College Countdown: CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001, 16 and 15

16. Rainer Maria, A Better Version of Me

Occasionally, my re-acquaintance with college radio in 2001 involved something approaching cruelty in the reminders I was given as to how detached I’d become from the music scene. As a College DJ (and Music Director and Program Director and so on), voluminous, intimate and snobbish knowledge of the best and most obscure music being made was the primary component of my prideful self-definition. Being apart from it (at least that first time around) brought me perilously close to becoming the equivalent of the listeners who called in to our radio station in 1989, requesting Grateful Dead songs from twenty years earlier. For instance, it felt like a particularly potent gut punch to discover I knew absolutely nothing about the band Rainer Maria, even though they got their start in Madison, Wisconsin, the city where I worked and where I’d call my home when I didn’t want to admit to the suburban municipal outpost that was my true place of residence. They were hardly modest up-and-comers by 2001, theoretically easy to overlook. Instead, they kicked off the year with the release of their third full-length album, A Better Version of Me. They were probably settled comfortably into Brooklyn by this point, a locale undoubtedly far more nurturing of their mix of bombast and delicacy than the beer blast bars of Wisconsin’s capital, where musical enlightenment typically meant jukeboxes stocked with Buddy Guy instead of Steve Miller, but I still felt chastened that I hadn’t knowingly heard a single note of their music before settling into my new office a stone’s roll away from the on-air studio. I suppose the proper ending to this mundane tale involves my adoption of Rainer Maria as a late-discovered favorite, but I never actually warmed to them, in large part because I never fully adjusted to the way that Caithlin De Marrais’s wavering vocals often pushed back against the music rather than settled into it. Still, I do weirdly feel like I owe the band an apology: I really should have been paying attention to them when we were practically neighbors.

15. Ani Difranco, Revelling/Reckoning

On the other hand, I knew all about Ani Difranco, a favorite artist by marriage. My wonderful partner-in-all-things was an Ani fan from back in college, which is the time frame in which Difranco’s fervent, fierce folk is probably best discovered. I heartily enabled her fandom since making sure her stockpile of Difranco discs was as complete as possible under the theory that it would make my own music obsessiveness (which required no one’s added nurturing) seem palatable, even charming. Thus, Revelling/Reckoning was purchased at the earliest opportunity and listened to with concentrated intent. It had been seventeen months since the release of Difranco’s prior album, the excellent To the Teeth, a notably long gap at a time when she was crazily prolific (To the Teeth was in fact the second studio album Difranco had released that calendar year). Perhaps reflecting the extra time, it was a double album, twenty-nine tracks spread across two CDs. It theoretically reflects great ambition, but it often feels instead like Difranco indulging her questionable habit of putting absolutely everything she creates onto record, whether it’s wholly worth sharing or not. Difranco was still capable of songs that carried with them the very best of her craft (although I’m prepared to assert with re-verified certainty that at least one of those songs was significantly better live), but a lot of album came across as filler, including material that I seem to recall was originally written for a film score project that was abandoned, so it’s literally background music. Our household still has an abiding affection for Difranco (taking swipes at her latest album brought me no pleasure), but this album was actually the beginning of the end of our enthusiasm over her albums. She’s released six studio albums since this one, none of them particularly memorable. Luckily, one of those parenthetical asides up there still has applicable pertinence: she’s still pretty great live.

An Introduction
50 and 49: Creeper Lagoon and Ryan Adams
48 and 47: The (International) Noise Conspiracy and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
46 and 45: Spoon and Black Box Recorder
44 and 43: Rival Schools and Aphex Twin
42 and 41: Ben Folds and Superchunk
40 and 39: The Faint and Modest Mouse
38 and 37: The Shins and R.E.M.
36 and 35: Old 97’s and Red House Painters
34 and 33: Mogwai and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
32 and 31: Death by Chocolate and PJ Harvey
30 and 29: Rocket From the Crypt and The Donnas
28 and 27: U2 and Cake
26 and 25: The Living End and Spiritualized
24 and 23: Ladytron and New Order
22 and 21: Air and Mercury Rev
20 and 19: Daft Punk and Idlewild
18 and 17: Travis and Tricky

9 thoughts on “College Countdown: CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001, 16 and 15

  1. Okay, I’m moving you up on my blogroll because I love reading stuff like this and I should visit more often.

    Everytime I read music criticism, I think to myself “I must not be listening to music the right way” because I don’t know what stuff like “pushes back against the music” means, but Iove reading about it because it makes me think about music more, and even though I already think about music a lot, I get something out of it.

    Or, actually, it makes me think about music differently, not more.

    Anyway: I’m going to check out Rainer Maria. As for Ani DiFranco, here’s what went wrong with her, in my view: sometimes, I can be wrecked for an artist by hearing what’s obviously their greatest song first, as I did with Ani and “Little Plastic Castles,” which is my favorite song by her. So I went and listened to other stuff she recorded and with the exception of “Untouchable Face” none of it was as great, which sucks for her because she made a song that very clearly was brilliant, and it’s hard to do that twice.

    So if I’d heard other stuff first, culminating in “Castles,” I might like all her records. But I heard her best song first and as a result, she immediately went downhill.

    Contrast that with “New Pornographers,” who I first heard play “The Laws Have Changed,” and then heard “Use It,” and then got the rest of their music, and so they’re up and down and have good songs and bad, but when I hear a song from them, I subconsciously compare it to “Laws Have Changed,” an okay song, and so each new song has a chance to be great (“Sweet Talk Sweet Talk”) or terrible (“That One Song About Cobras”) but they at least get a chance.

    I know: it’s insane. But that’s life.

    1. It’s an interesting point about “Little Plastic Castles” as a problematic introduction to Ani Difranco. It may not be her best song, but it’s almost surely her best single, a succinct, focuses burst of musical inspiration that leaps out and demands attention when played on the radio (and that’s one of the few Ani songs that was). The song is also largely at odds with the much of the rest of her work, with its punctuating horns and galloping rhythm. It’s not only going to make other songs seem drab in comparison because it’s a peak, but also thanks to the very different, much fuller sound it has. If this is the song you’re chasing, you may never find it again across her many, many, many albums.

      And I appreciate the compliment. I claim no expertise with a phrase like “pushes back against the music.” I’m writing by feel here. I used to marvel when my friend Holly talked about great music, articulating the the very things I loved in songs with knowledgeable assessment of the actual structure of the works. Me, I wouldn’t know a minor third or a perfect fifth if I heard either one of them played for an hour straight. I do what I can. If you do listen to some Rainer Maria, you’ll need to tell me if you hear what I wrote.

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