2002 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2002

Beck, Wilco Release Modern-Day Classics

Read The Reviews: Beck | The Flaming Lips | Wilco | Super Furry Animals | Queens Of The Stone Age | Low | Spoon | Blackalicious | Interpol | The Roots

If music fans of all stripes were looking for big things from 2002, they were probably disappointed. Although there were plenty of hints this past year that changes were afoot, that something right around the corner never came.

By the end of 2001, many pundits were relieved that the public’s fixation on teen pop was withering, which would presumably clear the decks for edgier artists. And yet, instead of disappearing completely, Britney, Christina and Justin are still lingering.

Meanwhile, many rock fans were energized by a pack of garage-rock bands whose faces kept popping up on magazines and TV. Those groups, putting aside the quality of their respective albums, ultimately failed to find a wider audience in 2002. The top seller among them — the Strokes — fell well short of passing the million-sales mark. (In contrast, Eminem’s two albums raked in sales of close to 10 million.)

Speaking of Eminem, hip-hop’s condition seemed no better than rock’s. While established acts like Eminem, Ja Rule and Nelly loomed large by glamorizing their thuggish image, hip-hop’s media outlets were uninterested in covering critics’ favorites like the Roots or Common who dropped new discs that succeeded in challenging both their colleagues and listeners.

In the pop music consciousness, 2002 was really no different than 2001 or 2000. But regardless of what made it big this year or whether change will ever come, there were some records released in 2002 that deserved to be huge, even if they weren’t.

Here’s this year’s list, in no particular order.

Beck “Sea Change”

In contrast to the word-of-mouth hype that grew around Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Beck’s “Sea Change” seemed to come out of nowhere.

Photo: DGC Records

Photo: DGC Records

Given the poor critical and public response to Beck’s last record, the playboy-type R&B of “Midnite Vultures,” it might have appeared that the Los Angeles native’s career was in decline. And for the most part, the media definitely took that attitude. Prior to the release of “Sea Change,” there was relatively little buzz surrounding the record.

But rising above the indifference, the sheer excellence of the emotion-rich songs on “Sea Change” serve to remind the doubters that artists of Beck’s caliber don’t come around often nor do they fade away easily.

While Beck’s eclectic musical experiments have become his trademark, he took a step back with “Sea Change,” which is essentially a sequel to his 1998 mostly acoustic album, “Mutations.” As he did for “Mutations,” Beck enlisted Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and then reassembled some of his usual studio players. Unlike the “Mutations” experience, Beck recorded something that, with its focus on weary-sounding, acoustic guitar songs, more coherently explores and honors the ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriter tradition.

And the lyrical theme of these songs — a crumbling romance — adds spark to music that might on first listen appear rather sedate. Standouts like “Lost Cause,” “Sunday Sun” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine” are graceful beauties, but the songs’ words and stories burn with feeling even though the singer sounds rather morose.

Beck followed the album’s release with another unexpected but clever choice: a tour with the Flaming Lips. The Beck/Lips tour, in which the Okie psychedelic rockers were both opening act and backing musicians for Beck, was easily one of the best (and with tickets in the $30-$40 range, reasonably priced) concerts of the year.

Like the Wilco song, Beck set out to try to break our hearts. And this year, he did it better than anyone.

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The Flaming Lips “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”

Oklahoma City’s Flaming Lips seemed to spend most of 2002 grasping for a larger audience and they landed the kind of unconventional gigs to do it (or at least will prompt people to start talking). They made headlines crisscrossing the U.S. backing up Beck, appeared on Alyssa Milano’s “Charmed” and were even featured in a Hewlett-Packard commercial.

Making all this high-profile hob knobbing possible was the release of their latest effort, “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” last summer. “Yoshimi” is the perfect followup to 1999’s “The Soft Bulletin,” a record that broke new ground for the trio by fusing epic melodies with the group’s preoccupation with acid-inspired sonic effects. “The Soft Bulletin” took the Lips in a more conventional pop direction and easily earned a spot in many critic’s top 10 lists.

Like its predecessor, “Yoshimi” is bursting with similar lilting melodies nailed together by slipshod fragments of acoustic guitar, keyboards, studio effects and drums. Lyrically, the new record covers similar ground as the “The Soft Bulletin,” exploring universal themes about life, time and love — occasionally revealed through the record’s very loose sci-fi concept about a Japanese female warrior battling flesh-devouring robots.

But putting aside the quasi-rock opera premise, the nonsensical titles, lyrical weirdness and the psychedelic effects heaped on the songs , the tracks on “Yoshimi” are the kind of oddball pop that shines as brilliantly as the work of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett.

Like Barrett, the Lips’ songs often exude a sense of child-like wonder and they lyrically express thoughts that in most settings would be cheesy. The fact that the Lips are able to escape is due in part to frontman Wayne Coyne, who just might be rock’s cheeriest guy. When Coyne sings the plainspoken lyrics of “Do You Realize,” he somehow makes the song’s sentimentality and optimism sound genuine, which clears the way for the infectiousness of the music to do its job unfettered.

And to be fair, Syd never wrote a song as fantastically catchy and inspiring as the bouncy, acoustic guitar-based “Fight Test,” in which the narrator chides himself for not standing up for the woman he loved.

The year 2002 confirms that the Flaming Lips are at the peak of their powers, and that for all their perceived weirdness, they know what they’re doing and how to connect, and that’s what winning an audience is all about.

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Wilco “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”

Since its release last spring, critics and fans have debated what is the unifying element of Wilco’s landmark album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Some have argued that it’s a commentary about America and American culture. Others say it’s a series of discombobulated conversation between lovers. There were even a few that felt it was a meditation on the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — even though the album was recorded long beforehand.

The merits of those theories notwithstanding, I have my own theory. I believe this record is Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy’s love letter to sound itself. In fact, I think he’s punch drunk on it

After recording a handful of Uncle Tupelo records and then piloting Wilco through another half-dozen, Tweedy appears to be reveling in the idea that his songwriting palette has now expanded beyond what a four- or five-piece rock band can do with their assigned instruments. As “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” demonstrates, he can now draw on any new sounds he can make/find. The songs on record are carefully littered with buzzing feedback, sporadic plucking and the pings and thuds coming from whatever drummer Glenn Kotche is banging on. (There’s even a story about them rigging an electric fan to strum a guitar.) What those sounds represent beyond mere decoration maybe Tweedy doesn’t even know, but it’s clear that he’s trying to break rock music’s alphabet.

But what makes “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” more than a musical art project is the fact that Tweedy wisely ties these little sonic experiments to some of his most direct and sweetest batch of songs, adding a bit of grit to an album that it makes his older ones seem hamfisted.

If Tweedy follows up on some of the comments he has made in the press since the album’s release and for the “Don’t Look Back”-like documentary about the album, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” this is only the beginning. He has said that he wants to keep pushing the group into uncharted musical territory like his idols in Sonic Youth, and even try creating and recording songs spontaneously. Backing up those intentions is the release of an experimental record by Tweedy’s side project with Sonic Youth keyboardist Jim O’Rourke called Loose Fur (O’Rourke also mixed “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”).

With that being said, I think “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” will be remembered in the future as the honeymoon period of Tweedy’s infatuation, the happy medium that existed between his time-tested skills as songwriter and his first dalliances with the avant-garde before he went off the deep end.

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Super Furry Animals “Rings Around The World”

The Super Furry Animals win my vote for rock’s best unsung heroes for 2002. No album was so undeservedly ignored as “Rings Around The World” was and if there’s any justice, this two-album set will come to be appreciated in the coming years.

One reason that the U.K. band has been so overlooked might be that they lack superstar charisma. In fact, when I saw them live last fall, the group’s sense of onstage showmanship is nearly nonexistent. They played the entire show standing still, as if frozen by stage fright, and blanketed in darkness while a couple of large video screens flashed a series of animated shorts. The group’s live setup is geared exclusively toward letting their eclectic music do all the talking.

Their diverse musical tastes and the difficulty in categorizing them could be another reason the group has only attracted a small cult following. Although they share Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips’ fondness for psychedelic buzzing and oscillating sounds, “Rings Around The World” embraces a variety of musical styles — from orchestral pop to Latin rhythms to country-style laments to guitar-drenched power pop — and incorporates them into such elaborately layered and imposing songs.

Each track is so grand in scale — stacked with instruments and quirky sounds that form swollen melodies that slowly rise and then collapse — that it scarcely seems possible that most of the songs are only three minutes long. Songs like “Receptacle For The Respectable,” “Shoot Doris Day” or “Run! Christian, Run!” are so carefully and beautifully constructed that it seems like the band is trying to make each opus a contender for the “perfect pop song” award. Even a cut as silly as “Edam Anchorman” sounds like it’s trying to top its Lennonesque antecedents in musical complexity (if not in surrealistic wordplay).

The lyrics on the album are just as thoughtful as the music, with teasing stabs at religion, right-wing politics, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s rumored boozing. Sometimes, these clever jests are tough to discern without a lyric sheet because of singer Gruff Rhys’ slurred vocals.

What should be clear is that although the Super Furry Animals might not have the faces that MTV likes or the kind of music that format-obsessed radio programmers demand, they have made an album in “Rings Around The World” that will should be judged on its merits, and it has many.

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Queens Of The Stone Age “Songs For The Deaf”

Traditionally, drummers are the low men on the rock ‘n’ roll totem pole. And so, who would have thought a lowly drummer would be what initially got the Queens Of The Stone Age and their new album, “Songs For The Deaf,” some much deserved attention this year?

Of course, the drummer in question is Foo Fighters singer Dave Grohl and the fact that his appearance on “Songs For The Deaf” marked his first full-time return to the kit since he was in Nirvana left many curious as to who was this Southern California hard-rock outfit and what was it about them that lured Grohl from his own pet projects.

The best answer to that question is the album itself, and although Grohl has since amicably returned to his own musical universe, his departure clears the way for the Queens — guitarist/vocalist Josh Homme, bassist/vocalist Nick Oliveri and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan — to be appreciated on their own.

“Songs For The Deaf” is well suited to serve as a de facto introduction to the group. Less daring but more tuneful and riff-oriented than the Queens’ previous offerings, this record lays down the gauntlet for hard rock and metal groups. The album is the musical equivalent of pilgrim leader John Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” a heavy rock model for experimentalism, pop sensibilities and crunching guitar that all headbangers can learn from.

What sets the Queens’ sound apart from their rivals is how carefully the band arranges their songs, stacking melodies and harmonies on top of each and sharpening hooks for each song. Sure, tracks like “The Sky Is Fallin'” and “Go With The Flow” have the kind of stomping riffs that make heavy rock fun, but band ratchets up the tension within the songs by having the bass play stabbing licks or induce a sense of panic by pounding on a piano.

In particular, the band’s vocals play as important a role as the guitar. While almost all their songs are supported by layers of vocal harmonies, the Queens boast three singers who take turns leading in different directions — from the explosive “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar But I Feel Like A Millionaire” to the Kinks-like ditty “Another Love Song” to the noir-ish Western of “Hangin’ Tree.”

Ulitmately, whichever path the Queens’ take listeners on, it all ends up at the same place: the hard rock promised land.

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Blackalicious “Blazing Arrow”

Like one of those occasional cosmic events in which the planets align, Blackalicious’ “Blazing Arrow” has all the ingredients that make a great hip-hop album: potent beats, tasty instrumental snippets, pointed yet meaningful rapping and even a decent number of guests. And the best part is that it all gels together.

It might be surprising to learn that “Blazing Arrow” is the major label debut from the California-based duo (consisting of rapper Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel), but actually, the pair have been practicing their craft and quietly earning a rep in the hip-hop underground since forming in the early ’90s.

You only need to peruse the list of distinguished guest artists that appear on “Blazing Arrow” — Ben Harper, Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, the Roots’ ?uestlove, Gil Scott-Heron and members of Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples — to know the amount of respect Blackalicious commands.

The level of appreciation the group enjoys among fellow artists stems from not only their adventurous production skills (a laid-back version of Public Enemy’s collage of samples), but also because their lyrical focus on topics political, social and spiritual harken back to the late ’80s and early ’90s hip-hop collective, Native Tongues, which included De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and others.

The group makes plain its defiance of hip-hop convention on “Passion,” in which Gab, joined by and Rakaa and Babu from Dilated Peoples, assert their purpose of expressing themselves however they like, in spite of indifference from the mainstream. Their lyrical tirades are supported by the kind of driving beat and snarling guitar snippets that would be too scary for Jay-Z’s tracks.

The pair also has a softer and humorous side, as demonstrated on the uplifting R&B of “Aural Pleasure.” The song, featuring sexy cooing from the Roots’ new protege Jaguar Wright, struts along like a Funkadelic groove, but with bit of southerness that adds a country blues feel. Equally smooth is “Brainwashers,” on which Ben Harper’s falsetto vocals during the chorus give the slow-funk song a cool Curtis Mayfield feel.

“I’m merely just a rapper. I probably don’t fit into the current state of which you consider that to be,” Gab confesses on “Purest Love.” His words ring true not because he’s an outsider but “Blazing Arrow” sets them head of the pack.

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Spoon “Kill The Moonlight”

Whenever I think of Spoon’s “Kill The Moonlight,” I can’t help being reminded of piano man Ben Folds. He has nothing to do with the Austin, Texas, band, but there’s a couple of piano tunes on this fantastic album that recall some of Folds’ “School House Rock”-type ditties.

This is unfair because rather than trying to spark a Billy Joel renaissance, Spoon’s music on “Kill The Moonlight” is equal parts MTV punk and old-school R&B rave ups, both with college-rock sensibilities.

Apart from singer Britt Daniel’s quivery voice, the band doesn’t have a signature sound or instrument. While the bouncy piano of “The Way We Get By” or “Someone Something” are Folds-like pop, the keyboard-less “Jonathon Fisk” is propelled by a hardnosed guitar rhythm. The musical hook on “Something To Look Forward To” is a driving disco bassline.

The group really knows how to build a jam, particularly one that builds and builds but never explodes. (For this, you can either credit them as punkish innovators or as “uncultured” musicians who know enough to stick with a good musical fragment when they see one.) It’s easy to get swept up by the circular organ melody of “Small Stakes,” or “Back To The Life” with its stomping beat and swaggering Rolling Stones guitar chords. But at the end of both, the music just spits you out even a full-blown chorus, and that’s a good thing.

Spoon might not be the polished pop music meisters that misters Folds or Joel are, but that too is a good thing. I’ll take “Kill The Moonlight” as a departure from formula.

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Low “Trust”

If you’re up after midnight and looking for something to listen to, Low’s “Trust” will be the one that takes you to the dawn.

Quiet, romantic and ethereal, the band is the perfect mood music to ease the transition from a hectic day or a riotous party to sleep.

Hailing from Duluth, Minn., the trio has been touring and cutting their unique brand of slow songs for close to 10 years. They’re still the North Country’s best-kept musical secret even though each new album is better than the one before it.

“Trust” is no exception. One by one, the record doles out samplings of the group’s musical strengths. The glittering guitar phrase in “Last Snowstorm Of The Year” shows their lighter pop side, while the discordant strumming on “John Prine” is the band at their eeriest. “Canada” features the ghostly vocal pairings of the band’s husband-and-wife team of guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker.

The highlight on “Trust” might be Parker’s star turn, “Tonight.” Coated in a quiet hum and the gentle fluttering of an electric guitar, the song’s fragile music falls somewhere between Mazzy Star and the late ’60s Beach Boys. Most enthralling is Parker’s soothing voice. The lyrics are too vague to glean any meaning from the words, but the icy tone of her voice alone carries the emotional wallop.

The night can’t go on forever and neither can “Trust,” but you can enjoy them both while they last.

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Interpol “Turn On The Bright Lights”

If you’re a rock band from New York these days, you’re going to be accused of copying from somebody. While “it” bands like the Strokes, the Liars, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Walkmen and others are derided (or praised) as faithful sons of ’70s and ’80s punk and post-punk, the fellows in Interpol have clearly studied the history of goth rock, most notably Joy Division and Bauhaus.

In fact, the foursome’s major label debut, “Turn On The Bright Lights,” is the most exhilarating homage to the genre’s roots in years.

It’s curious to hear how the band’s love for the two bands actually run together in the music. Although singer/guitarist Paul Banks’ vocals are most often compared to the monotone crooning of Joy Divison’s Ian Curtis, during “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down,” he momentarily brings the song’s chiming guitars to a halt, desperately shouting the song’s namesake just like Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy would.

Setting the comparisons aside, one shouldn’t underestimate the group or overlook how marvelous these songs sound. Built around the minimalist but intertwined strumming of the band’s two guitars, the hypnotic songs shift between creepy love songs (“PDA,” “Obstacle 2”) to portraits of nightlife characters (“Obstacle 1,” “Roland”), of which the latter group lets Interpol show its brutish side.

The album’s centerpiece is “NYC,” a track — with it’s elegant, swaying guitar chords — begins like it’s going to be a torch song, but is really a cry of self-affirmation in the face of alienation and tough times in New York City. “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights,” Banks sings, signaling both lyrically and actually that despite the difficulties, now is the moment of the Interpol’s arrival.

Perhaps if we’re lucky, some enterprising New York band will decide to copy “Turn On The Bright Lights” next year.

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The Roots “Phrenology”

The inclusion of “Phrenology” on this list was a tough decision. Although I would say the album is the best in the Roots’ career, there’s a few tracks on it that I could do without and the competition against it was fierce in my mind.

What it came down to for me was what grooves I came back to and well, you know who won.

This album marks a pivotal point in the Roots’ history. Rapper Malik B is gone from the band, leaving Black Thought as the group’s sole mic wielder. Meanwhile guitarist Ben Kenney came onboard, giving the group’s rhythm section new flourishes.

The changes has obviously enough carried over into the music, as the band dabbles in several genres before “Phrenology” is done. Being a live band always gave the Roots greater flexibility than other hip-hop artists, but in shifting between the near hard rock of “Rock You” and the prowling bass on “Quills, ” they’ve come the closest to fulfilling their promise.

Black Thought, more than anyone, seems to be relishing the new breathing room. Although always dominant, he seems to be stretching out more. He unleashes streams of hard-hitting rhymes on “Though @ Work,” but then gently trades lines with Jill Scott on “Complexity.” While he plays the seducing lover man on the radio-friendly “Break You Off,” he vents on the 10-minute track, “Water,” in which details the dissolution of his relationship with the departed Malik B.

The album’s finest moment is when the group becomes backing band for singer-songwriter Cody ChestnuTT on “The Seed (2.0).” The slinky song is a new, funkier version of a track from ChestnuTT’s double-disc indie debut. ChestnuTT has been performing the song with the Roots onstage since last summer and he’ll opening for the group later this winter.

My reservations with “Phrenology” are two-fold. First, it’s the inclusion of songs like “Sacrifice” (with a chorus) and the punk-rock snippet “!!!!!!!” both of which sound like filler. Secondly, it’s the fact that these tracks betray the group’s promise. This might be the group’s best, but as based on the glimpses of greatness on “Phrenology,” they can do better.

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This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • Sonic Youth “Murray Street”
  • Peter Wolf “Sleepless”
  • Marianne Faithfull “Kissin’ Time”
  • Johnny Cash “American IV: The Man Comes Around”
  • Lambchop “Is A Woman”
  • Steve Earle “Jerusalem”
  • Coldplay “A Rush Of Blood To The Head”
  • Talib Kweli “Quality”
  • The Streets “Original Pirate Material”
  • Guided By Voices “Universal Truths And Cycles”
  • Tom Waits “Alice” and “Blood Money”
  • Common “Electric Circus”
  • Beth Orton “Daybreaker”
  • Ron Sexsmith “Cobblestone Runway”
  • Neko Case “Blacklisted”
  • Sleater-Kinney “One Beat”
  • Tori Amos “Scarlet’s Walk”
  • Jurassic 5 “Power In Numbers”
  • The Soundtrack Of Our Lives “Behind The Music”
  • Bright Eyes “Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground”

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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