There was something creepy about seeing new releases by Madonna, Sade and U2 in 2000. It was like traveling back to the late '80s. On their newest effort, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2 include a song titled "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," which would be a great joke if you believe that Bono and his mates have a sense of humor.
And yet anyone not predisposed to despise U2 will agree that the band's latest is an elegant reawakening. It's shimmering and mystical, as if they have found a reason to believe in music as a healing force unlike any other.
But three recordings by the '80s icons, despite their considerable merits, don't reflect the year in music. Of the tens of thousands of songs released to the buying public or their (circle one) thieving/borrowing Napster-using counterparts, the only song that crossed divides of culture, generation, income and ethnicity was "Who Let the Dogs Out" by Bahama's Baha Men. Groan if you must, but that was the extent of America's shared musical experience.
There was of course "The Thong Song" and "Oops ... I Did It Again," but grandparents didn't chant those two at Mets games. Of course, all the "woof-woofing" eventually became annoying, but the absence of any other such wildly popular song is just one more piece of evidence that America's common musical culture has continued to evaporate. There is no longer a vast cross section of the population sharing musical tastes and residing in the same musical spectrum.
And that's probably not a bad thing. The country may be split down the middle politically, but musically we are as fractured as the Italian Legislature.
Of course, the music industry produced more than barking-dog songs in 2000. A great deal of trash was served up on those shiny little platters, but there was an awful lot of beauty and brilliance as well.
The depressing news -- if you let this sort of thing get you down -- is that so much of what was bad sold in such amazing quantities. In the first week in stores alone, combined sales of new offerings by Britney Spears, 'N Sync and Limp Bizkit topped 4.5 million units. At $16 a pop, that's a quick and very cool $72 million.
Those numbers shouldn't be troubling. Romance novels consistently outsell literature and no one worries that Danielle Steel will undermine an entire civilization. In fact, the outlook for music fans seeking a respite from the boy bands, bubblegum divettes and rap/metal blowhards is not in the least bit bleak. It's just that with rare exceptions, most of the music worth hearing is being played below the charts.
Most noteworthy among artists who achieved both critical acclaim and top sales was Eminem, whose "The Marshall Mathers LP" has sold millions and, though they struggled with the implications, most critics admitted they loved. Also sneaking through was the English group Radiohead, whose mostly lauded (though not by this writer) album "Kid A" charted at No. 1 on its first week on the charts with almost zero radio airplay and the fiercest nonpublicity campaign ever waged. Atlanta rap duo Outkast and neo-soul crooner D'Angelo also managed the rare double of succeeding with both critics and the record-buying public.
But for the most part the top of the charts wasn't where you wanted to look for great tunes. You had to be open to music of all styles and be willing to experiment. Miles Davis, a famous objector to separating music by category, said in his autobiography, "Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is."
With that in mind, it helps to be reminded that plenty of good music of all kinds was released in 2000. Here are just 25 examples.
1. Whether you despise Eminem or admire him -- and it makes perfect sense to do both -- "The Marshall Mathers LP" was the most intriguing musical offering of the year. Critics tripped all over themselves to praise his talent while acknowledging that, just perhaps, his homophobia and misogyny and corrupted social standards were untenable. But as off-putting as Eminem's lyrics can be, in real-world terms he has less to answer for than, say, the state of Florida. Or the Supreme Court. His violent fantasies are tiresome, but he is among the cleverest wordsmiths in the rap game.
2. As a relative newcomer to thug life, however, Eminem could learn a thing or two from Merle Haggard. Haggard has done some time in prison, but, at 63, he's put troubles behind. On his heartbreakingly good new album, "If I Could Only Fly," he sings, "I knew some day you'd find out about San Quentin/And your heart would break and your faith would go away/But it's time you knew the truth about your papa/I've not always been the man I am today." Imagining Eminem in his 60s is difficult enough. Imagining him with the grace of a life-hardened Haggard is almost impossible.
3. The North Mississippi All-Stars made a strong case for the future of the blues with their album "Shake Hands With Shorty." Forging the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers with the country blues of their native Mississippi, young brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and bandmate Chris Chew quickly established themselves as the most in-your-face, alive and exciting blues/rock group since Jon Spencer threatened to steal your girlfriend.
4. Erin McKeown is a relative unknown, but the 22-year-old singer-songwriter's release "Distillation" is certainly one of the most inventive and interesting albums of the year. Plumbing the disparate strains of a century of American music -- Tin Pan Alley, jazz, country, ragtime, swing, folk and blues -- she has created a remarkable collection of songs that manage to sound modern and anachronistic at once.
5. Steve Earle is another ex-con making up for lost time. When he isn't traveling about the country advocating an end to the death penalty or at home producing bands for his E Squared record label, the frighteningly prolific Earle stays busy writing gritty on-the-road songs. Traversing country, bluegrass and Beatles-esque rockers, "Transcendental Blues," his 11th album, is the Nashville rebel's latest map for life's blind seekers and searchers.
6. Rap didn't need to be saved, but Outkast did it anyway. "Stankonia," the duo's fourth album, kicks off with the incendiary "Gasoline Dreams" and follows that with songs that are alternately funny, furious and funky -- and usually all three at once. Tracks like "Humble Mumble" (featuring a guest spot by Erykah Badu) and "Ms. Jackson" are the "Me, Myself and I" and "Mary, Mary" of rap's new age.
7. Straight out of El Paso, Texas, the quintet At the Drive-In arrived in 2000 with "Relationship of Command," which with its abstract lyrics and feverish, punk-fueled music echoed the sound, if not the politics, of Fugazi and the Minutemen. Fierce and uncompromising.
8-9. Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer share a terrible, shocking story, even within the tragedy-rich history of country music. As teenagers, both were at home in Alabama when their father shot and killed their mother before killing himself. That was 15 years ago, but there's no shedding that kind of trauma. You can hear the lingering anguish and anger in new albums by Lynne and Moorer. Country-tinged, but all over the place stylistically, Lynne's "I Am Shelby Lynne" rages magnificently one moment and aches despairingly the next.
Moorer's "The Hardest Part" is a decidedly more country effort than her older sister's, but it is also wrapped in the same sadness: On the title track she sings, "The hardest part of living is loving, 'cause loving turns to leaving every time." Moorer's record also includes a poignant (and unlisted) final track that addresses her family's devastating past.
10. Philadelphia hip-hop poet and soul singer Jill Scott made an impressive debut with her cleverly titled record, "Who Is Jill Scott?" a lyrically rich, musically rewarding gem that includes the wonderfully nostalgic "Do You Remember?" and "Getting in the Way," a girl vs. girl slapdown that should have been dedicated to Diana Ross and Mary Wells.
11. Neko Case's "Furnace Room Lullaby" is a country record fed by a punk spirit. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, it's belligerently brilliant and Case's tornado of a voice knocks over everything in its path. When she sings "Mood to Burn Bridges," it sounds like a threat, while "Thrice All-American" just may be the saddest, proudest song ever written about a crumbling U.S. city.
12. England's Damon Gough is better known as Badly Drawn Boy and his beautiful debut record, "The Hour of Bewilderbeast," received a much-deserved buzz after being awarded Britain's Mercury Prize for best new album. There's something of a laid-back hippie vibe to many of Gough's songs -- he can come across as a Donovan for the slacker electronica age -- but his writing is far more interesting and the lush arrangements and production give this record an imposing, full sound. If you're not convinced, he's the guy who sings that pretty song in the new Gap commercial.
13. Björk may be Iceland's best-known pop export, but Sigur Ros are closing in. Their album "Agaetis Byrjun" is a creation of spare, breathtaking beauty with lyrics that sound like slow-motion banshee wails. It's a record that feels like it was deposited from another planet. Or Iceland.
14. The steamy confluence of soul, R&B and hip-hop hit its peak early in the year with D'Angelo's "Voodoo." The sexiest release of 2000, the funky pleasures here are as sultry and mysterious as the album's title suggests. D'Angelo might not yet be mentioned in the same breath as Sylvester Stewart or Al Green, but songs like "Devil's Pie" and "Chicken Grease" are going to get him there.
15. No one explores America's decrepit spiritual underbelly with results as fascinating as Modest Mouse's. Despite jumping to a major label, the band remained true to its indie-rock roots with "The Moon and Antarctica," a captivating and eerie follow-up to their breakout album "The Lonesome Crowded West." Led by enigmatic frontman Isaac Brock, the Seattle trio creates music that is disconcertingly disconnected -- and disconcertingly good.
16. Hailing from Long Island, N.Y., Wheatus are a guilty pleasure. The trio's eponymous debut combines full-on Fountains of Wayne-style pop with humorous Ween-esque lyrics. In other words, they're funny and they rock. "Teenage Dirtbag" is a classic loser anthem.
17. Who knew P.J. Harvey was such an optimist? The good feeling shines through on her sparkling new album, "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea," a superior work filled with crystalline hard-rocking tunes that are as aggressive as they are accessible. There have been pretenders before her, but Harvey's vivid imagery and raw vocal intensity make her the legitimate heir to rock-poet Patti Smith. When she howls, on the opening track, "Look out ahead/I see danger come," it sounds like an invitation for a wild ride you wouldn't think of turning down.
18. Musical expressions, both ancient and futuristic, are woven together on Tabla Beat Science's "Tala Matrix," a fascinating recording conceived of by producer Bill Laswell. The tabla -- the two-headed Indian drum -- has found its way into the background of Western recordings of all kinds over the past couple of years. Here, though, it is the featured instrument. Traditional tabla players collaborate with electronica musicians and there is an almost spiritual quality to the hypnotic, deliriously percussive results.
19. A number of compelling oddities are included on Billy Bragg and Wilco's "Mermaid Avenue II," their overlooked second collection of performances of songs by Woody Guthrie. Mixed in with the socially conscious material are flights of fancy not normally associated with the Dust Bowl balladeer, including a hymn to flying saucers and a tribute to Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. Bragg and Wilco's interpretations are superb, but Natalie Merchant's charming delivery on the wonderfully nonsensical "I Was Born" steals the show.
20. For those not familiar with him, Damien Jurado is a much, much sadder Elliott Smith. That may seem impossible, but Jurado's newest release, "Ghost of David," and last year's "Rehearsals for Departure" are two inconsolably grieving records. While that sort of unabashed misery is not for everyone, Jurado's haunting voice is so intimate and imperfectly pure, and his songwriting so jaggedly despairing, that he makes melancholy start to feel like its own reward.
21. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, the Washington electronica duo better known as Thievery Corporation, have developed quite a reputation as avatars of trip-hoppy dance grooves. Their stylishly seductive "The Mirror Conspiracy" borrows beats from the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean and South America and mixes them to create an international lounge of cool.
22. The problem with consistency is that it gets taken for granted. Sleater-Kinney, one of America's most reliably excellent rock bands, delivered their fourth stellar album in five years when they released "All Hands on the Bad One" in May. The now veteran trio of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss put their two-guitars-and-drums approach to the task on an album that bristled with energy and emotion. "You're No Rock & Roll Fun" should have made them millionaires. Or at least earned a place in Rolling Stone's Top 100 pop songs.
23. Lambchop, the off-kilter Nashville collective, returns with "Nixon," an odd and laconically beautiful album inspired by the late Richard Milhous. Seriously. The liner notes even provide a reading list on the dead prez.
24. Glamorous and grand, the Dandy Warhols' "Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia" is a rock album dense with images and stories that could be pulled from Lou Reed's songbook: "Bohemian Like You" is a snarky poseur putdown and the opening 16-minute trilogy of "Godless," "Mohammed" and "Nietzsche" must be some kind of epic-rock statement.
25. The Brit-pop throne has been vacant since the implosion of Oasis, but if there is a band ready to ascend to that vaunted seat it is Coldplay, whose full-length debut, "Parachute," is sublimely melodic and artful. There may be no replacing the hype that surrounds the feuding Gallagher brothers, but Coldplay's sweeping and smart harmonic pop is, along with Badly Drawn Boy's "Bewilderbeast," the best of Britain's musical exports this year. And yes, that includes Radiohead's "Kid A."