Editor's Choice: The Top 19 of 2002
by Julio Diaz
2002 was the year that sucked all my writing time away.
Try as I might, I could find little time to get any writing done. It was my least productive writing year since joining Ink 19 in 1997. I'd get a record and get excited about it, but by the time I finished handling the day job, Ink 19 administrative and editorial duties, and the all-important family time, well... a guy does have to sleep sometime!
But I was still listening...
From the stacks of records, I selected 19 that really moved me this year. Many of these are receiving their first coverage in Ink 19 with this list, for which I apologize, because they all deserved a lot more attention. And that's putting aside scores of other deserving records that didn't make the list, including efforts from John Doe, Nik Kershaw, Trio Mocotó, Frank Black & the Catholics, The Wontons, Bis, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Neil Finn, The Toasters, MU330, Interpol, The Distillers, Ursula 1000, and others that will sadly get naught but a token mention here, plus several others that came out late in the year that are still fair game to review early in 2003.
One of my New Year's Resolutions has been to do more writing this year. This article is the start of that, and I've been realigning some editorial priorities to allow more writing time this year. Self-indulgent? Perhaps. But one of the main reasons I got into this is to tell people about great music (and comics, and movies, and books, etc.), and it's something that still makes me very happy.
So without further adieu, here's my 19 favorite full-length discs of 2002, counted down Casey Kasem style, naturallly.
John Vanderslice writes quirky, beautiful, and often melancholy songs and records them to four-track, often with the help of friends from bands like Death Cab For Cutie, The Mountain Goats, Mates Of State, and Buelah. His gorgeous indie pop story-songs are always worth a listen, and this album is no exception. Simple, elegant, and some of Vanderslice's best work yet.
I'd always been impressed with the little I'd heard of Dressy Bessy. But when someone else was handling the review of this record, I put my copy aside, and didn't really start listening to it until very recently. I'm still kicking myself for that. Would that I'd spent the whole year listing to Dressy Bessy's dreamy, neo-psychedelic fuzz pop and the effortlessly appealing vocals of Tammy Ealom, the year could have been that much more pleasant. Sound Go Round is a gorgeous, pure pop gem.
When I reviewed this record, I predicted it would end up on a lot of "Best of 2002" lists, so no surprise that it's turning up on mine. Mike Viola writes sweet and infectious power pop tunes filled with more hooks than the wardrobe department at a production of Peter Pan, and his tight trio executes them with style, grace, and a raucous energy.
I'm usually loathe to include compilations in a list like this, but this amazing box set deserves a place. While no box could ever cover the totality of '80s music (at least not while staying affordable), none other has even come close to this insane seven-disc set from the geniuses at Rhino. Wisely, they spend more time on the first part of the decade, but every year is well represented. It's easy to nitpick the missing artists (no Michael Jackson, Madonna, Police, etc.) and missing hits, but the totality of this package -- with its innovative, eye-catching design and its 90+ page book detailing the decade in music and pop culture -- demands respect. If you grew up in the '80s, you absolutely have to have this.
Again, this is not the kind of thing I'd usually consider for inclusion on this kind of list, but it would be criminal for me not to mention it. A simple concept -- each band records a half-dozen of their favorites from the other bands repertoire -- but so sublimely executed that it served to remind me why I ever liked these two bands in the first place. After hearing this disc, I was newly excited about both these bands and eager to hear new material from both.
With Phrenology, The Roots exhibit the kind of diversity no hip hop act outside The Beastie Boys ever gets credit for. They even go so far as to name the diverse influences on "WAOK (AY) Rollcall," which rattles off a mind-blowing 230 inspirational innovators. Only The Roots can go from straight-up hardcore to smooth jams without so much as a pause, without missing a single beat. And they were the second hip hop act this year to make me look at Nelly Furtado in a new light, too.
Call it cowpunk or call it psychobilly, but few can deny that one of the best bands ever to play a potent hybrid of punk and country was X. X's frontwoman, Exene Cervenka, is front and center of Original Sinners, and while they aren't quite X, they're still in the genre's upper echelons. The female/female vocals (Cervenka shares vocal duties with bassist Kim Chi) are a nice twist on X's legendary male/female vocals, the songwriting is top notch, and the execution is just the right combination of raw and polished.
Chris Murray is a brilliant songwriter and performer. I've seen him captivate a crowd 600 strong, armed with no more than an acoustic guitar, his songs, and his innate charm. So it should come as no surprise that even an album made up of tracks he recorded on a hand-held Walkman easily ranks with the best of the year. The sheer quality of these songs and his performances transcends the limited recording technology, making Raw eminently listenable despite its lower-than-lo-fi audio. That said, if he'd taken the recording up a notch to, say, a four-track, this might have been in my top five -- the live, fully-mastered version of the classic "Rock Steady" tacked on the end makes my ear crave a chance to hear a higher quality recording of these wonderful ska, rocksteady, and reggae songs and excellent performances.
I usually won't review records that the label (or someone) didn't send a review copy of, just on principle (free records are one of the few perks of this gig, so why should I go out and spend money?). But for Joss Whedon, I'll make an exception.
A lot of people thought Whedon was crazy when he planned a musical episode of his brilliant series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Neither the cast nor Whedon himself were known for their musical ability. But he charged ahead anyway, and the result was one of the most memorable episodes of any television series in recent memory.
A year later, this album is released as a document, and it stands up equally well on its own merits. Whedon's songwriting is as sharp and intelligent as his screenwriting, and the songs quickly get stuck in your skull. And the cast acquits themselves impressively -- everyone holds their own, and James Marsters, Anthony Stewart Head, Hinton Battle, and Amber Benson provide truly standout performances. After this, I believe Whedon can do anything he sets his mind to.
A lot was written in 2002 about the "new rock revolution." While there were talented bands like The Hives and The White Stripes getting lots of media, too much of it was over-hyped, warmed-over clones of bands they could never hope to match (I'm looking at you, Vines. You too, Strokes). The sad fact is that most of these bands weren't doing anything to build on the influences they wore on their sharply-dressed sleeves, and while it sounded fresh compared to what was getting radio and MTV airplay, it wasn't progress.
At first glance, The Beatings could have been lumped in with this movement. The differences, though, are immediately obvious: first, they actually deserve some hype, and second, while they, too, wear their influences on their sleeves, they take those influences to the next level, building on them to create something newer, fresher, and (dare I say it) better. A quick listen to Italiano will make it clear -- yes, you hear a bit of Hüsker Dü here, a snatch of Sonic Youth there, a little Pixies or Jesus & Mary Chain somewhere else, but The Beatings have put all that together and made something creative, new, and original. I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is where the bands that influenced The Beatings should have, could have gone, but they either burned out or faded away. Thank goodness The Beatings have picked up the torch.
The Stereo can take every cliché of '80s arena rock and remind you why it became a cliché in the first place. Jamie Woolford makes the big power-pop sound fresh and new again, with sharp songwriting, tasty harmonies and sincere emotion. The kids fawning over Jimmy Eat World should be snapping this up in droves -- as good as JEW are, The Stereo is better.
This album is so chilly that your ears may freeze while listening to it. Ladytron have that icy cool new wave vibe down, er... cold. If you're a fan of '80s electro-pop ala The Human League, Light & Magic will taste like Ben & Jerry's to you. It's filled with dark, sparse, gorgeous synthscapes, matched beautifully with the frosty voices of Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo.
When we first heard Ween, circa Pure Guava, my friends and I called them "the evil They Might Be Giants." If that's the case, then Bitesize are the bastard offspring of the union of the two, conceived during a drunken encounter while The Pixies' Doolittle played at a volume of 10. Sophomore Slump then, is the most mistitled record on this list, as it's filled with raucous, catchy indie rock and often blackly comic subject matter, an irresistible combination.
I'd like to think that if The Clash had formed in the late '90s instead of the late '70s, they'd have sounded a lot like Radio 4. Radio 4 has that same raw energy, that same fearlessness, that same genre-bending vibe that allows them to be political, punky, and danceable all at the same time. That's not to say that R4 are derivative -- though you can draw a line from The Clash through post-punk wonders like Public Image Limited and Gang Of Four to get to what R4 are doing today -- but the spirit is definitely alive in them. It would be a mistake to write Radio 4 off as "retro," because a single listen should make it obvious that they're one of the freshest and most vibrant bands around.
Anyone that knows me knows that there's no way that They Might Be Giants could release an album and not have it end up in my year-end top five. I'm an unapologetic fan and adore everything they do.
That said, I haven't spent as much time listening to "the first disc of songs made by They Might Be Giants for the entire family" as I have with many of their other albums. That's not owing to any lack of quality here, as the songs are absolutely charming and rank with the best material of John Linnell and John Flansburgh's career together. It's that I do most of my listening on computers these days, and when I pop this disc in, I'm drawn into the Flash-animated interactive world that they include on the disc. You CAN listen to the disc without viewing the Flash, but it's too irresistible to play with all the cool animation. So it's had less time in my player than a "normal" TMBG release would simply because I'd never get anything done otherwise! So No! "only" ranks at number five, but had I spent more time with it, it would undoubtably have been in the top three.
On a side note, this is a GREAT album for kids, and my two-year-old daughter loves the animation.
It's too easy to write Nerf Herder off as a joke band. If you give them a serious listen, you'll be bowled over by their inherent charm, built on a base of undeniably catchy melodies and terrifically witty, pop-culture-filled lyrics. And yes, songs like "Mr. Spock" and "Jenna Bush Army" are funny, but a touching, melancholy track like "Jacket" speaks volumes about how much more there is to this band. Like The Ramones, Nerf Herder know the difference between stupid and stoopid, and always land on the side of the latter.
Back in 1983, Gordon Gano wrote one of the most brilliant and timeless debut albums ever as the leader of The Violent Femmes. It remains perhaps the best recorded document of teen angst set to music. And it hurt The Femmes as much as it helped them, because topping it proved nigh-impossible, both creatively and commercially. The Femmes have soldiered on for two decades, but it's still the material from that first album that gets the most attention (pick up Rhino's gorgeous remastered deluxe edition of that album, released this year, and you'll understand why).
Nearly 20 years later, Gano releases his first solo album, and it's the first serious challenge to the dominance of that classic debut. "Solo" is a misnomer, as Gano is joined by some of the most talented folks in music today -- the likes of PJ Harvey, Lou Reed, They Might Be Giants, Frank Black, Linda Perry, John Cale, Mary Lou Lord, Cynthia Gayneau, and Martha Wainwright -- and lets them do most of the singing (Gano only adds his distinctly nasal vocals to three tracks, including a duet with Wainwright and an alternate tack of the title track). While each singer adds their unique feel to the tracks, the songwriting is clearly pure Gano (Reed co-wrote his track, but Gano holds his own even with that legend), and it's some of the best stuff of a brilliant career that's too often been too easily ignored.
Too much of hip hop has become a pissing contest, a bunch of "gangstas" bragging about how "hard" they are, and coming off like a bunch of ten-year-olds having "my dad can beat up your dad" arguments on the playground. NWA were groundbreaking and brilliant, but unfortunately, they set the stage for a slew of poor fifth-generation copies sending mainstream hip hop down ten years of bad road.
Jurassic 5 aren't hearing any of that. They aren't afraid to take their music down any number of different roads, they aren't afraid to sound like grownups, and most importantly, they're not afraid to sound like a group, complementing each other rather than battling each other. They're easily one of the most compelling hip hop collectives today, and Power In Numbers only adds to their legend. Anyone that can make a Nelly Furtado guest shot have actual charm and appeal gets serious cred.
Was there a bolder mission statement this year than the hook line from Beat Surf Fun's opening track, "Twee"? It's hard to get more direct than "You can keep your punk rock, ska, rap beats, and house, fuck me, I'm twee." Tullycraft live up to that statement without falling into the overly-fey or wimpy (unfair) stereotypes of the genre. It's simple, charming indie pop -- sometimes melancholy, sometimes raucous, and always memorable. Back in April, I said "you'd have to pry my copy out of my cold, dead fingers to get me to give it up. It's that good." Not only is it that good, it's the year's best.