Discmania

Backbeat writers revisit their favorite albums of the year.

The year 2001 produced its share of catastrophes: major terrorist campaigns in D.C. and New York, a widespread anthrax scare -- and J. Lo's solo debut. Fortunately, there's plenty worth remembering about the first official year of the new millennium, as artists of every genre proved that music still matters, maybe now more than ever. Despite something a young Bob Dylan once said, sometimes you should look back.

BLUEGRASS/COUNTRY/ROOTS

Norman Blake
Flower From the Fields of Alabama (Shanachie)
Another gem from the great singer and guitarist Norman Blake, whose career received a well-deserved boost when he appeared on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Flower is a typically eclectic collection of such Southern musical delights as "Salty Dog," "Sitting on Top of the World" and "If We Never Meet Again (This Side of Heaven)." The 63-year-old Blake sings them all in his plaintive, out-of-the-past voice. This is American roots music at its best. -- David Hill

Rodney Crowell
The Houston Kid
(Sugar Hill)
For many years, Rodney Crowell was among the most literate singer-songwriters working in the Nashville idiom. But because literacy is no longer in vogue at the major labels that control commercial C&W, he's now plying his trade on an independent level. This shift in status has done nothing to undermine his skills, however. The Houston Kid is among Crowell's most moving and finely detailed pieces. -- Michael Roberts

Bob Dylan
Love and Theft
(Columbia)
Time Out of Mind, which earned a Grammy as 1997's best album, is one of the most overrated platters in the Dylan library; in the wake of a serious illness that threatened to silence the Voice of His Generation, the long-player's exhaustion was interpreted as profundity. But its reception has clearly energized Dylan, who sounds livelier on Love and Theft than he has in ages. In comparison with Mind, the new CD's language is sharper, its observations keener, its music more varied. Ol' Bob still has a lot of life left in him. -- Roberts

Robbie Fulks
13 Hillbilly Giants
(Bloodshot)
A beer-soaked, tear-stained tour through Fulks's record collection, 13 Hillbilly Giants finds the Texas troubador covering songs by some of his favorite country singers, including Bill Anderson ("Cocktails"), Wynn Stewart ("Donna on My Mind"), Jean Shepard ("Act Like a Married Man") and Hylo Brown ("Bury the Bottle With Me"). As Fulks opines in the liner notes, "Their songs don't flinch before despair, self-loathing, God, sex and its discontents, insane happiness, or plain insanity." If you think Garth Brooks is a pansy, 13 Hillbilly Giants is for you. -- Hill

Merle Haggard
Roots Volume 1
(Anti-)
Recorded live in Haggard's living room with the singer's crack band, Roots is a quirky but heartfelt tribute to country music's last great era, before rock and roll changed things forever. The Hag, his buttery voice in fine form, sings five songs written by his hero Lefty Frizzell, who in 1953 invited a sixteen-year-old Haggard on stage to sing a song at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield, California. With additional numbers by Hank Thompson, Hank Williams and Haggard himself, Roots is a retro-country delight. -- Hill

Joni Harms
After All
(Real West)
Western swing is tough to pull off in this day and age: Acts attempting to catch its innocence and naiveté can easily miss the mark and wind up sounding either too coy or overly campy. Joni Harms avoids both of these traps through simple sincerity and the lightest of touches. On ditties such as "Weakness for Cowboys" and "Ay Yi Yi Yi," with its merry mariachi horns, her crooning is as airy and refreshing as a cool breeze on a humid summer night. -- Roberts

Kelly Hogan
Because It Feels Good
(Bloodshot)
Kelly Hogan calls her album "a tender bummer makeout record," and that just about captures it. The songs are an eclectic lot, having been penned by tunesmiths ranging from Charlie Rich to Smog's Will Callahan, but Hogan and a gaggle of cohorts including Andrew Bird give them a cohesive feel. And then there's Hogan's throaty voice, which is capable of evoking heartbreak at the drop of a note. Spin this when you're in the doldrums -- because it feels good. -- Roberts

Patty Loveless
Mountain Soul
(Epic)
A superb collection of traditional and contemporary bluegrass songs, Mountain Soul soars above the blander-than-bland "product" coming out of Nashville these days. The Kentucky-born Loveless sings with a chill-inducing purity that's all but disappeared from country music. No wonder bluegrass is enjoying a renaissance these days: Where else can you still hear honest, sometimes scary songs about love and loneliness, sin and redemption -- and drinking? -- Hill

Buddy and Julie Miller
Buddy and Julie Miller
(HighTone)
On their first official album as a couple, the shamefully overlooked Buddy and Julie Miller take us down love's lost highway, where trouble's always waiting around the bend. It's a ride worth taking, though. Buddy, who plays guitar for Emmylou Harris, has released three critically acclaimed albums, all of them masterpieces of country soul. (Think Hank Williams meets Otis Redding.) His wife, Julie, is a top-notch songwriter whose girlish voice is an acquired taste. Together they sound like George and Tammy gone alt-country. -- Hill

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