Best Music of 2002: Jason Damas

[16 December 2002]

By Jason Damas

1. Candy Butchers, Play With Your Head (RPM/Sony)
On Play With Your Head, Mike Viola returned with the best pop record of the year-a tight and accessible 37-minute gem of a disc. Viola writes the kinds of songs that reveal new hooks with each listen while displaying the kind of emotional depth that’s often missing from modern pop records. And despite the album’s length, he manages to squeeze a variety of styles-from simple, singer/songwriter folk-pop on “Make No Mistake” to uptempo power-pop on “Worry My Dome” and classic, Elton John style ballads like “I Let Her Get Away”. In between are oodles of sonic detail and gorgeously manicured lyrics. Play With Your Head is easily the most overlooked record of the year-and on a major label, no less.

2. The Stereo, Rewind + Record (Fueled By Ramen)
With the three records he’s recorded under the name The Stereo, Jamie Woolford has given hip emo kids a chance to express their love for slick pop and ‘80s arena rock without totally blowing their cool. While that mission may not seem worthy of a critical nod, Rewind + Record is the album where Woolford went headlong into accessible stadium rock-indie cred be damned-and crafted one of the most memorable pop/rock records of the year. Picking up guilty pleasures along the way-like a melody line from Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust” or a Journey-esque guitar solo-and then having Jason Livermore layer it all with his trademark sheen, The Stereo made a big, bright pop/rock album for the masses. And unlike the two older records from The Stereo, Rewind + Record is full of stylistic diversity from piano-based pop to power-ballads and straight-up emo.

3. Ben Kweller, Sha Sha (ATO/BMG)
Sha Sha is a scruffy, unpretentious serving of sloppy guitar pop from one Ben Kweller, former frontboy for teen sensations Radish. While the Radish album showed that Kweller had some potential as a songwriter, Sha Sha is a sturdy and diverse collection of downright endearing pop singles, where Kweller sings what he knows with such wide-eyed boyish innocence and candor that you wish you were his pal. Diversity was the name of the game with the best pop records this year, and Kweller has tons of it—even when he’s mimicking Weezer or Ben Folds he often winds up beating them at their own game.

4. Phantom Planet, The Guest (Epic)
The inevitable shoulda-been-a-huge-hit-but-wasn’t record of the year, Phantom Planet’s sophomore outing has them growing in leaps and bounds in the four years since their debut. Sure, it’s easy to point out that the band members are all well-connected Hollywood insiders, with Jason Schwartzmann a bona fide star and lead singer Alex Greenwald an actual Gap model, but that stuff doesn’t matter nearly as much as this irrepressibly sunny collection of modern guitar-pop. The Guest is a truly modern pop record, fusing many of Radiohead’s arty leanings with McCartney’s sense of songcraft and some of Elvis Costello’s attitude into one seamless whole. Sure, Greenwald’s lyrics stumble a bit, but The Guest is remarkable in that it’s a thoroughly modern pop record, one by some kids who’ve done their homework and are ready for the big time.

5. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
Even though this was only my fifth favorite record of the year, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was undoubtedly the most monumental record of the year, one that not only marries dense sonic exploration with Jeff Tweedy’s most beautifully crafted songs to date, but also manages to sum up the cultural zeitgeist of music fans in showing a band’s triumph over their label’s concerns for the bottom line. Much has been said of this record since its April release, but one of its greatest assets is Tweedy’s ability to delve deeply into sonic explorations without ever losing sight of his band’s inherent accessibility—those who are turned off by pretentious studio wankery should not find Yankee Hotel Foxtrot alienating whatsoever. That’s a skill that even Radiohead has yet to master.

6. Supergrass, Life on Other Planets (Parlophone, UK)
Even though Life on Other Planets has yet to see a US release, Supergrass’ return in 2002 couldn’t have been better timed. The Vines, one of 2002’s biggest breakout acts, are admitted Supergrass fanatics, and Vines’ frontman Craig Nicholls has said that Life on Other Planets is his favorite album of the year. There is more than a little sonic similarity between Life on Other Planets and Highly Evolved, but the Supergrass record simply blows the other away—and, at that, it blows away most of their own previous releases. Eschewing the sluggish rock of 1999’s Supergrass for the full-throttle, colorful rock ‘n’ roll that they outlined on their debut seven years ago, Life on Other Planets is wild, catchy rock ‘n roll, and a welcome return from one of Britpop’s very best bands.

7. The Model Rockets, Tell the Kids the Cops Are Here (Not Lame)
After several years without a label and with both of their previous albums well out-of-print, the Model Rockets returned on Not Lame with Tell the Kids the Cops Are Here, a funny, cranky, and lighthearted pop record. Sounding for all the world like the Young Fresh Fellows or even the second incarnation of the dB’s, the Model Rockets’ blend of southern jangle-pop, power-pop, and even a little alt.country with witty, smartass lyrics is surprisingly durable. None of these 14 songs leap off the page, but rather weave together to form a consistent “record” in the classic, 45rpm sense without sounding derivative.

8. OK GO, OK GO (Capitol)
Realistically, OK GO might well be in the $1 used bins in another month or two as the public gets sick of their hit “Get Over It”, a delicious merge of “We Will Rock You” and Fountains of Wayne. And sure, Damian Kulash’s vocals are often snotty, abrasive, and needlessly obnoxious. But I’ll be damned if this isn’t the guilty pleasure record of the year, an album that merges the infectious elements of fine modern pop bands like the aforementioned FoW, They Might Be Giants, and the Wannadies with Cars-like synthesizers and sleek, sexy arrangements. Tom Lord-Alge’s characteristically bold mix doesn’t hurt either. There are a lot of fine pop singles here beyond “Get Over It”, as “Don’t Ask Me” and “You’re So Damn Hot” are some of the best sleazy, top-down in the summertime pop songs of the year.

9. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic)
It’s possible that Original Pirate Material was overvalued because of the novelty of a British rapper, but one listen to the debut offering from The Streets should negate that perception right away. Mike Skinner shrugs off the tag “the British Eminem” by delivering an infectious set of songs underscored by fresh 2-Step and UK garage beats and punctuated by his cockney delivery and self-deprecating humor. And while this is most certainly hip-hop, Skinner has a way of evoking The Specials or the dancier side of The Clash at the album’s best moments, like on the hilarious “Don’t Mug Yourself”. And, unlike Eminem, Skinner has a sense of humor when he’s talking about himself—whether it’s about his own boring weekends spent smoking up in front of his Playstation or his inability to meet his girlfriend on time.

10. Rhett Miller, The Instigator (Elektra)
Simple and unassuming, the debut solo offering from Old 97s vocalist Rhett Miller didn’t pack the rollicking thunder of the Old 97s, and on first listen might’ve even appeared to be a bit plain. But repeat listens reveal the level of detail that Miller—and producer Jon Brion—built into The Instigator Why isn’t it an Old 97s album? Well, it’s not very country, but it also shows Miller stretching deeply into the styles of his influences, like Squeeze on “Hover” or the Cars on “This Is What I Do”, and it illustrates some of the shades of Miller’s talent that get obscured on Old 97s discs by that band’s rancorous attack. And sure, it’s easy to miss the uncaged country-rock sound of that band, but The Instigator is merely a rewarding detour, not an end point, and winds up being one of the year’s most surprisingly consistent albums.

Best Live Album of the Year
Adam Marsland, 232 Days on the Road (Karma Frog)
When his band, Cockeyed Ghost (see “Best 2001 Album That I Didn’t Find Until 2002”), couldn’t afford a full-scale tour of the country in response to either of their last two records, Marsland decided to take matters into his own hands and drag his 1994 Toyota Tercel from San Diego to Boston and back—twice playing to audiences in bars, coffee shops, and Wild Oats supermarkets. 232 Days on the Road is a recording of the last date of the tour in Marina Del Rey, California, and shows that Marsland is a witty showman-oft described as one part Elvis Costello and one part Ben Folds—as well as brilliant songwriter. In addition to some of the band’s best-known songs, Marsland tosses in rarities, a cover of They Might Be Giants’ “James K. Polk”, and closes the record with three new top-quality studio cuts. But most importantly, 232 Days on the Road is a thrilling portrait of an artist doggedly pursuing the D.I.Y. aesthetic to get his music to the masses—one small crowd at a time.

Best Reissue of the Year
Jellyfish, Fan Club (Not Lame)
Fans of the Jellyfish’s two early ‘90s kitchen-sink pop masterpieces have always yearned for more, and Not Lame’s exhaustive, four-disc Fan Club box certainly delivers a LOT more. Packaging a disc of demos and rarities from each album with a disc of live material culled from each tour, Fan Club is something of a Jellyfish fans’ wet dream—a package that includes nearly every snatch of song that the band put to tape. There are some great rarities—like the band’s attempts to write songs like Ringo Starr for Ringo Starr and their attempt to sound like cheesy, late ‘80s Cheap Trick (and even that works, surprisingly). If there’s any flaw, it’s that there really isn’t any more where this came from.

Best 2001 Album That I Didn’t Find Until 2002
Cockeyed Ghost, Ludlow 6:18 (Karma Frog)
Maybe this is cheating a bit, but Cockeyed Ghost’s fourth offering, 2001’s Ludlow 6:18 is so utterly fantastic that it would’ve topped my list had it actually been released this year. Adam Marsland’s songwriting has always been deeply personal, even when it was augmented by punky, garage-rock arrangements. But on Ludlow 6:18, Marsland opts for pop classicism in the Elton John vein, crafting a loose concept album about driving across the country with songs that capture individual emotions along the way. Ludlow 6:18 mars sonic boundaries, too, mixing dusty alt.country, punk-pop, surf guitar, and piano pop into one seamless whole. Apart from the four songs that bookend the album and thematically relate directly to traveling, the songs fit together as a disjointed narrative of emotions from extreme joy (the bouncy “Ginna Ling”) and triumph (“Burning Me Out (Of the Record Store)”, a musician’s war-cry) to moody pop like “December” and the absolutely remarkable anthem “Tears of Joy”. Ludlow 6:18 is worth the price of admission for “Tears of Joy” alone, but any fan of quality pop music or singer/songwriters or alternative rock deserves to treat themselves and buy this record. Yes, it’s really that good.

Honorable Mentions(In Alphabetical Order:)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/best2002-damas/