As the year wraps itself into a nice little bow, here's my "best of 2001" to perhaps tickle your ear and set you in search of these "under the radar" favorites. Yes, none of these found a home among the Lolitas, pretty boys and thuggish bravado that continue to dominated the charts, but you, dear reader, are one of the enlightened ones, eh? In no particular order, here are the albums that made my heart soar, stretched the space between my ears, and totally captivated my attention.
Ouch -- perhaps the best record of the year and its record label collapses soon after its release! From the mastermind of Chico, California's Marty James, this ultra-whack album of impressive songwriting and hip-hop song craft had me groovin' like no other. Not just another talented white boy armed with SP1200 and MPC3000 samplers, this one-man crazy crew gave me the same wonderful chills I got when I first heard Beck's journeys into the funky slurp of the soup. The album's title is explained within -- a very funny reference to growing up in the sticks. Produced by slick operators like Mario Caldoto Jr. (Beastie Boys) and Eric Valentine (Smash Mouth), this one hugs up tight like the Gap Band and simply sparkles.
The Optimist LP
Source / Astralwerks
Lazy like a Sunday morning, this soft acoustic collection of mesmerizing songs got under my skin like no other this year. While backed by various bass players and percussionists on the 12 tracks, this duo of guitarists Ollie Knights and Gale Paridjanian is a modern-day British Simon & Garfunkel, floating somber, subtle melodies under mystical, turbid lyrics. Highly recommended to fans of The Beta Band and Radiohead.
The Anubian Lights
Crippled Dick Hot Wax!
This funky little gem of krautrock electronica 'n' exotica comes from the innerspace duo of Len del Rio and Tommy Grenas, both veterans of planetary wandering in Nik Turner's Space Ritual, Chrome, Zero Gravity and DJ Me DJ You. The percolating mix paints hypnotic landscapes forged by Can and Kraftwerk but opens up the spice rack to belly-dance rhythms, robotic vocals and swirling Middle Eastern chants, daring listeners to crack open their third eye and stare into the sun. At the helm of this massive spaceship are the ghosts of Martin Denny and Les Baxter, sipping fruity drinks with little umbrellas, swaying in and out of the asteroid belt as they channel 1960s' Tiki hut grooves and bachelor pad bliss.
Kitty in the Tree
New York City--based power pop with a peppy glam edge. Like a cross between the Kinks, XTC, early Beatles and 1980s' happy nu-wave, this independent release makes it feel like summer all year long. Check out the back cover spoofing the classic KISS stage show and raise your Bic lighters high!
Because It Feel Good
Like the clear, lonesome ring of a church bell in the backwoods holler, Hogan's voice is pure honey as she pines of sad, lost love and spiritual release. The smoky flavor is ripe with jazz and country elements, softly belting a shimmering blue mood perfect for a slow dance or slow grind. Her voice has found plenty of alt-country friends to hover with, as she's been featured on albums by Kris Kristofferson, The Mekons, The Waco Brothers, Will Oldham and John Wesley Harding, all bowing down to this angelic muse.
I David Axelrod
Taking his own work from the last 30 years and sampling himself, legendary producer David Axelrod served up an incredibly fresh album that travels an expansive funk universe of soul and symphony. As one of the premiere audio visionaries of the mid-1960s, he sculpted the sound for Lou Rawls, "Cannonball" Adderly and the Electric Prunes, only to find a new audience in the 1990s when his work was heavily sampled by the hip-hop elite of Dr. Dre, DJ Shadow and Lauryn Hill. From his massive vaults come these "new" sessions reworked from original acetates and master tracks, incorporating rapper Ras Kass and other new flairs. Lush and rolling in the dew, this enhanced CD is a mental cinematic experience to be experienced.
The Right Stuff / Capitol
A stunning album from the British bard, rich with soul-searing acoustic ballads, upright rockers, and a guest list that salutes his legacy. That guest list is to die for, featuring Kate Bush, Ronnie Lane, David Gilmour, Paul and Linda McCartney, Ian Anderson, Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Add guest production from Alan Parsons, and geez, I'm getting dizzy from the beautiful light emanating from my speakers. ... For those who hear the name Roy Harper and can't quite place it -- his colorful career touched down most notably as the inspiration for Led Zeppelin's "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" from their III album, and as the vocalist on Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar" from Wish You Were Here. Born just one month after Bob Dylan, this songwriting statesman celebrated his 60th birthday this past June with Robert Plant and many of the aforementioned friends. (How'd you like to be a fly on the wall at that party?) Highly recommended ...
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno welcomes Ozzy Osbourne on Thursday, Tantric on Friday, and the Blue Man Group on Monday; The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn features Steve Tyrell on Thursday overnight; and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher hosts Snoop Dogg on Friday overnight.
John James can be found via cyberspace at firstname.lastname@example.org