College Countdown: CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001, An Introduction

As I mentioned the other day, I had the good fortune to experience a second spin with college radio around a decade after my undergraduate glory years. While I was operating at a very different capacity in relation to the day-to-day operations of the radio station, one of the things I was most grateful for was the opportunity to simply hear excellent new music once again. Despite my best efforts, I’d grown detached from the left of the dial sort of sounds that I favored, having few outlets to hear the latest material where I was living and lacking the funds and energy (and maybe even the sense of adventure) required to pursue the opportunities that were there, with little known performers making stands at the various small local venues. (I recently unearthed an old copy of The Onion which included an ad, circa 1999, that touted the White Stripes opening for Sleater-Kinney at a little hole in the wall club. I had to sit down because I was so overcome with regret over what I’d missed.) I was anxious to discover what was now out there.

As it turned out, the college radio charts were a fascinating mix of the old and the new. Several artists from my heyday–or direct descendents in the form of spin-off bands or solo careers–were still hanging on, although sometimes just barely amidst the major players with broad enough notoriety that I was at least somewhat familiar with their work. There were also fantastic upstarts that I’d never had an inkling of before, even though the kids hovering around the age of twenty viewed them as firmly established titans of their beloved music scene. It was familiar and different all at the same time, less like I’d experienced time travel and more like shuffle-stepping into an alternate dimension where everything looked vaguely the same but something was noticeably off. The contrast, maybe. Or a speaker wire was loose, distorting the sound. I was home, but I was also struck by how much I had to freshly learn.

As I had years earlier, I relied a lot on CMJ, the trade publication devoted to college radio. Though the publication had lost some its ramshackle charm, trading the stack of pages held together by a single staple at the top that I knew from the late nineteen-eighties for a far slicker format, it maintained the pleasing editorial style of boundless enthusiasm for music that was still tempered by knowledgeable, critical assessment. The reviews were still nicely dense with information about the artists, a mark that the magazine was first and foremost a tool for DJs who benefited from having something to say about performers that were bound to be unknown to most of the listeners. There were also plenty of changes in the content, of course, including a wide array of different configured charts. As an extension of that, there was an effort to pull together all of their data in the last issue of the year, providing a snapshot of the twelve months just past, something I don’t remember them doing back in my era, when the close of the calendar barely prompted a backwards glance.

The year-end chart was especially interesting to me because it crystallized the reworked musical landscape I was now taking up residence upon. Even now, I look back at that list and it pulls up that first year working as a professional staff member in college just as assuredly as lists from the late eighties and early nineties place me back in my raucous, joyful youth. So that’s where we’re going next with the College Countdown: the biggest college radio albums of 2001, two at time. It starts next Sunday with an album that I’ll admit I don’t remember in the slightest and another that, at the time, I would have asserted was one of the very best–maybe even the very best–of the whole year.

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