Previous picks for My Favorite Music Year have generally fallen into two categories: years that were a watershed for a particular genre for which that writer has an affinity, and years that were a watershed for that particular writer. 2001 falls squarely into the latter category for me: It’s not a banner year in music history like 1966, 1977, or 1997—a year that saw Linkin Park, Creed, Shaggy, J. Lo, Staind, and Enya among the top 10 bestselling albums certainly does not scream “great year for music”—but it’s a banner year in my history (and many others’ I’m sure). It was the year that, in the span of two weeks, I left home for college, became a legal adult, and witnessed what’s likely to be the greatest national tragedy of my and most people’s lifetimes.
It’s tempting to place the music of 2001 in the context of 9/11, the same way it’s tempting to place everything about that time in the context of 9/11. When a year is defined by such a massive, universal event, it’s almost impossible not to remember everything about that year through the context of that event. But the fact is, 9/11 didn’t have much effect on the content of recorded music of 2001—it happened too late in the year for that—nor did it have much effect on my music consumption. I liked upbeat, energetic music I could escape into when I was a 17-year-old wide-eyed at the prospect of going off to college, and I liked upbeat, energetic music I could escape into when I was an 18-year-old college freshman who was checking her mail for anthrax. The world was suddenly a much more serious and scary place, but music served the same functions: entertainment, escapism, and excitement.
And anyway, that wouldn’t all happen until September, and the first three-quarters of 2001 were a hell of a lot more fun, both in terms of my life and the music soundtracking it. Underneath the sticky film of the latter-day TRL Dynasty—which was sagging under the weight of the past-its-prime boy-band trend and the increasingly silly progression of nu metal—a new rock paradigm was taking shape thanks to The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells (and solidified later in the year with The Strokes’ Is This It). Damon Albarn and Dan “The Automator” Nakamura snuck a strange, digitized dub/hip-hop concoction into the mainstream in Gorillaz’s hooky, cartoon-faced wrapping. Hip-hop reached one of its all-time high points with Jay-Z’s The Blueprint; same for electronic music and Daft Punk’s Discovery. Thanks to the unexpected blockbuster soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Americana music had a weird, minor renaissance. And while my mostly mainstream-minded 17-year-old self wouldn’t come to them until a few years later, future indie-rock royalty like Spoon, The New Pornographers, and The Shins all released breakthrough albums.
And hey, over on the radio, there was some Top 40 gold shining through the murk created by the Crazy Towns and O-Towns of the pop world, especially from the ladies: Beyoncé “Bootylicious” Knowles gave a preview of the pop dominance she would display over the next decade when she spearheaded Destiny’s Child’s Survivor; Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, and Aaliyah all released excellent R&B albums; and Missy Elliot and Eve showed that female rappers could find mainstream success without showing their goodies in their videos.
All of this came prior to 9/11 (or in the unfortunate case of The Blueprint, on 9/11, a distinction it shares with Bob Dylan’s much-lauded-but-just-not-my-bag “Love And Theft”) and provided the soundtrack to the final summer before I moved to Chicago for college, when I spent the majority of my time driving to and from Ann Arbor and Dearborn to meet up with friends to do the sorts of things teenagers do the summer before they leave for college. During those 40-mile roundtrips—ah, the days when gas was less than $1.50 a gallon—all of those aforementioned albums (save The Blueprint) were in heavy rotation, Miss E… So Addictive, White Blood Cells, and Discovery foremost among them. In fact, in a moment so perfect I fear I made it up, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was playing when I was pulled over for my first speeding ticket.
White Blood Cells is a bit of an anomaly among these, not just sonically—its fuzzy blues-stomp was antithetical to the glossy, celebratory music I favored—but also because at the time, it existed much further under the radar than I typically ventured at that point in my music-listening; “Fell In Love With A Girl” and its Lego-ized video wouldn’t become a breakout single until the following year. But I was already familiar with The White Stripes, by virtue of living in the Detroit area and working at my high-school radio station, where De Stijl had received major play, though I never connected with Jack and Meg until my friend gave me a burned CD—decorated with little blood cells drawn in Sharpie marker—that gave me a proper introduction to what would come to be my favorite band. It was unlike everything else I was listening to at the time, but its loud, scrappy energy and Jack White’s bratty hollering—bound together by solid songcraft and the familiar old-school rock ’n’ roll sounds I grew up hearing—provided a different kind of escapism that was just as exciting in its visceral simplicity.
Also exciting in an unexpected way: the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which got also got lot of play on my car stereo, much to my twang-averse friends’ chagrin. Though its monstrous sales might look like a faddish anomaly today, the album introduced a niche sound to a widespread audience, of which I was one. I credit that album with kickstarting my—and probably a lot of people’s—interest in Americana music and introducing me to future favorites Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Alison Krauss. (The latter two also put out great records in 2001: Krauss’ bluegrass-kissed collaboration with Union Station, New Favorite, and Welch’s charmingly rustic Time (The Revelator).)
All of these albums would follow me to college, where they were soon joined in heavy dorm-room rotation by Ryan Adams’ Gold (still great), The Faint’s Danse Macabre (dated, but not without its charms), and Tenacious D’s self-titled album (don’t front, you loved it too, especially if you were 18). And then there was The Blueprint, a stellar late introduction to a rapper I’d only been previously acquainted with via his radio singles. (Hola Hovito!) Jay-Z was one of the hugest names in hip-hop at this point, but I’d never really heard him amid the “Hard Knock Life” samples and radio censoring; The Blueprint was straightforward and brilliant—thanks in part to production from a young buck named Kanye West—keeping the focus always on Jay-Z’s masterful flow.
Finally: Thanks to an ahead-of-the-curve, Euro-minded classmate who introduced me to the No. 1 UK single “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and the glory of Napster—combined with a high-speed dorm Ethernet connection—I cobbled together a burned copy of Kylie Minogue’s Fever a year before its U.S. release. Fever was the ultimate escapist album, lush and sexy and extremely danceable, conjuring up images of a grown-and-sexy adult existence where I gyrated sultrily without spilling a drop of my martini, instead of puking up cranberry-vodkas in the dorm elevator. That glossy vision of my future eventually dissipated, but my love of Fever never did, and it remains one of my desert-island discs (provided my desert island has a disco ball and open bar).
So yes, during the terrible, heartbreaking, confusing aftermath of 9/11, I was listening to the rollicking boogie of “Fell In Love With A Girl,” the pimpin’ braggadocio of “Girls, Girls, Girls,” the glossy gyrations of “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” and the juvenile swears of “Fuck Her Gently.” It’s not the most poignant playlist, but it was a damn fun one. The world was dreary and scary, and I didn’t want to wallow, I wanted to escape—and that continues to be my mindset as I grow older and things grow even shittier. Even if we experienced some of it post-9/11, the music of 2001 was made in a pre-9/11 world, and it represents our former carefree, peaceful, and yes, naive existence, before Everything Changed. It was appealing to the untroubled, excited 17-year-old on her way to college, and the 18-year-old facing sudden, scary change. It’s still appealing now, a sense memory of a time when the phrase “anything is possible” was colored by hope instead of fear.
Genevieve Koski’s top albums of 2001
1. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
This dirty, bluesy, noisy fuzz-bomb of an album inspired a legion of imitators to venture out of the garage, though few of them had Jack White’s handle on the bare essentials: Whether it’s delivering scorching blues (“Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”), boogie-woogie (“Hotel Yorba”), rollicking rock ’n’ roll (“Fell In Love With A Girl”), or pop balladry (“Same Boy You’ve Always Known”), White Blood Cells never flags in terms of melody, volume, and energy. The White Stripes would expand outward stylistically over their subsequent, also excellent albums, but the band’s intensely focused, explosive sound—on full, glorious display on White Blood Cells—would remain a hallmark.
2. Daft Punk, Discovery
Running cheesy, dated elements of disco and R&B through loop after loop after loop, Daft Punk renders them lush, entrancing, and yes, emotional on Discovery. It would be impossible to maintain the monster progression of the first four tracks—“One More Time” into “Aerodynamic” into “Digital Love” into “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”—but Discovery has plenty of treasures that weren’t released as singles, like “High Life” and “Face To Face.”
3. Kylie Minogue, Fever
Technically not released in the U.S. until early 2002, Fever appropriated the teen pop of the era and dressed it up in more sophisticated, sexier clothing. It’s disco-oriented club music, yes, but it’s strikingly tasteful, eschewing over-the-top production in favor of straightforward grooves and Minogue’s oh-so-sultry coo, which goes far beyond the “la la las” of “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” (though those are pretty damn great, too).
4. Missy Elliott, Miss E… So Addictive
The apex of Missy and Timbaland’s partnership, Miss E… So Addictive is alternately sexy, weird, smooth, and tweaked-out, running R&B and soul sounds through a futuristic electronic blender. Missy has never sounded so on-point, capably singing and skillfully rapping as she hopscotches her way through sexy come-ons (“Dog In Heat”), dexterous rhyming (“Whatcha Gon’ Do”), and fierce club-diva posturing (“Lick Shots”).
5. Jay-Z, The Blueprint
It’s all Jay-Z, all the time on The Blueprint—save a sole guest appearance from Eminem on “Renegade”—and he’s at his most confident, laying down clever, effortless rhymes atop flipped and twisted soul samples that never upstage the man on the mic (though the indelible “I Want You Back” sample on “H To The Izzo” comes close). As usual, Jay’s at his best when he’s boasting and beefin’ (“Hola Hovito,” “Takeover”), but the occasional touches of pathos, like “Song Cry,” gives The Blueprint soul that goes beyond the samples.
My 2001 was all about big, loud, ostentatious music, but as I grew older and mellowed, I came to know a bunch of other albums from the year whose charms were less showy: Bjork’s reverent Vespertine, Radiohead’s spare Amnesiac, Andrew Bird’s haunting The Swimming Hour, Travis’ banjo-laced The Invisible Band, and the epic instrumentals of Explosions In The Sky’s Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever. And while The Blueprint was a definitive statement from a high-profile MC, indie hip-hop acts The Coup and Atmosphere made compelling statements of their own with the witty, politicized Party Music and the raw, cerebral Lucy Ford EPs, respectively.
The year saw well-received debuts from future greats Yeah Yeah Yeahs, !!!, and Rilo Kiley, as well as less-auspicious introductions like douche-in-training John Mayer’s Room For Squares, which was inescapable if you were within 10 miles of a college campus in 2001. But the most important release of 2001 wasn’t a record at all; it was a small white rectangle that could fit in your pocket and hold nearly 100 albums’ worth of music, for the low low price of $500. The iPod was introduced in October of 2001, and within a couple of years it would be ubiquitous, allowing us to walk the streets with our entire music collections plugged into our ears, catching up on all the 2001 records we missed the first time around.
A year that saw not one but two great releases from The Beatles (Help and Rubber Soul), The Temptations (The Temptations Sing Smokey and The Temptin’ Temptations), The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!), and Dusty Springfield (Ooooooweeee!!! and Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty), three from The Beach Boys (Today, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), and Beach Boys’ Party), and a whopping four albums from The Rolling Stones (No. 2, Now!, Out Of Our Heads, and December’s Children) seems like an embarrassment of riches, especially when you top it off with a bunch of other great moments from Motown: Martha And The Vandellas’ Dance Party, Smokey Robinson And The Miracles’ Going To A Go-Go, and More Hits By The Supremes. (Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash also released two albums apiece in 1965, though they’re less essential entries in those artists’ discographies.) Then there’s The Zombies’ self-titled debut, The Who’s My Generation, Otis Redding’s Otis Blue, plus a few essential soundtracks for any musical-theater lover’s collection: Fiddler On The Roof, The Sound Of Music, and My Fair Lady. The thought of being able to turn on the radio in 1965 and hear “Help!,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “California Girls,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Nowhere To Run,” “My Girl,” and dozens of other songs that are now part of our musical DNA is kind of staggering. Then again, you can turn on the radio and hear all of those songs today, too, which is a testament to 1965’s impact on pop music.