(As posted on 3wk.com, January 2003)
It’s mind boggling when you consider that well over 2,000 albums are eligible to make this list. There is such a glut of product in the music industry these days that the number of studio albums containing new and original material released every week averages about 50. This year, I heard (at least part of) about 800 of those, and focused mainly on pop, rock, metal, hip hop, r&b, electronica and of course, indie-rock.
While many of the year’s best songs came from hip hop, it wasn’t a strong year for hip hop albums. Eminem’s The Eminem Show and Nas’ Stillmatic feature some tremendous tracks, but are bogged by down by too much filler. The same problem plagues promising underground hip hop efforts like Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow and J-Live’s All of the Above. Mainstream rock and heavy metal, are in much worse shape. Hopefully they’ll find their way out of their angsty, self-
important and hookless rut.
Yes, there are several exceptions to the most-of-the-mainstream-music-is-disappointing rule, but if we look slightly off the radar – to the indie-labels – we find many of 2002’s best albums. It’s a good thing that there is a station like 3wk.com to play many of these artists for you. Here are my picks for the 20 most complete, ambitious and well-executed albums of 2002:
1. Sleater-Kinney One Beat (Kill Rock Stars) – On the all-female trio’s sixth studio album, they’ve released their finest work to date. It may be their most produced, but their visceral punk energy and Corin Tucker’s off-kilter howls are as moving as ever. With this cleaner sound, their dueling melodies and unlikely harmonies can be better appreciated. From the opening, irregular drum beat and
anthemic stomp of the title track, to the closing, slide-guitar-driven twang of “Sympathy,” they cover an impressive range of territory. And in a year naturally full of post 9-11, reactionary songs, they offer some of the strongest and most politically critical statements. Kindred spirits Throwing Muses and PJ Harvey have never pushed the genre as far as Sleater-Kinney has with One Beat.
2. Bright Eyes Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek) – The third proper studio album from Bright Eyes (aka singer-songwriter Conor Oberst) is a sprawling masterpiece. Armed with his blunt, literary style and jagged, irregular vocals, he ventures into an unthinkable range of genres: hard-thumping rock fit for an arena, Dylan-esque folk
rants (acoustic and electric), quaint meditations, country ballads, an orchestrated waltz, and a brooding, electronic stomper. It’s all very difficult to digest at first (and skipping track one will help), but after a few listens, the brilliance starts to sink in. Oberst pulls off everything thing he attempts, even aggressive indie-rock (see Album #19 Desaparecidos Read Music/Speak Spanish). He had a heck of a
3. Abandon Jalopy Mercy (Stank Face Laboratories) – Blind Melon was one of the most underrated bands of the 90s. Those who know this to be true have been anticipating quality material from the group’s surviving members since frontman Shannon Hoon’s death in 1995. Two years ago we were teased with the promise of Unified Theory, a band that featured ex-Blind Melon members Brad Smith (bass) and Christopher Thorn (guitar). But their debut album failed to
distinguish itself from much of the mainstream rock mush. Now with Abandon Jalopy, the true spirit of Blind Melon lives on. It’s essentially a solo project for Brad Smith – he wrote all the songs, plays most of the instruments, and released it on his own label. But, his former bandmates help him out by performing on a few tracks each. Smith’s vocals aren’t trying to mimic Hoon’s, but at times there’s a
striking resemblance – and that’s a good thing. So is the folky, psychedelic, jam band flavor meets 90s progressive rock formula that made the former band so good. While Blind Melon’s self-titled debut made plenty of time for instrumental noodling, it’s follow-up Soup kept things shorter and sweeter. Abandon Jalopy picks up where Soup left off, in that respect. Mercy doesn’t quite match the
brilliance of its forefathers, but it’s darn close.
4. Gomez In Our Gun (Virgin) – Gomez’s strength lies in their diversity. With three fully capable vocalists sharing the lead duties, it’s hard to pin down one
style. When they add instruments, they really keep you guessing. On their third album, they often explore acoustic guitars juxtaposed with danceable synthesizer
rhythms. Then at times the synths will take the lead, but much more frequently the acoustic guitars move to the fore. With laid-back harmonies, sweet melodies, jazzy basslines and the funky saxophone groove of the opener “Shot Shot,” there’s something for everyone. Somehow it never feels disjointed, it’s always Gomez.
5. Interpol Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador) – When first hearing Interpol, you’ll swear you’ve jumped back to the late 70s/early 80s British post-punk scene. That’s largely due to Paul Banks’ brooding vocals (often a dead ringer for Joy Division’s Ian Curtis or Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian MacCulloch) and the gothic/romantic atmosphere. But upon further inspection, you discover
that none of Interpol’s songs really sound like a ripoff of their predecessors. Their accomplished sense of rhythm creates a passionate mood that alternates between dreamy and vigorous. Don’t let your first instinct get the best of you, Interpol is a great new band.
6. Badly Drawn Boy Have You Fed the Fish? (Artist Direct) – In this era of artists releasing one album every one to four years, it’s notable that Badly Drawn Boy (aka Damon Gough) actually released two full albums this year. In April, he released the About a Boy soundtrack, which featured several strong songs and a host of charming instrumentals. Then in November, he delivered the
proper follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast. The quality of his combined output is second only to Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos) this year. Have You Fed The Fish? continues his progression towards more produced and orchestrated pop. At times, he goes a bit too far.
Most alarming is the title track, which feels like an overblown opus lacking any of the subtleties and cleverness that makes his music great. But the bombast is largely made up for with the great array of individual songs sprinkled throughout. From the rocker “Born Again” to the anthemic centerpiece “You Were Right” to the
quirky bounce of “40 Days, 40 Nights” and the sly groove of “Using Our Feet,” he achieves pop songwriting excellence on par with the Beatles. You can’t help but think that if he saved everything he wrote this year for one album, he’d really have a masterpiece.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers By The Way (Warner Brothers) – When they debuted 18 years ago, who would have guessed that the reckless and unpolished funk-rap rockers would eventually release something this beautiful? Of course, the Chili Peppers have been introducing mellower sounds into their music throughout the 90s. And with 1999’s Californication, we saw a surprising decrease in slap-bass wackiness in favor of more mid-tempo melodic fare. But there was an even mix of the two. With By The Way, sweet-harmonied ballads dominate the record, leaving room for just a couple of upbeat romps. But the reduction in tempo certainly doesn’t mean there’s a loss of energy, passion or even lust. Except for the ill-sequenced second track “Universally Speaking,” this is a daring and consistent effort from a legendary band at a crossroads in their career.
8. The Streets Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic) – The Streets (aka vocalist/producer Mike Skinner) has put together a truly original album. In short, he raps in a cockneyed British accent over, two-step, electronic dance beats. It’s not that this hasn’t been done before, but it’s never been done as a complete album – one full of similar-themed stories rather than unrelated tracks
from a variety of vocalists. Skinner speaks the mind of the British youth in a brash slang as he discusses getting drunk, stoned, fighting, scoring with girls and Playstation. His observations are often astute while amusing – particularity when he points out the irony of marijuana being illegal, when alcohol is responsible for a lot more death and destruction in “The Irony of It All.” UK rebels haven’t had a voice this strong since the punk explosion of the late 70s.
9. The Chemical Brothers Come With Us (Astralwerks) – The insanity unleashed in the explosive opening track dares you not to take this fantastic journey into sound. With revved-up electro-funk and disco, percussive tribal trance and more sedated trance, they cover some great instrumental dance territory. They also dabble in mystical bells and chants on “My Elastic Eye,” resulting in an excellent candidate for the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Plus there are two solid guest vocal performances: Beth Orton’s medieval, folk passage “The State We’re In” and Richard Ashcroft’s psychedelic, rave trip “The
Test.” The musical inventiveness of the album should introduce the Chemical Brothers to their widest audience yet.
10. The Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Brothers) – The Flaming Lips certainly received truckloads of critical praise for their daring, symphonic pop epic, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, but it’s not exactly an easy listen. The follow-up, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, is. Driven by a fairly narrow range of electronic basslines and spacy atmospeherics, the Lips take you on a cohesive, conceptual voyage. Good versus evil, mortality and fighting with conviction are amongst the topics covered by your guide Wayne Coyne. This time around, his trademark, strained vocals no longer have a repulsive quality. They’re warm and endearing instead. Overall, it’s a focused and accomplished effort, but its sameness keeps it from greatness.