Best Music of 2002: Anthony C. Bleach

[16 December 2002]

By Anthony C. Bleach

If this list showcased the best music that I listened to in 2002, it would probably contain only two or three of the releases below. This is not to say that there was a paucity of great stuff this past year; it’s just that, like every year I’ve been listening to music, I’ve found myself once again revisiting musicians and investigating genres that I knew nothing about (David Bowie, Prince, 1960s psychedelic, 1990s indie-dance) rather than grabbing the latest releases off the shelves. Fortunately, I think that my list reflects both the explorations I’ve made, especially in the area of contemporary dance music, as well as the musical zeitgeist of this past year. Without further ado, then, here are (roughly) ten things that made me happy in 2002, in (roughly) alphabetical order.

Jawbreaker, Etc. (Blackball)
I used to imagine when I first heard Jawbreaker in 1992 that, in an alternate world, people would love their ugly beautiful Mission District (California) greaser punk rock as much as I did. Fast-forward ten years, the mainstream has caught on to this style of music (pssst, it’s called “emo”, pass it on), and even the jocks and preps are listening in. Etc. is a collection of Jawbreaker’s EPs, contributions to compilations, covers, unreleased songs, blah blah blah, and should be required listening for anyone who’s ever gotten choked up over a Dashboard Confessional song. This is young music in many ways, but the melancholy that overflows from the rain-choked drains of these songs speaks more of age and experience. It’s just a shame that it’s taken so long for these cathartic songs to have become important again.

Metro Area, Metro Area (Environ)
Playgroup, Playgroup (Astralwerks / Source UK)
It’s probably important to relate at this point that Metro Area’s Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani and Playgroup’s Trevor Jackson listen and listened to a lot of the genres of music represented on the two compilations below; how else could they have created two remarkable albums which are simultaneously indebted to past musical forms at the same time that they sound so fresh? While Metro Area features more obviously the metropolitan sounds of Detroit techno, house, Eurodisco, and funk, Playgroup is a playground of dub, punk, hip-hop, new wave, and smoove soul. Both, however, are like a mango yoghurt-and-granola smoothie: a smashing-together of the smooth and the rough that sounds altogether smashing.

The Notwist, Neon Golden (Big Store / City Slang, EU)
A friend of mine once described Germany’s the Notwist as “New Order, but cheesier”. I tend to agree with this verdict, if by “New Order”, one means “accomplished musicians who were revolutionary in the way they combined electronics and live instruments to create something that’s both processed and produced and precise as well as spontaneous and quote-unquote organic”; and if by “cheesier”, one means “with surprisingly genuine feeling”. There’s no more mournful electronic music anywhere than “Pick up the Phone”, with its fractured beats, acoustic guitar, and triumphant strings and horns, and the gentle trip-hoppy sway of “Consequence”. Meanwhile, “Pilot” features a zipping-down-the-Autobahn drum line that’s less an escape from the outpouring of emotion here than a brief respite. Neon Golden is an album that reveals the machines of the heart.

Sonic Youth, Murray Street (DGC)
Part two of their proposed trilogy of albums dealing with the cultural history of New York City. Sonic Youth has thankfully moved from the largely meandering New York City Ghosts and Flowers to the consistent and mature Murray Street. Everything you’d expect is here: a poem from Lee Ranaldo (“Karen Revisited”), a couple of slow-burners that highlight Steve Shelley’s solid drumming (“The Empty Page”, “Sympathy for the Strawberry”, and “Disconnection Notice”), a free-jazzy freakout (“Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style”), some mind-boggling guitar work (the ending of “Rain on Tin”), the Kim Gordon free-association skronker (“Plastic Sun”). There’s also something here you wouldn’t expect: Jim O’Rourke, who’s been upgraded to permanent member. Oh yeah, and the band’s made their best album since forever.

The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice)
Is the volume of press that this release received this past year warranted? Is this the album that (a) once and for all puts British rap on the global map or convinces the world that British rap is crap; (b) represents a cooptation of contemporary “pirate” musical styles (2step, garage, and their accompanying subcultures) for mainstream (mainland?) audiences, or a reconceptualization of that loaded term; (c) glorifies youth and masculinity in Tony Blair’s England or shows the cracks in those social constructs, in that Labour-ed nation; or (d) sounds like the Wu-Tang Clan cast in a remake of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (and all the cool menace that combination implies) or like Benny Hill doing a cover of “Funky Cold Medina” (and the two chuckles that excruciating novelty implies)? I don’t ultimately know the answers to these dichotomies (and I suspect that for most people, their answers are going to be “a little bitta this, a little bitta that”), but what a self-assured and absolutely compelling debut.

Paul Westerberg, Stereo/Mono (Vagrant)
America’s best lyricist has never been greater. Although largely split between a more polished, mostly solo acoustic disc and another rough-and-tumble rocking one, all the songs here reveal an accomplished singer and musician who’s vulnerable without being sentimental and intelligent without being boring. The best of them might be “Eyes Like Sparks”, a love song reduced to two imperatives and two similes, or “We May Be the Ones”, a waltz-time ballad that medieval troubadours would have undoubtedly composed if they grew up in Minneapolis. Westerberg’s (mostly solo, unless you count his couch as a backup musician) live shows - where he played his own numbers intermingled with spine-tingling anthemic versions of Replacements’ chestnuts—were like coming home to listen to your uncle croon drunkard’s tales of yesterday and uplifting parables for tomorrow.

Various Artists, Disco (Not Disco) 2 (Strut, UK)
While the below compilation looks ahead in its title and cover manifesto, this one has its eyes on the past. A collection of “leftfield disco classics from the New York underground”, we move from the classic cocaine-jitters of Laid Back’s “White Horse”, to Yello’s roller-rink funk “Bostich”, to the nascent techno of Connie Case and the Coach House Rhythm Section, to the avant garde disco maven Arthur Russell, to the Clash’s dub-dance of “This is Radio Clash”. If the 1980s snuck back home (again) in 2002, there was no better document of the musical potential (and plain musical weirdness: Lex’s “Fourteen Days” is Chic’s chicken guitar and happy bass married to insistent and distorted percussion and breaking glass sound effects) of that decade than this anthology.

Various Artists, Futurism (City Rockers, UK)
Or, Now That’s What I Call Electro/House/Techno/Whatever Volume 1! Although its sleek-n-shiny pink plastic design makes it look (ironically?) like a package of Bazooka Gum, there’s nothing so bubble-headed nor disposable on the two CDs that make up this omnibus. Absolutely essential for two pseudo-covers—Tiga & Zyntherius’ reworking of “Sunglasses at Night” and Golden Boy with Miss Kittin’s Misfits-y “Rippin Kittin”—and (ahem, next year’s smash) Tok Tok vs. Soffy O’s “Missy Queen’s Gonna Die”. What’s mystifying about a lot of what’s here (25 tracks from US and European artists) is the fact that, if the beats were removed (and thus the ostensible impetus for dancing), the music would fit right in the spooky atmosphere of horror films. Maybe it’s time for someone to do some serious remixing of John Carpenter’s score for Prince of Darkness.

LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge” (DFA)
Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get You out of My Head” (EMI / Capitol)
No Doubt, “Hella Good” (Interscope)
The Rapture, “House of Jealous Lovers” (DFA)

Why these four singles? Their combined power blew like a sirocco, hurling every other album released in 2002 (even the ones getting honorable mentions below) to a metaphorical Mediterranean and burying them in dust. Ladies first: No Doubt’s filthy funk of 40,000 years pulses with steam heat; while Kylie Minogue made a welcome return to relevancy, sounding like the female replicants of Blade Runner either having sex with Kraftwerk on a silver cloud or taunting them from the same dizzying heights. There’s no mistaking what the Rapture want on “House of Jealous Lovers”, though: never has the demand to get the fuck out of your seat and move something on your body, even if it’s just your eyebrows, sounded so crucial. Strangely, this rock song might just renew credence to the verb form “to disco”. Meanwhile, from the same Brooklyn stable, LCD Soundsystem (James Murphy of the DFA label / recording studio / tastemaking outfit) fashioned a song whose lyrics bash the selfsame hipsters that undoubtedly devoured the to-die-for psychedelic electro beats. It gives me a headache to wonder if there’s even an audience for a song like this outside of the people it mocks (myself included).

Honorable Ten:

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