1 BJORK Vespertine (Elektra) The most consistently daring pop artist of our time raises the bar again with an album that’s at once delicate and substantive. Gorgeous but restrained orchestrations of strings, harp, and music box glide over layers of tiny, glitchy electronic sounds–handled by experts like Matmos and Matthew Herbert–creating an intimate space for Bjork’s songs of carnal rapture and emotional ardor. Her vocal idiosyncrasies once seemed like limiting quirks, but she keeps finding new emotions to express through her deep catalog of swoops, curlicues, and cries. And just as heartening as her ongoing creative growth is the undiminished devotion of her fan base.
2 BOB DYLAN “Love and Theft” (Columbia) If you don’t count Wilco’s superb Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which appeared on the Internet for a few weeks this year, as an official release, Bob Dylan’s latest is the shoo-in for great consensus album of 2001. It may not be as dark or as different as 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but this freewheeling survey of American music–Delta blues, western swing, jump blues, Chicago blues, parlor songs, and rock ‘n’ roll–might be Dylan’s most enjoyable recording since the 70s. With a ravaged voice he goes for broke, tackling archetypal tales of lust, love, desperation, death, disaster, and salvation with nothing-left-to-prove charisma, machismo, and, above all, humor. He produced it himself (under the moniker Jack Frost) in two weeks with his longtime touring band, so all the performances have a smoldering immediacy.
3 JASON MORAN TRIO Black Stars (Blue Note) A hell of a feat: septuagenarian reedist Sam Rivers sits in with one of the most exciting, empathic, and self-contained young trios in jazz–pianist Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits–and everybody plays the better for it. More than that, though, Moran is captured here hitting his stride (not to mention playing some, on a knockout version of Jaki Byard’s “Out Front”). The copious jazz history he’s absorbed bleeds out through almost everything he plays, but it never diminishes his capacity to look forward.
4 BASEMENT JAXX Rooty (Astralwerks) To my mind these year-end lists are for lasting pleasures, and since electronic dance music seems designed for quick thrills, it hardly ever makes its way into my annual top ten. So while I enjoyed the second album by this French house duo when it came out, I was totally shocked to find it even deeper and more pleasurable when I pulled it out again recently. An array of guest vocalists provides a slew of accessible hooks, but beneath them is a kinetic masterpiece of dance-music production that manages to combine throbbing house, stuttery two-step, and just plain strange rhythmic eruptions and distortions. This is some cutting-edge hedonism.
5 FANFARE CIOCARLIA Iag Bari (Piranha) On its third album, this high-octane Moldavian Gypsy brass band goes pomo without forfeiting the manic drive that made its music stand out in Emir Kusturica’s 1995 film Underground. Many of the tunes barrel along furiously–some at more than 200 beats per minute–with shockingly articulate trumpet runs, unison clarinet lines, and tuba hocketing, but on Iag Bari the group also brings in guest vocalists, from the wildly emoting Romanian pop star Dan Armeanca to the polyphonic Bulgarian Voices-Angelite choir. They toss in some accordion, violin, and propulsive drumming on a few tunes and even interpolate a bit of the Godfather theme into “Besh o Drom.”
6 RUFUS WAINWRIGHT Poses (Dreamworks) Five different producers sat behind the board for the young singer’s sophomore album, but it’s remarkably coherent–Wainwright’s singing is the undisputed focus of both the breakbeat-infused treatment Alex Gifford of Propellerheads gives “Shadows” and the breezy splendor Ethan Johns brings to “California.” Wainwright’s voice sparkles in multitracked harmonies, even when his phrasing degenerates into slack mumbling, and he’s learning to apply his natural vocal flamboyance to his beguiling melodies instead of vice versa. It’s a huge step forward, and the scary thing is that he’s obviously going to get better still.
7 ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot) The first two songs on Alejandro Escovedo’s finest album are taken from his recent play, By the Hand of the Father, about his father’s migration from Mexico to the U.S.; but then he’s back to chronicling doomed love with bittersweet poignancy. It may be old hat, but he’s never worn it so well: with the help of producer Chris Stamey, he’s finally able to sustain his mix of punkish intensity, folk-rock plaintiveness, Stonesy swagger, and orchestral flavorings for a whole album. Although he’s joined here and there by some alt-country and indie-rock stars–Ryan Adams, Superchunk’s Mac MacCaughan, Mitch Easter–a lot of credit has to go to his touring bandmates, who clearly knew the songs inside and out before they laid them down. A quiet masterpiece.
8 THE BAD PLUS The Bad Plus (Fresh Sound) Here’s one model for the new jazz: pick a nonidiomatic band name, reference other genres as if it were the most natural thing in the world, deconstruct Abba and Nirvana without a whiff of irony, and, most important, ditch the idea that tunes are merely vessels for one round of solos after another. Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and monolithic drummer David King–a founding member of the Minneapolis group Happy Apple–deliver compact, spontaneous-sounding, shape-shifting performances that hold together as well as any pop song.
9 PATTY LOVELESS Mountain Soul (Epic) Was it nostalgia or just savvy marketing that prompted Nashville mainstay Patty Loveless to revisit her roots–she grew up in eastern Kentucky on a steady diet of bluegrass, country, and hillbilly sounds–in the midst of the national obsession with O Brother, Where Art Thou? Who cares–like the sound track to that film, Loveless’s new album updates mountain music with the net effect of showing it for the timeless treasure it is.
10 AB BAARS TRIO Songs (Geestgronden) The longtime trio featuring great Dutch reedist Ab Baars, bassist Wilbert de Joode, and drummer Martin van Duynhoven pays homage to Native Americans in a program studded with surprises. From cheeky winks like the bold overhaul of the jazz standard “Cherokee” to lovely interpretations of traditional songs of the Hopi, Inuit, Navajo, Cheyenne, and the Kwakiutl, it consistently evokes the wide-open spaces of the plains.
Honorable mention: Chicago Underground Quartet, Chicago Underground Quartet (Thrill Jockey); Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart (Mantra); Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, Cachaito (Nonesuch); Aterciopelados, Gozo poderoso (BMG Latin); Arve Henriksen, Sakuteiki (Rune Grammofon); Fennesz, Endless Summer (Mego); Otto, Condom Black (Trama); Califone, Roomsound (Perishable); Shins, Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop); Dungeon Family, …Even in Darkness (Arista).