muscle into offbeat fringe-centric tuneage than the American underground has coughed up in quite some time. Rival Schools eschews the crossover/groovecore sound that Quicksand helped spawn in favor of highlighting Schreifels' melodic bent and love of enthusiastic practitioners, from The Who to Fugazi. The quartet does everything right, pulling from every corner of the rock landscape, and subgenres be damned. This is what good guitar-driven music should be — vibrant, compelling and infectious without catering to any particular perceived demand. File under "that's what I've been talking about."
2. Hey Mercedes: Everynight Fire Works (Vagrant) — Three-quarters of Braid and some dude who really knows good guitar riffs got together a year and a half ago. Their debut full-length was anticipated through much of 2001, but repeated delays and the explosion of labelmates Saves The Day finally saw Everynight Fire Works slide into release with very little splash. However, the closing weeks of the year saw it steadily climbing the CMJ charts and into the Top 10 — it seems Hey Mercedes' particularly left-field take on posthardcore currently has pundits wondering why more bands don't do it their own way. The group has inevitably been lumped into the "emo" scene, yet their inimitable combination of gnashing, hook-heavy guitars, off-kilter time signatures and enthralling vocals continues to win converts who single them out as something special. Everyone who used to get jazzed about a new post-core band, before the deluge turned them sour, needs to own this record. File under "see, they don't ALL sound the same."
1. The (International) Noise Conspiracy: A New Morning, Changing Weather (Epitaph) — What's up with the Swedes? For such a polite, unassuming little country, they've been cranking out a hell of a lot of good rock 'n' roll over the past few years. Upstart musical revolutionaries International Noise Conspiracy have been inspiring mod hairdos and ass-shaking for a while now, but A New Morning constitutes a milestone, the perfect synthesis of the quintet's sound, style and ideas. You don't have to be a militant anarchist to get sucked in — the monster grooves and furious energy are plenty in and of themselves, thanks. Every track here is a sweaty call to arms, every riff galvanic, every rhythm a physical force. The potential hinted at on previous releases is realized and surpassed here in an orgy of infectious, danceable freedom. Seriously, it's that good. Listen: The Strokes are not going to save rock 'n' roll — but T(I)NC just might.
Scott Harrell can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].