This isn't as easy as it should be--as it would have been, say, four months ago. I listen to records for a living--that's how my folks see it, anyway--so ticking off a list of the music that moved me in 2001 shouldn't be a big deal. Piece of cake, could do it in my sleep. Putting everything that's happened in the music industry in the past 12 months into perspective? No problem at all.
But see, it's different nowadays, when everything is judged on a pre- or post-9/11 basis. Sure, I loved Guided by Voices' Isolation Drills and the Pernice Brothers' The World Won't End and Spoon's Girls Can Tell before September 11, but what does that have to do with the heartbreak that followed? What does that have to do with the America we live in now, with Operation Infinite Justice, with anthrax scares, with images of young brides spending Christmas alone, with any of it? Why do they matter now?
Guess the question I'm really trying to ask is, is it OK if I still love those albums, as well as those released by Silver Scooter and Dungeon Family and The Dismemberment Plan and Pete Yorn and at least a dozen or so more, even though they don't have a deeper meaning? Even though they are just albums, with songs that I listen to because I like them, not because they help me figure out what's going on and what's going wrong?
Thing is, music helped me out after September 11--and I'm sure many out there can say the same thing--but not because I started reading new meaning into old lyrics or anything like that. I mean, if nothing makes sense, not even Bono is going to help me sort it all out. (My parents and my wife have a better shot.) Music was, is and always will be an escape. On September 12, it was a place to go when my eyes were blurry from trying to keep track of all 15 news crawls scrolling across the bottom of the screen on MSNBC. On September 13, it was a chance to get off the couch to go see the White Stripes at Trees and, for an hour or three, forget everything that was going on outside that room. And so on. Music was the one form of entertainment in the months that followed the attacks where you didn't have to worry if they'd edited out footage of the Twin Towers, whether or not the subject matter would hit too close to home. (OK, except for Ryan Adams' video for "New York, New York," the exception that proves the rule.)
Maybe I'm the only one. Maybe everyone else wants to think Mac McCaughan is Nostradamus because the new Superchunk record mentions "plane crash footage on TV." Or Natalie Merchant matters again because, perhaps, her lyrics on Motherland foresaw the drama. Maybe I'm the only one who hears Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." and thinks, "Man, what a piece of shit," and not, "I am proud to be an American." (U-S-A! U-S-A! Or something like that.) Maybe I'm a bad person because my favorite records of the year have more to do with the music and not the message.
I don't think so. Below are the songs and albums that got me through 2001--the months after September 11 and the months before.
Arlo, Up High in the Night (Sub Pop): A basement tape of lo-fi anthems, Up High in the Night sounds like a bootleg of Live at Budokan, or at the very least, a disc that parks rock firmly back in the garage.
Ash, Free All Angels (Infectious): The sound of being young, in love and, apparently, on a beach in California. Not necessarily in that order.
Destroyer, Streethawk: A Seduction (Misra): Dan Bejar's third album as Destroyer is equal parts hopeful and hateful, full of rock songs about rock and roll that aren't really rock songs. "The world woke up one day to proclaim, 'Thou shall not make or take part in the bad arts,'" he sings on "The Bad Arts." If only, Dan. Best Bowie record since Hunky Dory.
Guided by Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT): Bad: It took a divorce to give Bob Pollard something to say, after releasing more albums than some record stores. Good: He finally has the right band to help him do it, with the Pete Townshend (guitarist Doug Gillard) to match his mike-swinging, high-kicking Roger Daltrey. If "Glad Girls" doesn't make Pollard the rock star he already plays onstage, nothing will.
Jay-Z, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" (Roc-a-Fella): "Not guilty/Y'all got to feel me"--pardon? At least Jay-Z was right about one thing: This was, and is, the anthem, so get yer damn hands up.
Pernice Brothers, The World Won't End (Ashmont): No one's happy in the world Joe Pernice has created over four albums in as many years, unless he's happy to be sad. But Pernice and his "brothers" wring hope from songs that seem to utterly lack it, following lyrics such as, "There's nothing there/Just bitterness," with ba-ba-ba-da harmonies (on "7:30"). The prettiest, ugliest album of the year.
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Spoon, Girls Can Tell (Merge): Forget Alicia Keys, Macy Gray, Maxwell, Angie Stone, India.Arie, Mary J. Blige, whoever. This is the soul record of 2001, even if it isn't, packed with Stax/Volt sentiment and enough Attractions to hold your interest.
Squarepusher, "My Red Hot Car" (Warp): As in, "I'm gonna fuck you with my red hot car." Aphex Twin with a pulse. And an ass.
The Strokes, Is This It (RCA): Five guys in their early 20s who care more about writing good songs and playing them on guitars, drums and bass than working on their choreography or getting tats or pointing their open mouths at Carson Daly's crotch. Shouldn't more people be excited about that fact? They should. So shut up and listen.
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (somewhere on the Internet): Everything Jeff Tweedy loves about music cut and pasted and cut up again until you can't recognize where any of the parts came from. And that's just the first song. Guess what? It'll probably be on this list next year, when Nonesuch gives it a proper release.