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Sympathy For the Record Industry

Indies made waves while the majors floundered and an old hero led the way in 2001.

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The year 2000 was one of pop music's greatest art-commerce nexuses since the Beatles broke up -- Outkast's and Eminem's multiplatinum albums and complementary megasingles conjuring up Prince and Springsteen's tango in 1984, with plenty of other Statement records following: D'Angelo's breakout, U2's comeback, Radiohead's number-one-debut art-rock opus. Hell, even PJ Harvey's flawless Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea banked decent box office.

In these terms -- and I say never trust a critic who dismisses the pop marketplace -- 2001 was a comparative dud. There was Bob Dylan and everything else. While I have little tolerance for the continuing sway baby-boomer nostalgia holds over pop discourse, Dylan's "Love And Theft" was a classic from spin one --one of the four or five best albums ever from one of the four or five most important artists in post-war pop. After that, 2001 looked like a transitional year, full of disappointments but also full of promises for the future.

The mainstream devoured itself this year: Rock radio's no-girls-allowed playlists were dominated by yet more nü-metal. System of a Down's admirably personal (if at times hyperactively annoying) polemics and Alien Ant Farm's rad novelty tunes offered divergently fruitful alternatives to a monster that too often pulled us down more depressing roads: Incubus' prog seriousness, P.O.D.'s godly rap-metal, Staind's woe-is-meisms, and the desperate cornucopia of look-alike, sound-alike hacks major labels flooded the market with in a bid to make a few bucks on a cresting trend. Teen pop lost its cherry, the occasional innocent miracle of a few years ago ("Mmm-Bop," "I Want It That Way," "Genie in a Bottle") now unimaginable in a genre governed by celebrity worship and porn-style sex appeal. Mainstream hip hop, where smart pop fans have been getting their fix for years, was drunk on a bling-bling aesthetic, which seemed tired even before 9/11, and produced only one undeniable album (Jay-Z's The Blueprint). Some might cling to neo-soul as a beacon and though Alicia Keys earned her hype, I sadly heard less than many of my colleagues did in records from contenders such as Bilal, Maxwell, dearly departed Aaliyah, Macy Gray, and even my beloved Mary J. Blige.

But in this void interesting things happened: Techno (dance/club/electronica/whatever) returned with a vengeance, with Basement Jaxx's Rooty, Daft Punk's Discovery, and sample-happy Aussies the Avalanches' Since I Left You constituting the genre's most commanding triple-threat ever. Hip hop's nascent indie scene continued to make noise, the likes of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and Atmosphere offering a compelling alternative to livin' large clowns like Ja Rule. And so-called alt-rock roared back with Weezer's successful return and New York City boys the Strokes making friends and enemies in equal measure.

It was in these last two areas that 2001's most momentous "new" artists emerged. Oakland rap duo the Coup and Detroit garage-rock twosome the White Stripes (whose knockout performance before an overflow crowd at Earnestine and Hazel's on September 10th was the local show of the year, easy) have made records before -- good ones, even -- but in 2001 they exploded with what we can only hope aren't career peaks. Outspoken Marxists, I don't expect the Coup to be gracing MTV anytime soon. But the White Stripes have recently signed to mini-major V2, and I wouldn't put it past them to storm the castle in 2002.

With major labels skimping on art in pursuit of profit (and dropping interesting acts -- see Clem Snide and Wilco), it was no surprise to see my "A" list contain more indie labels and, not coincidentally, more punkish guitar bands than it has in years. Like most other serious music fans, I yearn for the imaginary community that pop provides -- and I especially treasure it when that community is writ large. Though I'm hoping the specter of 9/11 will provoke some action at the top in 2002, the democratic miracle of pop music always provides compelling voices from unlikely places, and sometimes that has to do.

In 2001, my culture heroes came from the margins: a multiracial MC from Minnesota (Atmosphere's Slug) taking hip hop to places -- emotional, intellectual, and geographic -- that it's never been before; a north Alabama road warrior (the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood) struggling with his Southern heritage; a couple of goofball rejects from suburban New York (the Moldy Peaches' Adam Green and Kimya Dawson) having a ball with no concern for the bottom line.

I'd never suggest that any pop fan shut off his or her radio or stop watching the charts, but in 2001 opting out of the pop game was a fruitful gambit. There are plenty of stories like the three above waiting to be discovered, and no one who craves insight and delight from music should restrict their diet to what is placed on their plate. With that in mind, here are 40 albums and 20 singles from 2001 that thrilled this pop fan. Consider it advice from one friend to another.

Top 40 Albums:

1. "Love And Theft" -- Bob Dylan (Columbia): I've listened to "Love And Theft" more in the last four months than I've listened to the supposedly sacred Time Out of Mind in the last four years. Casually profound and profoundly casual, this startling return to form reminds us that the key to Dylan's greatness has always lain less in the weighty pronouncements that got him dubbed the "Voice of a Generation" than in the warm, open tone of his music, the freeness of his vocals, and the consistent humor and wit of his lyrics. It is (Oh no! Here it comes!) his best record since Blood On the Tracks.

2. White Blood Cells -- The White Stripes (Sympathy For the Record Industry): In its own way, this Memphis-recorded breakout record from Detroit garage duo Jack and Meg White is as cognizant of American pop-song traditions as "Love And Theft" -- and more organically female-friendly than any significant hard-rock record since Nevermind. Offering a negation equally relevant to both the womanizing hipsters within his own subculture and the macho metal bullies crowding the marketplace, Jack White pulls no punches in negotiating his battle of the sexes but also never offers less than plain, simple decency, all while ex-wife Meg watches his back by keeping the beat. The result is a blues-rock masterpiece suffused with an uncommon blast of freedom, best summed up by the rollicking contentment of "Hotel Yorba"'s Lyric of the Year: "It might sound silly for me to think childish thoughts like these/But I'm so tired of acting tough and I'm gonna do what I please."

3. Party Music -- The Coup (75 Ark): The best political rap crew since Public Enemy, sure, but where Chuck D. needed Flavor Flav to cut his blustery bullshit with comic relief, a key to Oakland activist Boots Riley's triumph is that he effortlessly connects the personal to the political and never comes off as just another programmatic sourpuss. And so Party Music's leftist agitprop is never less than human, the militant drive of "Everythang" balanced by the righteous delicacy of "Wear Clean Draws," the Molotov-cocktail sloganeering of "Ghetto Manifesto" by the profound compassion of "Nowalaters," the wicked wit of "5 Million Ways To Kill a C.E.O." by the way Riley posits the anti-religion "Heven Tonite" as one of the year's truest love songs. And DJ Pam the Funktress always manages to scratch you where it itches.

4. Satellite Rides -- Old 97's (Elektra): Except for two songs -- one of which rips anyway -- this is where frontman Rhett Miller and company finally trade in alt-country for Art. With tarted-up vocals, rampaging pop guitars, and some of the year's slyest, sexiest lyrics ("Do you wanna mess around?/I mean deep down in your bones?/In a hotel swimming pool?/On public telephones?" Miller asks one lust object on the love-among-the-ruins stunner "Buick City Complex"), Satellite Rides is a ready-made, old-time-rock-and-roll touchstone on a par with Marshall Crenshaw, the Replacements' Tim, and Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True -- and it's even on a major label! The most underrated rock record in ages.

5. The Moldy Peaches -- The Moldy Peaches (Sanctuary): The most meaningful DIY move in years, The Moldy Peaches is homemade, finger-paint pop -- "teen" music totally devoid of self-censorship or commercial calculation. Littered with laugh lines ("I wanted to be a hippie but I forgot how to love"), grin lines ("Here is the church and here is the steeple/We sure are cute for two ugly people"), and choice advice ("If you are a kid and no one will play with you/Stick it out, stay tough, and you'll wind up super-cool!"), it's a peek into the lives of two 20-something misfits from suburban New York who alternate from the year's most moving love songs to dirty little sing-along ditties with titles like "Downloading Porn With Davo" and "Who's Got the Crack?" They dance this mess around, fling shit at the walls, tell tall tales, fall in love with how each other feel, and fall asleep watching late-night cartoons. With this sui generis debut, the Moldy Peaches have crafted a Have Moicy! for post-Kids kids, and if 90 percent of the listening public would probably dismiss it on contact, that doesn't mean they wouldn't learn something if they stuck it out. Choice lyric: "Me and my friends are so smart/We invented this new kind of art!" (followed quickly by "Who mistook this crap for genius?").

6. Lucy Ford -- Atmosphere (Rhymesayers): Charismatic alt-rap everyman Slug may offer hip hop as "therapy on top of turntable riffs" on this coming-out party, but he also may have crafted the most empathetic album in the genre's 20-year history. And unlike too many of his collegiate contemporaries, he never skimps on hip hop's basic beats-and-rhymes pleasure principle.

7. Take Off Your Pants and Jacket -- Blink-182 (MCA): What The Moldy Peaches does to teen pop, this criminally underrecognized platinum seller does to nü-metal: It exposes the genre's exploitative bullshit. With one gloriously catchy riff-song after another, these corporate punks acknowledge the pain of adolescence without exploiting their audience's hormonal imbalance with overstated doom and gloom, respect the girls they readily admit to fearing, make first kisses and first dates out to be the big deals they are, and glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. The result is a teen-boy near-classic just a couple of notches below masterpieces of the form like Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Licensed to Ill, and the Replacements' Let it Be.

8. Is This It -- The Strokes (RCA): Maybe if I lived in New York and traveled in certain social circles I'd care about the backlash that has predictably followed this band's hype-driven arrival, but from my critical vantage point here in the boonies I'm left contemplating the unavoidable fact that this much kvetched-about debut totally rocks. And the reason I love the Strokes isn't because they draw on such cooler-than-thou influences (Television, Richard Hell, Lou Reed -- you know the drill) but because they're gauche enough to convert those influences into such blissfully bashed-out, hornier-than-thou party music.

9. Rooty -- Basement Jaxx (Astralwerks): A half-decade after the supposed electronica revolution failed to kill off guitar bands and singer-songwriters for good, we finally get the rapturous dance record for diehards and dilettantes alike.

10. Internal Wrangler -- Clinic (Domino): This English word-of-mouth sensation beats all other current soundscape bands (Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, etc.) not because they write better songs (the best lyric here is cribbed from the Velvet Underground) but because there's so much pop pleasure bubbling beneath their art-noise surface. They beat most current American radio-rock bands because there's so much art-noise surface shaking their pop pleasure to life rather than deadening it with studio sheen. And when they segue from the down-tempo, Velvets-meet-Yo La Tengo, organ-drone warmth of "Distortions" into the breakneck, Sonic Youth-meets-surf-guitar assault of "Hippy Death Suite," they make their bid for rock-and-roll Valhalla.

Runners-up (in order of preference): Southern Rock Opera -- Drive-By Truckers (Soul Dump Records); The Blueprint -- Jay-Z (Roc-A-Fella); Stephen Malkmus -- Stephen Malkmus (Matador); The Ghost of Fashion -- Clem Snide (SpinArt); The Rainbow Connection -- Willie Nelson (Island); Proxima Estacion: Esperanza -- Manu Chao (Virgin); Lohio -- The Ass Ponys (Checkered Past); The Facts of Life -- Black Box Recorder (Jetset); The Houston Kid -- Rodney Crowell (Sugar Hill); Feminist Sweepstakes/From the Desk of Mr. Lady -- Le Tigre (Mr. Lady); Sweet Tea -- Buddy Guy (Silvertone); Cachaito -- Orlando Cachaito Lopez (World Circuit/Nonesuch); That's Not What I Heard -- The Gossip (Kill Rock Stars); The World Won't End -- The Pernice Brothers (Ashmont); Essence -- Lucinda Williams (Lost Highway); Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions -- James "Blood" Ulmer (Label M); Lars Fredericksen and the Bastards -- Lars Fredericksen and the Bastards (Hellcat); Accepted Eclectic -- Aceyalone (Project Blowed); Mass Romantic -- New Pornographers (Mint, 2000); Get Ready -- New Order (Reprise); AOI: Bionix -- De La Soul (Tommy Boy); Songs in A Minor -- Alicia Keys (J Records); Blowback -- Tricky (Hollywood); Ancient Melodies of the Future -- Built to Spill (Warner Brothers); Free City -- St. Lunatics (Universal); Change -- The Dismemberment Plan (Desoto); Weezer -- Weezer (Geffen); Discovery --Daft Punk (Virgin); Tomb Raider -- Various Artists (Elektra); Made in Medina -- Rachid Taha (Mondo Melodia).

Top 20 Singles:

1. "NYC's Like a Graveyard" -- The Moldy Peaches (Sanctuary): Before September 11th this clearly sounded like the single of the year -- fuzztone guitars, snotty/witty lyrics, and gleefully amateurish vocals as invective from outcasts in the 'burbs straight to the heart of Times Square, ripping consumer drones and Manhattan hipsters to shreds. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it was unlistenable -- its references to "all the tombstones skyscraping" and "all the yuppies getting buried" and "New York City's like a cemetery" unintentional prophecies and its metaphors obscene. A few months removed, with the cultural stasis it skewers basically unchanged, its intentions sound no less righteous and the utter innocence that produced it now seems heartbreaking beyond description.

2. "Izzo" -- Jay-Z (Roc-A-Fella): Charismatic nonchalance and inspired stream-of-consciousness over the most exciting soul sample in recorded history -- there hasn't been a record this cool since Pavement broke up.

3. "Independent Women, Pt. I" -- Destiny's Child (Columbia): Their last blast of near-perfection before their narcissism ruined them, and you can hear the magic dissolve at the very top, when one of Destiny's Children intones, "Lucy Liu" -- shilling for the movie tie-in with jaw-dropping crassness. But for a while last year there was no more exciting sound than that of Beyoncé Knowles coolly dropping "question" at the beginning of a verse.

4. "Jenny and The Ess-Dog" -- Stephen Malkmus (Matador): Compassionate, perceptive, and deeply droll, Malkmus never wrote a song this straightforward, or this literary, when he was fronting Pavement. A prime nominee for Best Short Stories of 2001.

5. "Ride Wit Me" -- Nelly (Universal): Hip hop's greatest after-the-gold-rush anthem -- and it appears on a debut album!

6. "Romeo" -- Basement Jaxx (Astralwerks): With guest vocalist Kele Le Roc providing more soul than your average diva-for-hire, London's favorite DJ saviors come up with the catchiest romantic kiss-off in recent memory.

7. "Last Nite" -- The Strokes (RCA): A beer-soaked, morning-after eulogy for the best or worst night of your life, with guitars buzzing around like a memory you don't want to let slip away.

8. "Take It 2 Da House" -- Trick Daddy (Slip-n-Slide/Atlantic): The year's great sports-arena shout-a-long. This is the anthem. Get your damn hands up!

9. "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" -- Eve with Gwen Stefani (Ruff Ryders/Interscope): The hottest girl-on-girl action this side of Mulholland Drive.

10. "Digital Love" -- Daft Punk (Virgin): True love found in the middle of a skating rink.

Honorable Mention (in order of preference): "Fatlip" -- Sum 41 (Island); "Get Ur Freak On" -- Missy Elliott (Elektra); "Jaded" -- Aerosmith (Columbia); "Don't Tell Me" -- Madonna (Maverick); "Chickenhead" -- Project Pat (Loud); "Always on Time" -- Ja Rule with Ashanti (Uptown/Universal); "We Need a Resolution" -- Aaliyah with Timbaland (Blackground); "Fallin'" -- Alicia Keys (J Records); "Smooth Criminal" -- Alien Ant Farm (Dreamworks); "I'm a Thug" -- Trick Daddy (Slip-N-Slide/Atlantic).

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

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