When last we heard from Beck, he was partying like it was 1999—literally—on Midnite Vultures his plastic-trousered excursion into Prince's sexed-up netherworld of funk. Three years and an emotional Armageddon later, Beck's heartsick and melancholy Sea Change finds him in altogether different sonic raiment, chastened and alone in a world he can barely make out. This record is Beck's breakup opus for the ages—supposedly his Blood On the Tracks—and serves as the mirror in which his artistic pretensions come face-to-face with his true self, where the Knight of Non Sequitirs ascends to the throne assigned to the new Crown Prince of Pain.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Hello darkness my old friend, it's time to fight with you again. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Sound of Stubborn: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the record Jeff Tweedy needed you to hear, damn the artistic, commercial, or personal consequences. After ensuring that it got him and his group punted from their previous label (not to mention providing the fodder for a feature-length film that captured the band coming apart during its creation, ࠬa Let It Be), all we're left with are the naked remains of one of the year's finest accomplishments, an LP that resonates with the spirit of experimentation and the sound of fearlessness.
3. NEKO CASE
Immediately after recording Blacklisted, her third and finest album, Case proceeded to hit the road with Nick Cave, and to judge from the sexy 3 a.m. vibe seeping through these tracks, she's clearly been destined for the life of a Bad Seed all along. Take the title for what you will— blacklisted in love, in life, or from the Grand Ole Opry stage —the oppositional attitude it connotes ("anti" as in: anti-alt country, or goin'-nowhere relationships, even her undergarments four drinks into any given show, etc.) is as clear as a declaration of war.
4. BRIGHT EYES
Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
A pretentious, larger-than-life effort that infuses Conor Oberst's postadolescent fever dreams with the sort of emotionally enabled lifeblood his emo-boy counterparts would give their secret-squirrel diaries to tap into for just one day. Bright Eyes is this year's bright, shiny indie-kid button, but in that vaguely familiar, jacked directly from Highway 61 Revisited kind of way.
A Rush of Blood to the Head
Slump? What slump? As unfashionable as it is these days to make big-sounding, unironic "rock music" with a heart so plainly visible on your sleeve (well, if you can call doing all that and dating Gwyneth Paltrow simultaneously "unfashionable"), Coldplay mainman Chris Martin has nonetheless shouted down his many naysayers with a sophomore release that renders all that came before it a mere cup of coffee in the minors. Dark, confused, and sparkling with both promise and regret.
6. BETH GIBBON AND RUSTIN MAN
Out of Season
In which Portishead's erstwhile Diva of Depression force-feeds that group's ProTools trappings and sampler-whiz snobbery to the lions in favor of one quick turn around the track in Billie Holliday's trainers. The result is a modern-day blues album of deadly accurate precision and confession-booth grace; a whisper that quietly turns into Munch's silent, horrifying Scream.
7. AMON TOBIN
Out From Out Where
This Brazilian expatriate's Tropicalia breakbeat psych-hop (can there really be such a thing?) is electronica gone completely subatomic and totally off the reservation. Voodoo cockfighting soundtracks for the psychologically irredeemable. !Tudo bem!
Turn On the Bright Lights
No, it's not a Richard and Linda Thompson tribute album—more like a Joy Division cover band with survivor's guilt, a fierce hangover, and enough attitude to sink Morrissey's ship under a freakish squall of the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain. The '80s are back with a vengeance, ya'll— like, totally.
9. THE STREETS
Original Pirate Material
Straight Outta Birmingham: rap and the U.K. haven't exactly proved to be the musical equivalent of "your peanut butter's on my chocolate," but if Eminem had grown up in Ozzy's desperately impoverished hometown, this is what his records might sound like. Whether you call Mike Skinner's droll street science two-step, hip-hop, or the latest incarnation of England's Dreaming, make sure you leave enough props on the table for the man destined to make British rap more than an oxymoron.
10. PAUL WESTERBERG
When I Was Cruel
And now, the story of two late-in-life chroniclers of despair, heartbreak, and redemption. In a year otherwise noteworthy for bratty, underskilled guitar hoodwink, Westerberg returned with a pocketful of dust reminiscent of his finest hours with the 'Mats, a Physical Graffiti-sized accomplishment that kicks the relevance question back to the gutter where it belongs. And as for Declan, Cruel may not be an achievement on the same scale of importance as Get Happy!! (or even Brutal Youth, for that matter), but This Year's Model clearly demonstrates that when Elvis feels like dusting off his red shoes for a stroll down memory lane, few of his contemporaries are capable of matching his acerbic wit and incisive eye for detail.
BEST REISSUES: The Big Five continued its doomed collusion strategy, waging a cynical (and, some might say, futile) war of attrition against the creeping advance of technology by creatively repackaging its collective legacy in order to stanch the flow of precious I.P. leaking in increasingly copious volumes from the Internet. But that doesn't mean that 2002's fleet of official reissues were completely without merit. Indeed, this year we witnessed the repackaging of some of Elvis Costello's most treasured work (This Year's Model, Armed Forces and Imperial Bedroom, each expanded to bursting with rare outtakes, demos and rehearsals of songs that ultimately achieved Gold Standard status in the rock 'n' roll canon); another live release from Bob Dylan that ranks among the most compelling works in his catalog (I've officially ditched my copy of "Hard Rain" in favor of this far superior document of Trader Bob's Rolling Thunder Revue, circa 1975); and what seemed to be more material from Sun Records than the label was able to churn out during its natural lifespan (the best of which, Memphis Belles: The Women of Sun Records, documents the all-too-seldom heard X chromosome faction in the Sun back catalog—all six CDs and 150-plus tracks worth of it). But by far the most noteworthy reissue of the year was Matador's 10-year anniversary reboot of Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted (subtitled Luxe and Reduxe), a two-CD set that packaged the 1991 slack-rock classic alongside the fantastic 1992 Watery, Domestic E.P., a bushel of B-sides and a particularly revelatory live set revealing the indie craftsmen Pavement had become vs. the sloppy in-jokesters the band desperately wanted you to believe they were. Quite possibly the definitive reissue of the past five years. BEST BOX SET: Jeff Buckley's The Grace EPs, a five-CD collection that demonstrated in granular, multicolored detail just what a
giant we lost when Buckley slipped quietly under the surface of the mighty Mississippi back in 1997. Many of these songs have floated around on bootlegs or in cyberspace for years (including the ultra-rare promo EP Peyote Radio Theatre, which included a heart-stopping, 14-plus-minute version of Big Star's "Kangaroo," stretched to absurd limits and nosebleed heights on the strength of Buckley's angelic, mercurial vocal instrument), which makes this set's effort to tie all of the loose ends together in one package all the more laudable. The Grace EPs are Buckley speaking to us from the beyond; a towering statement from a talent of otherworldly character.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
The most beautiful album of the year, hands down. From the angry squonk of "Poor Places" to the giddy pop of "Heavy Metal Drummer" to the lovely "Reservations"—the best song Jeff Tweedy's ever written—it was worth the stupid wait.
2. PAUL WESTERBERG
To be honest, I'd wondered whether P. Dub still had it in him. Did he ever: Stereo/Mono is a compendium of raw, ridiculous, and sublime home recordings—some of which cut off mid-track, but big deal, they're still friggin' awesome—presenting Westerberg by turns pensive ("Boring Enormous"), ferocious ("Anything But That"), sweet-hearted (a fuzzy cover of the traditional "Mr. Rabbit"), and all points between.
3. TOM WAITS
Even those Waits fans who snapped up the Alice bootleg—a cranky, twisted treasure of a sketchbook—were knocked out by the official release. Blood Money may be the rawer of Waits' left hook/right cross 2002 releases, but Alice is the more accomplished, more satisfying album. Like John Tenniel's classic drawings for Lewis Carroll's book, Waits' musical accompaniment seems organically connected to the story: Murky, tangled, and utterly correct.
4. SOLOMON BURKE
Don't Give Up on Me
Doesn't it warm the cockles when an artist who's never really received the attention he deserves, finally receives the attention he deserves? The performances on Don't Give Up on Me are uniformly outstanding, but the contributors' list—Dylan, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Nick Lowe—is an entirely satisfying testimony to Southern soul legend Burke's lasting importance.
5. THE NEGRO PROBLEM
Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in the body of a generously proportioned African-American gentleman named Mark Stewart, who is aggressively versed in psychedelic rock, R&B, soul, Burt Bacharach- and Kurt Weil-style composition, cabaret pop, torch songs, and a host of other influences. The Negro Problem dropped its third album in September, and it's a witty, but never precious, ride through the past 40 years of popular song styles that flows together seamlessly.
6. DAVID CROSS
Shut Up You Fucking Baby!
Andy Kaufman, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce . . . our most necessary comedians are the ones who deal in the matters we'd rather not hear spoken aloud. I commend to your attention actor/comedian David Cross—you'll recognize him when you see him—who came out of fucking nowhere with the angriest, most alive comedy album since Hicks' own Rant in E Minor.
7. WAYNE KRAMER
Dig the opening cut on this album from the MC5's guitar hero, "Brought a Knife to the Gunfight." Listen to the straightforward instrumentation that takes us through a few verses . . . before Wayne Kramer's totally unexpected, absolutely feral guitar solo punches through the music like a hot needle through the flesh of the palm. It's a jarring, electrifying moment: Music by a guy old enough to be your granddad that whips the ass off any handful of younger noisemakers.
8.THE NELS CLINE SINGERS
This artist-controlled jazz label came into its own during its fourth year with a handful of strong releases, of which Instrumentals is only the most marvelous. Some of the best avant-garde music in the country is currently being released on Cryptogramophone, and Nels Cline's signature guitar sound—at once controlled and frenzied—led the charge in '02. Furthermore, the label's releases are beautifully packaged as well as immaculately recorded—in sum, a sound investment all around.
9.THE FLAMING LIPS
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
In the spirit of the season, we momentarily forgive Warner Bros. their trespasses, real and imagined, for releasing (and supporting) the Flaming Lips, who by all rights should never have been picked up by the majors. Yoshimi ups the ante of the lush, operatic the Soft Bulletin by wearing its squishy red heart on its sleeve; gorgeous, sweeping arrangements are wedded to Wayne Coyne's most defenseless lyrics, as on the lovely ride-out gem, "All We Have is Now." Who says romance is dead?
Hip-hop fans who've grown tired of the conspicuous consumption of the top acts in the genre—which is to say, actual hip-hop fans—received a wealth of joys this year, but Blackalicious' sophomore release was the most eclectic, as well as the most proficient. You won't hear dolla bills or ends spoken of on Blazing Arrow . . . but you will hear the rich future of urban music and poetry.
SPIRITUAL TRADITION THE STARS OUGHT TO SHUT UP AND LEAVE THE HELL ALONE (2002): KABBALAH. Now that Buddhism is pass頡nd henna is so 1999, your vacuous A-list celebs are compressing a Judaic study thousands of years old into Waldenbooks-ready, Lite Awareness mysticism. Coming out next season: Avril Lavigne for the Talmud, J.Lo in favor of dietary cannibalism, Missy Elliot endorses ritual clitoridectomy, the Strokes sanction the Apocrypha, Sean Combs prezentz Diddyizm feat. Ashanti, Marilyn Manson goes Episcopalian, and Dave Matthews maintains folksy purity by drinking his own urine.
1. VARIOUS ARTISTS
Red Hot + Riot
A brilliant tribute to the late Fela Kuti is worth it just for "Shuffering and Shmiling," which rips religion apart. Afrobeat turns hip-hop into full color as jazzbos, rappers, and African musicians come together. Even Sade sounds fully awake, while Roy Hargrove tears the roof off the sucker at every opportunity. Funkier than a James Brown sample.
2. MANU CHAO AND RADION BEMBA SUPERSONIC
Manu Chao and Radio Bemba Supersonic
The punk imp of world music unleashes a live disc that's up there with the greats—29 songs in just over an hour with a band that's like the Ramones playing reggae and mariachi. If "King Kong Five" doesn't give you Clash flashbacks, it's time for an EEG.
Au Cabaret Sauvage
The best band in France traces a course through chanson, Africa (North and West) and dub, with frontman Denis Pean sounding like the bastard child of Tom Waits and Serge Gainsbourg. Percussion rattles and jolts, the violin startles, and the El Nourid sisters bring the Sahara to your living room. If they were any better, they'd be illegal.
They got knocked down, and they got up again. English folk samples, astute political lyrics—definitely not the sound of a one-trick pony. Who cares if they had that song (which was great) when they mix '80s electro and "trad. arr. by" to this effect? They're still smarter than the average bear, stealing the pick-a-nick baskets and distributing the contents. And they're from my hometown.
5. SALIF KEITA
The unplugged trend seemed to hit Africa this year, but no one did it as well as Salif, who went back to basics in Bamako. To be fair, he needed some reinvention after his last disc, and with Moffou he nailed it. No crap songs, letting the voice and the material shine, a reminder that Salif is still a Malian king.
6. VARIOUS ARTISTS
The Rough Guide to Arabesque
Banging beats across the Maghreb? Arabic hip-hop? Damn right. Clotaire K and Mafia Maghrebine can kick it harder than NWA, U-Cef must break beats in his sleep, and MoMo knows house better than you do. You just wish people in America or the U.K. were being this inventive—they'd be major stars if they were. Next week: Bush declares war on Arabesque. Don't laugh—he might.
7. FERMIN MUGURUZA
Brigadistak Sound System
There's more to the Basque country than cries for independence and bombs. Muguruza takes "Anger is an energy" as his mantra, mixing up ska, electronica, hip-hop, and punk in graffiti blasts aimed at advertising and the G7, while praising international solidarity and the downtrodden. File out on the left wing and blast your ears off.
8. ELIZA CARTHY
She's the English folk babe with the family pedigree, but she's also the real deal. And she proves traditional English music has more flavor than English cuisine (and is decidedly hipper). No concessions to the mainstream, cooler than fuck (as the Inspiral Carpets used to say), and with far less cholesterol than a fry-up, but even more satisfying.
9. VARIOUS ARTISTS
Down in the hoods of Dakar, they're cooking up the hip-hop beats, but not for the white suburban boys. No violence, no misogyny? Well, damn, that's just not right. And what are these ethnic instruments doing? Rap goes home, and with some criminally good flow exhorts the youth to tolerate each other, take pride in where they're from, and music piracy. And weed. Of course. Listening, Snoop?
10. CLOTHESLINE REVIVAL
Of My Native Land
The album Moby should have made instead of Play, although it wouldn't garner those lucrative ad contracts. O Brother Americana meets beats gracefully, sampling Leadbelly and others more obscure, with instruments, vocals, beats, and atmospheres. And anyone who thinks rap began with the Sugarhill Gang needs to hear "Pullin' The Skiff." Word.
EXTRA, EXTRA: Open the envelope for best reissue and you've got Ethiopiques Vol. 11: Tezeta (Buda Musique). Who knew Ethiopians played the blues with feeling in the '70s? OK, so they don't, but their tezeta form is so close it could pass in a darkened room, and it's more haunted than Stevie Ray Vaughan's plane. Put it on at 3 a.m. when your baby's left you, and you'll want to be on the next plane to Addis, just because they understand. Best box set? Island Blues (Network). Cheaper (and safer) than a cruise, and a hell of a lot more exotic, a two-CD set to whisk you around the world in a couple of hours. Besides, how can you resist something that includes a performer called Baco?
TOP TEN HIP-HOP/ELECTRONICA
1. THE STREETS
Original Pirate Material
I'm gonna go out on a limb and give this the blue ribbon even though there's a chance I won't be able to listen to it in a few months. But I was thinking the same thing when it arrived in September, and I still crave a daily listen or two. The Streets are a English laddie named Mike Skinner whom lots of critics have mislabeled as the Best British Emcee Ever, when in fact his self-aware chatter-rap is the long suppressed voice of U.K. dance music working up enough chutzpah to talk some shit. Two-step garage, the subgenre this 22 year-old deals in, had until this year alienated all but the financially solvent with its R&B crooned fantasies about champagne and fancy cars. Skinner brought it, well, to the streets and just might have created his own long-lasting art form in so doing.
2. DJ SHADOW
The Private Press
Who knew that after driving past 110th Street into Harlem and then through late-"60s acid-freaking London, one would arrive in Marin County, Calif., home of DJ Shadow? The Private Press is like a secret history of hipster, collector-culture obscuria packaged as a quick-serve box lunch. Save the two decades digging through record fairs—the Nuggets compilation and David Axelrod sound better when blended through Shadow's mixer anyway.
Just when people are finally sick of DJs, a few emerge who are actually worth something. Based on the same ideas of recontextualization and kitsch that Kid606 and DJ Spooky dabble in but executed far more entertainingly, this is a can't-believe-no one's-done-it-before mix of smoothed-over low-brow fare (Sade, Aaliyah) and The Wire-approved noisetronica (Cex, DJ Scud), with many jarring left turns into world music, dancehall, and radio rap.
4. VARIOUS ARTISTS
This is Tech-Pop
(Ministry of Sound)
Most of the blank-voiced fashion-victim chick singing over 808 beats stuff (a.k.a. electroclash) isn't even as good as Berlin, but the handful of gems (most of which are collected here) make for really great fuck tunes. Fischerspooner's "Emerge" was the club track of the year.
God Loves Ugly
Indie hip-hop, mired in its reactionary attachment to bland boom-bap production, seems destined to progress only by exploring more and more intimate lyrical material. God Loves Ugly is the best recent example of this tension—unimpeded by the fairly boring beats, rapper Slug is able to push the art forward by dealing with the subjects that we expect mostly from rock songwriters: love, regret, boredom, and nostalgia.
Start Breaking My Heart
This is the record Boards of Canada should have made this year—lots of pretty melodic washes and intricate drum-machine jitters, almost totally pretension-free.
7. PROJECT PAT
Layin' Da Smack Down
Southern baller rap has gotten so surreal and experimental . . . and without any of the pretension of other pyschedelic musics. These Texas gangsta-hicks are slow-bassin' and fast hiccup-rapping because they drink Sizurp, a cocktail consisting of codiene, Jolly Ranchers, and vodka (that's not a joke). The effect is Max Headroom threating snitches (their favorite enemy) and partying for the right to street fight.
Also kinda sorta in the elctroclash vein but much more complexly crafted, this DJ set has some superb live-band-meets-mad-studio-wizard tunes. Most sleazy and fun, Mr. Playgroup, and well mixed to boot.
9. HIGH ON FIRE
Surrounded by Thieves
The lone rock stray on this list and for good reason. Surrounded by Thieves is Sabbath as channeled through Oakland hair farmers whose neurons are so caked with THC that it oozes forth in molasses-slow dollops. And there's a song about a yeti searching the polar caps for a crashed saucer—'nuff said.
Now that the majors—particularly MCA—have decided to play patron to middle of the road, once underground hip-hop groups like Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, and Blackalicious, the infusion of cash is making it sonically exciting again. Chief Xcel, producer, uses the looser purse-strings to unleash a super-complete high tech hijacking vintage soul hybrid that's damn moving. Gift of Gab, rapper, has technical chops for days, but his subject matter is a little stale at this point—"be positive, love yourself" starts sounding Hallmark rather quickly. But in terms of fashioning a new direction for a sagging realm of rap, this does it.
REISSUES: Parallax Corporation Cocadisco (Disko B) This was originally issued last year, but it was on the teeny Dutch label Viewlexx, so everybody, even the underground techno snobs who dig for this stuff, missed it. This shit is so sinister and druggy that 10 years of electronica looks like limp wallpaper next to it. The producers—I-f and Intergalactic Gary—exhumed the stunningly strange and long, long forgotten (never knew it existed in the first place) genre Italo-disco and updated it just enough to bump on a home stereo. The sound of hooking up in the bathroom at a club, then groping on the floor afterward to find your last shred of dignity, not finding it, and then going out to dance anyway.