The best albums of 2001

Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" tops the critic's list of best albums of 2001

The best CDs of 2001

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 11, 2001) -- With this annual tally of the top 10 CDs of the past year comes the annual disclaimer: this list is by no means intended to be definitive. The absence of a recording on this list could well mean either that I didn’t hear it or that I simply overlooked it when it came time to compile the list. Also, the list isn’t meant so much as a judgment on the overall pop scene but rather is intended to be an idiosyncratic snapshot of one listener’s idiosyncratic tastes. And finally, the relative rankings from one to ten are pretty arbitrary, save for the top spot, which as always is reserved for the greatest musician of the past 40 years in any year he puts out a new recording.

1. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia): No, really, this time out Bob Dylan really did make a great album, full of his vintage wordplay, newfound wit (one song even includes a knock-knock joke), and a reinvention of classic American music, including blues, pop and swing. All this and more tirades from our latter-day prophet of doom, played by Dylan’s best backing band since The Band itself.

2. Dave Douglas, Witness (Bluebird/RCA Victor)/ Ori Kaplan, Gongol (Knitting Factory): The defining characteristic of today’s jazz avant-garde is its polymorphous and polycultural perversity, its delirious unwillingness to be defined by stylistic boundaries. These albums are just two of dozens at the cutting edge of this trend that draws deeply on ethnic folk music in the same way that early jazz drew on the blues. The Douglas combines frenzied group improvisation – musicians include Chris Speed, Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander and Michael Sarin -- with Douglas’s keen lyricism, as well as a hefty dose of funk, while the Kaplan group – not really a percussion ensemble in the conventional sense, but a saxophone-led, piano-drums-percussion quartet – mines the Middle East, North Africa and Art Tatum for inspiration.

3. The Strokes, Is This It (RCA)/ Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol): One minute the Strokes sound like the Velvet Underground, the next like the Cars, the next like the Clash, then Tom Petty, and the next like the Supremes as interpreted by Graham Parker. And all in just 35 minutes. Rock isn’t dead -- the Strokes are singlehandedly keeping it alive with guitars blazing, while Radiohead, rock’s great hope of the ‘90s, does its best to kill it while forging a new kind of deliriously catchy and seductive electronic pop music. May the best band win.

4. Jane Bunnett, Alma de Santiago (Blue Note)/ Phillip Johnston, Normalology (Koch Jazz): The Buena Vista Social Club was fine as far as it went, popularizing the folkloric sounds of Havana. Jane Bunnett takes it to the next step, however, teaming with a bevy of musicians from her home away from home and coming up with a genuine Cuban-modern jazz fusion. Phillip Johnston’s album features previously unrecorded tunes from the late, lamented Microscopic Septet he co-founded; their unabashed joy, wit and melodicism make a strong case for Johnston as a latter-day Duke Ellington. What ties these two disparate albums together are that both are a saxophone lover’s delight.

5. Wayfaring Strangers, Shifting Sands of Time (Rounder): Violinist/visionary Matt Glaser has made it his life’s work to make explicit the soulful, spiritual connection between American roots music and jazz. The missing link may well have been klezmer, and clarinetist/mandolinist Andy Statman provides the glue in this all-star effort that includes vocal turns by Ralph Stanley, Lucy Kaplansky and Jennifer Kimball, as well as instrumental contributions by Tony Trischka and other roots-jazz greats.

6. Shakira, Laundry Service (Epic)/ Shelby Lynne, Love, Shelby (Island): Besides owning the two most flaunted navels in show business this side of Britney Spears, Shakira and Shelby Lynne offer a different kind of pop thrill from that of the overgrown, rabid Mouseketeer – a more mature and more knowing sensuality, more timeless and more soulful grooves. Shakira is admittedly the guiltiest pleasure on this list, but she taps into an extraordinary vein of multicultural exotica, while Lynne comes across like slick, sultry white trash. All this and they can sing, too.

7. Finley Quaye, Vanguard (Epic)/ Michael Franti and Spearhead, Stay Human (Six Degrees): The neo-soul movement continues to produce albums that pay tribute to the classic sound of Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Stevie Wonder. Finley Quaye’s long-awaited follow-up to 1997’s acclaimed debut, Maverick a Strike, lives up to that album’s promise of a reggae-laced soul utopia and goes far beyond it, embracing rock and pop balladry with Quaye’s distinctive, poetic stamp. Michael Franti’s politically-charged concept album uses the frame of a radio program to enhance the urgency of his message, with no sacrificing the groove.

8. Bang on a Can, Renegade Heaven/Evan Ziporyn, This Is Not a Clarinet (both Cantaloupe): What does it say that one of the best rock albums of the year comes courtesy of contemporary classical ensemble Bang on a Can? It says that if you want to hear what the coolest rock is going to sound like in a few years, listen to Bang on a Can. On his solo album – it really is a solo album, featuring only himself -- Evan Ziporyn, Bang’s resident clarinet genius, reinvents his instrument and music as we know it, nothing more and nothing less. Also of note, Bang on a Can’s Terry Riley IN C.

9. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning/ Bitch and Animal, Eternally Hard (both Righteous Babe): DiFranco’s innovatively packaged double-CD builds on her intimately observed portraits of emotional and social politics while continuing her metamorphosis into the goddess of jazz-funk experimentalism. Bitch and Animal come across as bastard spawn of DiFranco, as if the righteous babe gave birth to a couple of rapping lesbians with a great sense of humor. Look out Beck – DiFranco’s breathing down your back.

10. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs (Epic)/ Lucy Kaplansky, Every Single Day (Red House): While they might seem musically miles apart, as songwriters Ben Folds and Lucy Kaplansky share a penchant for poking into the darker emotions – anger, envy, revenge – and they aren’t afraid lay it on the line and gloat in catchy piano-pop and folk-rock songs, respectively. It’s an area more singer-songwriters might want to investigate, if only for this listener’s sanity. They’re also witty writers with impeccable songcraft at their command.

Honorable Mentions: David Krakauer, A New Hot One (Label Bleu); Gillian Welch, Time: The Revelator (Acony); Charlie Chesterman, Ham Radio (Aerola); Lonesome Brothers, Swamptown Girl (Captivating Music); Jimmy LaFave, Texoma (Bohemia Beat); Graham Parker, Deepcut to Nowhere (Razor and Tie); Laurie Anderson, Life on a String (Nonesuch); Erin McKeown, Distillation (Signature Sounds); Drums and Tuba, Vinyl Killer (Righteous Babe).

Also, Adam Michael Rothberg, All the Whispering (; Don Byron, A Fine Line (Blue Note); Jessica Lurie, Motorbison Serenade (Zipa!); Ballin’ the Jack, Big Head (Knitting Factory); Eric Clapton, Reptile (Reprise); Pete Yorn, Music for the Morning After (Columbia); Velvet Underground, Bootleg Series Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes (Polygram); Dan Bern, New American Language (Messenger); Lucinda Williams, Essence (Lost Highway).

Disagree with these choices? Let us hear your thoughts. For an upcoming column, send comments and a list of your favorite albums of 2001 to

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 14, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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