Beyond those three albums, I was struck by how most everything else on the list was, if not exactly business as usual, largely a variation on the familiar. These are not people producing groundbreaking music but artists practicing their craft with dexterity and skill.
It's worth emphasizing that this is a personal list, and not meant to represent authoritative judgment on everything that came out this year. The fact is that there is too much music in the world for any person to listen to, let alone absorb and reflect on. The baker's dozen titles offered here (alphabetically) are albums I found most interesting, enjoyable, and noteworthy over the past 12 months.
Björk: Selmasongs (Elektra). This brief, concentrated album (an overture and six songs) is technically the soundtrack to Lars von Trier's tragic musical Dancer in the Dark, but in a darkened theatre the foreignness of Björk's voice and her unpredictable delivery often fought for attention with the director's visuals. As a result, the inventive, claustrophobic film frequently overwhelmed the music. Given the room to breathe outside of the context of the movie, though, Selmasongs sparkles as some of the Icelandic sprite's best work. Using industrial background noise - the clanking of machinery in a factory, the sound of a train chugging down the tracks - as points of departure, the songs incorporate techno rhythms, symphonic sweep, and Björk's incomparable singing to track the emotional states of Selma, the character she plays in the film. Fortunately, the songs aren't so specific that you need to see the (admittedly difficult) movie to understand them; they stand alone.
Einstein's Sister, Humble Creatures (self-released). Following the success of Learning Curves, Bill Douglas and Kerry Tucker lead their Quad Cities band through another irresistible set of gorgeous power pop, with catchy tunes and smart lyrics. Douglas sounds naturally and effortlessly like Elvis Costello, and the band makes like the Smithereens or Squeeze. "Hey Napoleon," "This Won't Be Home Someday," and "Never Can Tell" are particularly distinguished, and show a band that could be on the cusp of bigger things.
The Great Crusades: Damaged Goods (Checkered Past). A good band from Chicago you might never hear about. Led by singer-guitarist Brian Krumm, The Great Crusades offer up straight-ahead semi-ballads and rock music informed by the stories and styles of Nick Cave and Tom Waits. Meditations on love, sex, loneliness, liquor, and self-loathing dominate, helped along by able musicians and confident, mature arrangements. This sophomore album, self-released in May and picked up by a stateside distributor in November, is long on narrative and compelling tunes, highlighted by "Bernadette," "Chevy Nova," and the hilariously grim "Liquor Park." A gem if you can find it.
No Doubt: Return of Saturn (Interscope). There can be little doubt that these guys are the masters of the chorus. Whatever their shortcomings, the members of No Doubt write a mean refrain, and that gift elevates Return of Saturn by several notches. The album is too long by several songs and has its fair share of dead spots, but the follow-up to Tragic Kingdom has so many peaks that the downside is easy to ignore. "Ex-Girlfriend," "Artificial Sweetener," "Too Late," and "Comforting Lie" are strong from start to finish, but some songs, like "Six Feet Under" and "New," have little life until the infectious choruses kick in. The band largely abandons ska on this outing, instead relying solely on hooks and Gwen Stefani's strangely forceful rubber voice.
Kelly Pardekooper & The Devil's House Band: Johnson County Snow (Trailer). It's not just the best album released in a 120-mile radius; it's one of the best things I've heard all year. Iowa City's Pardekooper fares well compared to virtually any singer-songwriter out there with his tight country-blues rock songs, and The Devil's House Band - particularly guitarist Dustin Busch - is a wonderful complement. Clever wordplay further sets this spectacular record apart, and it more than makes up for Pardekooper's limited range as a vocalist.
A Perfect Circle: Mer de Noms (Virgin). Long-suffering fans of Tool got an unexpected treat in 2000 with this record, a collaboration between guitarist Billy Howerdel and Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan. Sanding the edge off Tool's harsh, sludgy sound, A Perfect Circle offers rich layers of harmonic guitars and songs in which riffs are the source, not mere accoutrements. Keenan's work is strong but refreshingly unobtrusive. There are even a few (gasp) ballads, and the variety helps keep things fresh (something that can't be said about Tool albums, which start strong and tend to wither into tedium). There are plenty of people who will find this type of prog metal more than a touch masturbatory, but it works for me.
PJ Harvey: Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island). Here's an album that took some getting used to. PJ Harvey, the queen of uncompromising rock who lends her name to this band, started her career with thin, aggressive, bare-bones arrangements and graduated to over-the-top, theatrical music. On her latest album, Harvey embraces a more subtle, textured approach, and the results are fantastic. A lot of music critics thought 1995's To Bring You My Love marked the true emergence of PJ Harvey, but this is an album that will still be standing years from now, in my opinion. From the lovely, elliptical "You Said Something" to the rock anger of "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore," Stories doesn't falter.
Radiohead: Kid A (EMI). Unlike most people, I had no trouble connecting with Radiohead's acclaimed/disdained chunk of art music. I hesitate to call it rock, because there's really only one proper song, and the album is dominated by electronic soundscapes. Radiohead pulls off a minor miracle by producing difficult, pretentious music that somehow manages to stay just this side of ponderous. At Kid A's core is a sequence of three fantastic tracks: "Optimistic" (the most conventional thing on the record), the fragmentary "In Limbo," and the driving beeps, beats, and chirps of "Idioteque." The members of Radiohead have won their stripes as composers with this outing, but I'm hard-pressed to figure how they earned their money as musicians.
Rage Against the Machine: Renegades (Epic). For most bands, an album of covers is a diversion - an opportunity to have some fun, pay some respect, and make some dough. But Zack de la Rocha's swan song as vocalist for Rage Against the Machine turns out to be something more and better, a tasty slab of rap, rock, and punk covers that pretty much obliterates the original songs in the Rage meat grinder. The result is that wildly disparate material - Dylan to Devo, Springsteen to Cypress Hill - feels cut from the same cloth. The album's first single, "Renegades of Funk" is also one of the year's best.
Sleater-Kinney: All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). With each album, Sleater-Kinney moves further away from the hard-edged, punk-infused screeds of its early albums and embraces simple songcraft. The critical darlings don't abandon their signature two-guitar-no-bass style that draws heavily from Sonic Youth, but they place more emphasis than ever before on intricate vocal harmonies. Sleater-Kinney is one of those bands that find the proper path and continue down it, reserving detours for side projects; as a result, there's a certain familiarity creeping into the band's work. But this album still rocks while also being frequently contemplative and gorgeous. Enjoy it, because the band doesn't expect to release a new album until late 2002.
Sunny Day Real Estate: The Rising Tide (Time Bomb). Like Sleater-Kinney, Sunny Day Real Estate hasn't drastically broken from the formula that's ruled the band since its inception. The emo-core trio is still using walls of tuneful guitars, endearingly off-key vocals, and lush production to produce albums of a consistently high quality. Sunny Day Real Estate is so even that it nearly makes the band seem dull and easy to overlook. The Rising Tide is nothing spectacular, but it's good through and through, workmanlike.
Verbow: White Out (Epic). Singer-guitarist Jason Narducy and cellist Alison Chesley alone made up the acoustic duo Jason & Alison, but with a few bandmates they become the electric Verbow (which stopped a couple times in the Quad Cities this year). The first track on this album features traditional cello accompaniment, but if you get lulled into thinking there's nothing special about this Chicago outfit, the rest of the album will prove you seriously wrong. Chesley's cello is frequently the band's lead instrument, and it's employed in very unusual ways, squealing and soloing on standout tracks like "New History," "I'll Never Live by My Father's Dreams," and "Happy to Be Away." Narducy's voice is a bit precious for my tastes, but it could be much, much worse.
Shannon Wright: Maps of Tactic (Quarterstick). This indie-label release is one of the strangest records of the year, a haunting and anguished song cycle that is also remarkably playful. Wright, who performed in the Quad Cities in September, crafts songs that start as one thing and then veer off in surprising directions. "Heavy Crown" is a lament that breaks into a wail, while "Dirty Façade" builds on a piano line and then segues into a keyboard sequence that would be at home in an old horror movie. Wright's unmannered singing is the capper, though, so naked it's almost painful. Thom Yorke would feel right at home on this one.