Best-of lists are subject to not only your personal tastes, of course, but how wide you're able to cast your net; in no particular order, these are the records that spent the most time in my stereo this year.
1. BOB DYLAN, Love And Theft [Columbia]
The critical rush to claim Dylan's re-emerging artistic vitality began with 1997's Time Out Of Mind, an album which, to these ears, was praiseworthy only by comparison to his recent work. But Love And Theft is another matter entirely. It dispenses with Daniel Lanois' production sheen and offers up a far stronger selection of songs. "Lonesome Day Blues" and "High Water (For Charley Patton)" have the drive and vigor of his best work; on tunes like "Bye And Bye," Dylan harkens back to early 20th century popular styles without resorting to easy pastiche. It's the first Bob Dylan album in many years that genuinely excites on its own merits.
2. OLD 97s, Satellite Rides [Elektra]
By now, the Old 97s' metamorphosis from twangy country-punkers to mainstream rockers is nearly complete; if they've lost some fans along the way, it's only those individuals whose dogmatic adherence to all things indie prevent them from recognizing this band's ample charms. Rhett Miller's songwriting continues to get better and better (and while I wish him nothing but happiness in his new marriage, I hope he doesn't stop penning the best cry-in-yer-beer love songs around). Make sure that your copy of this album comes with the bonus CD: ferocious live renditions of classics like "Timebomb" and "Victoria," plus a studio outtake"Singular Girl"which not only trumps the rest of the album, but any other rock song released this year.
3. THE FOG, The Fog [Dinkytown]
In the CD's booklet photo, Andrew Broder holds up a turntable with the scrawled legend: "This is not a turntable. This is a fascist-killing machine." Hopefully Woody's smiling somewhere. The idea of combining rock music and DJ stylings is still in its infancyLimp Bizkit and Beck are not the finish lineand Broder, who plays everything on the album, is undoubtedly on to something new here. Ranging from abstract, wind-machine-like collages to hip-hop beats to excellent indie-rock tunes (dig the melodic turntable solo on "Pneumonia"), this is as auspicious a debut as I've heard in years.
4. LIGHTNING BOLT, Ride The Skies [Load]
With just four bass strings and a simple drum kit, this Providence, RI duo creates a wall of sound that even Glenn Branca might shy away from. They've been steadily building a rabid fan base on account of their live shows: stunningly loud attacks (Brian Gibson's bass rig is said to be 3200 watts) that often start, guerilla-style, as soon as the previous band's set is finishing. Ride The Skies is the first Lightning Bolt record that comes close to accurately reproducing their god-bothering adrenaline roar. Mixing hardcore, metal, prog and noise, leavened with a touch of humor, they're the most viscerally thrilling band since the late Harry Pussy. Listen to the title track and just try to keep your body still.
5. THE WHITE STRIPES, White Blood Cells [Sympathy For The Record Industry]
Jack and Meg White have the right stuff for music industry hypecameras love them, and then there's the coy "siblings or ex-spouses?" publicity gamebut forget all that: this record flat-out rocks. Jack's continued to let other influences besides the blues find their way into his songs; if they remind one of, by turns, the Kinks ("Hotel Yorba"), the Buzzcocks ("Fell In Love With A Girl"), Paul McCartney ("We're Going To Be Friends"), and Frank Black ("Expecting"), they transcend the echoes through their strength and conviction. When just a guitar and drums sound this good, who needs a bass player?
6. STEVE WYNN, Here Come The Miracles [Innerstate]
If you haven't given Steve Wynn's post-Dream Syndicate career much attention, sit up: Here Come The Miracles is possibly the best thing he's done since The Days Of Wine And Roses. There's a variety of goods on this chaff-free double album: psychedelic-tinged pop (the title track), rip-snorting stompers ("Crawling Misanthropic Blues," "Smash Myself To Bits"), and dark ballads ("Good And Bad"). In a just world, the anthemic "There Will Come A Day" would be a hit single, but it probably won't happen, and a musician who uses "CultArtist" for his email handle would seem to be acknowledging the scope of his audience with bemused resignation. More's the pity. As good as the record is, it doesn't feature guitarist Jason Victor, who's the secret weapon in Wynn's touring band. The Miracle 3 play every song with the intensity that most groups reserve for their set-closing finale; they're the best live act in rock today, bar none.
7. ROBERT POLLARD AND HIS SOFT ROCK RENEGADES, Choreographed Man Of War [Fading Captain]
In the mid-1990s, when Guided By Voices first gained national attention, one could expect to see a half dozen of their releases in any given year. The official GBV output for 2001 may have been limited to the major-label Isolation Drills, but if one takes into account Robert Pollard's side projects (Circus Devils, Airport 5), pseudonymous releases (Cum Engines), and "solo" albumsand given that head man Pollard is the sole constant in GBV's continually shifting lineup, why shouldn't we?then it becomes clear that little has changed. Choreographed Man Of War is the cream of Pollard's output this year. Backed by GbV stablemen Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson, it's a good reminder of what made GbV matter in the first place: hooks a-plenty packed into compact, enthusiastically played songs, oblique yet emotionally engaging lyrics, sequenced to acheive maximum effect.
8. BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY, Ease Down The Road [Palace]
If the bleak, death-obsessed I See A Darkness offered a cathartic experience, then Ease Down The Road is the logical, sunnier follow-up. This isn't to say that the enigmatic Will Oldham has abandoned the dark side; "Just To See My Holly Home" is a disconcertingly cheerful ditty about a serial-killing family, and the title of "Grand Dark Feeling Of Emptiness"one of his richest creations eversays it all. But by and large, Oldham turns his eye to love: illicit, sinful, fulfilling, playful, earthy love. His recent extracurricular recording activities with partners like Rian Murphy and Mick Turner yielded fair-to-middling results, but Ease is reassuring proof that Oldham's still the king of the alt-country territory he staked out for himself, almost a decade ago.
9. NO-NECK BLUES BAND, Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones But Names Will Never Hurt Me [Revenant]
This is the first NNCK album which wouldn't prompt virgin ears to ask "where's the blues?" The final (untitled) track starts off like a youthful Lou Reed singing to himself while jogging to "Viola Lee Blues" off the first Grateful Dead record, before wandering into freer pathways. If Sticks And Stonesthe Harlem collective's highest-profile release to date, produced by former Lovin' Spoonful member Jerry Yester for the late John Fahey's labelis, at times, their most accessible album so far, it's still as committed to genre-less group improvisation as their earlier records. It's largely an acoustic outing, and while its clarity sheds some of the mystery that made albums like Letters From The Earth so beguiling (there's less guesswork about what instruments are being employed), it sports details of a different sort to sink one's full attention into.
10. ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO, A Man Under The Influence [Bloodshot]
Alejandro Escovedo has been musically active longer than anyone else on this list with the exception of Bob Dylanbut it's only been since the early 1990s, when his solo career began, that he truly came into his own. In Escovedo's world, the snarl of punk and the delicacy of string ballads are not mutually exclusive forms. A Man Under The Influence is one of his strongest collections yet. Songs such as "Castanets" and "Follow You Down" have been in his live repertoire for a few years, and it's good to have them on board an album at last. "Rosalie," from a play about his Mexican ancestry that Escovedo scored, is the sort of achingly beautiful love song that most writers would be unable to finesse without lapsing into sentimentality. A gem of a record.
To the above, I'd add in John Coltrane's The Olatunji Concert, previously reviewed in Gadfly. Honorable mentions: Frank Black, The Strokes, Jeff Mangum, and Jonny Polonsky.