Introduction

This looks like the year I ran out of jazz. Not that they stopped producing it, but my own listening time has dropped steadily from maybe 60% 3-4 years ago to maybe 20% now, and most of the jazz I did listen to this year was catching up on 2000's bumper crop of saxophone records. Part of this is sated curiosity (did a lot of backlist blues, and started to dabble more in electronic dance music), part is economic (I rarely buy new CDs, and used jazz is spotty out here), and part is just being a beat junkie.

My 2001 A-list looks healthy right now: 35 records, which is probably ahead of the pace that yielded 50 records for 2000. No overwhelmingly obvious #1, but very solid and consistent down to around #12, maybe even #15, with various combinations of interesting and fun from there down. The soft spot at the top is indicated by the judgment that the three of my top five may not quite measure up to recent career peaks (Manu Chao's Clandestino, Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, David Murray's Creole; Nils Petter Molvaer's Khmer would make that four of ten, without considering Dylan's catalogue).

Genre-wise, I count 6-7 rap albums, 3-5 jazz (depending on how you pigeonhole Cachaito and Molvaer), 3-4 African (depending on how you map Marrakech), 3-4 pieces of electronica (Mush Filmstrip could be filed under rap), 6 rock bands (counting the Moldy Peaches) with hardly anything in common, 4 more/less established singer-songwriters (counting Malkmus, which is a stretch), 1 country, 1 folk (Welch), 1 blues (Muldaur), 1 r&b (Keys), Manu Chao, and Pink.

Top Ten

This would be my Pazz & Jop ballot (divides 100 votes among 10 records):

  1. The Coup: Party Music (75 Ark) 16
  2. Manu Chao: Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (Virgin) 16
  3. Lucinda Williams: Essence (Lost Highway) 11
  4. David Murray: Like a Kiss That Never Ends (Justin Time) 11
  5. Maria Muldaur: Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain) 9
  6. Tricky: Blowback (Hollywood) 9
  7. Bob Dylan: Love and Theft (Columbia) 8
  8. Orlando Cachaito Lopez: Cachaito (World Circuit/Nonesuch) 7
  9. The Moldy Peaches: The Moldy Peaches (Rough Trade) 7
  10. Nils Petter Molvaer: Solid Ether (ECM) 6


The Coup: Party Music. The old saw is that great rock has to be at least a little bit dangerous. I don't buy that, and can point to such innocuous fare as Another Green World and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But here we have the gun in the logo, the flaming gasoline cocktail, the jaunty song about killing CEOs, a group that flirts with terrorism. I don't buy that either -- for one thing, the album is so brilliant and full of life that I can't imagine them pissing it away just to make a point. But they do have points to make, some as quotidian as "Wear Clean Draws," some as right-on as "Lazymuthafucka."

Manu Chao: Proxima Estacion: Esperanza. Richer and messier than Clandestino, a belated discovery that may actually still reign as my favorite new (for me) record of the year. Same bag of tricks, just more permutations. Sometimes I think my next great voyage of discovery will be Latin music, but I've never been able to connect to it like this. Perhaps this is because Chao himself is an outsider, so he draws out the Latin effects that most appeal to outsiders. The result isn't esoterica and it isn't rock en espa˝ol -- it's syncretic world-rock.

Lucinda Williams: Essence. From the very first this sounded better than Car Wheels on a Gravel Road -- she has achieved an astonishing vocal clarity and sincerity, despite or perhaps because of her quaver. So while comparison listening concedes that Car Wheels has more ambitious and sweeping songs, she puts this more first-person batch over on sheer conviction. Nor are the songs trifles: "Out of Touch is no less than the flip side to "We Have the Technology" (Pere Ubu). The only thing I want to know is why she shied away from "Get Right With God" when she played Wichita.

David Murray: Like a Kiss That Never Ends. Another great one -- his 8th A record on my stingy list, which pulls him one up on Sonny Rollins (excluding anthologies, but Murray's A- advantage is 22 to 15; I have Hawkins at 5/20, Coltrane at 6/16[1]). The numbers, of course, are infinitely debatable, but as far as tenor saxophonists go, this is a fair measure of Murray's stature. The difference is that Murray was the first great saxophonist to build on the tradition, as opposed to those who made the tradition -- a difference that is largely a matter of coming along later, when the tradition was well set and well known, but the key to Murray's accomplishment is that he is the most protean player in jazz history -- the one guy who does everything better than everyone else. As Murray goes, this record is MOR, a little bit of everything: gorgeous ballads, dazzling fast runs, a little Latin thing, an exercise on the bass clarinet, glorious jazz.

[1] The next tier down: Webster at 4/9, Young at 3/6, Getz at 1/10, Carter at 3/7; Murray's closest matched contemporary is Lovano at 1/5. I have 1 A record each for Shepp, Sanders, Lateef (duet with Shepp), George Coleman, and Billy Harper; 0 for Henderson, Shorter, Ayler, Redman (take your pick), and anyone else you'd care to mention.

Maria Muldaur: Richland Woman Blues. Basically a tribute album, a quick and dirty clash between scattered stars and the canon. But this one holds together, partly because it isn't staightjacketed by its Memphis Minnie inspiration, but mostly because the scattered stars lend unprecedented support to Muldaur's voice and good taste. Muldaur is a folkie who had one pop hit, then settled into an easy succession of blues recordings, always sounding better than her backup. Here she ups the ante and rises to the occasion. Hope K.T. Oslin hears this.

Tricky: Blowback. I have to admit that I never got Maxinquaye, but I duly enjoyed each later record without any real effort to understand, perhaps because the level of hype that initially baffled me subsided. My problem with Tricky has always been anonymity -- the lack of any consistent voice to tie his songs to. You might call this singer-songwriter prejudice, and you might point out that Tricky's revolutionary achievement was to overthrow it. I just wish you'd pointed this out earlier. Instead, most of what I've read dwelled on Tricky's notoriously morose worldview, which I also failed to locate, partly my normal disinterest in lyrics and partly anonymity again. I don't get this record either, but at least now I'm conscious enough to notice that it sounds better and better each time I play it.

Bob Dylan: Love and Theft. Every review starts with "the best Dylan album since . . ." -- you'd think some smartass would fill in the blank with Time Out of Mind, his equally acclaimed but quickly forgotten 1997 comeback. Even today it seems obligatory to refactor everything Dylan does in terms of his classics, yet doing so yields little more than hyperbole. It might be better to refactor his past in terms of where he is now, for what Love and Theft really is is his most entertaining album . . . ever. The improvement over Time Out of Mind is easy to spot: the music's looser and the lyrics are not only memorable, they're delightful. ("Why don't you break my heart one more time, just for good luck?") But this is hardly a huge leap forward; the fact is that damn near everything Dylan has done since, roughly, The Traveling Wilburys (1988) has been pretty good. This should have been easier to spot: despite all the erstwhile stars in the Wilburys, it was blatantly obvious that the only real talent there was Dylan. But where the Wilburys ruse gave Dylan the opportunity to pretend he was not The Oracle, it's taken over a decade for him to shake his myth. The clue here is that while Time Out of Mind harkened back to Blonde on Blonde, all the way down to the interminable finale, there are no past models for Love and Theft. Perhaps Dylan always was just a songster. Isn't that enough?

Orlando Cachaito Lopez: Cachaito. Much the same as uncle Cachao, but here the easy-going rhythm opens up solo space, whereas Cachao's earlier work was more compressed by pop regimen. But while the saxophone solos mark it as jazz, they never overwhelm the record's raison d'ŕtre, which is rhythm. (Sometimes the sax just comps behind the rhythm.) This is Jelly Roll Morton's "latin tinge" in full flower.

The Moldy Peaches: The Moldy Peaches. Folk rock, with cognitive dissonance; who'd have thought that something so rudimentary could open up so much uncharted territory? Like Ani DiFranco, their attraction to folk is that it's cheap, but being a duo gives them more to work with, and they don't have any messages to get in the way. Wonder what they'll turn into. At first blush, this sounds as sui generis as, say, the first They Might Be Giants, which suggests they might devolve into something terminally cute. But perhaps, like Ani DiFranco, they'll invest their earnings in better musicians and flesh out the sounds they delight in (try "NYC's Like a Graveyard"). Wonder what they'd sound like in front of Tom Tom Club?

Nils Petter Molvaer: Solid Ether. Again, richer and messier than its predecessor. Again, the same bag of tricks with a few new twists -- in particular, a couple of vocal tracks that bear little resemblance to the crunchy percussion that makes Molvaer's work go.

On Down the List

A- records, more/less in descending order:

New Order: Get Ready. At their very best they can hit a groove that sweeps all before them, that seems so right it must have been done before. Way back in Substance and Neighborhood they hit their stride 4-6 times; here they hit it 2-3 times, which is a big improvement over Technique. It's an amazing thing.

The Strokes: Is This It. Of course, I missed the hype everyone feels compelled to comment on; can't even imagine it given that hardly anyone else is given the "qualify the hype" treatment. The record itself seems perfectly straightforward: this is the second coming of the Feelies -- a little brighter and snappier, perhaps; which makes it the third coming of the Loaded-era Velvet Underground. Who would have thought that 30+ years later Creedence Clearwater would remain an nonpareil artyfact while the Velvets would have spawned legion after legion of funky little bar bands?

Ludacris: Word of Mouf. Carpeted wall-to-wall with guests, I have no clue just who Ludacris is. But the music here is as rich and supple as Stankonia, while the lyrics are, well, wittier than 2 Live Crew. A lot wittier, once you throw in the towel and let them frolic in their ho-puns. Might as well. Look how much ten years of carping about the n-word got me.

Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator). She characterizes these as "little rock and roll songs" -- a little advance from the "little folk songs" of her black-and-white period, but she still has to dip into gospel whenever she want to raise the energy level a bit. But her miniaturist ambitions are refreshing in an era where de trop is de rigeur, as is her primness and precision.

Tea in Marrakech. Don't have much of a handle of this exotica: Moroccan electronica, neither as occidental nor as techno as you'd expect, nor as pop as rai. A subject for further research.

Pink: Missundaztood. Not fully digested, this could go higher. This is front-loaded with easy parts: the first 6-7 cuts are as good a pop-rock album as I've heard in many a year, with my only indecision "Family Portrait," a cut that hews a bit too close to Madonna's well worn path. After that it slows down and stretches out, the two duets being the most suspect. But each time I play it they get a wee bit better, so maybe they'll fit in somehow.

Le Tigre: Feminist Sweepstakes. Arty little punk band.

Atmosphere: Lucy Ford. Not sure what makes this "underground" other than that it was damn hard to find. But it's a cut or two smarter and a lot cleaner than commercial rap, has an "I wish" song that reminds me of Downtown Science, and a couple of shaggy dog stories that are well worth seeking out.

Leonard Cohen: Ten New Songs. Dreary ones, too, and no voice to sing them with. Good thing that he can hire some help. Better thing that he's mastered the atmospherics to put them over.

Nortec Collective: The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1. Very steady, deeply enjoyable beat album, allegedly based on Norte˝o motifs, which are microscopic if not totally incidental.

Aceyalone: Accepted Eclectic. Two or three great songs; lots of solid filler. Not sure which "Serve and Protect" is, but the mantra sticks.

Black Box Recorder: The Facts of Life. A slight little record that grows on you with every play.

Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe: Sound Time. Bankable grooves, the sine qua non of highlife.

St. Lunatics: Free City. I loved Nelly's album from the first play, but nothing on his crew's disc has that sort of appeal. Closest thing to a hook was the mantra, "I love it when you make your knees touch your elbows." But eventually it did click -- first the beats, then the chants.

Samba Mapangala: Ujumbe. Return to Guitar Paradise.

Jason Moran: Black Stars. This seems to be the consensus pick for best jazz album of the year. I don't exactly concur -- David Murray delights me from first note to last, whereas I have to work just to hang in here. Dense, austere, slow -- most of that tone due to Sam Rivers, who indelibly marks every cut and gives Moran a challenge to work against.

Haiku D'Etat. Less memorable than Aceyalone's solo disc, but full of nice touches while it plays.

Old 97's: Satellite Rides. Guys who like good songs better than me may rate this higher -- they are smartly crafted, cleverly hooked. May even have nice lyrics, not that I've noticed. My copy came with a bonus CD, which is a trashy, appealing live bash, that helped get me through the slightly-too-pat studio disc.

Rodney Crowell: The Houston Kid. The outlaw saga is a little pinched, but most of the songs are solid-plus, and the one about Johnny Cash is slam dunked by Johnny Cash his-very-self.

Alicia Keys: Songs in A Minor. Not as consistent nor as compelling as I'd like, but I kept going back to it, and found myself waking up with it jingling in my head.

Baaba Maal: Missing You (Mi Yeewnii). Beautiful.

Basement Jaxx: Rooty. Dance band, with chatty, cartoonish voices that improve from amusing to delightful whenever the groove finally kicks in.

Bluiett/Jackson/El'Zabar: The Calling. The vocal on the first cut seems both out of place and not very good, digging a hole for this marvelously talented and good-humored group to climb out of. Which they do, and then some. All three players delight, with Bluiett clowning on the big horn, the others cackling in counterpoint.

Mush Filmstrip (Frame 1). Something like trip-hop hip-hop, which means its shapelessness and forgetableness is a feature.

Stephen Malkmus: Stephen Malkmus. Every time this threatens to fall off the list, out pops a song too good to omit.

Parting Shots

My worklist has notes on a couple dozen other albums that I've listened to and either graded down or haven't made my mind up on. Buddy Guy's Sweet Tea is damn close, and Steve Turre's TNT has some stuff I like quite a bit. Kirsty MacColl's Tropical Brainstorm has 2-3 terrific cuts; Bang on a Can's Renegade Heaven has real good stuff and stuff that rubs me the wrong way. Bob Belden's Black Dahlia is wonderful in spots, but labors under much too big a big band. Blink 182's Take Off Your Pants and Jacket is a perfectly solid piece of the rock. I lost my copy of the White Stripes' much-hyped White Blood Cells, but the 3-4 plays I gave it didn't convince me to buy another copy.

One record that shows up in year-end lists but which I date to 2000 is O Brother Where Art Thou, which I think is a great soundtrack in the context of a great movie, but quite pallid as a record. John Hartford and Norman Blake are par for the course here -- they've built whole careers that are erudite but never breathtaking. Ralph Stanley is their opposite, but you need to grab something like Bound to Ride (Rebel) to get a full swig. Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch do good work here, and the Soggy Bottom Boys cuts are fun, and the record has grown on me a bit, but the most interesting thing about the record is that it achieved mass sales for music that is universally regarded as commercially marginal. I think this says two things: 1) that there is a potential market for American roots music which far exceeds its actual market; and 2) that the channelization of the music industry is unable (or unwilling) to provide that market with real product. What made O Brother different was that it is a soundtrack, attached to a medium hit movie, and that soundtracks are a mass market channel item, so for once the product was available to the market, and even promoted a bit.

In most recent years, I've spent as much or more time on the Reissue list, but this year the shelf is practically bare. The only real find was Rev. Gary Davis's Demons and Angels, a casual and crude 3-CD box that's the only evidence I've seen lately of God's good works.

My worklist also has a long list of hyped records, some of which I've sampled in very limited ways, some of which I've never found, some of which I note only for reference. Some quick notes (most listening is from spots in record stores, which I have little patience for):

Some things I just broke down and ordered, figuring it'd be a long, long time before I find them used: Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera; Hakim: The Lion Roars; KÚkÚlÚ: Rumba Congo; Leo Wadada Smith/Thomas Mapfumo: Dreams and Secrets; James Blood Ulmer: Memphis Blood. (Should've gotten Aesop Rock: Labor Days, and the Handsome Family: Twilight, too.)