In a year of overripe, overzealous pop, lackluster superstar comebacks, and bottom-of-the-barrel nü-metal, it was the quieter, less obtrusive titles that not-quite-silently etched their way into our psyches. Wannabe hit singles eclipsed the popular and the most enterprising videos rarely induced a yelp on MTV's Total Request Live. Here are Slant Magazine's picks for 2001:
1. Aaliyah, Aaliyah. I was never a fan of Aaliyah's music; in fact, it wasn't until just prior to the release of her third album, Aaliyah that I really took notice. Sure, "Back and Forth" and "One in a Million" were stamped and filed somewhere in my mental musical index (right next to an image of the slowly maturing performer stomping seductively in a black gown and heels in the final images of the "Are You That Somebody" video clip), but it wasn't until 2000's Romeo Must Die soundtrack that the singer fully seized my attention. I was given a quick history lesson via Napster ("Four Page Letter," "At Your Best," "If Your Girl Only Knew") and determined that Aaliyah's forthcoming self-titled release could potentially be one of the hottest albums of 2001. Sure enough, July 17th arrived and for over a month, Aaliyah rarely left my CD changer.
The album is quintessential rhythm and blues, encompassing the boundless energy of Prince and the sexual revelation of a disco-era Diana Ross. Aaliyah's velveteen voice is richly embedded somewhere between Minnie Riperton and Janet Jackson but, remarkably, the singer never loses her self. Aaliyah, after all, doesn't outwardly mimic; her influences are engrained in every note, every smiling glance, and every beat. (Those beats, incidentally, are courtesy of Timbaland associates Rapture and E. Seats, responsible for creating a varied yet seamless R&B masterpiece.) "I Care 4 U" is the disc's stunning centerpiece; ominous keyboards, reverberating synth chords, and an expressive vocal make for a timeless ballad (the Missy Elliott-penned track was, in fact, recorded five years ago). Aaliyah confronts issues like abuse ("Never No More") and infidelity ("I Can Be"), but the darkness of her delivery coupled with equally dark beats never fades to black; her tone reveals a woman beyond her years, a soul rich with experience.
The night Aaliyah was killed was a surreal one; it was two in the morning when I heard the news. In the days that followed, I couldn't shake images of the young star (just two months older than me), and I began thinking about her career, one that was just on the verge of exploding. As for her album, listening became uncomfortable if not wholly unbearable. In the days following September 11th, however, I found myself gravitating back toward Aaliyah. Music, always a healing tool, seemed to be comforting Americans across the country and I found my own personal relief in the sounds of an angel. Tragedy may have given Aaliyah (and Aaliyah) beautiful new purpose.
2. Björk, Vespertine. Elektra Records should have packaged Björk's Vespertine with a pair of headphones. Like the song "Headphones," from 1995's Post, Vespertine's dozen sonic landscapes are peppered with sounds layered within layers of minimalist strata. But unlike Post and its follow-up, Homogenic, Vespertine is less dynamic than it is quietly introspective. Where "Enjoy" and "Pluto" pounded listeners into submission, Björk's newest creation bids one into domestic reverie. Fans may have anticipated something more aggressive after a four-year recording hiatus that included Dancer in the Dark and Selmasongs, but leave your expectations (and your shoes) at the door.
3. Herbert, Bodily Functions. Matthew Herbert is the Lars Von Trier of the music world. The equivalent of the director's loose extrapolation of the Dogma film theory, Herbert's Manifesto of Mistakes recording process is injected with elements of musique concrète at its most liberal (and gorgeous). Hot off the heels of his work with Björk, Herbert unleashed his own revolution on the electronic music scene with Bodily Functions. A broad mix of the organic (warm, jazzy vocals, fugel horn, and piano), the manufactured (synthesizers and sampled percussion), and the unplanned (in-studio voices and door slams), the album breathes even more life into one of the most multipotent, ever-evolving genres.
4. Mandalay, Solace. The year's best pop album didn't come from Britney, 'NSync, or even Michael or Janet for that matter. A compilation of their two U.K. releases, Solace is Mandalay's first stateside release, beautifully illustrating what has made the band such a success overseas. Of course, trip-pop has always been a harder sell in the U.S., but with the endorsement of Euro-pop scavenger Madonna and a slew of moderate club hits, can radio be far behind? Bewitching, complex, and, most importantly, downright infectious, Solace is electronic-pop at its most captivating.
5. Travis, The Invisible Band. While America proudly recycles heavy metal with rap, Britain has been shamelessly calling upon its own history. Mix one part Thom Yorkian verbage ("Time exists but only on your wrist, so don't panic"), one part Beatles pop sensibility, and you've got Travis; shake, spread evenly across 60 minutes and you've got The Invisible Band. The band's banjos, sugary melodies, and graceful string arrangements are a refreshing contrast to the overbloated hard rock of Creed and Fuel. Can't wait to see what happens when these guys plug in.
6. Jill Scott, Experience: Jill Scott 826+. Just when we thought we knew who Jill Scott was, she deepens her definition: poet, singer, songwriter, sex symbol, queen of neo-soul. Experience: Jill Scott 826+ should have simply provided a stepping stone to Scott's official sophomore effort, promising even greater things to come; instead, the album itself is one of the year's most accomplished, virtually guaranteeing that promise. Be ready.
7. Depeche Mode, Exciter. Producer Mark Bell successfully recaptures the sonic heights of his work with Björk while effectively preserving Martin Gore's guitar rock sensibility and Dave Gahan's distinct vocal on Exciter, never once permeating the band's signature sound. Depeche Mode doesn't fully abandon organic instrumentation but, rather, weaves it throughout Bell's bristling drum programming and pitched-up basslines, creating a startlingly minimalist backdrop for obsessive love.
8. Mary J. Blige, No More Drama. After a detour into more adult-oriented soul, Mary J. Blige returned to true hip-hop form with No More Drama, an album that recalls the former glories of 1994's My Life and 1997's Share My World. The album, Blige's most consistent and personal effort to date, echoes the spiritually empowered heights of "Be Happy" and "Everything." She doesn't pretend to love herself but, rather, revels in her flaws and vows to be the only thing she can be: better. The album is just that.
9. Missy Elliott, Miss E...So Addictive. Miss E...So Addictive, Missy Elliott's mindfully club-ready third album, perfectly accompanies a make-out session as much as it does a party, and what better way to marry the two pastimes than with, say, ecstasy? If the album's title hasn't already tipped you off (and yes, it works on many levels), the concept is simple: go to a club, buy some drinks, and wait for the E to kick in. Sex. Drugs. The hottest club beats in the land. In short, the best party album of the year.
Tori Amos, Strange Little Girls. With a career that's been largely hit or miss, Tori Amos is right on target with Strange Little Girls, a cover album that spans over three decades and takes on the historically male-dominated rock world. Songs like the title track and "Real Men" provide the perfect antidote to the usually abstruse arrangements of Amos's own work. Her progression as an artist has been so disparate (from pop to classical to electronica and industrial rock) that Strange Little Girls becomes a refreshingly loftier platform from which Amos can jump into the next phase of her career.
Honorable Mention: Nikka Costa Everybody Got Their Something, Perry Farrell Song Yet to Be Sung, Garbage beautifulgarbage, David Garza Overdub, Gorillaz Gorillaz, Sophie B. Hawkins Timbre, Alicia Keys Songs in A Minor, Mandy Moore Mandy Moore, No Doubt Rock Steady, Pink Missundaztood, Sigur Rós Ágætis Byrjun, Various Artists Tribal Futures: The Way Ahead.
1. Alicia Keys, "Fallin'." The undisputed singles champion of the year; Clive's new darling performed the ubiquitous "Fallin'" on nearly every awards ceremony save the Country Music Awards while it saturated airwaves from coast to coast.
2. Blu Cantrell, "Hit Em Up Style (Oops!)." Mix up some tight hip-hop beats, irony-packed attitude, and Milford Plaza high-drama theatrics and you've got Blu Cantrell's debut hit. The question remains: Will it be her last?
3. Depeche Mode, "Dream On." Structured around acoustic guitar loops and spliced-up drum programming, the single's catchy melodies are reminiscent of the band's older hits. But singer Dave Gahan never sounded so confident and songwriter-guitarist Martin Gore never so love-struck.
4. Mandy Moore, "In My Pocket." Sony was so sure of its starlet's single that a loop of the track was pumped onto Madison Ave. for nearly six months. So she's not singing "Nothing but panties in my pocket," but pennies are just as good, right?
5. Sophie B. Hawkins, "Walking in My Blue Jeans." Formerly entitled "Strange Thing," it's indeed strange that Ms. Hawkins couldn't find a hit in the wispy, feel-good folds of "Blue Jeans." Culled from her re-released album, Timbre, the single was a moderate adult contemporary success but failed to cross over into the teen-dominated pop world.
6. Stevie Nicks, "Planets of the Universe." The first single from Nicks's latest album is, perhaps, a comment on the Welsh Witch's dedication to the art of music and sacrifice of family life. Written more than two decades ago, the track evokes images of Nicks growling her way through the now-classic "Edge of Seventeen."
7. R.E.M., "Imitation of Life." With a sing-along chorus, neon keyboards, and euphonious melodic structure, "Imitation" is reminiscent of R.E.M.'s commercial peak. Unfortunately, the track wasn't enough to revive a band that has managed to sink itself back into relative obscurity.
8. Aaliyah, "We Need a Resolution." Middle Eastern vibes, beckoning backward loops, and a performance more nuanced than "Try Again" and "Are You That Somebody" combined couldn't help break the late singer's moody track into the Top 40, but it's certainly one of the year's best.
9. Britney Spears, "I'm a Slave 4 U." Hip-hop production team the Neptunes have the distinction of being the catalysts for Miss Britney's impending musical voyage beyond teen-pop borders. Despite a barely-there hook, the drippy single is Britney's best to date.
10. Alien Ant Farm, "Smooth Criminal." Alien Antfarm fully realize Jacko's unfulfilled prophecy with a rocked-out version of one of the self-anointed King of Pop's greatest hits. Never has a cover been so equally by-the-numbers and off-the-wall.
1. Kenna, "Hell Bent" (Director: Mark Osborne). Kenna tells his poignant saga of innocence lost via claymation in what is the most compelling clip of the year. Look for Kenna's dynamic full-length album early next year.
2. R.E.M., "Imitation of Life" (Garth Jennings). Inspired by Zbigniew Rybczynski's short film Tango, director Garth Jennings creates a faux lifescape with R.E.M.'s "Imitation," a kaleidoscopic mural that dares to challenge the stagnant music video medium.
3. Weezer, "Island in the Sun" (Spike Jonze). Two words: flying monkey.
4. Travis, "Sing" (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris). Thanks to the crafty camerawork of award-winning directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, food fights never looked so beautiful.
5. Britney Spears, "I'm a Slave 4 U" (Francis Lawrence). Britney Spears greased up and panting, exactly the way she should be.
6. Aaliyah, "We Need a Resolution" (Paul Hunter). Ripe with sultry images (a stiletto pump tilting a mini-television set, a gowned Aaliyah hovering with headphones over an examination table), the clip for "Resolution" marked the singer's transition from semi-awkward adolescence to full-fledged, unapologetic womanhood.
7. Janet Jackson, "Son of a Gun" (Francis Lawrence). Yes, we love that multi-million dollar smile, but it's been a while since we've seen the reigning Jackson crank up a little attitude. It's her own mini-"Thriller," if you will.
8. Sigur Rós, "Vidrar Vel Til Loftárasa" (Celebrator). I have a habit of leaving my television on in the background, muted. Late one night, a series of gorgeous images caught my eye on MTV2. Nothing like a little slow-mo homoerotic soccer to push the envelope clear off the table.
9. Dido, "Hunter" (Matthew Rolston). In typical Rolston fashion, "Hunter" is flush with super-saturated colors and a charmingly simple treatment (a crown shape hangs on a far wall, positioned just above Dido's head as she asks, "If you were a king up there on your throne, would you be wise enough to let me go?").
10. Ryan Adams, "New York New York" (James Minchin III). Filmed just days before September 11th, alt-country's It Boy serves up a timeless celebration of the greatest city in the world.