College Countdown: CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001, 6 and 5

stereo sound
6. Stereolab, Sound-Dust

Stereolab was just starting to rattle college radio’s proverbial cage at about the time I secured my undergraduate degree, a task undertook in concerted foot-dragging fashion, I assure you. The album Mars Audiac Quintet was released about a year after I graduated, its lead single, “Ping Pong,” nicely mapping out the new path noncommercial radio stations might take now that their profit-driven counterparts further up the dial had fully and completely appropriated grunge rock. The music was poppy and light but also archly different, introducing oddity through the casualness of its mildly disenchanted deconstruction of traditional songcraft. Not as resolutely oppositional to warmth and accessibility as, say, Pavement or the band that will be named in about a half a paragraph, Stereolab still seemed to build their sound by feel and instinct. By 2001, when the band released their eighth full-length album, Sound-Dust, they were confirmed college radio stalwarts, each album eagerly anticipated enough that its arrival initiated tug and war debates over whether or not the group was stagnating or moving forward, delivering what was expected and loved or, that most dreaded of college radio condemnations, selling out. The music on Sound-Dust sounded pretty good to me when I heard it, but then they were always a peripheral band to me, peaking when I had the misfortune of not paying attention. To their credit, they seemed to be doing something that was almost unimaginable during my earlier time in college radio: simply settling into a comfortable groove that could provide an extended career. No one really expected them to crossover, nor did they have the burden of continuing to craft epoch-shifting masterworks with every release. They could just go about the business of continuing to create music, to make records. Their fervent acolytes might dwindle, but there was always going to be enough people willing to listen.

guided drills
5. Guided By Voices, Isolation Drills

My god, but did I try to like Guided by Voices back when they were one of the bands of necessity on the college radio scene. As with Stereolab, they had their sizable initial success right after I could no longer claim to be a student at the college radio station. The beloved Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes came out in successive years in the mid-nineties while I was making the awkward and thankfully aborted transition into commercial radio. My dirty little secret is that the albums, to the limited degree that I heard them, represented my sudden detachment from where my recent former home was heading. To use a term that doesn’t really exist but describes my reaction more effectively than any word found in an actual dictionary, I thought their music was an earsore. Robert Pollard’s tendency to put absolutely every idea onto record, whether or not the baking process was complete, led to a lot of songs that were almost great but frustratingly incomplete. Listening to a Guided By Voices record was, for me, like listening to the shards of clumsy takes and in progress material that landed on bonus discs on cash-in reissues. It might be fascinating from a curatorial standpoint, but who could actually listen to this stuff repeatedly? I’m one of those select few who thought the band improved greatly when they started approaching their music in a way that offended the faithful, beginning with the widely reviled 1999 album Do the Collapse, produced by Ric Ocasek of the Cars in about the way that anyone would expect one of the impresarios of Heartbeat City would produce it. I actually liked what I heard of it, although I remained skeptical. It was the follow-up, Isolation Drills, that closed the deal. Lead single “Chasing Heather Crazy” was everything I wanted a Guided by Voices song to be, maintaining Pollard’s offbeat qualities while also applying the demanding rigors of fine pop songwriting to the finished product in much the same way, about a decade earlier, that Pere Ubu’s “Waiting for Mary” was true to that band’s abstract aesthetic yet embraced the charms of taking the extra effort to bang material into finished, appealing shape. That approach is evident all the way through Isolation Drills, so much so that the music kept turning up in the most unlikely of places and earning even more unlikely fans (I have it from a reliable source that “Glad Girls” produces a markedly consistent reaction of joy among females of a certain age). Maybe I didn’t find the slapdash self-destruction of earlier Guided by Voices all that romantic because I’d already been there done that with my music fandom. Whatever the reason, Isolation Drills may have been the end for some, but it was just the beginning for me.

Previously…
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
16 and 15: Rainer Maria and Ani Difranco
14 and 13: The Beta Band and the Strokes
12 and 11: Low and Tortoise
10 and 9: Death Cab For Cutie and Gorillaz
8 and 7: Jimmy Eat World and Björk

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