The ’00s in Music: 2001

Well, this is my first post of 2010, which means I am continuing to set a terrible example for bloggers everywhere. I have been legitimately busy — I moved to Brooklyn in February and now commute to the Ogilvy office in Manhattan — but that’s still no excuse for no posts at all. How much effort would it have taken to throw up some miniscule political update, or SEO tidbit, or talking dog video? It’s just laziness. I’ve said it before, and it’s always been a lie, but I will do my best to rectify this.

Last September I wrote a post about the year 2000 in music and what it meant for me personally. It was pretty extensive, and at this rate I’m not going to be able to cover the entire ‘00s decade (whatever we’re supposed to call it) until it’s time to start looking back on the ‘10s. But that said, 2001 was a major year for me and it’s probably worth digging into a little bit, even if I never get around to writing about the other eight years. So I’ll give it a shot and we’ll just see how it goes.

It’s difficult to know where to start with 2001. Once, that year had strictly futuristic, sci-fi connotations. Even more than “the year 2000,” a phrase which had been well overused by the time the actual (rather ho-hum) year came around, 2001 sounded like something bold and new. It was a strong and foreign looking number, no less novel than 2000 but somehow more serious, and more unknowable.

Starting the year off with George W. Bush’s inauguration brought 2001 back down to Earth, and fast. Now he is remembered mostly for the absurd amount of damage he caused to the world and to his country during his interminable reign, but prior to September 11th he was just kind of a joke. The image of awkward, bumbling incompetence is one he was never able to shake, but in early 2001 that was his only image. Remember That’s My Bush? He was a sit-com character, a charmingly inept doofus who had the presidency handed to him. John Ashcroft as Attorney General? It was laughable. Not that many didn’t recognize how dangerous the situation was, but it just didn’t seem possible that this administration would have a chance to do too much irreversible damage.

Of course, it did, and the only association with 2001 that matters now in this country could not be further from A Space Odyssey. But this post is supposed to be about the music, and about me. So where was I? Still in high school, getting my driver’s license, spending time with my girlfriend. I was on the upswing from the worst of my experiences with depression. I was engaging with people more, relaxing more, and just generally doing more. Musically, I was more confident than ever — my Bob’s Discount Furniture gig (and I’m not knocking it — that was a great high school job) allowed me to spend more on CDs than I’m sure I should have, and as a result I was starting to explore some of the depths of rock music that I’d never gotten to before. It must have been 2001 when I discovered XTC and bought their entire catalogue, a couple pieces at a time. And I must have bought music by Neil Young, and Television, and The Stone Roses, and Love, and Big Star — still all physical copies, though my pre-iPod MP3 library was beginning to get serious.

My personal memories of 2001 are really very positive. I’m sure I had meltdowns, and panic attacks about my future, and made stupid mistakes. But looking back, the pieces were coming together a little bit, and I think you can see that in the music I was listening to. It wasn’t all just broody and introspective anymore — I was opening up. If you had asked me at the time I wouldn’t have told you I felt dramatically better or different from a year prior, and I really would have meant it. But I didn’t have perspective.

So how to reconcile the 2001 I experienced personally with the 2001 we all wish we could forget ever happened? Let’s take a look at the contemporary music I was listening to at the time, and see if it helps to make any sense of it.

The Shins

This band would very quietly do more than any other to break indie pop into the mainstream (with the aid of Zach Braff, for some bizarre reason). But in 2001 we weren’t there yet, and The Shins’ debut album was just the kind of exciting, under-the-rader release that would have infatuated me: catchy and melodic, lo-fi and obscure. It was like being able to pretend The Beatles had only influenced this small cult of music lovers, and I was in the club. I was still probably really insufferable with this shit. But I wanted sounds that felt personal and were just for me, without necessarily being mopey or cerebral. As I’ve said, as a little kid in the ‘80s I grew up on Squeeze, not on Joy Division. So if 2001 was the year I transitioned into wanting both worlds — the depth and the superficiality, the introspection and the sense of fun — then it makes sense it would also be the year I started obsessing over XTC, and considered The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World to be a standout release. Fortunately, there was a whole lot more of this kind of thing to come out over the course of the decade, so I really couldn’t have timed it better.

And yes, well before Garden State, “New Slang” felt like a classic.

Radiohead Again

But let’s not get carried away with the indie pop stuff. Radiohead was still the center of my universe, I probably listened to Kid A more than any other album in 2001, and there were no signs that this would be changing at any time. I obsessively counted the days leading to the release of Amnesiac in the summer of 2001, especially since it was to feature some live standouts that had been excluded from Kid A’s tracklist a year prior (”Pyramid Song,” “Knives Out”).

And it was a disappointment. Maybe it was the relatively quick release after putting out a classic record, or maybe I had just ruined the listening experience by downloading one badly-encrypted mp3 after another as they leaked over the spring. Certainly this was a brand new way to experience a record for the first time, and the negatives probably outweighed the positives.

Amnesiac wasn’t all that well-received in general, either. It sounds all over the place, as you might expect from a record assembled from the same sessions that had already produced one immaculately sculpted CD (some referred to it as Kid B-side). Interestingly though, its reputation has increased a lot in the years since. It’s gained a lot of respect as Radiohead’s most fragmented, schizophrenic, and experimental album. Many critics took the opportunity to up their initial scores of Amnesiac when EMI rereleased the Radiohead catalogue at the end of the decade. History has given the record less a sense of “these guys have lost it” and more of a “that’s that cool weird one from ’01.”

I love many of the songs on Amnesiac individually. That year I participated in an afterschool music criticism class, led by The Hartford Courant’s classical critic Steve Metcalf. For one assignment I played “Pyramid Song” for my peers (one of the leaked, pre-release mp3s) and extolled the band’s genius for a good ten minutes. I still think Amnesiac is their least successful album as a single listening experience. I just have no emotional attachment to it. But it did nothing to hinder my adoration for the band, and when I saw them at Suffolk Downs that August it was absolutely thrilling.

Another thought — maybe Amnesiac is more respected now because its insanity seems well suited to how we collectively remember the year 2001. Things hadn’t totally gone to hell yet, but maybe it took a pessimist like Thom Yorke to show us where we were headed.

Sparklehorse

I didn’t know much about Sparklehorse when I bought It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d heard about the band mainly through connected artists like PJ Harvey and Tom Waits, both of whom appeared on this album. It was also produced in part by Dave Fridmann, the master of bombast who defined the sound of The Flaming Lips’ classic The Soft Bulletin. These would have been more than enough reasons for me to buy the CD blind.

Mark Linkous was the mastermind behind Sparklehorse. He reminded me a bit of E from the Eels — his music was almost painfully private, his voice always sounding like it was coming from inside your own head. There was somehow more pain in Linkous’s music, though — where E embraced soul-baring honesty, Linkous found ways to obscure himself, and it could be scary.

Linkous committed suicide this past March. I loved this album as soon as I heard it, but it was a hard one to listen to very often. It’s certainly no easier now.

The Strokes and The White Stripes

I should talk about the big players in 2001, and that would be these guys. The Strokes, you may recall, were going to “save rock and roll!” Or something. I think The Hives were supposed to do that too, and The Vines. But those bands weren’t very good, and The Strokes, it turned out, were.

Did rock really need saving in 2001? I don’t know. I guess few were making high quality, straight up guitar rock at the turn of the millennium. But take the whole idea of saving rock out of the equation and you’re left with a really great album in The Strokes’ debut, Is This It. I liked it a lot at the time, but I am kind of amazed how good it still sounds. There’s nothing original about it, but there is something in that straightforward post-punk sound that makes it ageless.

The album didn’t come out in the US until October, and it became one of the more infamous post-September 11th releases — one of its best songs, “New York City Cops,” was replaced with a weaker song at the last minute to avoid controversy.

And then we have The White Stripes, who became instant icons in 2001 with their third album, White Blood Cells. Jack White probably did more to save guitar rock than The Strokes did, frankly. You just could not get away from this album after it hit, and for good reason. You aren’t going to see many best-of-the-decade lists exclude this one. Does it hold the same position for me personally? I guess not — I don’t listen to it with any kind of regularity anymore.

But I can’t argue that White Blood Cells and Is This It both rock, and rock convincingly, which we maybe had forgotten how to do for a few years.

Gorillaz

Damon Albarn is a musical hero of mine — an incredible douchebag, but a true genius, nonetheless. By 2001 I’d been well into Blur for at least a good four or five years. But the idea that Damon was going to do a hip hop album fronted by cartoon characters did not hold a ton of appeal for me. First of all, I really was not open to appreciating hip hop yet. Secondly, I took my love of Blur very seriously, and instead of working on another album Damon was going to take some time off to focus on a cartoon band? What the fuck?

So I avoided buying this for a while, but after I finally caved, I felt like an idiot. It’s a really good record. Forget about the cartoon bit — what you have here is Albarn just being himself and messing with different genres outside of the Blur mold, throwing things together to see what happens. Not all of it works, but an impressive amount of it does, mainly just due to the guy’s raw talent. Even when he’s just screwing around with a half-assed melody and a drum machine (and there is more than a little bit of that kind of thing here), it’s pretty great.

Blur, it turned out, was nearly over by this time anyway. Gorillaz wasn’t some trivial side project, but a new way for Albarn to explore legitimate musical ideas. It would in fact be his primary outlet for the rest of the decade.

Low

Low had already been around for some time, but I didn’t discover them until 2001’s standout Things We Lost in the Fire. It is one of the most beautiful albums of the decade. I’m finding it’s a tough one to write about, but it needs to be singled out. Listen to it yourself.

Additional Notes

I bought Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around the World while vacationing in Ireland with my family in August 2001. “Juxtaposed With U” was actually getting a ton of airplay there, which I loved. It’s not SFA’s best album, but it is very good, and it contains the wonderful “Run! Christian, Run!”

I spent a lot of time listening to Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down in 2001. It’s one of those records I found myself in love with at that point in my life, which doesn’t do much for me anymore.

R.E.M., which I still considered to be my favorite band of all time in ’01, released their first terrible record that year. Reveal was very, very hard to come to terms with, and I spent many weeks trying to convince myself it wasn’t so bad. Three years later, they would come back with Around the Sun, which was even worse. The inevitable decline can be a hard thing to watch.

Björk’s Vespertine was another 2001 standout, and the first CD of hers I bought new after becoming a fan. I’m not always in the mood for it, but it is one of her better efforts.

Elbow’s Asleep in the Back is one I’m not ashamed to love. I played this many, many times, and though they were thought to be a kind of Coldplay whose songs weren’t catchy enough to make it, I think they need to be considered on their own merits. You listen to “Powder Blue” and tell me you don’t feel something.

Destroyer and Spoon both put out excellent CDs in 2001 that I wouldn’t catch until a few years later. Destroyer’s Streethawk: A Seduction in particular I think is one of the decade’s best, and represents Dan Bejar at his most compellingly weird.

Best song of the year: Super Furry Animals — “Run! Christian, Run!”

Best album of the year: Low — Things We Lost in the Fire

Best concert of the year: Has to be Radiohead. It was my first chance to see them as a fanatic (I had seen them open for R.E.M. when I was 11, but that barely counts). Finally being old enough to start driving to shows with friends was a huge deal. Also, I got to see the band play “Pearly*,” and that’s just awesome.

Most overrated album of the year: Daft Punk — Discovery. Look, I know, “Digital Love” is great and everything. You are never going to convince me that “One More Time” is not annoying as fuck.

Worst song of the year: “It’s Been Awhile” came in 2001. “How You Remind Me” as well. Crazy Town, enough said there. There’s no lack of choice here. But I am going to go with the song that drove me craziest that year — the horrible, horrible Moulin Rouge version of “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, Pink, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Satan. You could not escape it, and I wished every day that I could.

Actually, I will say more about Crazy Town. According to Wikipedia, “‘Butterfly’ is one of only two No. 1 songs in the Hot 100 era naming an insect in its title (the other being ‘Fireflies’ by Owl City).” So now you know.

Next: College! War! And Yankee Hotel Fuckin’ Foxtrot! It’s everyone’s favorite palindrome, 2002!

The Shins – “New Slang”

Radiohead – “Pyramid Song” live in Paris, 2001

Sparklehorse – “It’s a Wonderful Life”

The Strokes – “New York City Cops” live

The White Stripes – “Fell in Love with a Girl” (obviously)

Low – “Sunflower”

Super Furry Animals – “Run! Christian, Run!”

Elbow – “Powder Blue”

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