Best Music of 2002: Steven Hyden

[16 December 2002]

By Steven Hyden

Following is my list of top 10 favorite albums for 2002. I say favorite instead of best because I didn’t listen to every album released this year. I always end up buying the best album of a particular year six months to six years after that year is done anyway. If you want a best-of list, I do a great 1996.

1. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (Interscope)
In a year loaded with great albums, the Queens win this contest in a walk. No other album, no matter how wonderful, could match Songs for the Deaf for pure entertainment per square inch. Many an hour was spent watching MTV2 just on the off-chance that the stuttering single “No One Knows” might be on. (I saw much Good Charlotte in that time, and if there was a poorer excuse for punk rock this year I don’t want to hear it.) QOTSA masterminds Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri deserve some kind of medal for this, if only because they restored the honor of that decrepit slut whore known as hard rock. I guess this music really can be dark and funny and also, you know, have pop hooks. A concept album about how QOTSA is better than every rock band that gets more radio play than they do, Songs for the Deaf should finally make the likes of Creed and Three Doors Down irrelevant to even the most mainstream-friendly folks out there. So why haven’t these guys taken over the world yet? U.N. inspectors have found stockpiles of crap hole bands on the radio, fellas. It’s time to invade! We need you!

2. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)
When Rolling Stone reviewed Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque back in 1991, they gave the album two stars in part because it sounded too much like Big Star. True, I thought, but that doesn’t mean the songs aren’t incredible. And, truth be told, I still listen to Bandwagonesque more than I do Radio City. It’s the best Big Star album Big Star never made. Which brings us to Interpol, the New York band praised/slagged in practically every review of its debut full-length release Turn on the Bright Lights as Joy Division tribute artists/rip-offs. There’s certainly a similar melancholy quality in the voices of Interpol singer Paul Banks and JD martyr Ian Curtis. But Curtis never sang over music this immediate, hooky or rocking . Where Joy Division was on the ledge getting ready to jump off, Interpol is inside the apartment hopping up and down to the Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make?” Both are depressed, the latter just has a better way of coping.

3. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
When did this album “come out” again? Was it 2001, when it was available for download all over the Internet? Or was it 2002, when a subsidiary of the major label that initially refused to release it finally put it out “legitimately”? Having just purchased a computer this summer and thus being a year removed from the YHF downloading frenzy, I’ll say 2002, even if the truly cool critics put this album on their lists last year. I’m not going to go into the record label political stuff because that’s been written about to death this year. Let’s talk about the music, which I have to admit left me cold at first. Compared to the jaw-dropping masterpiece that is Summerteeth, YHF came off slightly chilly and self-indulgent. But it’s a grower. The September 11 parallels are obvious and would have never worked if Jeff Tweedy did it on purpose. As it is, YHF is like the weird underbelly of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, conveying our confusion, uncertainty and isolation not with plain-spoken words but with dissonant radio signals and heavy metal drummers.

4. Paul Westerberg, Stereo/Mono (Vagrant)
This double release (Mono is sometimes sold separately under Westerberg’s alter ego Grandpaboy) floored me faster than any album I heard this year. I had no idea going in how kickass it was going to be. Recorded over the course of three years in the ex-Mat’s basement studio, Stereo/Mono is maybe only half a surprise. Stereo delivers the same sad-sack acoustic numbers Westerberg has focused on writing throughout his solo career, though the quality/garbage ratio is better than ever. As good as Stereo is, the Mono half is the real revelation here. It’s loud guitars, shouted vocals, sloppy drums and ace tunes. You know, a real get-drunk-by-yourself rock record. Not only is this the record you always wanted Westerberg to make, but it would be cool if maybe Keith Richards or Ron Wood made it, too.

5. N.E.R.D., In Search Of . . . (Virgin)
The only album here that rivals Songs for the Deaf for giddy thrills. N*E*R*D sing about hustlers and strippers and videotaping sex over the best rap-rock of the year. Believe me, I never thought I would put the words “rap-rock” and “best” in the same sentence, but as the Neptunes or the Roots or even Run DMC will tell you, it’s better for rap to go rock than rock to go rap. This is the sound of unbridled hedonism, with the humping and sniffing sounds barely covered up. But in case you expect the party to last forever, there’s “Provider,” a drugs-and-death cautionary tale that would make Curtis Mayfield proud.

6-9. I put he next four albums in alphabetical order rather than my personal favoriteness. Talk amongst yourselves as to which are the best.

. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Source Tags and Codes (Interscope)
I had this album for a couple months and couldn’t get into it. A friend said they were emo and it poisoned my ears. Then I saw them play “Relative Ways” on Conan O’Brien, a talk show musical appearance rivaled only by the Hives on Conan for pure animal magnetism in 2002. They trashed the stage and I’m still a sucker for that. I was hooked. I realized my friend was wrong; these guys aren’t emo because they actually rock. If anything, Trail of Dead is borderline classic rock, like Led Zeppelin bled into Sonic Youth. No rock album this year is as densely textured as Source Tags and Codes. It packs more sound in its digital grooves than anything else. The album-opening “It Was There That I Saw You” literally leaps out of your speakers and stomps your testicles into oblivion, not normally something I like to encourage but here you kinda enjoy it.

Beck, Sea Change (Interscope); Neil Halstead, Sleeping on Roads (4AD)
Beck and Mojave 3’s Halstead had a serious jones for early ‘70s British folk on their albums this year. Beck got more attention for his effort, a welcome continuation of the introspection and beautiful melodies of 1998’s criminally underrated Mutations. He supposedly wrote the songs in a post-breakup blur two years ago, and recorded them with his long-time touring band in another blur under the supervision of Radiohead knob guy Nigel Goodrich. The lyrics have the usual elliptical Beckisms but more than ever before it’s the music that distinguishes him. Most of it is bare-bones-acoustic-guitar-plus-strings, Nick Drake-style. The same can be of Halstead’s album, which sounds like it was recorded lights out in a closet in a Victorian mansion in some desolate rain-soaked country side. Really, these two are practically the same album, so take your pick. Me, I’ll take both.

Enon, High Society (Touch and Go)
Like Beck, John Schmersal of Enon has long hid perfectly acceptable pop songs behind layers and layers of kooky artifice. This time the New York-by-way-of Ohio art rocker decided to do something truly experimental: Strip away the gimmicks and make a relatively normal pop-rock record. High Society is the record Sugar Ray wishes they could make, which is not a back-handed compliment to a band previously known for the twisted metal-soul of “Rubber Car” off 2000’s decidedly un-pop rock album Believo!, but a tip of the hat for making one of the catchiest records of the year. Former Blonde Redhead Toko Yasuda might be the MVP in that regard, wrapping her broken English around the sultry R&B of “In This City” and “Disposable Parts.” Damn that’s sexy. J.Lo who?

Guided By Voices, Universal Truths and Cycles (Matador)
My favorite band, so I have to get them in here somewhere. I’m still not crazy about this album, to be honest. I mean, it’s still pretty good, with GBV mix tape candidates like “Eureka Signs,” “Cheyenne,” “Christian Animation Torch Carriers” and “Back to the Lake.” But after the career-defining Isolation Drills, which really is as good as “Bee Thousand” despite what the lo-fi-loving wing of GBV’s fan base will tell you (these people are so technology-hating that they might as well be Amish), Universal Truths and Cycles feels like a band in retreat. Like it or not, GBV is better suited to arena rock nowadays. I love Alien Lanes as much as anybody, but that doesn’t mean Toby is still in the band or that tuneless between-song meanderings are preferable to more chunky nuggets like “Everywhere With Helicopter.” Of the 57 albums Robert Pollard will put out in 2003, I hope one of them is the big, hard-charging and hopeful rock record he does better than anyone.

10. A whole mess of albums are tied for this spot. I can’t write about all of them, but they are all good, trust me. Again, the order is alphabetical instead of favoritismo.

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