After a rigorous scientific study of my annual mix tapes for the past several years, I've concluded that 2001 was the best year in music since 1996. Not because of any blockbuster release like Radiohead's Kid A last year or Dylan's dramatic comeback effort, Time Out of Mind, in '97. No, Ought-One was rather just chock-full of smaller-bore gems that kept popping up unexpectedly.
Like The Blind Boys of Alabama's release, Spirit of the Century. Five powerful voices who've performed as a unit since the 1930s, the Blind Boys slayed the audience with their a capella performance at Durham's Carolina Theatre a couple years back and the new release strengthens their hand with an absolutely stellar band. David Lindley's delicious slide guitar, Charlie Musselwhite's dusky harp and Danny Thompson's resonant stand-up bass put a spare, muscular groove under the Blind Boys' gospel. With covers of sacred music by Tom Waits, Ben Harper and the Stones(!), Spirit of the Century was by far the best R&B I heard all year (apologies to Ms. Keys).
Similarly out of left field, at least for me, was Patty Loveless' Mountain Soul. I've tried to like Loveless before (if only for her name) but always found her efforts too close to Nashville for my tastes. This time out, Loveless mines her roots as a coal miner's daughter and comes up with a truly stunning work. Still, there's nothing "alt" about Loveless' country. Her tight harmonies ache with perfection in the classic Louvin and Stanley style. The ensemble playing is seamlessly exquisite. And the songs rise, arc and resolve with an almost architectural beauty. A flawless gem.
Avant slide-guitarist Chris Whitley has always been a mercurial artist. Putting down his vices has been a problem, as has keeping faith with his troubled vision of God and man and everything in between. Putting those matters into shapely songs has been an elusive goal for Whitley, but on Rocket House he turns the key. From breathless incantations to oceanic blues, Whitley slips his chains and speaks in tongues with his muse.
I've been a proselyte for Chocolate Genius ever since his uncomfortably dark debut, Black Music, disturbed my air space back in '98. Mr. Genius (a.k.a. Mark Anthony Thompson) and his music defy all categories with the possible exception of Me'shell Ndegeocello's suggested "alternative negro." Bracing, intelligent, deeply soulful, emotionally penetrating, occasionally swerving, CG's new God Music is a glorious example of the Word made flesh.
Reversing that formula, Lucinda Williams' Essence is nothing short of flesh made words. Though lacking the consistency and discipline of her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, Essence has moments of transfixing carnality that all but pin you to the floor. With songs like "Changed the Locks" and "Just Wanted to See You So Bad," Williams has long been our poet laureate of politically incorrect female longing. Essence crowns her queen of the genre, burning with as much smoke as light, complicated and true.
Cooler in tone and more sophisticated in its palette, Joe Henry's Scar plays as something of a counterpoint to Williams' Essence. Where Williams is an avatar of passion and confession, Henry is a connoisseur of the missed connection.
Painting his chiaroscuro portraits over the sultry, restrained rhythms of samba and tango, Henry plots the delicate geometries of longing and evasion, surrender and retreat. That he finds grace and even hope in these Escher-like impossibilities only raises his art to that much higher a level. For me, this was the album of the year.
Hope isn't the sort of thing one generally looks to Leonard Cohen for. Cool and unflinching, his work assays human frailty in its various alloys--romantic, political, spiritual--and finds much of it base, some of it tragic, and very little pure. "Tonic" is more the word for Cohen's artistic temper. Having spent the past few years sequestered in a Buddhist monastery, Cohen has come out with Ten New Songs, a spare, urbane meditation that pairs the singer's leathery, spoken baritone with trip-hoppish rhythms. A moralist at heart, Cohen seems to have found in Buddhism a somewhat more accepting, even forgiving lens through which to view the fallenness of the world. For all of that, his knife is still sharp.
Sam Phillips is another one who tends toward a chilly worldview. While the title of her 1994 release, Martinis and Bikinis, toyed with her overly serious image, the music tied Beatles-inspired tunefulness with Phillips' gnostic high-mindedness and tight emotional grip. So it is that Phillips' latest, Fan Dance, marks something of a spiritual leap forward. Wryly poking fun at her own drama-queen tendencies, Fan Dance is looser in its musical approach and more playful in its finest moments. By no means free of her usual angst, Philips has nonetheless discovered that "When I do the fan dance/I'm all the red in China."
2001 was also a year of awakening for our favorite Icelandic pop diva, Bjork. If you can get past her admittedly annoying, infantilized vocal style, Vespertine reveals a fairly ravishing tapestry of sensual epiphany and spiritual exploration. In a pop culture that has strip-mined the erotic dimension, we should be more than thankful for Bjork: She is the Anti-Britney.
And then, of course, there's Dylan, who in three of the past four years has put out one of the best records of the current or any other year. Love and Theft, indeed.