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2002. A new year. A clean slate. Another hazy recollection of another New Year's that was nearly as good as I thought it was going to be, and yes, the nagging suspicion that I did/said/tried something regrettable. Oh well, out with the old, in with the new. Before 2001 fully escapes into the annals of history, and while we're still printing the incorrect date on checks and tax forms, let's take a ramble through the past year in music - it was no 1969, but dammit it was no 1985 either. The following are my 2001 top ten in no particular order:

The Strokes, Is This It (RCA) - When my friend Lori played a cassette of The Strokes' early demos last winter -- she worked with front man Julian Casablancas at a swank bridge and tunnel bar in the village - I told her to get out of my house and take that half-assed, Velvet Underground-sounding swill with her; half-joking, of course. This summer I picked up an import of Is This It on the recommendation of a record store clerk failing to make a connection between The Strokes on the demo tape and The Strokes who were at that time being canonized by the British press, and well, stroked by the New York hip. Over a period of two weeks the album grew on me until I eventually sat Lori down to hear "this album that she just had to buy" and she reminded me that it was she, in fact, who had introduced me to The Strokes in the first place blah, blah, blah.

The Strokes have taken a lot of shit, mostly from would-be fans who find the band's overnight rock star status suspicious. Sure they're pampered, private school lads. Yes, Julian's pop, John, founded Elite Modeling. True, the Strokes are not the second coming of rock 'n' roll as some bored and primarily British journalists have suggested. The hype got out of control. The band was thrust into the spotlight without enough history to make their rise to fame truly credible. But the indie-rock bed-wetters and punk rockers who still think pink hair and poverty are virtuous need to stop whining and move on to the next musician, band, or cause that makes them feel righteous. This album rocks. Period.

Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information (Luaka Bop) - Three years in the making Inspiration Information hit record stores in 1974 and fizzled. Shuggie Otis was soon dropped from his label, Epic, and at 22, after recording two solo albums, he vanished from the scene. In 1974 Shuggie Otis' pioneering, space age take on soul/blues/funk/rock, and early drum machine experimentations may have been a bit ahead of its time. Inspiration Information, re-issued by David Byrne's label Luaka Bop, found its era 27 years later when it landed in record stores last Spring attracting immediate and long overdue critical acclaim and frequent airplay.

To me, it's obvious why Shuggie spent three years recording this album even though it came at the expense of his recording contract and his growing visionary status: every airy, defined, transcendent utterance on this album rolls thoughtful and complete, flawlessly imagined and conceived. Shuggie's everything that's right about music, but unfortunately music answers to a higher power - the antsy, inept fat cats who hold the checkbooks and pull the strings. Now Shuggie's 48. It's a shame that he's had to go this long without wide recognition for a truly brilliant and inspired body of work. Better late than never. Cheers Shuggie.

Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony) - I make no qualms or excuses about my unhealthy fixation with the blues -- the feeling and the genre. Gillian Welch and her songwriting partner David Rawlings speak the blues with wispy, mingling acoustic guitars, haunting melodies, and hymn-like vocals that melt when they hit the atmosphere. Alarmingly beautiful and surprisingly stark, Time (The Revelator) melds elements of country, bluegrass, folk, and the delta blues to form a sound that's "younger than the mountains, but older than the trees" - to borrow from John Denver.

I won't bore you or belittle the songs by dissecting the album for its influences, but I will say that the inspiration for this album seems to have originated from the ground we walk, the air we breath, the lives we lead. I'm speechless.

Whiskeytown, Pneumonia (Lost Highway) - Even though the Pneumonia sessions wrapped in 1999, the album lingered in record company purgatory for three years as Polygram and Universal hashed the details of a merger and dreamed up new soul-crushing ways to fire thousands of employees and drop acts. During that time Whiskeytown quietly disbanded and front man Ryan Adams released a solo album, Heartbreaker, which in the eyes of many critics lived up to the potential that the band's two studio albums, Faithless Street and Stranger's Almanac, narrowly fell short of.

Pneumonia finds Whiskeytown straying slightly from their alt-country roots, experimenting with a flamenco rhythm and bright strings on "Paper Moon," and a piano driven pop swing on "Mirror, Mirror." But Adams remains in his element (homesick, heartbroken, hung over) enough to keep long time Whiskeytown fans comparing him to Gram Parsons and Neil Young in alt-country chat rooms. It's strange to think that Whisketown's legacy was nearly thwarted by a merger. "But ooh, I'm tellin' you now/I'm tellin' you now/I'm tellin' you now" - you haven't heard Whiskeytown at their best until you've heard this album.

The Dirtbombs, Ultraglide In Black (In The Red) - Apparently rock is alive and well in the Motor City. During an era when rock as a genre and a state of mind is so watered down, pansified, and tragically misconstrued by the man The Dirtbomb's lop the heads off the infidels - Creed, Sugar Ray, Limp Bizkit, etc. - and resurrect the gritty, swaggering spirit of our forefathers. Ultraglide In Black is balls out, bloody, unapologetic rock 'n' roll.
Mick Collins and his rhythm heavy five-piece - two drummers, two bassists -- dust off some oldies and lend a revved up, go-go edge to soul and R&B classics by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, and Curtis Mayfield, among others.

This is the garage band that you wish you were in.

Jim O'Rourke, Insignificance (Drag City) - Insignificance has remained on heavy rotation in my household since its release in late-November. In my review last month, I say that "All Downhill From Here," the lead off track, is "my permanent Sunday morning soundtrack, cue drum intro and hip-shaking guitar riff as I roll out of bed groggy and bit down from the previous night's debauch," and so on. Well, let's just say this last string of Saturdays have been a bit more trying than usual, and it's very hard to hear that infectious hook with the pillow wrapped so tightly around my head. But the sentiment's still there, and during the coming month's I promise to invoke my New Year's resolution: clear liquors instead of brown.

Jim O'Rourke's a rare breed. He's a genius behind the mixing board, a demon on the guitar, and one hell of a composer. Backed by a troop of veteran's hailing largely from Chicago's indie/alt-country/avant-garde circuit, O'Rourke alternates between careening pop numbers and wandering folk ballads driving home an album that rolls free and easy from start to finish without one clinker or uninspired moment. In his previous work O'Rourke has seemed a bit scattered, reluctant to be pinned to a specific sound or genre. On Insignificance he makes a choice and delivers a full statement. In a self-deprecating twist O'Rourke chooses to name the most significant album of his career Insignificance.

Guided By Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT) - "God, it seems like this band will go on forever. I'm afraid that people are going to start taking gems like this for granted," said my friend Eric as we discussed Isolation Drills. For the umpteenth time in umpteen years Guided By Voices loose a new swarm of unforgettable pop songs on a fan base whose senses have been throttled by Bob Pollard's otherworldly knack for pulling anthemic rock albums out of thin air. Eric's right, I almost left this album out.

Middle-agedom has done little to dampen Pollard's spirits or curb his heroic alcohol intake. During live performances Pollard's leg kicks (a la Roger Daltrey) snap forehead high, his mic-swings arc to new perilous levels, and his disdain for the concert promoters who won't let him rock until the booze runs dry is more palpable than ever. On Isolation Drills Pollard's lyrics plumb new introspective depths ("How's My Drinking?"), his faux-British croon ripens further with age, and his frightening ability to deliver one perfect three-minute pop song after another proves that his soul is still on loan from the devil. It's safe to say that Bob Pollard and the voices that guide him aren't going anywhere.

Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft" (Columbia) - Over four decades Bob Dylan has shown a miraculous ability to endure without ever drastically changing his style or his conviction (despite, of course, a brief and near disastrous flirtation with god-rock in the 80s). These days you can't even discuss music without invoking his name. Rock journalists have long been questing after the next visionary songwriter capable of treading in Dylan's gaping, mythical footprints, but so far those who draw comparison only crumble under the weight of his legend. Dylan's rounding 60 and the high-end of his vocal range is shot to hell, but he's still out on the road, in the studio, and pressing onwards into the new millennium forging footprints impossible to follow or ignore.

Without fail I revisit "Love and Theft" like a barstool on a bad day. On his 43rd studio album Dylan purrs bluesy and affably reflective backed by churning rockabilly guitar lines and swing inspired rhythm shuffles. Dylan's old demons resurface - the fleeting sands of time, love long gone, the highway's call - but this time he brushes back his burden and meets the past with a Teflon grin, like a joke at his own expense.

Built to Spill, Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Brothers) - The album title, Ancient Melodies of the Future, suggests in a roundabout way that the music of the past and the music of the future share an umbilical through line, a chain of influences that stretch as far as the eye can see in either direction. Built to Spill front man Doug Martsch seems to understand his place in the cosmic chain. Martsch's nasal tenor and penchant for lengthy guitar outpourings pull frequent comparisons to Neil Young, but Martsch has built on the melodies of his predecessors and constructed his own distinct, futuristic sound.

Ancient Melodies of the Future orbits through weightless soundscapes, and meandering themes that drift off and come full circle again out of nowhere. Martsch's songs are laced with spacey thought fragments and clever word play, elusive to interpretation when stripped away from the music, but oddly coherent as a part of the whole. This album is the beautiful dream that you forget the moment you wake and spend the rest of your day trying to piece together.

Red House Painters, Old Ramon (Sub Pop) - Like Whiskeytown's Pneumonia, Old Ramon gathered dust in a record company vault for three years after Island and Mercury merged in the late 90s up until the Red House Painters' lawyer eventually bargained the indentured album out of hock. During the hiatus front man Mark Kozelek released two solo albums - one entirely composed of AD/DC covers - and played a role (Stillwater's bassist) in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous.

The five-year lag between the Painters' 1996 release Songs for a Blue Guitar and Old Ramon staggered the band's momentum, but then again, the Painters' have always moved slow and steady and opted for the long way around. Ten songs and 71 minutes in length, Old Ramon picks up where the Painters' left off, spinning dreamy, folk-inspired numbers that take the scenic route. Kozelek, vulnerable as ever, displays new depth to his sensitive side. ("Wop-a-din-din," a love song about his cat, explores the separation anxiety he experiences when he goes out on the road leaving his cat at home.) Old Ramon's expansive melodies and drowsy delivery make for an experience that's equally breathtaking and heartbreaking. A real downer, but in a very good way.

-- Daniel Schulman



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