Another Damn Best Music of 2002 List Call me crazy, but I love lists. I love reading them at the end of the year. Many folks see them as useless, or as the wankings of critics and wannabe critics to show the world how much more cultured they are than everyone else. I can't say that I'm much more cultured than the average person. Otherwise, you'd see more World music, Jazz, Hip Hop, and Klezmer recordings on my list. I guess you could say that by creating lists, one can not only reflect upon what they took in over the past year, but also take inventory of what might be missing from their diet. I have undoubtedly learned from making my yearly list, and I am posting it in hopes that I might turn somebody else on to music that they may have missed, or may have dismissed too soon. These certainly brought joy to me in 2003...
1. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, aside from being the most fully realized and artfully rendered album of the year, seemed destined to become a future episode of Behind the Music from the get-go. Plagued by personnel turbulence (and the ultimate bitter departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett), and Reprise's refusal to put out the record as is (resulting in severance from the label), YFT managed to surface like a Phoenix rising. The album, which is incredible without the attached soap opera, served as a release from Wilco's albatross of alt-country stereotypes, as a dismissal of old music biz mentalities, and as a virtual rebirth of one of the best working rock bands in the world today. As soon one is hit by first bars of the opening track "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," it is clear that this is a band that knows what it is doing. The album cycles through a variety of styles, tempos, and moods, without ever losing its thematic achiness. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album about uncertainty, desperation, longing, and nostalgia. Although conceived and recorded way before September 11 of 2001 (it was allegedly supposed to be released on that very Tuesday), the record uncannily feels like a post-9/11 album. Songs like "The Ashes of American Flags", "War on War", and "Poor Places" seem to conjure up the moods surrounding those events as much, or moreso, than most of the direct responses to 9/11. Coincidences aside, this record is one of the few records released this year that I feel confident we will be coming back to twenty or thirty years from now.
2. Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Although not as stellar as its predecessor, The Soft Bulletin, the Lips' latest psuedo-concept album proves that there's more where that came from. Gone is the same rock band that brought us "In A Priest Driven Ambulance" (one of the best indie guitar rock records ever), but the Lips seem to be right at home in the terrain more (seemingly) suitable for Bjork or Aphex Twin. Their newfound love for electronica really gels with their otherworldly prog rock, making for some of the most refreshingly playful art rock in quite some time. It might be nice to see the Flaming Lips start reaching deeper lyrically than they do on "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1", but it's easy to forgive when they balance it out with more earnest (and slightly existential) numbers as "Do You Realise?" and "It's Summertime". How, you may ask, can you say this is the second best album of the year, when you have issues with it? I don't rightly know. I just know that I judge many albums at year's end by how many hours they spent in my CD player. This one continually intrigued me, and offered up new joys with every listen, despite any minor flaws. I would venture to say that the very nature of taking huge chances is not always succeeding at them all. If only more artists were as bold. The only real problem with The Flaming Lips is that we have to wait another year or two until the next one.
3. Sea Change - Beck This one couldn't have come at a more perfect time. Just when we thought (at least for a few weeks) that irony was dead, Beck releases an album completely devoid of irony, something we would not have thought possible from the man who gave us "Midnite Vultures". And just as the world started discovering the haunted loveliness of Nick Drake and Nico via TV ads, Beck delivers a ghostly beauty of a disc just as lovely. Sea Change is beautiful from start to finish. High marks for the sparse decorative guitar work and the lush orchestral arrangements. The lyrics are as thoughtful, and as depressing as we've ever heard from Beck, with nods to Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Gram Parsons. The music also nods to those, and other, country and folk rock troubadours. It seems clearer with Sea Change that it may not be that silly to include Beck in such a list in due time.
4. Sleater-Kinney - One Beat As solid and masterfully executed a rock record as one could ask for. On One Beat, S-K demonstrate a command not quite executed on their previous efforts. The beauty of Sleater Kinney, as demonstrated beautifully in One Beat, is in the sum of the parts. No member is the clear defining member of the band. No one instrument is more important than the other. The strength of the band is in knowing their strengths, and knowing that their chemistry is what makes them so unique and so powerful. The songs on One Beat are angular, pounding, urgent, and more melodic than past S-K offerings. One Beat beautifully demonstrates the power of punk rock on a larger scale. You can't help but think that the world would be a better place if there was more Sleater Kinney and less J Lo.
5. Bruce Springsteen - The Rising Yeah, sure, Bruce Springsteen's latest received an unprecedented amount of perfectly timed TV publicity, tons of magazine and newspaper profiles, and countless gushing reviews. It would have been criminal if the record stunk. One might think that The Boss is cashing in on a great tragedy. One might be inclined to pine for the days of the 45-minute album (this one clocks in at over an hour, and a few of the songs could have been left off with no harm done). And one might have problems with Springsteen's less detailed, and sometimes vague, narratives this time around. First of all, if anyone is up to the task of speaking for and about everyone affected by 9/11, it has to be Springsteen, who has become somewhat of a trusted spokesperson for the American everyman. And although the album is longwinded, it only speaks to Springsteen's wish to address the many feelings brought on by 9/11: Loss, longing, anger, hatred, confusion, pride, courage, faith, hope and resiliance. Themes as essential and universal as these are probably better discussed with broader strokes, as Springsteen demonstrates this time around, rather than with the detailed character narratives we have grown to expect. The Rising demonstrates a great artist's determination to speak to us, and for us. It was a huge task, and despite its flaws is a great acheivement.
6. The Notwist - Neon Golden German band Notwist, unbeknownst to many, has been at it for over 13 years. They started as a heavy metal outfit of sorts. In as bizarre a transformation as one could imagine, 2002's Notwist is as close to its original incarnation as a butterfly is to a caterpillar. There is really no economical way to describe The Notwist, other to describe their record as multi-textured rock music. To call them an electronic band would diminish their appeal as a band with the appeal of a Radiohead or, say, Bjork (member Martin Console programmed some of the tracks on Bjork's Vespertine). To call them a rock band would fail to acknowledge their mastery of loops, glitches, and other electronic manipulations so inherent to their mix. The Notwist are highly intellectual musicians without being too avant-garde. Their experimentation only enhances the songs. And the songs are always the focus. From it's quiet opening, featuring the pluckings of a string quartet underneath Markus Archer's soft, reedy voice, you know you are in for a nice ride. I feel confident that a statewide release of this fine disc will secure The Notwist a spot amongst the "bands to watch" in 2003.
7. Lambchop - Is A Woman Kurt Wagner and his revolving band of gypsies continue to up the ante with each release, which have increasingly become miniature bar-room symphonies. The album is so sparse you can hear a pin drop, but each strum of the guitar, tinkle of the piano, and gravelly lyric that drips from Wagner's mouth carries the weight of the world. A sort of Southern Tom Waits, Wagner's compositions and lyrical delivery may take a several listens to sink in to be fully appreciated. Once you surrender, you can't exactly pinpoint what it is that is so infectious in these these lazy, mellow movements, but you know you have been hooked.
8. Sondre Lerche - Faces Down The best record that nobody heard this year belongs to a (then) 19 year old Norwegian singer-songwriter with more wisdom and knack for great melodies than most twice his age would dream of. Not as self-conscious (or annoying) as statwide teenage singer-songwriter Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, Sondre Lerche displays a warm sensuality and melancholy sweetness rather than sneering, teen-fueled cynicism. With equal nods to Simon and Garfunkel, Astrud Gilberto, John Lennon, David Bowie, Ron Sexsmith, and Serge Gainesbourg, Faces Down is perfect for winding down after an all-nighter, or lounging around after a hard sleep. Not only one of the best records of the year, but certainly one of the best debut solo offerings of the past decade.
9. Neko Case - Blacklisted Neko Case's third full-length is her most compelling, and most intimate in her short, but highly acclaimed career. On the tails of her stint with The New Pornographers, Blacklisted finds her collaborating with members of The Sadies, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and Calexico, for a record that is every bit as good, or better, than the sum of its parts. You won't find a record as smoky or velvety as Blacklisted. Case's vocals, heavily draped in reverb, evoke Patsy Cline or a slightly hoarse Loretta Lynn. At times, Case conveys so much achiness, you feel as though your heart may explode. The songs are lush, dark, and twangy, full of longing and homesickness. It's not quite country, not quite folk, and not quite rock, but lost somewhere along the way.
10. Clinic - Walking With Thee Like some cross between the Violent Femmes and Ennio Morricone, Clinic are at once playfully mischeivous and mysteriously sinister. The band's minimal use of guitars and extreme focus on pianos, organs, and harmoniums could come off as gimmicky, if it didn't sound so good. Equal parts retro and futuristic, familiar and refreshing, Walking With Thee was one of the true great surprises of 2002.
Honorable Mentions (or, It Was Such A Good Year For Music, These Deserve To Be In The Top Ten Too): Coldplay - A Rush of Blood To The Head V/A - Mali Music Hem - Rabbit Songs Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights Elvis Costello - When I Was Cruel Norah Jones - Come Away With Me Beth Orton - Daybreaker Sigur Ros - ( ) Spoon - Kill The Moonlight Jurassic 5 - Power In Numbers The Soundtrack of Our Lives - Behind The Music The Polyphonic Spree - The Beginning Stages Of... Division of Laura Lee - Black City Pulp - We Love Life N.E.R.D. - In Search Of... Aimee Mann - Lost In Space Tom Waits - Blood Money/Alice Super Furry Animals - Rings Around The World Doves - The Last Broadcast Brendan Benson - Lapalco