The Best Albums of 2001

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The Best Albums of 2001

In 2001, there was no Paste Magazine to rank the best albums of the year. The first issue didn’t come out until summer of the following year. So it’s fun to go back and look at the state of music 20 years ago, when some friends and I were plotting how to turn our indie website into full-time jobs celebrating the music we loved.

It was a weird time for rock radio, as major labels had spent the decade hell-bent on squeezing every last dollar from the grunge explosion, signing every act who sounded remotely like Nirvana or had a cousin who once played The Crocodile in Seattle. The most original idea radio programmers had was to double down on nü-metal. Meanwhile, some exciting music was bubbling under the surface, with another rock ’n‘ roll revival beginning to take shape and the indie world on the cusp of taking over.

In the hip-hop world, on the other hand, some of the most urgent music had no trouble finding its audience, as Jay-Z’s masterpiece, The Blueprint, topped the Billboard sales chart on its way to going 2X Platinum. Even old-timey music had its moment in the sun thanks to the T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack to the Coen Brothers retelling of The Odyssey in Great Depression-era rural Mississippi, O Brother Where Art Thou?—the most unexpected album to sell 8 million copies in a long time.

We look back on the music of two decades ago. Here are the 25 best albums of 2001, as voted on by the Paste music editors and writers.

25. Fugazi: The Argument

The album’s called The Argument, and over the past 20 years it’s sparked plenty of them: Is this secretly Fugazi’s best album? Is it their last album? Should it be their last? Do we even want Fugazi to reunite and risk sullying their perfect legacy in a world where $5 concert tickets seem as quaint as 19th-century pantaloons? What the hell is Guy singing about in “Full Disclosure”? Has any cello ever rocked out harder than the one in “Cashout”? And is it possible to describe the guitars on this record without using the dreaded “angular”? I don’t have the answers. I’m just grateful Fugazi delivered one last masterpiece before drifting off into will-they won’t-they hiatusland. The Argument subverts the wallopping aggression of the band’s earlier albums, but the richer, more atmospheric dynamic range only makes the explosive bits (“Full Disclosure,” “Ex-Spectator”) hit all the harder. —Zach Schonfeld

24. The Dismemberment Plan, Change

The Dismemberment Plan were unparalleled at their zenith, when Change was released. We’re talking about a record that fell between the band being asked seemingly out of nowhere to open for Pearl Jam during the European leg of their 2000 tour, and their tour pairing with Death Cab for Cutie in 2002 when Transatlanticism came out. Nothing to scoff at. Similarly encapsulated here in a 12-page booklet containing each song’s lyrics?including those of “Ellen & Ben,” which were not included in the original release?are Morrison and the band’s strange dichotomies as fun-loving musicians tasked with the muses of serious art students. The photography found inside the gatefold mirrors that of the album’s cover, wherein the top of an anonymous building reads simply “Change,” with a blue sky dominating the frame while the bottom corners hint at treetops, chimneys, flagpoles?the artist’s eye looking ever upward. —Ryan J. Prado

23. Various Artists: O Brother Where Art Thou?

This old-timey country album and most unlikely hit may have signaled the last gasp of alternative country. On the bright side, it suggested that those alt-country values (rough-hewn vocals, acoustic instrumentation, a palpable connection to American roots music) had busted out of the sub-genre ghetto and crossed over into the mainstream. After all, the album did win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Some of our favorite female vocalists—one-named artists like Emmylou and Gillian—got much-deserved exposure thanks to this collection, which scored a freewheeling Coen Bros movie and did nothing but good for all concerned. —Nick Marino

22. Aaliyah: Aaliyah

Aaliyah’s third and final LP, issued less than two months before her tragic death in an airplane crash, builds on the color and confidence of her chart-topping 2000 single “Try Again” — pairing the singer’s smooth R&B hooks with production that hits harder and occasionally wanders to weirder places. Timbaland brings a few top-shelf beats, including “We Need a Resolution,” where Aaliyah’s voice coils like a snake around crackling handclaps and a woozy clarinet sample. Though it rarely earns the same breathless praise as Voodoo or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah more than holds its own in the neo-soul canon. —Ryan Reed

21. Guided By Voices: Isolation Drills

For a few years around the turn of the last century the lo-fi legends in Guided by Voices made a real go of it. We’re talking a major (-ish) label, big name producers, state-of-the-art studios—the works. It didn’t last long: they made two albums for TVT Records, the first of which buried almost everything that made the band interesting, and the second of which, 2001’s Isolation Drills, almost perfectly channelled Bob Pollard’s strengths into a big studio setting. Isolation Drills indulges Pollard’s lifelong classic-rock ambitions with a clutch of arena-ready anthems, including all-time classic “Glad Girls,” but still leaves room for the band’s artsier tendencies and workmanlike charm. It’s basically GBV’s Who’s Next—a slick, big-sounding record with personality and a near-flawless track list. —Garrett Martin

20. Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American

Jimmy Eat World’s breakout album Bleed American remains the band’s best work to date. A third of the album—the title track, “Sweetness,” “The Middle” and “A Praise Chorus”—worked their way up the charts and all remain undefeated as the group’s most popular songs. This isn’t to say Jimmy Eat World’s had a lackluster showing in their discography since, but their brand of heavy, jaunty pop-punk was perfectly suited to the crescendo of the genre’s popularity in the early 2000s. They nailed a perfect balance between angst and boisterous optimism—is there any better feel-good track than “The Middle?” Even deeper cuts like “Your House” and “If You Don’t, Don’t” warrant a revisit, offering a sweeter acoustic side than the record’s bigger numbers offer. —Carli Scolforo

19. Rodney Crowell: The Houston Kid

Rodney Crowell examines his blue-collar childhood in Houston in songs that celebrate youthful hijinks and the great country and rock records of the ’50s. But Crowell is just as honest about the domestic violence and dead-end crime that also shaped his environment. The tension between this regret and that affection give the songs their tension, and the sharp details of the lyrics provide the focus. Never had Crowell written so personally and never had he sung so well. Johnny Cash joins Crowell for a duet on “I Walk the Line (Revisited).” Geoffrey Himes

18. Spiritualized: Let It Come Down

In Spiritualized’s fourth album (a follow-up to their seminal Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space), Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) is again grappling with life’s simple moments alongside their larger, cosmic significance. Emotionally augmented by orchestral backing,Let It Come Down is a hazy reverie whose tracks are lethargic, sweet and pleading in turn. Throughout, Spaceman yearns for a connection to faith but falls short each time, moving in and out of substance misuse, noting “the trouble with the straight and the narrow is it’s so thin, I keep sliding off to the side / And the devil makes good use of these hands of mine.” But despite these spiritual, perhaps lofty considerations, Let It Come Down’s lyrics are on the whole plainspoken, earnest, simple. There are connections and callbacks throughout, drifting on a sonic soundscape that incorporates a staggering number of instruments and the assistance of the London Community Gospel Choir. A thoughtful work, Let It Come Down is also softly haunting, an inner voice wondering if your future will ever align with your hopes. —Allison Keene

17. Bob Dylan: Love and Theft

Love and Theft begins and ends with worlds ending. “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” concludes with a man dying in a Mardi Gras like party, while “Sugar Baby” ends with the potential of death from a broken heart. On Dylan’s 31st album, released on Sept. 11, 2001, Dylan explores death plenty. But there’s still a sense of optimism, and the proof is that he’s still tinkering around with his style after all these years. Love and Theft is both predictable and completely surprising. It features all the characters and signature Dylan vocal stylings that is to be expected, but songs like “Honest With Me” and the fascinating shifting pace of “Cry a While” show that not only does Dylan have a lot of life left in him and his music, but that he’s still releasing some of his best music. —Ross Bonaime

16. The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic

A staple from the first New Pornographers LP is “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”—proof that A.C. Newman can spark a power-pop hook from any lyric, no matter how dark or absurd. The rest of Mass Romantic strikes a similar creative balance, fueled by the indie supergroup’s longtime personnel dynamic: Powerhouse Neko Case fronts the windows-down surge of “Letter From an Occupant” and the title-track; and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar leads quirkier deep cuts like “Breakin’ the Law.” The Pornos perfected this recipe on Twin Cinema their heavier, huger-sounding third record. But the legend begins here. —Ryan Reed

15. Sparklehorse: It’s a Wonderful Life

By 2001, Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous had toured with Radiohead, collaborated with PJ Harvey, and bonded with Tom Waits in a speeding SUV, but the songwriter remained more interested in burrowing deep into his bleary-eyed subconscious than crafting a crossover hit. It’s a Wonderful Life, featuring the aforementioned Harvey and Waits collaborations back to back (hell of a power move on the sequencing front), marks the pinnacle of Sparklehorse’s melancholy surrealism. Across these 14 tracks, monkeys fly, trees turn to soil, and doomed ships full of horses go down at sea. Working with a full band for the first time instead of home-recording at his farm, Linkous turns in the most gorgeous and full-fledged songcraft of his career, from the heavenly “Sea of Teeth” to the sighing McCartney-esque bliss of “Gold Day,” without sacrificing the crackling lo-fi strangeness that made Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot so endearing. Wonderful Life is Linkous’s hallucinatory masterpiece; sadly, it would also be the second-to-last Sparklehorse album released before his untimely death. —Zach Schonfeld

14. N.E.R.D: In Search Of …

Rap-rock wasn’t exactly unheard of in the late ’90s, and funk-rock had been happening for a couple of decades. But nobody had put rap, funk and rock together in quite the same way as N.E.R.D did on their debut, In Search Of …, first released in 2001 in Europe. The group came with a pedigree: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo were already in demand as production duo The Neptunes, who had worked with Kelis, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mystikal, when they teamed with their high school friend Shae Haley to record a group of songs that found the tenuous balance between sexy and scuzzy. The original album was largely an electronic creation, but the North American release in 2002 replaced the digital backing tracks with live instrumentation from Minneapolis alt-rock band Spymob, which accentuated the grainy basement rec-room feel of the album, and clearing a path for all the genre-blurring acts to come, from Gnarls Barkley to Odd Future to The Weeknd. —Eric R. Danton

13. Spoon: Girls Can Tell

After the near fatal album rollout behind A Series of Sneaks, Spoon released a shade-throwing single, the stellar Love Ways EP and, most importantly, the record that laid the groundwork for the band’s slow and steady rise to indie rock icons. Inspired by ’60s R&B andSomething Else-era Kinks, the immediate differences between Girls Can Tell and the band’s prior releases are apparent from opener “Everything Hits At Once.” Jim Eno rolls into a steady beat as Britt Daniel’s wounded, weary voice comes to terms with a freshly dissolved relationship. In the chorus, husky piano casts a dark pallor over the stinging guitar, a sonic combination the band would revisit time and time again. It’s a devastating track made all the more effective by the band eschewing its earlier alt-rock tendencies to create something much more emotive and personal. While Girls Can Tell is no doubt a thrilling document on how Spoon became Spoon, these 11 tunes are some of the band’s most chilled and detached. “Believing Is Art” recalls the tense build-ups of Telephono, but trades all-out ferocity for icy restraint. Elsewhere, “Chicago At Night” tells an especially bleak tale of a young woman being swallowed by the unflinching pace of city life. These frigid tones are largely thawed, however, with “Anything You Want” one of Daniel’s most affecting heartbreak ballads. “It’s just a matter of time/It’s almost measurable/imagination ain’t kind on us tonight,” he sings with a resignated shrug. While it’s spare instrumentation and sad-eyed songwriting don’t make it as universal as other Spoon albums, Girls Can Tell is an early and enduring triumph for the group. —Reed Strength

12. System of a Down: Toxicity

Nu-metal’s meteoric rise into the mainstream bridged metal with hip-hop and electronic elements as a backdrop for life’s minutiae and frustrations. System of a Down chose to talk about addiction and Charles Manson. The band’s landmark album Toxicity was released a week before the September 11 attacks, a coincidence that landed them on the infamous Clear Channel list of banned songs in the wake of the tragedy. Despite the censorship, System of a Down became a prominent influence for a new age of political rock, conveyed by vocalist Serj Tankian in the simplest of terms where it counts. The lack of metaphors is a political act in itself, with Tankian rattling off statistics in “Prison Song” or portraying a lowly Manson seeking sympathy as an environmental activist in “ATWA.” The real beauty in Toxicity is in its chaos without much of a clear objective. It digs deep into the human psyche that seeks forgiveness as much as it seeks destruction, painting a Jackson Pollock-esque portrait of anger that System of a Down insisted people project outward at the institutions that oppress, rather than focus on our fellow human.—Jade Gomez

11. Björk: Vespertine

Even though its slender white neck figures into Vespertine’s cover artwork, forget about the swan-dress sideshow for just one moment. Forget the collective shriek of a thousand red-carpet fashion know-it-alls. Despite her reputation for flamboyance and silliness, the Icelandic empress achieved a shocking level of intimacy and tenderness with this folktronica gem. When I see the swan, my eye drifts past its beak to those pillowy white feathers, recalling the plushness and warmth of a down comforter. Feathers so white they evoke the purity of freshly fallen snow blanketing the ground outside while you sip a coffee by the fire, both hands curled around the mug’s warm ceramic finish. The beats and Matmos audio samples scattered across Vespertine are precisely executed; their subtle pop and crackle drawing you into an impossibly delicate, refreshingly sparse interior world: plucked harp strings, sparkling celeste, boy choirs, music boxes. The notes on this record might as well resemble the billions of tiny molecules expelled in a single contented sigh. —Jason Killingsworth

10. Gillian Welch: Time (the Revelator)

More convincingly than any of their peers, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings dipped their ladle into the pot of old-timey American music. On the reflective Time (the Revelator), as their striking vocals wrap tautly around each other, a hushed epic unfolds. The spirited “Red Clay Halo”—a gorgeously simple rumination on poverty, sin and redemption—captures the essence of the duo’s timeless songs: “And it’s under my nails and it’s under my collar / And it shows on my Sunday clothes / Though I do my best with the soap and the water / but the damned old dirt won’t go.” Welch and Rawlings can’t seem to get the dirt out of their music, either. And thank goodness for that. —Kate Kiefer

9. Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera

This album wasn’t as musically arresting as the band’s soon-to-arrive masterpieces, but it was a bold announcement of big ambitions. This band wasn’t going to be satisfied with the familiar fare of pills, bottles, cars, guitars, guns and women, the usual swaggering celebration of being 21 and male. They wanted to make music out of the dread beneath the swagger—and not just with lyrics but also with guitar figures that seemed to call out to something that did not answer. It was obvious that the DBTs loved their native South at least as much as regional jingoists such as Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. But while the latter evinced an adolescent love for an idealized fantasy of the South, the DBTs pursued an adult love that recognized all the flaws of the region and loved it just the same. —Geoffrey Himes

8. Weezer: Weezer (The Green Album)

Bullying proved very effective when Weezer went radio silent following the disappointing reception of their now-beloved 1996 album Pinkerton. In 2001 they reemerged, back and poppier than ever. It seems like the trauma of taking literally every bit of himself from the deepest, darkest crevices of his mind and putting it onto an album made frontman Rivers Cuomo focus more on creating earworms. The result is a power-pop staple, perfected by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, arguably the king of the genre. The Green Album was the exact opposite of Pinkerton in every way and was the domino that started Weezer on their trajectory from vulnerable nerds to family-friendly pop goodness. However you feel about Weezer, one thing is for certain: They know how to write the perfect pop-rock song. —Jade Gomez

7. The Shins: Oh, Inverted World

When Sub Pop selected “New Slang” as one of their Singles-of-the-Month, the response was immediate. Albequerque’s James Mercer was quickly looking at a full-on record deal, and the label that made its name during the grunge movement was about to get a second life as the epicenter of indie rock. There were plenty of other acts making music that would help usher in the indie era, but nothing marked the the appetite for quirky, folky, quiet rock quite like Mercer’s first falsetto oooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ohh-ooh-ooh-oooohs at the beginning of “New Slang.” With its opaque lyrics about deteriorating relationships and dissatisfaction about one’s lot in life married to bouncy rhythms and chiming guitar melodies connected with disaffected rock fans. The first iPod was released four months after Oh, Inverted World, and what better to fill up something novel than with something novel. Over the next few years, the band would be name-checked by Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, and the album would earn its Gold Record status from the RIAA. It might not change your life, but it definitely changed the music landscape of the 2000s. —Josh Jackson

6. Radiohead: Amnesiac

Amnesiac deserves better than its reputation as Kid A’s not-as-loved Irish twin. “Hunting Bears” and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” are as chillingly fragmented as any of Kid A’s dissociative electronic experiments, and “Pyramid Song” and “You and Whose Army?” house two of Radiohead’s all-time-best dynamic swells and instrumental expansions. Thom Yorke’s signature swirl of technological, global and personal dread pervades the album from its very outset through the political ire of closing ballad “Life in a Glasshouse,” nestling vividly into the eerily gorgeous chorus of “Knives Out” along the way. Amnesiac isn’t Kid B—it’s that family friend you call a cousin, a vital part of the lineage yet bearing memorable marks all its own.—Max Freedman

5. Jay-Z: The Blueprint

Twenty years ago, Jay-Z was staring down the real possibility of a long stint in prison. Looming over his head was a gun possession charge and an assault charge, the latter of which could have landed him in the clink for 15 years. So he did what any rapper at the top of their game would have done: He went into the studio and poured every last ounce of his frustrations, fears, anger and bitter humor into his music. The Blueprint, the album that came out of this flurry of activity (Hov reportedly tracked nine of these songs in two days), is bold and furious—the sound of a man going down swinging. Backed by production from Kanye West, Timbaland, Bink and Just Blaze, Jay aimed for new lyrical heights, pushing aside his worry about jail time with chest-puffed-out ego trips and the settling of his scores with all the rappers (Mobb Deep and Nas, among them) that were coming for his crown. Even on his most sensitive moment, the ruminative “Song Cry,” he admits he’s too proud to let anyone see him shed a tear, so he has to let the music do the weeping for him. The gun charge was dropped. He served three years’ probation after pleading guilty to third-degree assault. The Blueprint went double platinum. More brilliance followed. It all came so close to not happening. —Robert Ham

4. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells

Crunchy rock that flips between clean bluesy progressions and speaker-rattling punk fuzz with ease, The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells launched the duo into the mainstream and the mainstream back into the garage. An Americana-rooted, longing treble yell, Jack and Meg White’s third album helped kickstart the early ’00s rock revival with a dedication to rollicking purity of vision and instrumentation: drums, guitar and—on occasion—a piano. Sometimes, like in “Little Room” (sort of a work song spiraling out of control), it’s just Jack howling alongside a pounding beat. While songs like “Expecting,” “Aluminum” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” advance like hulking pieces of metal machinery, the album’s best when it betrays the Stooges-esque energy that threatens to run rampant and burn something down if played too loud for too many people. “I Think I Smell a Rat” could intimidate a bullfighter’s opponent into surrender. “Fell In Love With a Girl,” a perfect song, could barely be bricked in by its LEGO-based video. Even the catchy, calmer jams on the album (it’s hard to think of a more wholesome song than “We’re Going to Be Friends”) pulse with invigorating simplicity. It’s rock. Rock rules. White Blood Cells rules. —Jacob Oller

3. Gorillaz: Gorillaz

Gorillaz’ self-titled debut is the moment every musician pines for. That moment when you’re exploring a new sound or a new series of sounds and just have a breakthrough. Suddenly the tired past is gone and you’re playing with something completely new and foreign to you. It sounds good, great even. You’re not crap at it and really just beginning to see how far this experiment can go. Gorillaz is maybe one of the most successful obfuscations of oneself, reinvention and experiment all in one. A virtual band as a front for Damon Albarn (of Blur fame) to mess around with different genres, the sounds and vibes pioneered on their 2001 debut Gorillaz would solidify the band as icons and make for a revolutionary melding of sounds and visuals that would redefine what it meant to even be a band. This first record so thoroughly understands the genres it pulls from, it’s a wonder Albarn wasn’t playing dress up as the Gorillaz for longer, and makes for a band and sound that was genuinely cutting edge when it arrived on the scene in 2001. Which is all to say, “Clint Eastwood” blowing up was no fluke. Gorillaz is miraculously psychedelic, funky and soulful all at the same time, and this is before it swerves completely on tracks like “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo).” “5/4” is a remarkably fun garage rock tune with smooth vocals, and where someone else might feel like they’re meandering on “Sound Check(Gravity),” Albarn as 2D sounds more resigned than aimless, which doesn’t just make for a great delivery but solid characterization too. The production across the board only further cements that Gorillaz really showed an understanding early of exactly what the band’s vibe should be. —Moises Taveras

2. Daft Punk: Discovery

Don’t overthink it: Discovery is Daft Punk’s biggest, brightest, giddiest album, and their best. This thing opens with the delirious dance-floor nirvana of “One More Time”—whose anime music video aired on Cartoon Network’s late-night Toonami block 20 years ago, blowing my pre-teen mind—and not only doesn’t let the listener down after that, but also gets even better with electro-pop perfection like “Digital Love,” which we recently ranked as the best-ever Daft Punk track. All of the robots’ sonic proclivities are represented here, from the skeletal, sprawling house of Homework-era Daft Punk (“Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”) to the somber, gurgling R&B songcraft (“Something About Us”) that would define their late-career resurgence with Random Access Memories. It’s a feat of crate-digging, a towering monument to the melodic cheat code that is the vocoder, and an all-around essential entry in the dance music canon. —Scott Russell

1. The Strokes: Is This It

It’s 2001. Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park’s shouty, self-pitying debut, is the best-selling album in America. This same year, five young men cast turn-of the-century rock into stark relief with a half-hour-long album of 11 swaggering, scruffy pop songs—a fictional greatest-hits collection that seemed to capture everything great about underground 1970s rock. Is This It might not have toppled the nü-metal Goliaths in terms of sales, but it saved rock ’n’ roll from the bloat that seemed inescapable in the Fred Durst era. Assertive but not boorish, charming but not sleazy, ironic but not empty, The Strokes’ debut was as cool and arrogant as it had the right to be—as it suddenly seemed, once again, that rock music had to be. Julian Casablancas’ ambivalent lyrics and the band’s pinpoint precision rendered the album both wry and accessible. The record’s mood and attitude—those ineffable, un-reproducible qualities—solidified its status as a masterpiece. By 2001, modern rock had become so generic as to be placeless, but the first time you played Is This It, you heard the elusive, seductive sound of New York, a city devastated by 9/11 that somehow lost none of its gritty allure. Is This It, it turned out, was—and is—as dynamic, soulful and enduring as the city itself. —Mark Krotov