In a year of overripe, overzealous pop, lackluster superstar comebacks, and bottom-of-the-barrel nü-metal, it was the quieter, less obtrusive titles that not-quite-silently etched their way into our psyches. Wannabe hit singles eclipsed the popular and the most enterprising videos rarely induced a yelp on MTV’s Total Request Live. Here are Slant Magazine’s picks for 2001:
1. Aaliyah, Aaliyah
I was never a fan of Aaliyah’s music; in fact, it wasn’t until just prior to the release of her third album, Aaliyah that I really took notice. Sure, “Back and Forth” and “One in a Million” were stamped and filed somewhere in my mental musical index (right next to an image of the slowly maturing performer stomping seductively in a black gown and heels in the final images of the “Are You That Somebody” video clip), but it wasn’t until 2000’s Romeo Must Die soundtrack that the singer fully seized my attention. I was given a quick history lesson via Napster (“Four Page Letter,” “At Your Best,” “If Your Girl Only Knew”) and determined that Aaliyah’s forthcoming self-titled release could potentially be one of the hottest albums of 2001. Sure enough, July 17th arrived and for over a month, Aaliyah rarely left my CD changer.
The album is quintessential rhythm and blues, encompassing the boundless energy of Prince and the sexual revelation of a disco-era Diana Ross. Aaliyah’s velveteen voice is richly embedded somewhere between Minnie Riperton and Janet Jackson but, remarkably, the singer never loses her self. Aaliyah, after all, doesn’t outwardly mimic; her influences are engrained in every note, every smiling glance, and every beat. (Those beats, incidentally, are courtesy of Timbaland associates Rapture and E. Seats, responsible for creating a varied yet seamless R&B masterpiece.) “I Care 4 U” is the disc’s stunning centerpiece; ominous keyboards, reverberating synth chords, and an expressive vocal make for a timeless ballad (the Missy Elliott-penned track was, in fact, recorded five years ago). Aaliyah confronts issues like abuse (“Never No More”) and infidelity (“I Can Be”), but the darkness of her delivery coupled with equally dark beats never fades to black; her tone reveals a woman beyond her years, a soul rich with experience.
The night Aaliyah was killed was a surreal one; it was two in the morning when I heard the news. In the days that followed, I couldn’t shake images of the young star (just two months older than me), and I began thinking about her career, one that was just on the verge of exploding. As for her album, listening became uncomfortable if not wholly unbearable. In the days following September 11th, however, I found myself gravitating back toward Aaliyah. Music, always a healing tool, seemed to be comforting Americans across the country and I found my own personal relief in the sounds of an angel. Tragedy may have given Aaliyah (and Aaliyah) beautiful new purpose.
2. Björk, Vespertine
Elektra Records should have packaged Björk’s Vespertine with a pair of headphones. Like the song “Headphones,” from 1995’s Post, Vespertine’s dozen sonic landscapes are peppered with sounds layered within layers of minimalist strata. But unlike Post and its follow-up, Homogenic, Vespertine is less dynamic than it is quietly introspective. Where “Enjoy” and “Pluto” pounded listeners into submission, Björk’s newest creation bids one into domestic reverie. Fans may have anticipated something more aggressive after a four-year recording hiatus that included Dancer in the Dark and Selmasongs, but leave your expectations (and your shoes) at the door.
3. Herbert, Bodily Functions
Matthew Herbert is the Lars von Trier of the music world. The equivalent of the director’s loose extrapolation of the Dogma film theory, Herbert’s Manifesto of Mistakes recording process is injected with elements of musique concrète at its most liberal (and gorgeous). Hot off the heels of his work with Björk, Herbert unleashed his own revolution on the electronic music scene with Bodily Functions. A broad mix of the organic (warm, jazzy vocals, fugel horn, and piano), the manufactured (synthesizers and sampled percussion), and the unplanned (in-studio voices and door slams), the album breathes even more life into one of the most multipotent, ever-evolving genres.
4. Mandalay, Solace
The year’s best pop album didn’t come from Britney, ’NSync, or even Michael or Janet for that matter. A compilation of their two U.K. releases, Solace is Mandalay’s first stateside release, beautifully illustrating what has made the band such a success overseas. Of course, trip-pop has always been a harder sell in the U.S., but with the endorsement of Euro-pop scavenger Madonna and a slew of moderate club hits, can radio be far behind? Bewitching, complex, and, most importantly, downright infectious, Solace is electronic-pop at its most captivating.