The 2002 Indies

Jon Stewart Wasn’t Available to Host, But a Deal Was Being Finalized at Press Time with Chuck Barris

On the back cover of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (Little, Brown and Company) — an exceptional book by Michael Azerrad — there is a quote from comedienne/ Generation X spokesperson Janeane Garafolo that reads, “This book is essential for anyone who feels personally insulted by the Grammys, MTV, Top 40 radio, etc., etc. I am sorry for anyone who never got the chance to discover indie rock or, worse, chose to ignore it.”

While a quick review of this year’s Grammy nominees reveals improvement among the selections and hints that maybe, just maybe, Grammy is starting to get it, an opinionated minority still exists that says they have a long way to go in the quality department. Yeah, Ryan Adams is among this year’s nominees, but the Backstreet Boys and Alien Ant Farm were also invited to the party.

Unlike Michael Azerrad’s book, this column may not be considered essential reading by anyone, but simply consider it an alternative to the 2002 Grammys, only without the bad music and the creative black-tie attire.

At this point though, you may be scratching your head and asking, “What exactly is indie rock, anyhow?” or possibly “How does a band receive a nomination for these obviously prestigious awards?” Well, though not an exact science, the most obvious characteristic is that the artists usually release their music on an independent record label rather than one of the major corporate labels. At smaller labels, overhead costs are lower, allowing for a focus on creativity rather than quarterly reports. When there are fewer mouths to feed, it creates an environment where people can take more risks artistically.

That said, an artist can still record for a major label and maintain their “indie cred.” After all, trying to sell records is not a bad thing, and musicians should choose the path that they believe gives them the best chance to be successful. However, maintaining creative control is critical. Last year Wilco, a critically acclaimed band (but not by any means a major label cash-cow), parted ways with their record label after refusing to alter their latest album to make it more “radio friendly.” Indie artists also embrace the DIY (“do it yourself”) demeanor, whether it be setting up their own equipment, driving themselves in their own van on tours, playing multiple shows at more intimate clubs rather than a single stop at a larger theater, or sometimes even starting their own record label.

In the end, it probably comes down to just what is it that creates a “buzz” around the subject: a full-page ad in a trade magazine like Billboard, or positive word-of-mouth created by an artist who plays 100-plus concerts a year? And now, the envelopes, please . . .

Best Public Relations Scam
During 2001, the Detroit duo The White Stripes hit the gossip threshold. Up until the release of White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry), it was believed that singer/guitarist Jack White and drummer Meg White were brother and sister. Well, garner enough publicity and sooner or later, the truth will get out. Turns out they are actually a divorced couple, and they apparently decided it would be more interesting not to correct this piece of misinformation. But the real reason The White Stripes received so much publicity was for the aforementioned White Blood Cells, which takes the guitar and drums formula to a new level of inventiveness. With their third LP, the color-coordinated twosome delivered the best blues-rock this side of the garage and perhaps the best record of the year.

Best Album Featuring Ryan Adams
If Ryan Adams is feeling any pressure from being the current “it” musician, he isn’t showing it. This category only contains two choices this year, Whiskeytown’s rescued-from-label-abyss swansong, Pneumonia, and the solo Gold (both on Lost Highway). While both records have many high points, Gold is the slightly more consistent endeavor of the two splendid records, despite its somewhat derivative “shout out” to classic rock. Incidentally, this bracket may become a bit more crowded next year, as the prolific Adams reportedly has a number of records already completed, including an effort with his new punk band, The Pink Hearts. Additionally, he plans to collaborate with Evan Dando, James Iha, and Melissa Auf de Mur on their newly formed “super group”, the Virgins.

Best BIG Rawk Record
Though Robert Pollard can still be found “slumming it” in the basement on his numerous Fading Captain Series releases, which find him collaborating with everyone from ex-band mates to the guy who works the shoe counter at the Dayton Bowl-o-drome, Guided By Voices’ Isolation Drills (TVT) will never be mistaken for a home recording. Producer Rob Schnapf gets the knobs just right on GBV’s excellent 2001 offering, and unlike GBV’s first attempt at studio mastery, Do the Collapse, the songwriting is consistently superior this time around, making it the band’s most unswerving record in their vast, Bud-soaked catalog.

Best Song About a Cat
As a person who is not the biggest fan of feline friends (FYI to all cat lovers: they only pretend to like you because you feed them), I’ll never understand how one of these creatures inspired such a great song, “Wop-a-Din-Din”. The excellent track is from the Red House Painters’ Old Ramon (Sub Pop), yet another fine album that got buried for years in major label legal oppression. Equally as compelling is head-Painter Mark Kozelek’s What’s Next to the Moon, an acoustic album of Bon Scott-era AC/DC covers.

Best Album by a Pavement Alum
Stephen Malkmus’ solo debut, Stephen Malkmus (Matador), is a whole lot like Pavement albeit a more spirited version. Even if the melody to “Jenny & the Ess-Dog” sounds suspiciously like Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes”, the song and the remainder of the album, including the cleverly titled track “The Hook”, which has features Malkmus’ lackadaisical vocal delivery contrasted with a highly infectious guitar riff, are so good that it can easily be overlooked. Incidentally, has anyone determined what Malkmus was under the influence of when he penned “Jo Jo’s Jacket”, a song written from the perspective of late actor Yule Brenner?

Most Likely to Succeed Bruce Springsteen
Let’s review the facts: Pete Yorn and the Boss share both a home state (New Jersey) and a record label (Columbia). Yorn also had a penchant for covering Springsteen at his live shows, and “Murray”, a standout track from musicforthemorningafter, sounds like it might be an unearthed Springsteen track, but this is really where the comparisons end. Hardly a knockoff, Yorn’s debut album, a unique blend of rock, folk, and a splash of Brit-pop, achieved both critical and commercial success this year. Look for Yorn to release a previously recorded album sometime in 2002.

Best Trip Back to the ’70s
Heart-of-eggshells guy Joe Pernice fashioned a fine ode to the ’70s AM radio gods (think guilty pleasures such as “Sentimental Lady” by Bob Welch) on The Pernice Brothers’ The World Won’t End (Ashmont), where the sunny pop surfaces of Pernice’s songs mask his somber lyrics. The Pernice Brothers also get the nod for Best Song Title of the Year, “The Ballad of Bjorn Borg”.

Best Trip Back to the ’80s
Scottish quartet Idlewild refined their rough sound considerably on their second LP, 100 Broken Windows (Capitol/Odeon). Reminiscent of early material by the Smiths and R.E.M., except Idlewild hits the U.S. shores with their amps turned up to 11. The album almost didn’t see the light of day in the U.S. except via import. Fortunately, it did, and 100 Broken Windows does its part to erase the notion Corey Hart ever existed.

Best Guitar Solo
Tie: “In Your Mind” and “Trimmed and Burning” from Built To Spill’s Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.). Truth be told, I hate guitar solos. (To quote Seinfeld‘s George Costanza, “It’s just masturbation.”) However, BTS guitar hero Doug Martsch fills these elegant solos, which are so cunning they almost take a supporting role to the driving rhythm section in each song, with more melody that you can shake a stick at, if you were so inclined to shake sticks at non-tangible items such as guitar solos.

Best Cover Song
Tie: “Under Pressure” (Queen and David Bowie) and “When You Were Mine” (Prince), both by Crooked Fingers. You won’t find either of these on their fine second release, Bring on the Snakes (Warm), but both were frequent covers of mainstay Eric Bachmann’s live shows. On “Under Pressure”, Bachmann and his capable band deliver an extremely intense version minus that pesky bass line that was forever ruined by Vanilla Ice. Further, they have not so much covered the song as they have made it their own, much the same way that Husker Du once did with the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”. Regarding their live version of “When You Were Mine”, did you ever expect to hear Prince done solely with a banjo and stand-up bass? Me neither.

Best Condemnation of a Major Metropolitan Area
With lyrics like “The Greyhounds keep dumping the locusts into the street until the gutters overflow” and “You can’t swim in a town this shallow,” I’d have liked to have been in Los Angeles when Death Cab for Cutie came through town on their last tour. The song, “Why You’d Want to Live Here”, is from Death Cab’s latest, The Photo Album (Barsuk). Malicious lyrics aside, the quartet’s third LP has many great moments such as the standout track “A Movie Script Ending”, even though overall the album falls just shy of the uniform and understated brilliance of 1999’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.

Best Album By a Recluse Who Miraculously Cheated Death
Oddly enough, there is only one entry in this category. Which is not to say that It’s a Wonderful Life (Capitol), the third album from rural Virginian Mark Linkous’ Sparklehorse, can’t compete with the top offerings of 2001. Linkous left the comfy confines of his home studio/smokehouse this time around, heading north to record at super-producer Dave Fridmann’s upstate New York studio. Linkous also enlisted guest vocalists Polly Jean Harvey, Nina Persson, and Tom Waits, and managed to use them all rather effectively, particularly Harvey’s background vocals on the downtrodden “Eyepennies” and also on “Piano Fire”, one of the few rockers on the album. Despite the optimistic title of the album, Linkous’ fractured view of the world won’t be earning him many comparisons to Capra’s George Bailey.

Best Proof That Punks Can Age Gracefully
They’ve slowed it down a bit for two albums now, but that doesn’t mean they’ve sold out. On Superchunk’s latest, Here’s to Shutting Up (Merge), lead harmonizers Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance muse on topics ranging from the state of the southern U.S. to art school snobbery. With the album hitting the shelves on September 18, the seemingly simple countrified-pop song “Phone Sex”, about the inevitable juxtaposition of long distance relationships and the fear of flying, took on an even more profound meaning in the post-September 11 world.

Peppiest Song About Substance Abuse
Bouncing along as though it were the theme from Sesame Street, the New Pornographers’ “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” easily wins the blue ribbon in this category. This mostly Canadian collaborative, which might also be called Neko Case and Her Other Boyfriends, delivered a work of near picture-perfect pop, Mass Romantic (Mint).

Best Example of Actually Living Up to Hype
Before hearing the debut album by New York City art-rockers the Strokes, I had read so much buzz about them that I was convinced that they were nothing more than a major label marketing juggernaut. Fortunately for them, the named-in-anticipation-of-backlash Is This It (RCA) actually lives up to expectations. Hailed as the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll by the British press, the Strokes didn’t turn out to be the second coming of the Beatles or even the Velvet Underground, but did anyone really think that they would be?

Best Album to Listen to In a Van Down By the River
Hey you, there in the heartland . . . down on your luck? The Ass Ponys (not the properly pluralized “Ponies”) feel your pain. The Ohio quartet delivered a fine tribute to America’s underbelly on Lohio (Checkered Past), covering trashy topics ranging jumping a river on a rocket-charged motorcycle to Quarter Pounders. Sonically, the music is a perfect slice of Americana rock with more than a hint of quirkiness.

Best Album by a College Professor
Renaissance woman Sarah Dougher, Ph.D., delivered her third solo LP in the latter part of 2001, and on The Bluff (Mr. Lady) she continues to infuse her earnest pop with the sounds of the ’60s. When not spending time on her music career or teaching (presently Latin, not Rock 101), Dougher withers away her spare time by writing (she’s a published author and writer) and remaining active in feminist causes (such as organizing Ladyfest).

Best “Single”
Single is in quotation marks because a single is typically perceived as a song that receives radio airplay, so perhaps this category should be more appropriately titled “Song That Most Deserved to Be Heard on Your Local Corporate Radio Station Before They Switched to an All Suck Format.” Pick any of the following: “Anything You Want” by Spoon (Merge), “Black” by Pete Yorn, “Ellen and Ben” by the Dismemberment Plan (Desoto), “Kung Fu Reference” by the Ass Ponys, or “Hell and High Water” by Rainer Maria (Polyvinyl). Excluded from this list is the also deserving single, “Last Nite” by the Strokes, because it actually received radio airplay. (“First and foremost, the Strokes would like to thank God, as well as all the fine lobbyists over at RCA…”)

Best Reasons to Look Forward to the Upcoming Year in Music
New releases slated from Bob Mould (Granary Music/United Musicians), Sleater-Kinney (Kill Rock Stars), The Breeders (4AD), Wilco (Nonesuch), Imperial Teen (Merge), and Paul Westerberg, who recently signed a record contract with Los Angeles-based punk label Vagrant Records. Given his new “employer”, it seems likely that he won’t be delivering something like The ‘Love Untold’ Remix Album… and that is most certainly an encouraging precursor for the forthcoming year.