There's no way around it: 2001 has been a brutally hard year. The terrorist attacks on September 11th sent everybody reeling, and the sagging economy has left millions of people worried and out of work.
So, I don't know -- why has music never sounded better to me? Maybe in the wake of 9/11, I'm more inclined to appreciate things for what they are rather than nag at the ways they fall short. But I can't recall a recent year in which more albums in more different styles brought me pleasure, unsettled my thinking, gave me sustenance or, plain and simple, just got me off.
It became apparent very quickly that I was not going to be able to pare this year-end list of favorites down to the customary ten. So I settled on fifteen (listed in rough order of preference), and very easily could have listed fifty. So before you complain that I didn't include one of your highlights, let me beat you to the punch -- mine aren't all on here either. This was the toughest job I've had to do in a while, but that's a good thing. Any year that produces this much worthy music is far from a total loss.
1. Cousteau, Cousteau (Palm): An album of genuinely haunting beauty, but please don't confuse the seductive sounds of this ambitious British quintet with cheesy lounge music: This is late-night balladeering with a deadly serious intent.
2. John Mayer, Room for Squares (Aware): A completely winning coming-of-age album by a twenty-three-year-old songwriter eager to experience life and all it has to offer. Mayer is smart, but doesn't let his brains crowd out his feelings. When he wonders "Am I living it right?" it's a real question.
3. Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway): The alt-country prodigy delivers on his promise with an album that is dazzling in its hopefulness and energy. And "New York, New York" came at just the right time.
4. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia): The wily old master takes us on a loose, bluesy, boozy journey along the musical backroads of pre-rock America. As he rattles along those blue highways, Dylan knows the reaper is just a couple of miles behind. That's plenty of room for now, though, and if he keeps moving at this heady speed, he may well never get caught.
5. Angie Stone, Mahagony Soul (J Records): Other ladies of soul got the hype -- mostly, truth be told, because they're younger and thinner. But, unlike her flashier rivals, Stone never oversings, allowing the richness of her voice, feeling and ideas to emerge in their own intoxicatingly sweet time.
6. Loudon Wainwright III, Last Man on Earth (Red House): A reflection on the death of the songwriter's mother, this album is moving and, ultimately, heartening. Wainwright curbs his tendency to deflect emotion with humor, but his intelligence and fearlessness are fully evident.
7. Wu-Tang Clan, Iron Flag (Sony): Between RZA's effortlessly original tracks -- a near miracle at this stage of the rap game -- and the relentless word skills of this crew, Iron Flag grips your sonic attention and never lets it loose. ODB is MIA but, wittily, his anarchic progenitor Flavor Flav takes a guest turn.
8. Lucinda Williams, Essence (Lost Highway): Williams lowers the decibel level, but not the intensity on this graceful followup to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Essence is a chronicle of love's elusive ways, but lyrics like "Nothing will make me take you back/Are you down, baby/Down with that?" show that she has lost none of her bite.
9. Mobb Deep, Infamy (Loud): More cinematic mayhem from Havoc and Prodigy, but the emotions run as deep as the grooves -- proof that you don't need to bang and shout to hit with a chilling impact.
10. Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Jive): "Done got old/Can't do the things I used to do," Guy moans over a mournful acoustic guitar on the opening track. But while it's had to accept that this one-time young gun is now 65, he's burning hot, and he takes the blues as deep as it gets.
11. Kid Rock, Cocky (Atlantic): The Kid loves his pimp posturing, but his fondness for Southern rock grandeur is as prominent as his hip-hop fixation on Cocky. Any album that features both Sheryl Crow and Snoop Dogg as guests -- and puts them both to excellent use -- warrants props.
12. Paul McCartney, Driving Rain (Capitol): The former Beatle keeps it simple here, and in that simplicity lies this album's stirring eloquence. This is the story of a man who, after a devastating loss, rediscovers his ability to feel -- a nice metaphor for Macca's recovery of his musical confidence.
13. System of a Down, Toxicity (Sony): Punishing rock & roll that's also thoughtful and challenging. I can do without guitarist Daron Malakian's fascination with Charles Manson (whom he thanks "for his inspiration and honesty"), but Toxicity takes an impressively complex look at social poisons like drugs and the prison system.
14. Joe Henry, Scar (Mammoth): This singer-songwriter has defined a style all his own, a kind of elliptical, 21st century art song. On Scar, you can hear saxophonist Ornette Coleman's lyrical soloing and also Henry's skewed version of his sister-in-law Madonna's "Don't Tell Me," a song he co-wrote.
15. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, B.R.M.C. (Virgin): "Whatever happened to my rock & roll?" this San Francisco trio asks on one of the year's best songs. Not to worry -- it's alive and well on this noisy, mysterious, strangely ethereal and utterly riveting debut.