July 2001. A simpler time. If you close your eyes, you can almost put yourself back there: Tony Blair and the Labour Party absolutely demolish the Tories in the general election. Vince McMahon is convinced that American Football is for babies and launches the XFL. Catatonia are still technically together, although singer Cerys Matthews is in rehab. At the Drive-In, sadly, are not. The number one movie in the world is Jurrasic Park 3 and, on the 24th, a whole bunch of artists that have nothing to do with each other decide that they want to release their albums.
At a time when the global music industry was still potent enough to ship millions upon millions of albums, NSYNC were sitting on top of the pop music mountain. Formed so that manager-manipulator Lou Pearlman could capitalise off the boy band gravy train that he started with the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC were now the biggest name in the genre and had left Pearlman in the rearview. Unsatisfied with the vapid teen pop of their past work, JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake take control of production and songwriting, looking to bring substance and legitimacy to their sound. The result is Celebrity, which still sounds exactly like any other NSYNC album. It debuts on top of the Billboard Album Chart, sells nearly two million copies in its first week, and the group is so famous that they have to break up the following year so that Timberlake can go solo.
No decade truly comes into its own for a few years, and 2001 is no different. Despite the Y2K panic firmly planting the 2000s in the digital age, the 1990s were still permeating culture as the new millennium continued to search for its identity. Alice in Chains were barely a functioning entity at the time, with lead singer Layne Staley escaping into his own world of drugs and video games, but they were still shipping units, so their record company decided to put out a Greatest Hits album. There’s nothing groundbreaking about Greatest Hits, but it remains a solid starting point for introducing a newbie to the grunge legends. It would be the band’s last release before Staley’s death a year later in 2002.
Another potent genre holdover from the ’90s, pop-punk, is starting to falter as well. The Pop Disaster Tour, which would launch a year later with Green Day and Blink-182, is aptly named, with the two headlining bands internally quarrelling and aimlessly searching for direction. But it’s the tour’s supporting act, Jimmy Eat World, that would forge the path forward. Mixing their first wave emo roots with the pop catchiness of singles like ‘The Middle’ and ‘Sweetness’, Bleed American heralds the coming tide of mopey bands with terrible haircuts that play loud, aggressive, and uncomfortably emotional music. Jimmy Eat World were always two steps ahead, both lyrically and musically, of any other band pinned with the emo tag.
Rock music itself was somewhat confused in the first half of 2001. Hip, cool New York bands were causing underground noise, but they had yet to fully change the rock landscape just yet. Dorky bands still had a shot, and nobody was dorkier than Sacramento funk rockers Cake. Led by the anti-charisma of singer John McCrea, Cake excelled at pairing killer bass lines and blaring trumpets with the bone dry narration of McCrea’s professor-turned-rock star vocal style and the bizarre sound of a vibraslap. Comfort Eagle, the band’s fourth album, contains some of the band’s best work, like ‘Commissioning a Symphony in C’, but it was the propulsive drive of ‘Short Skirt/Long Jacket’ that allowed them to escape the one-hit wasteland that almost befell them with ‘The Distance’. Cake: officially underrated.
Speaking of underrated, the genre of psychobilly rarely gets mentioned within the pretentious halls of music criticism. It’s too flamboyant and silly and unique unto itself for most to fully embrace legitimacy. Still, Los Angeles’ Tiger Army are more ambitious than most psychobilly bands who stuck to the genre’s rigid idiom. Tiger Army II: Power of Moonlight integrates tempo shifts and highly conceptual horror punk into the band’s rollicking romp, opening the door for more experimentation at the local hoedown.
Rock music is broad enough to encompass the sounds of different genres, and depending on who was doing the mixing, the results can be surprisingly sublime. Joe Strummer, a man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and experience, brought a blend of world music and rock and roll to his second album with his new band The Mescaleros, Global a Go-Go. Bridging folk, reggae, and Strummer’s always potent lyrical touch, the album kicked back at the notion that Strummer would ease into safety and banality as he aged. Unfortunately, we never got to find out: Strummer died suddenly the following year of an undiagnosed heart defect.
At the same time, another ’80s legend was also looking to reignite his creative drive. Huey Lewis stood in direct opposition to someone like Strummer, representing the yuppie ideals of the 1980s at its most Republican nadir. That’s not all Lewis’ fault, but time has cast him eternally as the propagator of synthesised cheesy lameness. Plan B wasn’t going to convert anyone, but it retains his lighthearted style for the new millennium. Evidently, it was still hip to be square in 2001.
Only a few miles away, a young band were dead set on destroying any notion of languid ’80s idealism. Avenged Sevenfold were representative of a new kind of heavy metal, one where the aggression and brute force of black metal could be in simpatico with the melodicism of rock music. Sounding the Seventh Trumpet, recorded for just $2,000 and finished before the arrival of guitarist Synyster Gates, is Avenged Sevenfold at their most primitive but also at their most undeniably exciting.
There are scores of other genres that were represented on the July 24 calendar: American rapper Cormega released The Realness, hardcore punks The Nerve Agents released The Butterfly Collection, indie rock icon Robert Pollard released his fifth album outside of Guided by Voices with Choreographed Man of Way, and even Eifel 65, the Italian group behind the dangerously catchy and profoundly annoying hit ‘I’m Blue’, scored one for Eurodance with Contact!
The garage rock revival has yet to hit. The flag-waving jingoism of post 9/11 country music is nowhere in sight. Cell phones remain bulky and crude. JNKO jeans are still permitted in public areas. July 24, 2001, is a strange time for culture, and the music released on that day is even stranger, but it represents a clear line of demarcation before the 2000s truly came into their own.