The Best Rock Albums of 2001


December 30, 2001



It’s telling of the state of the music industry circa 2001 that the most extraordinary album out of the hundreds that I heard this year was rejected by the artists’ label and available only as a free download via the Internet.

I’ve been having an ongoing debate with a colleague who agrees that Wilco’s "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was by any measure of artistry or timeliness the album of the year. But mindful of the fact that it was never available for sale in record stores, he ruled it out of contention for his year-end best-of list.

As critics, we like to pretend we aren’t part of the industry whose product we critique, though of course, our reviews play some role (however negligible) in the chain of commerce. What should matter in the end, however, is whether an album stands as great art--regardless of whether it sells a hundred copies, a million, or none at all.

Weeks before Chicago’s alternative-country heroes were due to release their fourth album this fall, Wilco split from Reprise, which failed to recognize that they’d made the strongest disc of their career. Here was a label that was founded by a musician (Frank Sinatra) and famous as a nurturing home for idiosyncratic "career artists" (among them Neil Young, Lou Reed, and Joni Mitchell). But it is now a part of the Time-Warner-AOL entertainment mega-corporation, and the bottom line is valued over art.

While Wilco searched for a new label (Nonesuch will distribute the disc starting in April), the band made the music available without charge on its web site, encouraging fans to spread the word electronically. True, only a fraction of the potential rock audience (and we can debate the exact number) has access to the Internet. But the point is that the artists said, "Here is a finished work that we would like you to listen to."

That’s good enough for me--especially when it’s a work as innovative and resonant as "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Musically, the band explored an amazing new universe by transporting its familiar jangle and twang into strange and alien soundscapes. Lyrically, Jeff Tweedy grew into one of the most poignant wordsmiths of his generation, with songs such as "War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags" taking on even more meaning after Sept. 11. For all of these reason, there is simply no denying that this was the album of 2001.

The rest of my Top Ten follows in order below. As in the past, I have extended my list beyond this arbitrary number to include all of the albums that warranted three-and-a-half stars or more on the Sun-Times’ four-star scale. For the complete roster of 101 albums (it was a slow year--that’s down from 141 in 2000), visit my own web site at And happy listening in 2002!

2. The Strokes, "Is This It?" (RCA)

Hipsters debated whether these young New Yorkers were punk enough, while critics questioned whether they were being unduly hyped. But everyone else who loved driving, relentlessly melodic rock in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and the Feelies simply jumped onboard for one of the year’s wildest rides.

3. Macy Gray, "The Id" (Epic)

On her sophomore outing, the ever-freaky, squeaky-voiced heroine of the natural R&B movement showed the depths of her talent, shaking her groove thing mightily, and pausing to laugh at herself and the whole sticky business of sex, race, and popular culture circa the new millennium.

4. Monster Magnet, "God Says No" (A&M)

New Jersey’s stoner-rockers dove deep into the murky bong waters of their early days while retaining the focused crunch of their last two bids for mainstream acceptance, resulting in their finest disc--a full-blown psychedelic freak-out that was nevertheless eminently hummable.

5. Iggy Pop, "Beat ’Em Up" (Virgin)

The godfather of punk’s 13th solo album was his best since 1982’s "Zombie Birdhouse," and it worked for the same reason that his best music has always worked: He was mad as hell and compelled to tell us about it in nearly deranged detail.

6. Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft" (Columbia)

Producing himself and recording with one of the best bands of his long and storied career, Dylan at age 60 mixed the profound and the inane in equal measure (just like life itself) while paying homage to the pre-rock blues and country that first inspired him to pick up a guitar.

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "No More Shall We Part" (Reprise)

With the Bad Seeds standing as one of the most subtle and diverse backing bands in rock history, Cave avoided dramatic departures, continuing to explore his familiar melodramatic turf while adding another handful of classics ("Hallelujah," "God Is in the House," "Oh My Lord") to his deliciously dark oeuvre.

8. Mellow, "Another Mellow Spring" (CyberOctave)

Combining instruments both expected (guitar and drums) and unusual (analog synthesizers and French horn) with wonderful harmony vocals, this French sextet made a startling American debut that was equal parts Beach Boys pop and ’70s space-rock a la Pink Floyd or Can.

9. Kelly Hogan, "Because It Feel Good" (Blood Shot)

With a mix of laidback grit and casual earthiness, the Chicago singer cemented her position as a Dusty Springfield for the new century, claiming songs by everyone from Smog to Randy Newman, and bettering them all with a pair of killer originals.

10. Prince, "The Rainbow Children" (Redline Entertainment)

At long last, His Purple Majesty’s return to form--an absurdly ambitious "Sgt. Pepper’s" pastiche powered by that ever-present groove and bearing a most timely and funky message of peace and brotherhood. Which reminds me…

At times during the past year, music could seem like a superfluous thing to focus on. But in those moments, I thought of a quote by Bertolt Brecht: "In the dark times, will there still be singing? Yes, there will be singing. There will be singing about the dark times." And then I pumped up the volume.



Aaliyah, Aaliyah (Virgin)

Acid King, The Mystick Krewe of Clearlight (Man’s Ruin)

Air, 10,000Hz Legend (Astralwerks)

All Natural, Second Nature (Thrill Jockey)

Tori Amos, Strange Little Girls (Atlantic)

Laurie Anderson, Life On A String (Nonesuch)

Aphex Twin, drukqs (Warp/Sire)

Ass Ponys, Lohio (Checkered Past)

Bardo Pond, Dilate (Matador)

The BellRays, Grand Fury (Upper Cut)

The Beta Band, Hot Shots II (Astralwerks)

Better Than Ezra, Closer (Beyond)

The Bottle Rockets, Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot)

Bjork, Vespertine (Elektra)

The Black Crowes, Lions (V2)

Blackmore’s Night, Fires At Midnight (SPV)

Blink-182, Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (MCA)

Brain Donor, Love Peace & F--- (Phantom)

Built to Spill, Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.)

Burning Airlines, Identikit (DeSoto)

The Butthole Surfers, Weird Revolution (Hollywood)

Califone, Roomsound (Perishable)

Neko Case, Canadian Amp (Lady Pilot)

The Chamber Strings, Month of Sundays (Bobsled)

Champale, Simple Days (Pitch-A-Tent)

Alana Davis, Fortune Cookies (Elektra)

Demolition String Band, Pulling Up Atlantis (Okra-Tone)

The Donnas, Turn 21 (Lookout!)

Gordon Downie, Coke Machine Glow (Wiener Art)

Dumptruck, Lemmings Travel to the Sea (Devil In the Woods)

Electric Frankenstein, Annie’s Grave (Victory)

Electric Wizard, Dopethrone (The Music Cartel)

Emperor Penguin, Damn (My Pal God)

Missy Elliott, Miss E… So Addictive (Elektra)

Evil Beaver, Lick It! (Four Alarm)

Jason Falkner, Necessity: The 4-Track Years (SpinArt)

Jay Farrar, Sebastopol (Artemis)

Perry Farrell, Songs Yet to Be Sung (Virgin)

The Fireshow, Above the Volcano of Flowers (Perishable)

Michael Franti & Spearhead, Stay Human (Six Degrees)

Garbage, Beautifulgarbage (Interscope)

The Get Up Kids, Eudora (Vagrant)

The Goblins, Missing Fits (My Pal God)

The Go-Go’s, God Bless the Go-Go’s (Beyond)

The Grip Weeds, Summer of a Thousand Years (Rainbow Quartz)

The Handsome Family, Twilight (Carrot Top)

Sophie B. Hawkins, Timbre (Rykodisc)

Ian Hunter, Rant (Fuel 2000)

Idlewild, 100 Broken Windows (Capitol)

Incubus, Morning View (Epic)

Jamiroquai, A Funk Odyssey (Epic)

Janet Jackson, All for You (Virgin)

Kid Rock, Cocky (Lava/Atlantic)

Ladytron, 604 (Emperor Norton)

Less Than Jake, Greased (No Idea)

The Lillingtons, The Backchannel Broadcast (Panic Button)

Loraxx, Yellville (Automatic Combustioneer)

Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky)

Luna, Live! (Arena Rock)

Mercury Rev, All Is Dream (V2)

Mest, Destination Unknown (Maverick)

Paul McCartney, Driving Rain (Capitol)

The Minders, Golden Street (spinART)

Mogwai, Rock Action (Matador)

North Mississippi Allstars, 51 Phantom (Tone-Cool)

Novasonic Down Hyperspace, Mathing Moonlight (Spectra Mobile)

The Orb, Cydonia (MCA)

Peaches, The Teaches of Peaches (Kitty-Yo)

Pink, M!ssundaztood (Arista)

Powderfinger, Odyssey Number Five (Republic/Universal)

Pulp, We Love Life (Phantom)

Amy Ray, Stag (Daemon)

R.E.M., Reveal (Warner Bros.)

Jill Scott, Experience: Jill Scott 826 + (Hidden Beach)

Sloan, Pretty Together (Murder Records)

Smash Mouth, Pacific Coast Party (Interscope)

Spirit Caravan, Elusive Truth (Tolotta)

Spiritualized, Let It Come Down (Arista)

Stereolab, Sound-Dust (Elektra)

Miss Tammy Faye Starlite, On My Knees (BugMusic)

Angie Stone, Mahogany Soul ( J Records)

Stone Temple Pilots, Shangri-La Dee Da (Atlantic)

The Strawberry Smell, Odorama (Parasol)

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go (Hellcat)

Sum 41, All Killer No Filler (Island)

Tortoise, Standards (Thrill Jockey)

Various artists, Shoe Fetish: A Tribute to Shoes (Parasol)

Various artists, Wayne Kramer Presents Beyond Cyberpunk (Music Blitz)

Lorette Velvette, Rude Angel (Okra-Tone)

Weezer, Weezer (Geffen)

Steve Wynn, Here Come the Miracles (Blue Rose)