As you read this, I am probably on the road.
From Indiana to Massachusetts is roughly 16 hours, provided no trucks drop their spare tires in front of me, precipitating a week-long delay in Pit of Hell, Pennsylvania. My little life has been insanely busy over the past week or so, meaning I didn’t have as much time to dissect and analyze the Year That Was as I normally do. But I will say this.
It was better than I remembered.
As I put this year’s Top 10 List together, I found myself spinning records I hadn’t heard since February in some cases, and slipping into a strange, nostalgic reverie. I grumble constantly, but when I look back on it, I enjoyed this year, especially meeting the people I met, and the same goes for the music I heard. I have a tendency to only remember the bad stuff, and crafting this list reminded me that there was good stuff, and quite a bit of it.
To be sure, this year has nothing on last year. 2001’s top five would pummel this year’s, despite what the hipper-than-thou pundits at those alternative music sites would have you believe. In scouring these year-end lists from critics I respect (and a few I don’t), I found that I agree with a good majority of them on the top pick of the year. If you’ve been reading all along over the past 12 months or so, you already know what it is. There were no last-minute surprises. (Well, one, and it’s at number two.)
Overall, though, I think 2002’s output resulted in a decent list, and a top five that holds its own. I expected this year’s list to be a comedy of errors, much like 2000’s debacle, but lo and behold, Eminem didn’t even rate an honorable mention this time. I know, I know, he made a good record with The Eminem Show, but that’s all it is – good. I fully expected to see it on this list, until I revisited it, and held it up next to the 10 I picked, most of which are near-brilliant. It just didn’t measure up – it’s overlong, and has too many mediocre tracks. The brilliant stuff (“Cleaning Out My Closet,” “My Dad’s Gone Crazy”) is practically drowned in filler. Sorry, Em. But your movie was good, so don’t feel too bad.
I also seriously reconsidered my rules for inclusion this year, and have relaxed them a bit, which should make constant reader Mark Reid happy. If you’re just joining us, here’s the criteria: Entrants for the Top 10 List must be released between January 1 and December 31 of the given year, must be studio albums (no live or best-of discs), and must be available in record stores in the U.S. That last one, more than the others, has run its course, and this year I’ve opened the selection process up to any album available for purchase online.
The rule came about because when I started this column in Face Magazine, I wanted to make sure that my entire audience could find and purchase all 10 finalists. I got a disturbing amount of free CDs in my Face days, some of which were unavailable outside of the artist’s mailing list. “Bah,” I said. “What’s the point of proclaiming something as genius if no one can find it or buy it?” I asked the ceiling. (I asked my office ceiling a lot of questions in those days.)
But now, my audience has grown, or at least the scope of my audience has expanded. I have readers on three continents (that I know of), and that American-centric rule needs to go. I assume, obviously, that everyone reading my stuff at least has a ‘net connection, hence anything one can buy online is now eligible. (Ret-conners may want to slip both Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor and Peter Gabriel’s OVO into the 2000 list, somewhere around one and two, as they were kept off by the old rule.)
But that’s as far as I’m going. I took a long, hard look at the second rule, mostly because my favorite album of the year is, by those criteria, ineligible. That album is Ben Folds Live, the best $15 you can spend, unless you put it towards a ticket to one of his shows. It’s mesmerizing, hilarious and dynamic, and it recasts old favorites in new lights, which almost qualifies it as a new album. But not quite. I just can’t change that rule – composition is still at least half the requirement.
And sadly, I’m not going to bend on the first rule either, and this year that rule hurts. I heard two albums this year that are more than worthy of inclusion in the Top 10 List, except for the fact that they both came out last year. I know I can’t hear everything, but I really can’t bring myself to include 2001 albums in the 2002 list. But at least I can mention them here, and tell you they’re both amazing.
First is Torben Floor’s terrific Matinee, which is only available online outside of Chicago. (Go to www.beautyrockrecords.com.) They’re the best minor-label band I’ve ever heard, except maybe for Cerberus Shoal, and their album contains 10 of the most melodic and beautiful songs I’ve come across in a long time. “Sleep Too Much,” to name one, should be in every melody addict’s songbook. Given optimum circumstances, it hopefully won’t be long before you see Carey Ott’s face on your MTV, but even if they never make it huge, Ott’s songs will still be fantastic.
Equally regrettable is the exclusion of Ester Drang’s miraculous Goldenwest, a masterpiece of tone and atmosphere. I’ve described them this way before, but it works: imagine if Radiohead had gone into their Kid A sessions and not forgotten to write songs. Every minute of Goldenwest transports you to some unknown landscape, then comforts you with glorious, warm melodies. It manages to be completely alien, and yet beautifully human. Pick this wonder up at www.esterdrang.com.
Yeesh, more than a thousand words already, and we haven’t even started the honorable mentions. There are seven of them, and here they are:
I can’t objectively assess George Harrison’s Brainwashed, so wrapped up am I in the attendant emotions of his loss. Honestly, I didn’t expect that hearing this album would affect me in this way. I think the album is good, but largely for what it says rather than the way it says it. I feel bad, since Harrison never had a shot at this list – his last album came out before I started doing them – but I just can’t reward an album for the emotions that surround it. Still, it gets an honorable mention just for making me feel something.
Which is more than I can say for Beth Orton, who made a maddening third album with Daybreaker. The good stuff here is enough to get it mentioned, but revisiting it recently brought into focus just how lifeless most of it is. Central Reservation was a stunner, this one’s just pretty good, and it’s here mostly because of the wonderful closer, “Thinking About Tomorrow.”
Indiana band the Elms burst out of nowhere last year with a Beatles-inspired sound that’s uplifting without pandering. I missed them completely in 2001, but I jumped on board just in time for their great second album, Truth, Soul, Rock and Roll, this year. Sixpence None the Richer also released a superb pop album this year after a long absence, and I hope they’re looking on the success of Divine Discontent as a form of vindication. They’re highly underrated, as even a cursory listen to this immaculate disc will reveal.
Then there are the two discs that I can’t adequately describe, but which rewrite the rules of music around them. The aforementioned Cerberus Shoal finally released the double-disc Mr. Boy Dog, and it marches to no drum but its own. It’s silly, dissonant, manic and brilliant. Iceland’s Sigur Ros returned with an untitled album that everyone’s just calling ( ), but eight otherworldly dirges by any other name would still sound as sweet. Both these albums defy categorization, and speak of the infinite possibilities of music.
And then there’s Michael Roe, who actually made three swell albums this year. Both his instrumental excursion Orbis and his EP with the 77s, Direct, are terrific, but he came closest to the Top 10 List with Say Your Prayers, a collection of stripped-down acoustic meditations. Truthfully, Prayers was kept off the list almost entirely because of its brevity – 28 minutes is not quite an album – but with Roe’s other contributions this year, it adds up to two full CDs, so we’ll cut him a break. His work here is exceptional, heartbreaking and graceful, and should not be overlooked, so call it Number 11, or 10 and a half, or whatever convinces you to buy it from www.michaelroe.com.
Are you ready? Here comes the list:
#10. Beki Hemingway, Words for Loss for Words.
I discovered Beki Hemingway at this year’s Cornerstone Festival, where she put on a fantastic show on the acoustic stage. Her second album is deceptively simple, but hides some remarkable truths and insights. No artist made an anthem of hope as genuine as “Good Again” this year, and that’s just the opener. Hemingway possesses what can only be described as a hard-won innocence, and her nine originals here are so well crafted that I’ll forgive her for covering “Just Remember I Love You,” even if she does a great job with it. The most welcome, surprising discovery of the year.
#9. Duncan Sheik, Daylight.
Without doubt, Daylight is the second half of Duncan Sheik’s mission statement, and it presents itself (even in title) as the polar opposite of last year’s acoustic triumph, Phantom Moon. Sheik’s thesis is that radio-ready pop music need not be stupid, and Daylight certainly provides ample evidence, from the pulsing beat of “On a High” to the driving melody of “Start Again.” If he’d stuck with that motif, this album would be merely pretty good, but he decorates his album with glorious epics (“Shine Inside”) and sweet acoustic pieces (“For You”) that radio would never come near. Truthfully, Sheik is the kind of shy, thoughtful guy who can open an album with the line, “Clearly I’m a genius,” and not come off as arrogant, but if Daylight proves anything, it’s that he’s too smart for the radio.
#8. Richard Julian, Good Life.
This one seems to bend the rules a bit, since I heard and reviewed it last year, but My Good Man Records released this in 2002, so it’s fair game. And the fact that only seven albums placed higher than a disc I heard last December should give you a fair idea of how good this thing is. Richard Julian possesses a stunning wit that’s only matched by his way with a melody and his sweet yet biting voice. It’s been said that artists are only interesting when they’re in pain, and the ironically titled Good Life finds Julian hitting bottom more than once, and coming up with gold. It was recorded on a shoestring, which only places the emphasis where it ought to be – on Julian’s voice and lyrics. Good Life is the kind of unpredictable album that will caress you just to draw you in and bite you, and it surprises and affects like only the best works of art can. Get this one (and his two excellent others) at www.richardjulian.com.
#7. Tom Waits, Alice.
The gem of his two releases this year, Alice casts Waits’ gravel-voiced dramatics against some of the prettiest and saddest backdrops he’s ever arranged. More than 30 years into his idiosyncratic career, Waits proves once again that he’s an absolute master. His voice takes some getting used to, to be sure, but his songs are immediate and powerful. Among the highlights this time are the tearful “Flower’s Grave,” the forlorn “No One Knows I’m Gone” and the bizarre “Table Top Joe,” but this is all terrific. When Waits creates tumbling structures of percussion to shout over, he’s compelling, but when he contrasts his growl with gorgeous harmonies played on string quartets and pianos, as he does on most of Alice, he’s impossible to ignore, and impossibly heartbreaking.
#6. Aimee Mann, Lost in Space.
To my mind, this is the last album Aimee Mann gets to make like this. She’s started her own record label, she’s taken complete control of her musical destiny, she’s been happily married for years – in short, she’s cleared up nearly every personal problem she used to sing about, so there’s really no reason for her to keep sounding this sad and forlorn. Just this last time, however, I’m glad she does. Lost in Space is the first album Mann made specifically for her SuperEgo Records, and it’s the fullest and most complete document of her recent style – sad, slow songs populated by hopeless, desperate people. It’s an album that grows richer and sadder with each successive listen, her mastery of songcraft so subtle that you don’t realize how well-made it is the first time through. If you consider Lost in Space as one long song, it’s a song she’s written many times, but she does it with such melodic grace that it’s not only forgivable, it’s extraordinary.
#5. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head.
Speaking of albums that get better with each play, here is Coldplay’s glorious, underrated symphony of emotion. A Rush of Blood to the Head (terrible title, that) sounds like the moment just after waking, when you’re trying to remember the beautiful dream you just had. Some have criticized the band for making “nice” music, a description that denotes an appalling lack of attention. Coldplay is about the times in your life when you realize it is never going to be as wonderful as it so easily could. This is an album leaps and bounds ahead of their debut, one that floats in on its own atmosphere, lifting you up just to show you the dirt beneath you. Like Mann’s album, most of Blood is almost unbearably sad, but unlike Mann, it’s obvious that Coldplay can and have imagined what a better world would look (and sound) like.
#4. Neil Finn, One All.
I’m ashamed to admit that drafts of this list exist without Neil Finn’s beautiful record accounted for. I can’t explain that, but I can say that I’m in good company – most of the world has forgotten about Finn, if they ever knew about him. One All (the U.S. version of last year’s U.K. release One Nil) doesn’t do much to assert itself, which has always been Finn’s problem – he’s content just writing, playing and singing the best pop songs he can come up with. This album has 12 of them, and while they may seem low-key and unobtrusive at first, they get under your skin with repeated listens. (Noticing a pattern here?) If I had to nominate one song for best of the year, it would undoubtedly be “Turn and Run,” but I’d also put in good words for “Human Kindness,” “Anytime” and “Driving Me Mad.” This is mature, complex pop from one of the finest living songwriters, and we should really be paying attention.
#3. Phantom Planet, The Guest.
First it took me by surprise, then it blew me away, and finally it took hold of my brain and wouldn’t give it back. The Guest is the most insidious album I’ve heard in a while – it masquerades as a teenage alterna-pop record, but in truth it heralds the return of the song to the younger generation, and just in time. The songs on The Guest are delightful throwbacks to a time when melody was king, and when pop and rock were not antonyms. The Guest is sweet, delirious, compact and hummable, but best of all, it fucking rocks. It easily sets every effort by bands their age from the last 15 years on its ear, and serves as the best reminder this year of the all-important cardinal rule: If you want to be a great musician, start by writing some great songs. If you need a reference point, a dictionary definition of a great pop song, here are 12 of them.
#2. Beck, Sea Change.
The 11th hour surprise. Some thought that in my original review, I implied that Sea Change is soulless, but its penultimate position on this list should quell some of that noise. Beck simply falls into the standard trap all ironists find themselves in when they move to sincerity – there’s no trusting him. But whether he meant the sentiments on Sea Change or not is irrelevant when the music is this beautiful. Beck and supernaturally talented producer Nigel Godrich have crafted a dreamy masterpiece, a surreal and deeply moving record that leaves you emotionally drained. It’s easily the finest achievement of Beck’s career, and its commercial failure probably means that he’s fallen victim to Jim Carrey Syndrome: we only love him when he’s funny. It’s a shame, because Sea Change is compelling and powerful in ways his other records, no matter how brilliant, could never be.
And that leaves only one. I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now. There’s really only one choice.
#1. Christina Aguilera, Stripped.
Nah, I’m fucking with you.
#1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
In hindsight, nothing else even came close. Wilco defied the odds this year, finally bringing their rejected child into the world, and we got to hear what executives at Reprise Records must have known: this album is a flat-out work of genius. How they could have ever thought anything else is beyond me. Many albums try for an effect YHF carries off effortlessly – it creates its own world and then makes you believe in it. More than any other record this year, YHF writes its own definition. It belongs to no category but its own. The genius of the album lies in the ebb and flow of its more structured pieces and its bursts of glorious noise, as tumultuous and fraught with possibility as everyday life.
Many artists tried this year to fashion music for a post-September 11 world, but only Wilco got it right – and with an album recorded before the attacks. YHF is a sonic mirror of the unpredictable, jarring, fragile and precious world we found ourselves in on September 12, and for that alone it deserves its many accolades. None of that would matter, however, if the songs weren’t extraordinary, and they are. This is the plateau Wilco have been striving for since Being There, and every minute of their struggle to see it released was worth it. The album and its attendant history can almost make you believe that truth will always out, and great music will always win.
So much to say here. Thanks to you all for coming along with me on this ride – not just the past 3100 words, but the past two years. Merry Christmas (to those who celebrate it), and I’ll catch up with you again in two weeks for Year Three.
“Music is the best.” – Frank Zappa.
See you in line Tuesday morning, and to all a good night.