Things Have Changed
The Year in Albums, 2001
-- Bob Dylan
Even before 9/11, 2001 was a wash musically speaking. The ever accelerating fragmentation of the mainstream music industry, brought about by its continued consolidation ironically enough (who says irony's dead?), remained camouflaged by the handful of AT&T-like major labels brainwashing helpless consumers with boy bands and newsstand bunny Britney Spears. This, of course, left the other 99.999% of music makers on the dark side of the moon.
The Internet's potential to revolutionize the music industry, meanwhile, is still some unwritten law of physics, especially to the big label conglomerates, who can't quite figure out how to charge Napster day traders for electronically transmitted tunes since they're used to getting their milk for free. Likewise, the label's enforcement agency, the CIA -- er, RIAA -- introduced their digital copyright shell game up on Capitol Hill, doing their best to make sure recording artists forfeit their tiny portion of the pie: ownership of their masters. Some things never change. And yet, everything is different.
As 1999 became 2000, a species superstitious of symbols and the interpretation thereof, waited for the other shoe to drop. End of the millennium or no, people suspected a change was a-coming -- but what? In the music business, this global version of Waiting for Godot had already been playing itself out at least a couple years. Everyone was good and ready for the next big thing. When an answer finally emerged out of Florida last January, it wasn't just liberals moaning that the party was over. Everyone's intuition, however faint, said so; Slick Willie's ecstatic rave decade, the Nineties, had come to an end, and the hangover had finally come due. Nine months later, on Sept. 11, not only had the passing of one century into the next been well and fully demarcated, pop culture itself stopped dead in its tracks.
Suddenly, things like 'N Sync and Mariah Carey seemed to be exactly what they'd been all along: frivolity. Worse, by that point in 2001, nothing revelatory had appeared. Icelandic enigma Sigur Rós' unsettling operatic hymnals (Agætis Byrjun) proved an early scare, while the Strokes' CBGB rock (Is This It) bookended the hype late in the year, but mostly it was the cockroach of all genres -- metal -- that dominated the forever-ruling testosterone demographic with groups like System of a Down, Slipknot, and Tool. Oh joy.
With MC overlords OutKast failing to deliver their promised double LP, hip-hop was mostly a no-show in 2001, though December found an onslaught of late entries from the likes of Mystikal, Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah, Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep, and Nas. The DJ set, for its part, made due with little-heard releases by down under's Avalanches (Since I Left You), David Axlerod (David Axlerod), and a reissue from merveilleux Laurent Garnier (Shot in the Dark). Jazz, besides another slew of reissues from Miles, Monk, and Trane, put up the Buena Vista Social Club's answer to Mingus in Orlando Cachaito Lopez, as well as several superlative releases from another veteran badass bassist, Dave Holland, most notably Not for Nothin'.
The biggest surprise of 2001 was the relative absence of women. Other than struttin' stuff from Lucinda Williams (Essence), Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot (Miss E... So Addictive), and dancer in the dark Björk (Vespertine), Tori Amos managed only a covers album, Joan Osborne fell flat on her face, Macy Gray's party deflated, and Lauryn Hill went unheard from. Only newcomer Alicia Keys' disarmingly soulful debut stands out as a revelation in '01. Contrast that with 2000 and career releases from Patti Smith, her heir PJ Harvey, and Erykah Badu, and '01 had a noticeable dearth of counterparts to the Men of 2001. And make no mistake, it was the year of guys with guitars.
If the fact that Bob Dylan's Love and Theft came out on 9/11 wasn't some kind of sign, then the king troubadour of the rock & roll era's jaunty, rollicking speakeasy of an LP is. A modest masterpiece that finds Bobby D seemingly making peace with his own myth and mortality, Love and Theft also owes a great debt to the supporting work of CenTexans Charlie Sexton and Augie Meyers; their rootsy fingerprints are all over it. Weigh in superior singer-songwriter releases from veterans like John Hammond, Caetano Veloso, and Spanish Parisian wunderkind Manu Chao to leading lights of the morrow, Pete Yorn, Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright, and the guys in Beachwood Sparks, and the trend is clear: The boys of summer were year-round in 2001.
Nowhere was this better reflected than here in our crumbling paradise, Austin, where wise 'n' wily songwriters such as Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Bob Schneider, Bruce Robison, Dick Price, Britt Daniel, and Davíd Garza put out some of the best work of their lengthening careers. Contrast this to two sole standout releases from local ladies, Marcia Ball's delicious bayou banquet Presumed Innocent, and Libbi Bosworth's twangy triumph Libbiville, and again 2001's trend stands out. 2002 could well swing back to the women -- locally, anyway; look for albums from Patty Griffin, Kelly Willis, and Abra Moore to name three biggies. Then again, the immediate future, local and national, is about as lucid as caves in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan.
Hip-hop will no doubt have a lot to say about the events of 2001 in 2002, as will folks like Neil Young and Jeff Tweedy (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "Ashes on the American Flag" was written well before 9/11, nevertheless ...), but overall, as any societal consensus crumbles with a disintegrating music industry, so does communal taste. Nada mirrors this better than the twentysomething lists spread across the Chronicle Music section this issue. Not only is there no consensus, no one cares. Everyone is hearing different albums delivered through different mediums, different outlets. Things have changed.