1. Bob Dylan: Love and Theft (Columbia)
Look, I realize to all you garage band playing, emo-loving, establishment hating, alternative weekly press reading (and writing) know-it-alls, it might seem like I’m jumping on the paper bandwagon here on this one but, I’m sorry, L&T is the best album of the year. Period. Communicating from the perspective of desperate characters from the past – highwaymen, gamblers, poor boys and doomsday preachers. Dylan articulates the same “world gone wrong” theme he has been spouting for the last 20 years but from a fresh angle that skillfully substitutes excesses of stark despair with listener-friendly flourishes of sardonic wit and humor. Sonically speaking, Dylan eschews modern musical trends, seizes hold of the production reigns himself and effortlessly plows through the roots of Americana music (western swing, country, blues, rockabilly) like a locomotive charging downhill with a head full of steam.
2. Lucinda Williams: Essence (Lost Highway)
Straying from her trademark narrative style of albums past, Williams opts for minimalism and sheer lyrical emotion – there is not a word in her striking 2001 effort that does not tell. The disc is dark, brooding and sounds best after the sun has vanished from the sky.
3. Rodney Crowell: The Houston Kid, (Sugar Hill)
Leaning toward rock, and even more so to folk than it does to Nashville’s Music Row, Crowell’s journey through his younger days growing up as a hell-raiser in “the shadow of the Astrodome” with an alcoholic father and a long-suffering mother is one of the finest song cycles of innocence and experience you will ever hear. If you’ve never purchased a CD from the “country” section in your life and/or think Garth Brooks is more full of crap than a constipated elephant, give this gem a spin. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how intelligent and sincere country can be when placed in the hands of a true artist.
4. Ronny Elliott: Poisonville (Blue Heart)
Poisonville is a diverse collection of tales ranging in subject matter from Sid and Nancy (“Room 101”), to the history of rock ‘n’ roll (“Born In 1947”), and features the full-throttle Jack Kerouac-inspired countrified rocker “Burn, Burn, Burn.” The best independent release of the year, Elliott’s latest hillbilly-soul effort definitely deserves the accolades that magazines such as Rolling Stone Germany, Billboard and Entertainment Weekly have been pouring on him with all the restraint of Marlon Brando at a well-stocked buffet table.
5. Various Artists: Music From and Inspired by the Film Songcatcher (Vanguard)
O Brother Where Art Thou? might have garnered all the press and sales receipts, but its strictly-female cast counterpart outshines it by a near country mile. Songcatcher boasts a bear-sized cache of talent (Emmylou Harris, Sara Evans, Dolly Parton, Julie Miller), breathing life into traditional Appalachian ballads and self-penned songs written in the same vein, dealing with such uplifting themes as God’s judgement, murder and betrayal. There is not a blemish on this collection. It is as soothing as it is sorrowful, a cathartic must-have for anyone left in this post-modern world with their soul still intact.
6. Tom Russell: Borderland (Hightone Records)
Whether singing about Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich trading lines in the song (based on the film of the same name) “Touch of Evil,” drug smugglers in “Hills of Old Jaurez,” or perseverance in the rollicking “The Next Thing Smoking,” Russell paints vivid images and offers intoxicating instrumentation that draws the listener smack into the middle of his red, dusty Borderland.
7. Kelly Hogan: Because It Feel Good (Bloodshot)
Hogan’s second, and finest, solo release features her uncanny ability to both write and interpret country and pop songs with balanced deftness. Possessing a crystalline voice that embodies heartache the way a tear signifies pain, Hogan’s aching vocals wash across your body like the consoling arms of an opiate – the moment the CD ends you’ll find yourself depressing the “play” button to get another fix.
8. Alicia Keys: Songs in A Minor (J Records)
OK, so she’s young, beautiful and been on the cover of more music magazine’s this year than those boys with the big earrings and customized facial hair, but does that mean that music hounds such as yours truly can’t drool over her skills behind the ivories, at the microphone and, well, in front of the camera? With her Aretha Franklin-power-level pipes, age-defying songwriting ability and equally impressive piano playing, Keys ekes out the competition for best debut album of the new millennium with a stirring collection of soulful ballads augmented by subtle, contemporary production techniques.
9. The Strokes: This Is It (RCA)
Believe the hype: The Strokes debut is as derivative as a George Thorogood record, but it still makes for one pleasurable spin – especially when you’re cruising the streets on a Friday night looking for a joint in which to kill some time, chase the opposite sex and blow money like it isn’t worth more than the paper on which it’s printed. Taking their cue from the Velvet Underground (what rock group hailing from the Big Apple hasn’t?) and the luminaries of CBGB’s, The Strokes play hook-laden, guitar-driven rock with more energy than a three-year-old hopped up on too many cans of Coke, making rock-lite outfits such as Matchbox 20 and teen-angst, machismo brats such as Limp Bizkit look silly.
10. Saul Williams: Amethyst Rock Star (American Recordings)
A provocative soundscape of Jim Morrison-esque, surreal spoken word trips, hip-hop flips of the tongue and angry growls swarmed by piercing strings, driving break-beats, battering-ram bass, explosive guitar riffs, various live instrumentation and more “messages” than contained on a heavy metal record spun backwards, Williams’ debut takes the cake for best rap disc of 2001 (sorry all you Jay-Z junkies and D-12 purple pill-heads). A true poet, Williams boldly challenges his fellow black rappers to stop celebrating the bling-bling and concentrate more on being heartfelt instead of hardcore (“n—– used to buy their families out of slavery/now we buy chains and links, smokes and drinks”).
- Wade Tatangelo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org