Below are the divine nine records that made the greatest impact on our tin ears in the year 2000. These are our favorites this week, but, as with every year, a handful of others could have been included, and they're mentioned at the end of this missive. These are in no particular order -- just a big clump of great music, a snapshot of inspiration coming from every which way. (Next week in "Radar Station": the year in St. Louis music.)
Luomo, Vocalcity (Force Tracks). Everything that descends must converge as well, and Luomo's deep deep-house record is slow and plodding, so low that it meets dub in the dirt, so dark that the echoes come from everywhere. House music's four-on-the-floor stomp was originally constructed for celebration, but Vocalcity turns the sentiment on its ass: The beat's there, as are the occasional synthetic handclaps, but Luomo, a pseudonym for Eastern European minimal techno producer Vladislav Delay, manipulates the inherent joy in the house beat until the music verges on dirge; on "The Right Wing," a heavy-duty bass clomps out a rhythm and then repeats it until the weight of the accumulated repetitions nearly collapses the whole thing. Then there's a little pause, a female gasp, a tiny climax and a return to the dirge. It's like "Sister Ray" in its relentless examination, and, as with the Velvet Underground's classic, once it's over you wonder where that time disappeared to and wish that all time could similarly vanish.
The Mekons, Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick). The question mark at the end of the century from the only band able to phrase it properly, End of the Night consumes the lot of Western pop music -- from rock & roll to country to reggae to electronica -- and produces a somber, and sober, reflection. Darkness and doubt follow the record around, but where the Mekons were once wrestling mano a mano with the existential truth, Journey contains a sense of resolve and seems to live in the exact moment when hope turns sour but manages to remain dignified. The music perfectly reflects the vibe, and the band captures a tone nearly identical to James Joyce's "The Dead." The question they ask comes at the beginning of "Last Weeks of the War," and it floats from Sally Timms' mouth: "I'm not ruined, but I need repair; how much more can we bear?"
Mouse on Mars, Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey). A German duo who make engaging and playful electronic music, Mouse on Mars are, along with Plaid, the most melodically sophisticated and inspired artists working in the field of post-techno smartypants dance music. As with Plaid's, MOM's music doesn't work well on the dance floor because there's too much insanity within -- a standard beat is the least of the pair's concerns, and though they often stick to one, most of the songs stutter-step and stumble, jerk and fiddle. Mouse on Mars harnesses a synthetic sound to create quick songs with beginnings, middles and ends. Each has an internal logic, each relies on ideas expressed in the opening moments to make a point for the duration of the song; these little instrumental electronic songs are very pretty, very curious and very exciting. What more do you need?
Outkast, Stankonia (LaFace). Alternately fresh and clean and down and dirty, the Outkast's third record is a masterpiece of both street and book smarts, filled with so much energy and joy that it transcends genre tags -- it's a rap record, sure, but it's also a soul record, an R&B workout and occasionally even a rock and techno record. Stankonia is a genius move, filled with melody, hook, ace rhythms, ace rhymes and, above all, the funk. Like all masterpieces, it reveals a new angle with every listen, and for every hip-hop stomp there's an equally profound humble mumble. For every boast that Big Boi spits, Andre 3000 offers penitence. It's the best hip-hop record of the last five years and one of the best ever.
Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol). The softest, most beautiful record of 2000 is also by turns the most dense, the most fragile and the most transcendent. The pre-eminent guitar band of the '90s doesn't even unpack the instrument until the third song -- a few minutes after the delayed appearance of the first organic snare. That simple fact is at the center of Kid A, an illustration of a rock world in a state of flux. Not that Radiohead seem interested in making that point; rather, they just want to examine a musical instrument, the computer, that more kids are fiddling with these days than electric guitars. And they examine it all right, discovering within the hard disc the same unlimited potential that Hendrix and Sonic Youth discovered in the electric guitar. Roll over, Chuck Berry, and tell Kurt Cobain the news.
Pole, 3 (Matador). Those who doubt a computer's ability to evoke human emotion should direct their gaze at Pole; as bluesy and deep as Lee "Scratch" Perry, Pole, whose parents named him Stefan Betke, digs a trench inside his computer and tunnels through the bullshit crust until he hits a soft, malleable layer of mud, where he sets up camp. Betke's obvious affection for Jamaican dub has in the past bordered on imitation, but on 3 he finds his own voice. Where Perry could always turn to the Congos or Keith Hudson for vocal beauty, Betke stays far away from human utterance, preferring to wallow in the bass and augment it with clicks and pops, the occasional horn sample and a layer of static. If you want electronic music that's going to lift your spirits, go elsewhere. If you want to go to hell, 3 is so deep it's nearly there already.
Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030 (Ark 75). It's tempting to give nearly full credit to Dan the Automator for Deltron's success, because he seems to be the mastermind behind it, and his past work with Kool Keith (as Dr. Octagon) and the Handsome Boy Modeling School has been uniformly inspired. On Deltron 3030, though, emcee Del tha Funkee Homosapien, as the futuristic protagonist Deltron, shines just as brightly; Del recently said that he doesn't really like the record but that he had "some shit I needed to get off my chest," and man oh man can you hear it. Del's on fire, on a 60-minute roll of rhymes so tight and insistent that it's him who keeps the momentum going. Many rap records lose it after the 20-minute mark, but that's when Deltron 3030 is getting started. Rap's now more than 20 years old; compare it with the rise of jazz, and it's approximately the same age as jazz when Charlie Parker was pushing for bop. Many hip-hop headz think the Automator and Del are just weird. Jazz heads thought the same about Parker when he was starting out.
Handsome Family, In the Air (Carrot Top). Songs so perfect and sad and, often, pathetic that, like many of the fictions described within, you're glad they exist but are horrified by their truths. The husband-and-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks makes spare old-time country music, infusing their little stories with so much precision that you fear some of this stuff has actually happened to them ("When you burnt your hair, knocked over chairs, I just tried to stay out of your way. But when you fell asleep with blood on your teeth, I got in my car and drove away," from "So Much Wine.") The references that accompany any mention of the Handsome Family -- Southern Gothic, Flannery O'Connor, etc. -- have grown tired but nonetheless nail the place: It's a dark, scary America -- though not without humor -- so steeped in a tradition that it threatens to bury the entire record.
Isolée, Rest (Playhouse Germany). Like Mouse on Mars, Isolée makes instrumental electronic songs, (not "cuts" or tracks), though unlike MOM, most of the pieces on Rest stick to a consistent beat, so you can dance to them. But they're relatively short and straightforward, even if they're often kinda weird compared with the output of others working in the field of minimal tech-house. "Minimal tech-house"? To simplify, Isolée (the nom de plume of one Rajko Mller) makes his music on the computer. He relies on overtly synthetic sounds and a nearly solid 4/4 house beat but keeps the funny business to a minimum. What separates Isolée from others, though, is the sense that he's making it up as he goes along; he doesn't seem to be trying to replicate his favorite tracks, doesn't seem intent on achieving notoriety. Rather, he seems interested in wonderful melody and precious sound. Rest is often supple and gentle, featuring tones that run into the ears without shock or surprise. Taken as a whole, though, the record is one big surprise.
Also nominated: Matthew Herbert, Let's All Make Mistakes mix CD (Tresor); Nadine, Lit Up from the Inside (Undertow); the Glands, The Glands (Capricorn); Queens of the Stone Age, R (Interscope); Green Velvet, Green Velvet (F-111/Warner Bros.); Suba, São Paulo Confessions (Six Degrees); the Sixths, Hyacinths and Thistles (Merge); the Modernist, Explosion (Matador); Björk, Selmasongs (Elektra); various artists, Putting the Morr Back in Morrissey (Morr Music); Two Lone Swordsmen, Tiny Reminders (Warp); Uri Caine Ensemble, The Goldberg Variations (Winter & Winter); Madonna, Music (Maverick); Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo (Six Degrees).