Anyone over 40 knows how nostalgia can creep up on us. One minute you’re the single 20-something at the concert, the next you’re a parent hearing those same songs on classic rock radio.
Pop culture loves loving back two decades. The 2000s saw an 80s resurgence, while the 90s craze of the 2010s is just now subsiding. So we’re due for a fond look-back on… 2001?
God, I’m getting old. The following rings in 2021 with the best albums of 2001, in no particular order.
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10 Is This It (The Strokes)
The Strokes occupy an odd place in rock history. Detractors might say they were merely a decent band amid a barren post-grunge wasteland dominated by mediocre, derivative acts like The Foo Fighters and Third Eye Blind. Fans might counter that by asserting The Strokes were among a handful of bands who popularized a stripped-down, casually discordant genre loosely referred to as hipster rock.
Writing for The Village Voice – a now-defunct but once highly influential NYC weekly – Robert Christgau may have come closest to an apt description. He saw the Strokes as a “great groove band” whose “beats implode, clashing/resolving with punky brevity and gnarly faux simplicity.”
Released in July 2001, “Is This It” was the band’s debut studio album, and its most commercially successful. Propelled by front man Julian Casablancas, whose vocals alternate between low-key and grating, the albums trifecta of singles – “Hard To Explain,” “Last Nite” and “Someday” – saw significant airplay on rock stations across North America, the UK and Australia.
Notably, the album also had an impact on fashion. In the UK’s Observer, Gary Mulholland considered it a “world-changing moment” with “immediate and dramatic impact” on both music and attire, while BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe suggests the album moved popular opinion from DJs and pop music to “skinny jeans and guitars.”
9 So Addictive (Miss E. Elliott)
The date was February 1, 2015, and Katy Perry was midway through the worst Super Bowl halftime show in history. She was strutting around with a bunch of dancing beach balls and sharks, for God’s sake.
Then one of the most talented female performers ever swooped in to save the day. Emerging through smoke, the trademark Timbaland beat erupted over the sound system, and Miss E. Elliott began a vintage, flawless version of “Get Ur Freak On.”
The smash hit, nominated for a Grammy in the Best R&B Song category, was the first single off Elliott’s third studio album, “So Addictive.” Released in May 2001, the album debuted at number two on the charts, selling a quarter million copies its first week en route to a million by mid-summer. The radio couldn’t get enough hits from “So Addictive,” whose four additional singles included “Lick Shots,” “Take Away,” “4 My People” and “One Minute Man” featuring Ludacris and Trina.
Critically, not a dissenting voice could be found. “So Addictive” boasts an 89/100 on critic aggregator Metacritic, with 16 positive reviews and exactly no negative ones (in fact, there aren’t even any “mixed” reviews). Playlouder sums Miss E.’s genius up well: “It’s not so much her actual rapping skills but her keen ear for a devastatingly simple track structure that makes her stuff so satisfying.” Almost anyone, including Michelle Obama, would agree with that sentiment.
8 White Blood Cells (The White Stripes)
Along with The Strokes, Jack and Meg White, a.k.a. The White Stripes, were the best of the post-alternative hipster rock scene that emerged in the early 2000s. Released in July 2001, “White Blood Cells” was the third album from the prolific duo in as many years, and arguably its best; in 2012, Rolling Stone ranked it #497 on its list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time.
The group’s first substantial commercial success, “White Blood Cells” showcases the diversity and playfulness of the duo, ranging between traditional rock and folksy, almost country-sounding ditties. An example of the latter would be “Hotel Yorba,” which despite being the first song released from the album would draw wider notice only in hindsight.
Rather, it was the album’s second single, “Fell in Love with a Girl,” that put the White Stripes on the mainstream map. The track exemplifies several of the band’s calling cards, including Jack’s inventive guitar playing and high-pitched voice and Meg’s intentionally carefree drum banging – which former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl praises as standing apart from the tidier, more metronome-esque style that has taken root.
In the album’s third single, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” the pair sway between soft crooning and hard guitar riffs. Its fourth, “We’re Going to Be Friends,” imagines two schoolchildren walking to class with a simple, quiet melody that could be enjoyed anywhere from a rock station to Sesame Street.
7 The Blueprint (Jay-Z)
In 2001, the era’s best rapper released his latest album on the worst day of the year: September 11. For countless commuters – myself included – walking purposefully north from downtown Manhattan’s financial district (the subway was promptly closed), an oddball memory is the huge cardboard cut-outs in front of record stores. Jigga was back.
“The Blueprint” is arguably the greatest album from a rapper undoubtedly on the short list of greatest ever. A departure from the straightforward hip-hop beats at which he’d already excelled, “The Blueprint” sees Jay-Z sampling funk classics and adapting his unsurpassed lyricism accordingly. In “Heart of the City,” which samples Bobby Bland’s 1974 hit “Ain’t No Love,” Jay-Z cleverly places himself above the day’s rap rivalries: “Look scrappa I got nephews to look afta / So I ain’t lookin’ at you dudes I’m lookin’ past ya.” In “The Takeover,” he treats a feud with Nas like the child’s play it truly is to someone of Jay-Z’s stature: “The Takeova, the race ova, homey / God MC, me, J-Hova.”
A gifted storyteller, Jay-Z looks back on his drug-dealing days in “Renegade,” featuring a then-upstart Eminem. “By the bodega, iron under my coat / Feelin’ braver, doo rag wrappin’ my waves up, pockets full of hope.”
The Blueprint went double platinum, received a rare Five Mics rating from The Source, and in 2020 Rolling Stone ranked it the 50th best album of all time. Jay-Z capped off the year by going acoustic with The Roots in one of the best MTV Unplugged performances to date.
6 Word of Mouf (Ludacris)
Released in late November 2001, the third studio album from Atlanta rapper Ludacris took him from an artist respected within his genre to an internationally known superstar.
“Word of Mouf” is intentionally grandiose, dripping with a club-friendly braggadocio; Jason Birchmeier of AllMusic aptly called it a “superstar affair that aims for mass appeal.” Ludacris’ sole goal is blowing up and, as a result, many of the gritty, personal effects showcased on previous efforts fade to the background. In the foreground, however, is undeniable hip-hop brilliance. The album is so good that its boastfulness seems warranted, leaving listeners too busy nodding their heads to shake them in dismissiveness.
Ludacris is unapologetically out to get money, get laid and get into brawls. The album’s first single, “Area Codes,” finds Big Luda cruising around the country in a G4 treating lucky ladies “with perpendicular, vehicular ho-micide.” “The next single, “Rollout,” is a chest-thumping look-at-me-now anthem. “Where’d you get that platinum chain with them diamonds in it?,” he raps mockingly, “Where’d you get that matching Benz with them windows tinted?”
“Word of Mouf” went triple platinum, and was so huge that its fourth single, “Move Bitch,” became a summer smash the FOLLOWING YEAR. It took 2002’s “The Eminem Show” to deny it a Grammy.
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5 Weezer (Weezer)
Also known as “The Green Album,” the self-titled release was Weezer’s third overall but the first following a five-year hiatus. After scoring big with hits like “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” on their 1994 debut album, Weezer hit a sophomore sales slump with the darker (though to many more mature) 1996 follow-up, “Pinkerton.”
“The Green Album” takes pages from both predecessors, blending alt-pop with punkish punch. In the latter category falls its first single, “Hash Pipe.” While the title hints at defiant teenage pot-smoking, the song is actually about a transvestite prostitute coping with the profession’s indignities. “You’ve got your problems,” Rivers Cuomo croons in his moany, made-for-rock voice, “I’ve got my eyes wide. You’ve got your big Gs / I’ve got my hash pipe.”
Showcasing a dichotomy that might seem schizophrenic were it not for each song’s standalone appeal, the album’s next single, “Island in the Sun,” is the exact opposite. The sing-songy, strum-guitar ditty could be the soundtrack for a Caribbean tourism commercial. Fittingly, “Photograph” deftly marries the two, starting pep rally then drowning the pop with heavy guitars.
In Rolling Stone, music critic Rob Sheffield called the album “a totally crunk geek-punk record, buzzing through ten excellent tunes in less than half an hour, with zero filler.” Despite its contrasting styles, the effort showed a depth and diversity to what some see as an under-appreciated band.
4 Songs in A Minor (Alicia Keys)
It isn’t often a 20-year-old dropping her first LP wins Grammys for Song of the Year and Album of the Year, but that’s exactly what Alicia Keys did. Anchored by lead single “Fallin’,” which reached number one in the US, UK, New Zealand and several Western European countries, “Songs in A Minor” is among the most well-received debuts in R&B history.
“Fallin’” is one of those songs that becomes so popular it drowns out an album’s ensuing singles, but Keys proved far from a one-hit wonder. “Songs in A Minor” generated three additional radio releases. One, “A Woman’s Worth,” also reached number one on the US R&B charts, while the subsequent “How Come You Don’t Call Me” and “Girlfriend” also saw reasonable amounts of airplay.
Critically, a major theme was Keys’ beyond-her-years musical maturity. Writing for USA Today, Steve Jones noted that “Keys already has a musical, artistic and thematic maturity that many more experienced artists never achieve,” while Uncut called the album “frequently stunning” and compared Keys to “a young Aretha Franklin.” High praise indeed.
Though her career since “Songs in A Minor” hasn’t quite measured up to the Queen of Soul, Keys has had a slew of successful efforts and another mega-hit, 2009’s “Empire State of Mind.” The homage to New York co-stars legendary rapper and current list-mate Jay-Z.
3 The Royal Tenenbaums Soundtrack (various artists)
One of Wes Anderson’s finest films was anchored by far and away the best soundtrack of any motion picture released in 2001. The album weaves in original scores by prominent composer Mark Mothersbaugh, along with a mood-appropriate mix of songs from contemporary and classic-rock artists. The latter category includes mainstream acts like Bob Dylan, the Clash and Velvet Underground.
Both the song selection and Anderson’s use of them are masterful. In one scene, singer Nico performs a stripped-down version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” as Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets off a bus. In slow motion, she moves toward her brother Richie (Luke Wilson), who is secretly in love with his adopted sibling. Later, a private eye reveals Margot’s sexual exploits to her estranged husband as the Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk” blares.
The most disturbing and perfectly paired song is saved for Richie’s attempted suicide. At a mirror, he chops off his thick locks and shaves his equally thick beard before turning the razor to his wrists. All the while, “Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith – a haunting song about the gifted songwriter’s lifelong struggle with drugs – strums as the scene switches from bathroom to emergency room. “You know what he did,” sings Smith, “but you idiot kid / you don’t have a clue.”
Elliott Smith, who died in 2003 at age 34, also is prominently featured (six songs) on the soundtrack to 1997’s Good Will Hunting. One track, “Miss Misery,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
2 Gorillaz (The Gorillaz)
One of 2001’s top summer hits was, of all things, a hip-hop/funk song by a British band with no faces. “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad / I got sunshine in a bag,” it begins, deceptively childishly, “I’m useless, but not for long / the future is coming on.”
That song, “Clint Eastwood,” was the first single off the self-titled debut album from the Gorillaz, a UK virtual band. Also called cartoon bands, the term refers to a group whose members are not depicted as actual, physical musicians, but rather animated characters or avatars. Hence, the future coming on.
Oxymoronically, a band committed to having no human faces was fronted by the lead singer of a previously popular group – Damon Albarn of Blur, which rose to prominence in 1997 with the hit “Woo-Hoo.” Gimmicky or not, the Gorillaz were more than publicity-stunt anonymity. Displaying an impressive blend of new age, punk and hip-hop elements, the band followed up its summer smash with three additional singles: “19-2000,” Rock the House” and “Tomorrow Comes Today.”
Typically for so unique a project, the album received mixed reviews. Pitchfork called it a “conceptual failure,” while L.A. Weekly called it “hands down one of the best-produced albums of the year.” Regardless, the LP helped earn the Gorillaz an oddball distinction: the Guinness World Record for Most Successful Virtual Band.
1 Love and Theft (Bob Dylan)
The album on this list that received the least airplay was made by one of the most famous musicians of all time: Bob Dylan, whose 2001 LP “Love and Theft” ranks among his best. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau compared “Love and Theft” to Dylan’s previous, less well-received effort: “If ‘Time Out of Mind’ was his death album… this is his immortality album.”
As with much of his catalogue, social justice is top of mind on “Love and Theft,” whose title was inspired by a 1993 book chronicling blackface minstrelsy in America. On “High Water,” Dylan dives into the American South’s deeply troubling racial history, and describes blues singing as a means of showcasing the biases ingrained in the region’s societal structure.
The final track, “Sugar Baby,” is a lengthy, classically-Dylan ballad, drenched in echoes and spattered with apocalyptic lyrics. “Just as sure as we’re living, just as sure as you’re born,” Dylan’s trademark nasally voice mocks, “Look up, seek your maker ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn.” Music critic Tim Riley praised the song as “built on a disarmingly simple riff that turns foreboding” – tragically ironic considering its release date: September 11, 2001.
“Love and Theft” won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In 2012, Rolling Stone placed it #385 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, while Newsweek named it the second-best album of its decade.
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