Copyright 2000 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company  
The Houston Chronicle

December 29, 2000, Friday 2 STAR EDITION


LENGTH: 1829 words

From revitalized rockers to up-and-coming stars, this eclectic mix has something for everyone.



Funny, but few of the best-selling albums of the year even came close to being the best CDs of 2000.

'N Sync's No Strings Attached and Britney Spears Oops   I Did It Again, sold nearly 4 million copies in a week, but both were average at best.

Of the new huge debuts, Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP might be remembered years from now for shock value but probably not artistry. The smooth R&B of D'Angelo's Voodoo paved the way for his future, while Limp Bizkit's Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water proved it knows how to tap into what kids think is cool.

Many others - Mystikal, Madonna, Ice Cube, Ricky Martin - were curios that, after a strong first week or two, decelerated quickly after takeoff. Of the contemporary rock superstars, it was U2 and matchbox twenty that made career defining albums in 2000. As for a breakout rap star, Midwest party-rhymer Nelly is the clear music story at the dawn of the new millennium.

The rest of the best aren't likely to be heard on Top 40 radio. A gentle singer-songwriter like Aimee Mann doesn't move units, but her voice and words contributed to two of the year's best song collections. Catchier Everclear songs like Wonderful and A.M. Radio were picked up for mass distribution, but singles aren't that band's whole story by a long shot.

The year 2000 should be remembered for its artistic diversity - a legend like Joni Mitchell carries an orchestra, Millencolin gives reason to believe punk isn't dead, and Blue October and Steve Earle demonstrate how vital Texas is to national entertainment. Here are my 10 best albums of 2000.

1. All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2: When U2 is no more, and the band's career is one day summarized, several albums will be vital to any description.

War will always be the breakthrough. The Joshua Tree was the superstar maker, and All That You Can't Leave Behind is the work that revived the Irish quartet's soul.

After a decade of computer bleeps and blips, synthesized vocal distortion and hypnotically redundant drumbeats, All That You Can't Leave Behind, picks up where U2's simple rock 'n' roll heart stopped beating in 1989. There isn't a Lemon or a lemon among the 11 tracks.

The gentle bass intros of Adam Clayton and the galloping-to-velocity drums of Larry Mullen Jr. are back. The most welcome return, however, is the stand-alone offensive of the Edge's guitar. His groundswell on Beautiful Day and Peace on Earth are the rock 'n' roll equivalent of a boot camp bugle.

The near-cracking vocals of an older Bono are those of a man entering a midlife crisis. He's a big-picture guy, whether extrapolating on his love of big-city life in New York or enjoying pleasure through pain in Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of.

Every legendary band has one of its finest moments at an unexpected time. All That You Can't Leave Behind is U2's.

2. Magnolia soundtrack, featuring Aimee Mann: Only Mann posed the question of just which of her 2000 projects was her best (technically Magnolia was the very end of 1999). Both the soundtrack to the film Magnolia and her own album, Bachelor No. 2 or the Last Remains of the Dodo were superior to much of everything else. In the end, the movie music won out because the songs grooved so succinctly with the visual accompaniment.

Mann's nine songs of societal disaffection and personal distrust explained the complex, interwoven story lines with directness and blunt truth. The simple strums and conversational ease of her voice on Build That Wall and Deathly make personal encounters with these demons more manageable. The culminating stroke of Wise Up is the second step after admitting there's a problem.

3. Songs From an America Movie Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile, Everclear: Lead singer Art Alexakis is killing them softly with punk songs. While pop gets its teeth bleached and rap keeps talking all about the Benjamins, Everclear is making life in unemployment lines and modest living seem natural. Even comfortable.

The couple running off on a chartered bus in Learning to Smile have a blue-collar romance that's hard not to admire. The '80s modern rock beat of Here We Go Again is the instruction manual for Alexakis' ideal date: dinner and a movie. In his case, however, its greasy takeout food on a lumpy mattress watching porn. How could a girl not swoon?

At no point do you feel that he has not lived every one of these experiences and that includes his tremendous affection for his daughter on Annabella's Song. The whole scenario seems made for a not-yet-written movie. Or at least a low-budget TV special. Wonderful.

4. Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell: It was natural for alarms to go off when Mitchell announced she would be doing an album of covers backed by a full orchestra.

In the '60s and '70s Mitchell was the female conscience of Bob Dylan, defining how a generation acted, reacted and felt inside. It seemed like a betrayal that she would scooch that aside for a little set of torch tunes, even if she did deserve the break. Surprisingly, with Both Sides Now she's shown there's nothing she can't turn into little puffy clouds.

Choosing from an American songbook made famous by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Mitchell lets her breath and voice speak louder than her own words. On At Last and Stormy Weather the Joni Plain-and-Tall we love is recast as a gown-wearing club singer out of a detective novel or James Bond casino.

Not surprisingly, the best reworking here is of her own songs. The lush renewal of A Case of You, backed by a complement of strings and sung by Mitchell's confident echo, is the song of the year.

5. Consent to Treatment, Blue October: It's so cool that one of the best rock albums of the year was created by Houston's own Blue October. And it's so sad that, despite major label distribution, the rest of the country hasn't discovered it.

There are a lot of avenues to explore when finding fault for Blue October's lack of exposure (absent marketing campaign and uncooperative radio). The short version is that Consent to Treatment may be too complex for today's tastes. Had it come out in the gloomy mod rock '80s or even insolent early '90s it probably would have been a classic.

The mixture of guitars, furious violins and Justin Furstenfeld's vocal desperation on HRSA and Balance Beam make the Cure's Robert Smith and Morrissey seem like happy scamps. The right album, the wrong time.

6. Mad Season, matchbox twenty - If marriage, a little weight loss, teetotaling and wisdom from Santana were the keys to songwriting success, everybody would be doing it. Over the last year something else has happened to matchbox twenty lead singer Rob Thomas leading to the cohesive Mad Season.

He added another dimension or two to his point of view.

Most singles don't tell the tale of an entire album very well, but radio-friendly Bent is an exception. Beginning with a high-to-low strum of frustration, it culminates in a powerful guitar bridge pleading for guidance. The reflective gesture clearly vaulted him above bratty rock boy peers Third Eye Blind and Smashmouth.

Thomas asks for similar acceptance on Angry and Crutch dodging around ornate guitar movements. Black and White People, meanwhile, turns the tables, asking listeners to examine themselves. Mad Season won't be remembered as matchbox twenty's mainstream bonanza, but it should be the album people return to when asking themselves when this band turned the artistic corner.

7. Transcendental Blues, Steve Earle: Earle has always been the angrier, more reckless country-rock cousin of Townes Van Zandt, which has made him something of a Texas folk hero. On The Mountain, the album before Transcendental Blues, he explored a bluegrass sound that he had only flirted with in the past.

Transcendental Blues straddles the line between twang-bang and mandolin strum and tells much about the current state of Earle, the man. From the title, which is both melancholy and transitory, to sad tales like The Boy Who Never Cried and Lonelier Than This, Earle reviews a life of substance abuse and confinement pondering other choices he could have made.

The Galway Girl, a Celtic-rooted romance accompanied by tin whistle and accordion, is unbelievable in its gentility, considering it comes from this career rebel-rocker.

8. Tomorrow's Sounds Today, Dwight Yoakam: Yoakam is working the collaborative magic that Carlos Santana used on Supernatural in reverse. Instead of looking to the future for guest artists and inspiration, Yoakam is mining the past.

He found it in Western traditionalist Buck Owens and Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez for Tomorrow's Sounds Today. Songs like Caught Up to Me and The Sad Side of Town are reminiscent of traditional country by Bob Wills and the honky-tonk of Lefty Frizzell. Combined with Yoakam's smooth croon he's a little right of Chris Isaak and a little left of Elvis Presley.

In 2000 it makes him the country king of the road. No small feat considering Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash both put out quality albums this year.

9. Country Grammar, Nelly: I'm going down down baby, your street in a Range Rover. Boom Boom  

I'm not sure if those are the exact lyrics to the main hook to Nelly's hit single, Country Grammar, from the album of the same name. More important, I don't care. It's close enough and a lot of fun to shout along to while driving.

While the hate and misogyny of Eminem was the rap story of 2000, St. Louis' Nelly quietly carved his own urban niche: phat beats with feel-good lyrics. Nelly is from the same hard-core school as Master P and DMX, but in the Lou, (as he refers to his arched hometown) the projects are just one big party.

It's a refreshing new take on overworked hard-luck scenarios. Instead of blaming the streets for keeping him down, he makes his neighborhood sound like an alluring subculture.

Clearly short of money growing up, his experience is rich on relationships, hanging out and making the most out of little. There are some loose mentions about casual sex and smoking, but it's a minor player on a music set where cruising and flirting are the stars.

10. Pennybridge Pioneers, Millencolin: Again, great album, bad timing. If the three-chords-and-the truth punk of Rancid and Offspring were still in vogue, Scandinavian punks Millencolin would probably be the new Green Day. Songs like No Cigar and Material Boy, are well-thought-out hysterical rants that use sarcasm to make a point about the evils of consumerism and order.

Apparently, older punks also see a future for Millencolin. Epitaph Records honcho and former Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz produced the album and many have cited the Scandis as the latest offspring of the Southern California scene. Pennybridge Pioneers also crosses generational boundaries. (My 17-year-old nephew asked for it for Christmas. Only after he realizes his uncle digs Millencolin, too, will he discard it as too trendy.)

GRAPHIC: Photos: 1-8. Clockwise from top left: Songs From an America Movie Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile, Everclear; Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell; Magnolia soundtrack, featuring Aimee Mann; Tomorrow's Sounds Today, Dwight Yoakam; Mad Season, matchbox twenty; All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2; Country Grammar, Nelly; and Transcendental Blues, Steve Earle (color); 9. Unidentified person (b/w); 10. Album titled "Consent to treatment" (b/w, p. 16); 11. Album titled "Pennybridge Pioneers" (b/w, p. 16)