American Top 40: Best Albums of 2000

Rock and Roll Records of the Year
The Murder City Devils
In Name and Blood (Sub Pop)

The Dwarves
Come Clean (Epitaph)

From the eerie organ strains of the opening track, “Press Gang,” The Murder City Devils’ noirish In Name and Blood transports listeners to an era when rebellious types poured out the contents of their tortured souls at dingy dives in front of an equally dangerous-looking crowd. The Devils offer a glimpse at what The Doors might have sounded like had they grown up on Stooges records and sworn off all recreational drugs, indulging only in a stiff shot or two nightly. Spencer Moody’s throaty growl ranks among rock’s richest, and new keyboardist Leslie Hardy adds a keen sense of melody.

Also surprisingly catchy is The Dwarves’ Come Clean, an eclectic effort that ranges from punk to industrial grind to breezy pop, occasionally piling all of these components into one two-minute song. Spin readers voted this group’s Blood, Guts, and Pussy as the sleaziest album ever made; although the songs remain focused on sex and violence, the hooks have become more memorable than the shocking lyrical content.

Live Records of the Year

Pennywise

Live at the Key Club (Epitaph)

Dance Hall Crashers

The Live Record (Pink & Black)

Pennywise (the L.A.-based quartet that used a series of complex scientific equations to discover the absolute speed limit at which a band can play without its tunes’ disappearing into a blur of indecipherable noise) has finally released recorded evidence of punk’s most explosive live show, and the album manages to bottle much of that show’s lightning. From the group’s manic trademark opening salvo, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” to its standard old-school cover (this time it’s Minor Threat’s “Minor Threat”) to Byron McMackin’s inhuman drumbeats to Fletcher Dragge’s profanity-laced prodding of the crowd, every element of the Pennywise experience is well represented by this hometown performance.

While the members of Pennywise enhanced their reputation as live killers with a series of headlining stints on the Warped Tour, the Dance Hall Crashers have yet to attain such a high-profile slot, but The Live Record should go a long way toward establishing the group as a show-stopper. The harmonies between Elyse Rogers and Karina Denike, a big part of this peppy ska/pop outfit’s appeal, remain crisp in the concert setting, and both singers enunciate clearly, ensuring that their tart lyrics pack a wince-inducing sting.

Eclectic Records of the Year

Calexico
Hot Rail (Touch and Go/Quarterstick)

Pizzicato Five
The Fifth Release from Matador (Matador)

Calexico’s mariachi-flavored instrumentals and rootsy romps contain a distinctly cinematic quality: Close your eyes, and watch the tumbleweed dance across the bleak desert terrain. This duo scored the art-house flick Committed, but Hot Rail is the soundtrack to a film that exists only within the minds of the musicians and, subsequently, the listeners. Accordions, organs, vibes, and strings help establish the album’s mysterious atmosphere, while the steady drums and bass keep the plot moving at a brisk pace.

Significantly sillier but no less engaging, Pizzicato Five’s boisterous Fifth Release from Matador makes it abundantly clear why Spin described this Tokyo group as “what Hello Kitty might sound like.” Like Ben Folds Five, P5 features fewer members than advertised (it’s a duo), and the piano-powered hooks on Fifth Release prove that these acts have more in common than numerical fraud.

Orchestral Albums of the Year

Jimi Tenor
Out of Nowhere (Warp/Matador)

The Golden Arm Trio
Why the Sea Is Salt (Loveletter)

When big American bands team with orchestras, it’s usually to record a self-serving, over-the-top concert album. However, Jimi Tenor, who has been described as “the Barry White of Finland,” had something more ambitious in mind. Instead of conducting the 55-piece orchestra at his disposal through grandiose versions of his tunes, Tenor composed entirely new material. The slinky “Hypnotic Drugstore” offers a glimpse at trademark Tenor funk, but the rest of the album sees him using his resources to explore adventurous, and often bizarre, territory.

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Operating on a smaller scale (with the TOSCA String Quartet in tow), The Golden Arm Trio delivers an equally eclectic album, moving swiftly from classical melancholy to jarring avant-garde jazz.

Nü Metal Records of the Year

Deftones
White Pony (Maverick)

A Perfect Circle
Mer de Noms (Virgin)

Leaving their rap/metal roots far behind, the Deftones venture further into dense, dreamy music that’s “nü” in the best sense of the word: innovative, ambitious, and exciting. Chino Moreno’s muscular mumble, an adrenalized version of Thom Yorke’s distinctive vocals, powers the year’s finest guitar-based single, “Change (In the House of Flies).”

Ranking a close second in that category is A Perfect Circle’s “Judith,” a stunning showcase for the clarity and intensity of Maynard James Keenan. Unlike in Tool, Keenan isn’t singing over music he had a hand in creating — guitarist Billy Howerdel created A Perfect Circle’s goth-metal soundscapes — but these toned-down tunes don’t sap any of the strength from his vocals. Moreno and Keenan join forces on White Pony‘s “Passenger,” one of the few promising collaborations that sounds as good on record as it looks on paper.

Soul Records of the Year

Amel Larrieux
Infinite Possibilities (Epic/550)

Jill Scott
Who Is Jill Scott? (Hidden Beach/Epic)

Formerly the lead chanteuse for the smooth duo Groove Theory, Amel Larrieux maintains her former group’s soulful sound throughout her silky solo debut, Infinite Possibilities. Although Larrieux’s enchanting and emotive singing offers the album’s strongest selling point, it’s her solid, socially conscious songwriting that truly separates her from most of the current crop of vocally gifted divas.

That places her in the distinguished company of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Scott, a deft poet, sets her inspired verses to warm, jazzy beats on the confident and irresistible Who Is Jill Scott? fulfilling the potential suggested by her starmaking turn on The Roots’ “You Got Me.”

Country Revival Records of the Year

Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys
The Spectacular Sadness of … (Bloodshot)

Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub
Blue Notes (Merge)

So often, a great self-pity session set to music comes to a frustrating end when an artist who had just captured the listener’s angst moves on to an upbeat dance tune. The brokenhearted can avoid such unwelcome mirth with Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys’ The Spectacular Sadness of …, which is potent enough to make the tribulations of mood-hopping acts seem less genuine. In some ways, the sorrow is the shtick — Misery Boys, Spectacular Sadness — but the words ring too true to be merely part of a manufactured image.

By contrast, Paul Burch isn’t quite as unhappy as the title Blue Notes might imply, but there are some tearjerkers among his aching, authentic country numbers.

American Gothic Records of the Year

The Dagons
Make Us Old (Dead Sea Captain)

Burn Witch Burn
Burn Witch Burn (Lightyear/Razler)

You smoked in bed/and never woke again, Karie Jacobson sings on the opener to The Dagons’ Make Us Old, instantly making concrete the air of dread created by the tune’s eerily distant guitar intro. Their ghostlier songs move at a crawl, but The Dagons’ galloping country-tinged romps are equally effective.

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Displaying even more range, if slightly less consistency, the six-piece Burn Witch Burn blends stark acoustic folk with insistent Celtic stomps and a sense of medieval mysticism furthered by its use of such traditional instruments as the mandolin and the hurdy-gurdy. Singer Rodney Linderman (formerly Rodney Anonymous of the Dead Milkmen) occasionally spoils the murky mood with hyperactive antics reminiscent of his previous group, but on tunes such as the staggeringly dark “Beaumont Arkansas,” a duet with Vienna Linderman, he manages to stay in character.

Tributes of the Year

Various Artists
New Coat of Paint — The Songs of Tom Waits (Manifesto)

Various Artists
Sing a Song for You — Tribute to Tim Buckley (Manifesto)

Most tribute albums are spotty at best, filled with artists unable to approach the creative spirit of the legends they cover. However, New Coat of Paint selects a remarkable lineup of performers who pay inspiring homage to Tom Waits’ artful songwriting and masterful lyricism. Andre Williams and Lydia Lunch speak most of their vocals, putting the focus on Waits’ storytelling ability, while Eleni Mandell, Carla Bozulich, and Lee Rocker ignite songs with their smoldering vocals.

On Sing a Song for You, understated acts such as Moose, Brendan Perry, Mark Lanegan, and Heather Duby highlight the subtle beauty of the late Tim Buckley’s compositions with their tender renditions of his work.

Stars of the Year

Shiner
Starless (Owned and Operated)

Starlight Mints
The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of (SeeThru Broadcasting)
Complex but catchy, Shiner’s Starless sees this Kansas City-based band sacrificing a little volume for a significant boost in melody. Tunes such as “Giant’s Chair” and “Kevin Is Gone” attack in waves, retreating during vulnerable verses only to return with hard-driving percussive force.

Another adventurous Midwest outfit, Oklahoma’s Starlight Mints, chooses a quirkier approach, smothering sugary, if slightly off-kilter, pop with layers of mildly dissonant sound effects. The Mints’ greatest achievement is swiping the hook from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” and using it to construct an even spacier oddity.

Singer/Songwriters of the Year

Sarah Dougher
The Walls Ablaze (Mr. Lady)

Amy Correia
Carnival Love (Capitol)
Sarah Dougher’s complex character development and poignant self-analysis establish this Ph.D. in comparative literature as one of today’s most compelling lyricists. (She concludes the somber “What She’d Trade” with the line The selfish life of the activist can only be understood by the selfishness of the artist.) Moving from punchy pop to low-key introspective fare, Dougher, whose earnest vocals add emotional weight, composes music that’s as clever as her expertly arranged words.

After spending her summer on The Girl’s Room tour, a mini-Lilith Fair that showcased Capitol Records’ female singer/songwriters, Amy Correia released Carnival Love. This charming debut disc highlights Correia’s appealingly wispy voice, her skill at guitar, piano, and mandolin, and her sharp first-person perspective on relationships and city life.

Dance Records of the Year

Roni Size/Reprasent
In the Mode (Talkin’ Loud/Island)

Mindless Self IndulgenceFrankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy (Elektra)

For 76 minutes, Roni Size’s relentless In the Mode urges listeners to move, and only the truly dance-floor-phobic would have any reason to avoid total compliance. The collaborative tracks with Method Man, Rahzel, and Rage’s Zack de la Rocha rank among the album’s most intriguing, and Reprasent, comprising Roni’s resident rappers, performs up to the level of its guests. Even the instrumentals offer enough variation to remain intriguing as individual tracks — a rarity on drum ‘n’ bass records, which are usually best consumed as a whole.

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On the other side of the spectrum from Roni and Reprasent, who take dance music very seriously, lies Mindless Self Indulgence, which pairs incendiary techno beats with lyrics about “bitches” and “faggots” that would be contemptible were they not so obviously performed in jest. (“If you think we’re right wing, left wing, feminists, sexists, tops, bottoms, gay, or straight, I want to tell you right now that we are,” the quartet clarifies in its liner notes.) Shock value aside, MSI melds new-wave synthesized melodies, metal riffs, hip-hop slang, and programmed percussion into an undeniable, if somewhat obnoxious, hybrid.

Riot Grrrl Records of the Year

Bratmobile
Ladies, Women, and Girls (Lookout)

No Doubt
Return of Saturn (Interscope)
After six years in the garage, Bratmobile unveiled its sporty 2000 model. The trio fleshed out its sound, beefed up its lower end (Jon Nikki handles bass duties on the record), and impaled a series of unfortunate targets with its sharpened attack. Who’s gonna kick your ass?/I think it’s a girl, Allison Wolfe snarls during one such scathing diatribe, and for the first time since riot grrrl’s prime, the threat sounds sincere and genuine.

More subtle but no less affecting are the latest reflections from No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, the reigning queen of the breakup song. Opening with the spirited kiss-off “Ex-Girlfriend,” Stefani eloquently explores envy, fear of aging, and insecurity, making Return of Saturn a sort of midlife-crisis concept album.

Honorable mention in this category goes to Le Tigre’s self-titled album, a subversive dance party that hit the shelves late last year but has shown up on several Best of 2000 lists, and to Kittie’s Spit, a brutally heavy album from four teenage girls who have become role models for budding female musicians aspiring to invade metal’s boys’ club.

Moody Minimalist Records of the Year

The Black Heart Procession
Three (Touch and Go)

Elliott Smith
Figure 8 (Dreamworks)

The album artwork for The Black Heart Procession’s Three contains a black-and-white heart with wings obscured by a large red X. It’s a simple yet vaguely depressing image. The duo’s music magnifies that effect exponentially, primarily using just a piano, a guitar, and Pall Jenkins’ tortured voice to create profoundly sorrowful songs.

By comparison, Elliott Smith’s songs, decorated with lush string arrangements, seem ornate, but his expressions of loss and regret quickly reduce these perfect pop concoctions to their aching emotional core.

Futuristic Records of the Year

Deltron 3030
Deltron 3030 (75 Ark)

Del the Funky Homosapien
Both Sides of the Brain (Hieroglyphics Imperium)

One of the masterminds behind last year’s instant classic from the Handsome Boy Modeling School, producer Dan the Automator has created another concept album that embodies creativity in every element of its execution, from its trippy samples to its characters’ names (Astacio the Nudist and The Cantankerous Captain Aptos appear in the credits). This intelligent futuristic epic actually gets better as it evolves, a rare feat for a 20-plus-track hip-hop album.

Voicing Deltron 3030’s titular character is Del the Funky Homosapien, who had already proven himself to be ahead of his time with Both Sides of the Brain. Whether paying homage to his favorite video games, airing his “Pet Peeves,” or urging good hygiene, Del finds strangely entertaining angles from which to attack an amusingly diverse list of subjects.

Beatles-esque Pop Records of the Year

Chumbawamba
WYSIWYG (Republic/Universal)

Eels
Daisies of the Galaxy (Dreamworks)

Chumbawamba’s disarmingly sweet and immediate hooks bring to mind the Fab Four, but its combination of caustic commentary and cheery music is reminiscent of another seminal English quartet, The Smiths. On WYSIWYG, Chumbawamba takes accessibility to new extremes: The victims of its barbs could hear these tunes and hum along mindlessly, unaware of the venom directed their way.

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Equally packed with memorable melodies is Eels’ Daisies of the Galaxy, but then, e’s songwriting ability has seldom been called into question. Fans and music writers alike have accused the one-man band of being too clever and esoteric, and while his obscure musings on flyswatters and birds might angry up these critics’ blood, he also sings, with disarming sincerity, such straightforward lines as It’s a motherfucker/being here without you.

Vocal Showcases of the Year

Eleni Mandell
Thrill (Space Baby)

Shannonwright
Maps of Tacit (Quarterstick/Touch and Go)

Both Eleni Mandell and Shannonwright are often branded “the female Tom Waits,” which, although intended as a compliment, is odd — these women’s aesthetically dazzling voices are a far cry from Waits’ raspy croak. Mandell exudes an intoxicating air of danger on Thrill, baiting listeners by cooing Action is action/don’t you want to get some, stealing a man away from the hapless “Pauline,” and showering herself in the delusional reassurances that power unrequited love.

While Mandell recorded with a backing band, Shannonwright played nearly every instrument used on Maps of Tacit herself, contributing to the album’s intensely personal, almost claustrophobic feel. Her soft voice, in conjunction with her intricate acoustic melodies, offers listeners a false sense of security, which she then shatters with some of the most jarring primal screams since PJ Harvey’s Dry.

Experimental Records of the Year

Radiohead
Kid A (Capitol)

Björk
Selmasongs (Elektra)

Radiohead’s Kid A is more impressive as an artistic statement than it is enjoyable as a recreational listening experience, but its brightest moments — painstakingly crafted sonic portraits, such as “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Optimistic” — outshine any other album tracks released this year, both in ambition and execution.

As the star of the harrowing film Dancer in the Dark, Björk left behind her kooky musical identity to become the tragic character Selma. Taken on its own merits, Selmasongs is an outstanding album that offers a perfect fit for Björk’s elastic voice and dramatic presence. However, listening to this record after having seen the movie is like plugging headphones into a raw nerve — every note inspires an overwhelming outpouring of emotion.

Death-Defying Records of the Year

Johnny Cash
American III: Solitary Man (American)

Everlast
Eat at Whitey’s (Tommy Boy)

I’m not afraid to die, Johnny Cash sings on American III: Solitary Man, and though the words belong to Nick Cave, he convincingly makes them into his own sentiments. Grim yet morbidly inspiring, Cash’s third cover-heavy collaboration with producer Rick Rubin stares death in the face without blinking.

Continuing the recovery process after a near-fatal heart attack, Everlast delivers his own frank reflections on mortality in a soulful package that furthers his evolution into hip-hop’s Johnny Cash — an outspoken rebel who criticizes the seedy elements of the genre in which he performs and champions society’s underdogs.

Records of the Year

Ghostface Killah
Supreme Clientele (Epic/Razor Sharp)

Wu-Tang Clan
The W (Loud)

Something about collaborating with Ghostface Killah brings out the best in the Wu-Tang Clan’s beat-creating mastermind, RZA. Ghost’s first solo album, Ironman, might be hip-hop’s finest record ever from a musical standpoint. And Supreme Clientele, sprinkled with jazz guitar, ingeniously looped samples, and haunting piano samples, then thoroughly coated with undiluted soul, comes close to matching its predecessor’s brilliance. Whether relating a focused story or flowing in a scattered, abstract manner, Ghostface speaks with enough authority to make every word seem essential.

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On “I Can’t Go to Sleep,” the finest track on the Wu-Tang Clan’s The W, an in-the-zone Ghostface raps with so much passion that he turns the tune into a riveting minifilm, complete with a superfly ’70s-style score courtesy of Isaac Hayes. This third album sees the nine-man crew making a few mild concessions, such as streamlining its hypersyllabic lyrics and trimming its output to a manageable 13 songs. And although its sound remains planted in hip-hop’s dungeon, the Clan offers a rare nod to the clubs with “Gravel Pit,” its most danceable track to date.

Categories: Music