One defining characteristic of most great albums is music with enough range to satisfy your emotional needs around the clock. From Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night" and U2's "The Joshua Tree" to Moby's "Play," the music can be used equally well as a jump-start in the morning or as a companion in the reflective hours after midnight.
No album so far in 2001 fills that universal role enough to be declared the front-runner in the race for album-of-the-year honors. Several, however, can fill some of our daily needs quite nicely.
The surprise is that the most memorable work didn't come from either hip-hop or electronica, the two most creative pop fields of recent years. Half of the 10 albums on today's midyear list are rock-related.
Here are the albums from the last six months that will best help you get through the day.
Travis' "The Invisible Band" (Epic). Like a leadoff batter in baseball, Travis' goal here is to get things moving--and it does just that with "Sing," one of the most sweetly energizing pieces of pop-rock in ages. Fran Healy, leader of the Scottish band, believes in the power of music to comfort and inspire, and he writes songs that are so infused with an openhearted spirit that they seem designed for everyone from 7 to 70. If you don't fall under Travis' spell, some of the songs can seem a little slight. But the Beatles-ish melodies are so winning that there's no reason to resist the album's celebration.
Caetano Veloso's "Noites do Norte" (Nonesuch). Of all the albums on the list, this is the one that might fit the most easily into any time category because the music is both graceful and enchanting. The acclaimed Brazilian singer-composer deals with serious themes (including the history of race relations in his homeland), but the music, blessed by a sweetly lyrical voice and the enriching mix of traditional and contemporary musical elements, is more of a pick-me-up than caffeine.
Missy Elliott's "Miss E . . . So Addictive" (Elektra). If you're looking for music that's harder-edged on the way to work, Elliott serves up what may be her tastiest album yet. "Get Ur Freak On" is one of the liveliest tracks of the year, a glorious funk exercise that defies you not to get caught up in its rhythmic sweep. Backed by a cast that includes Busta Rhymes and Eve, this commanding hip-hop figure draws from a variety of pop sources (including old-school R&B; and techno) without a false step. One spin and you're ready to face the day.
B.R.M.C.'s "Black Rebel Motorcycle Club" (Virgin). This California rock trio's "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'N' Roll" is a fervent but predictable call to arms that laments the absence of genuine passion in so much of today's rock. The song seems too generic and too radio friendly to convey the passion that the group is talking about. Fortunately, the rest of the album supplies that energy and drive, conveying the seductive mix of beautiful melody and fuzz-toned guitar aggression that made the Jesus and Mary Chain one of the best bands ever to step on the planet. It's an ideal pick-me-up after lunch. Ideal for headphones at work or school.
Nortec Collective's "The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1" (Palm/Mill). This is a great way to erase the tensions of the day on the ride home and to open yourself to the opportunities of the evening; a techno exercise that includes a touch of norteno and banda flavoring. In the often anonymous world of dance music, this is a rare collection that asserts its own distinctive personality.
Old 97's' "Satellite Rides" (Elektra). This CD works either at the start of the evening, when you are looking forward to that big date, or at the end, when you are trying to figure out why it went wrong. This Texas-spawned band has been saddled with the alt-country label, but its approach is closer to the wry pop-rock exuberance of the new wave movement. It's hard to tell whether Rhett Miller has been bruised a lot in love or whether he's simply enamored with the idea of the tortured romantic. Either way, the music is smart and snappy.
Staind's "Break the Cycle" (Flip/Elektra). This is for the teenager whose problems are much more deeply rooted than just wondering if he'll ever find a soul mate. The dark, pulverizing music fits the desperate moments of insecurity when you wonder if you'll ever find your place in the world. That may sound like every hard-rock album of the last 10 years, but Staind's Aaron Lewis writes with a human, convincing edge that distinguishes Staind's music from the generic anger and alienation of its rivals.
Ron Sexsmith's "Blue Boy" (spinART). In his best album yet, one great songwriter (Sexsmith) enlists another great songwriter (Steve Earle) to produce his album, and they come up with a collection that expands the musical range of Sexsmith's folk-pop tunes to include traces of rock and blues--all without sacrificing the warmth and wisdom of his lyrics. The album's underlying humanity is one way to get things back into perspective after the ups and downs of the day.
Joe Henry's "Scar" (Mammoth). This bittersweet commentary is for when everyone else has gone to bed and you're alone. Henry is a penetrating writer who looks unflinchingly at open wounds in relationships. But he can also be a bit wry. "You left me with every thing / Knowing it wouldn't be enough," he tells a former lover in one song. The comfort is in knowing someone can take a series of life's punches and survive.
Radiohead's "Amnesiac" (Capitol). There's a sense of isolation about this album, as if someone is looking back on his life from some distant point. It's a chilling feeling at times, but there's also such beauty in the music that "Amnesiac" ultimately gives you enough hope to set the alarm and look forward to a few hours' sleep and starting anew in the morning.
Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.