Bobby Previte - The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró
(jazz, minimalist composition)
The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró is a collection of gorgeous and creative jazz snippets by New York musician Bobby Previte, utilising a variety of instruments (both traditional and somewhat unconventional) and some extremely subtle electronic touches to achieve a lush, theatrical aesthetic that strikes a range of emotional chords. Keeping things uniformly short and sweet, each one of his sonic concepts is given just enough time to establish itself and whirl around the listener's mind for a quick spell, and is then elegantly concluded to make way for the next one. Previte deserves some major kudos for knowing exactly how much space any given concept deserves when he commits it to record - when you're trying to cram 23 individual pieces into a single recording, each of which with their own distinct style and personality, it's inevitably going to be difficult to avoid sounding cramped and chaotic. Nothing on The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró ever wears out its welcome, though, nor does anything ever feel underdeveloped or clash with a neighbouring piece, which is really quite remarkable when all of your songs fall in the 90-180 second range. Instead, the songs fit together quite beautifully, fulfilling their purposes flawlessly, both as distinct jazz concepts and as the combined elements of a colourful and utterly original tapestry.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP
Nothing else I heard from 2001 blew me away quite like the opening moments of "Bang", the first track on The Yeah Yeah Yeah's self-titled debut EP. An amazingly memorable rubberband-riff of punchy electric guitar that's been compressed to the width of a razor, it just about sawed me in half when it first burst out of my headphones, and when Karen O's dynamic vocals roll in the whole song elevates to a higher level that's just impossibly kick-ass. It's clearly the highlight track here - and probably the one I'd pick for song of the year if you forced me to choose - but the rest of the EP very nearly matches it, be it via the melodic punk-rock of "Mystery Girl" and "Our Time", the rumbling, gravel-roar chorus and wicked humour of "Art Star" or the gritty propulsion of "Miles Away". A lightning-quick flash of pure, straight-from-the-garage attitude, it's so deserving of the spotlight that I'm putting it towards the top of a list of albums even though it isn't one. With all that jagged guitar and Karen O's usual exceptional vocal work and charisma being in full force, Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a rough, sexy, dirty, rock-the-hell-out piece of work. In less than fifteen minutes it manages to eclipse everything the group have recorded since.
Sunburned Hand of the Man - Jaybird
(free-folk, psychedelic-rock, drone)
Sunburned Hand of the Man are a psychedelic free-folk group who've boasted an almost unfathomably prolific release schedule - they've recorded something like twenty albums this decade, although with so many concert-only and bootleg releases, it's hard to keep track. With such an intimidatingly large catalogue, it's nice to know that the beginning is indeed a very good place to start, as their debut Jaybird is an utterly exceptional work. The group have found some very rich middle-ground between psychedelic-rock, folk, improv, drone and funk, which sees them float their way through half a dozen lengthy tracks of drowsy astro-folk. Each of the album's pieces sounds fundamentally similar, yet they all establish their own distinct balance between the building blocks of ethereal vocal hollers, jangling tambourines, multi-layered guitar (acoustic and electric, including some lovely touches of slide), flanged sound effects, whistling pipes, "faux-loose" percussion and solid basslines, with tiny, subtle differences from track to track (or sometimes within sections of a single track). While the druggy opener "Featherweight" is one of the album's slower, sleepier affairs, followup "The Jaybird" tightens the basslines way up and adds a very slight funky edge to push the song into groovier territory, and so it continues throughout the album, alternating between consistently shallow peaks and troughs. With stellar releases by Jackie-O Motherfucker and No Neck Blues Band, 2001 has been a great year for the free-folk crowd, and Jaybird is the best of the lot.
Fugazi - The Argument
You'd be hard pressed to think of many instances where a long-running group's last album was regarded by many as their best, but that's the case with The Argument, the seventh and final post-hardcore statement in an eleven year career for Ian MacKaye and Co before their indefinite hiatus. While I've never been much of a post-hardcore guru, I can't imagine the genre getting much more polished, nuanced and sophisticated than this, to the point that, in this case, the label may be on the verge of being a misnomer. The album's more "rough-and-ready" tracks like "Cashout" and "Full Disclosure" serve their purposes as throwbacks to the genre's blueprint, but if anything sound more like new-millennium updates, while the more experimental works like "The Kill" and "Nightshop" defy easy categorisation. There's string sections on many of the tracks, a range of multi-part song-structures and even occasional appearances by a second drummer, all of which, when combined with the powerful vocals, adrenaline-pumping playstyle and ever-sharp songwriting and lyricism, make for a truly thrilling album that's also rich with fine detail. The other thing about The Argument is it's subtlety - it's a slow grower that reveals new gems with every listen, and it's those subsequent listens that've lifted it up from somewhere around the middle of this list all the way up to it's current, lofty position. In terms of highlight tracks, the album's second half is a uniformly sensational revelation, beginning with the back-to-back excellence of "Strangelight" and "Oh."
Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein
When I started putting this countdown together I'd only heard The Cold Vein one or two times, figured it was a "decent, seven out of ten" kind of record and let it slide off the bottom of the list. So believe me when I say, this is an album you need to hear multiple times, as what initially struck me as somewhat arduous and uninviting soon revealed itself to be anything but. The lyrical prowess displayed by Can Ox's two emcees Vast Aire and Vordul Mega is outstanding, painting a dark picture of modern NYC life with imagery that's highly creative and very confrontational. Their flow is equally incredible, a spoken-word style that borders on beat-poetry and plays out like a slow-down of Ghostface Killah's confident vocal blasts, with Vast's uniquely "wobbly" delivery being particularly compelling. Even when they detour into your more obvious, "deride other emcees" territory as they do on "Raspberry Fields", it's never less than great, and hearing Vast spit lines like "You got beef but there's worms in your Wellington / I'll put a hole in your skull and extract your gelatin" is something of which I just never tire. El-P's production presents yet another revelation, with his slow, staggered beats and futuristic sampling very nearly stealing the show. Mirroring the album's subject matter, his contributions mostly have a dark and grimy mood to them, but there's brilliant surprises at every turn, be it the blazing electric guitar overlay of "Ox Out the Cage", the synth-orchestra-in-outer-space of "Real Earth" or the loungey, Amon Tobin-esque vibes of "Painkillers". It's a seventy-five minute album that never drags, and to top it all off, opening track "Iron Galaxy" ranks easily amongst the best hip-hop songs of the decade.
...and that brings 2001 to a close. Thanks for reading. Comments are welcome, as always :)