It's been another great year for music -- in rock, jazz, and reissues. Here at PopMatters, we writers have a good deal of leeway as to how we want to present our year-end lists. I've taken the approach of writing appreciations of some of the crème of the crop albums as opposed to covering more of the notable records and writing less about them. To be sure, there were more excellent releases this year than are included in my list, but you'll find some of the less heralded great ones here. I hope it proves interesting to fans of adventurous rock and jazz.
At the end of this article I've included a list of some of those other notable 2002 releases. They are all equally worth your investigation and any listeners interested in the featured reviews will find more great music here. In some cases, they've been covered elsewhere on this site, so follow the links if you're so inclined. And now onto the great music of the year!
Mat Maneri, Sustain (Thirsty Ear)
Violist Mat Maneri has a masterpiece on his hands here. The avant-garde jazz musician has been making a number of important record appearances in recent years, including an earlier session of his own on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series -- but nothing that he's done to date has been anywhere near Sustain in concept or execution. The record is a primarily electric affair that that alternates between solo and ensemble pieces. The five solo tracks, one by each member of the quintet, are recorded so closely as to reveal microscopic detail of tone and sound production: in Maneri's solo piece, "Alone (Origin)", for example, you can hear his breathing while the bow ekes barely extant colors out of his instrument. But the band, playing in full electric glory, are presented from a distance. It's amazing, but the opposite approaches produce the same elemental effect, emphasizing a mystical preoccupation with sound. As a complete statement, it's one of the most daring, and successful, I've ever heard. Sustain is up there on the same plane as Miles Davis' greatest electronic accomplishments. And it's the brightest feather in Thirsty Ear's more and more crowded cap.
Oneida, Each One Teach One (Jagjaguwar)
Steve Lantner, Saying So (Riti)
So Joe Morris' Riti label released two CDs this year, and they're both here on this list. Morris himself is on both of them, but playing different instruments! On Saying So, a piano trio record, he makes his recording debut on the double bass. The guitarist's bass playing is full of grit and sweat, but though we can trace some larger craggy notes with our ears, he still manages to obfuscate himself -- sometimes worrying his patterns under cover of piano and drums, sometimes playing fast enough, even on the mammoth instrument, to cause hearing to blur. He has to be commended for his pluck (sorry) and strength. But, as great as Morris is on this record, Lantner (piano) and Laurence Cook (drums) are even more impressive. Lantner's playing, while completely free, shows a deep, nearly cellular, mastery of form and balance. He seems to have one eye (or ear) at all times focused on the maintenance of equilibrium between all musical opposites (loud/soft, dense/light, etc.), while the majority of his attention is set on the most exquisite of improvised musical narratives. His tone is round and warm and his playing, even at its most forceful, is unerringly elegant. Cook, a drummer of great subtlety and taste, is uncannily matched to the pianist, and the combination is at times revelatory. Lantner is a great talent, and Saying So is an essential document of his rising star.
Deerhoof, Reveille (5RC/Kill Rock Stars)
San Francisco's art-rock quartet Deerhoof applies an internal logic to the construction of their music, building songs out of the simplest little melodies and turning them over and inside out with the ease of classical music composers. But classical they ain't. They probably have the hardest, most finely honed sound of the heaviest bands on this list -- including Oneida and Hot Snakes. Reveille is the sound of immensely talented and inspired musicians operating without any restrictions of convention. At times frightening, disorienting, and sweet, Reveille is an essential and vitally genre-less record.
Patto, Patto / Hold Your Fire (Arkama) Reissued in 2002(originally released 1970 and 1971)
Bruce, the owner of the excellent New York record store Downtown Music Gallery, put "Money Bag" from the 1970 album Patto on the shop's stereo for me this fall, telling me I wasn't going to believe the guitar player. I was sufficiently amazed to buy the reissues of the group's first two albums and sing their praises to anyone who would listen for the rest of the year. I won a few converts. You might know their tune "Gone is the Sad Man" from the second Nuggets box -- though they were called Timebox at the time. In perfect Spinal Tap style, the band left the more flowery stuff behind with the '60s, toughened up, and named the band after the lead singer. Both reissue albums are excellent blasts of '70s rock and roll -- I like to say a la Bad Company -- but, and it's a significant 'but', with a decidedly progressive-jazz edge. Guitar player Olly Halsall, in addition to being Andy Partridge's favorite guitar player, is an early 70s anomaly -- the guy has more chops than Eddie Van Halen. And Mike Patto, despite demerits for some era-typical oversexed lyrics, sings about the hard rock and roll lifestyle with world weary soul and a sandpapery voice as compelling as Bon Scott's. They're utterly unique in 70s British hard rock -- and well worth seeking out for fans of the genre and open-minded folk of all kinds.
Beachwood Sparks, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry (Sub Pop)
This excellent EP followed pretty hot on the heels of 2001's Once We Were Trees, which was obsessively hitched to the spectre of Gram Parsons. It daunted all of my attempts to penetrate it with wave after wave of reverb-drenched anachronisms. Sometime around that album's recording sessions, singer Chris Gunst guested on former Strictly Ballroom bandmate Jimmy Tamborello's excellent Dntel album Life Is Full of Possibilities. Tamborello returned the favor by lending his subtle sonic interference to Cowboy Robots, and he brings in a more genuine psychedelia than what the band had attained previously. The Sparks' Cosmic American influences are still intact, but they've remembered that the featured dimension of that music was expansion. The arrangements are lopsided and creative and the hooks come at you from unexpected angles. The band allows the tunes to unfold slowly -- an approach that begs a degree of patience that many post-punk rock listeners may not have. Too bad for them if they don't -- it's a great EP -- slow and sleepy and worth its time.
Björkenheim/Håker Flaten/Nilssen-Love, Scorch Trio (Rune Grammofon)
Only in sitting down to write this appreciation have I realized what I think is just so remarkable about Raoul Björkenheim -- the guitarist is the musician that reminds me most of Miles Davis. Or rather, he has that rare quality that Miles had of making you feel the space and tension around the notes. This is no small thing. The recently transplanted New York (via LA and Finland) guitarist is perhaps best known, if he is known at all here, for fronting the defunct noise-jam band Krakatau. This Scorch Trio disc features the young and in-demand rhythm section of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Björkenheim runs the gamut of his eclectic interests on the album, exploring those sides of his musical personality obsessed with percussive texture (he taps and scrapes at his effects-processed guitar like its a steel drum in "XXX") and ambient noise in "Sade". These approaches are in addition to what I consider his preeminent stylistic venue (because it's my favorite!) -- which is that of the (relatively) traditional soloist over a flailing rhythm section. This happens on a few tracks on the CD: "Salaa", "Taajus", and most notably, on the stunning lead-off track "Oikosulku". The rhythm section sets up a tsunami of a groove that is a delight in itself, but when the guitarist enters after the three-minute mark, the sparks truly fly. He spits his notes out over the tumult with such blessed precision, patience and grit, that the sound is like, if we can compare it at all, Miles Davis playing with the Tony Williams Lifetime.
Hot Snakes, Suicide Invoice (Swami)
The general gist in the press has been that Hot Snakes don't live up to the high standards of John Reis' and Eric Froberg's former band Drive Like Jehu, and so Suicide Invoice is simply dismissed as second rate. Whether or not it's true I can't say - Jehu's Yank Crime was just re-issued and I've only heard excerpts so far. But the fact is that Suicide Invoice is one of the best releases of 2002, no matter what Hot Snakes members have done before. Though it may be that hype is the most valuable commodity in today's hysterical music press, I'll take talent, myself -- and Hot Snakes boasts, in John Reis and Rick Froberg, a dual guitar front line that's as good as any. I mean including the ones in Television, Captain Beefheart's Magic Band (circa Clear Spot), and AC/DC. But on top of that, the band (and the sound of the record) is fierce and they bang out their eastern-tinged riff rockers with blessed abandon. The toughest and greasiest rock on this list.
Joe Morris, Age of Everything (Riti)
Morris, after a detour into acoustic steel string guitar on last year's solo set Singularity, is back behind his trusty Les Paul for this trio date released for his own Riti label. And he's again churning out his incredible streams of notes and playing so fast that he seems to beat time. His partners, Timo Shanko (bass) and Luther Gray (drums), serve the music well, providing a springy rumble for the guitarist to dive into and over as he chooses. When you've got musicians as good as these, and as experienced in this kind of free environment, it's hard not to be pulled into their process, provided you're willing to listen with open ears. Listening can be a discipline in itself when it comes to music like Morris' (and other music on this list like Oneida's). The rewards will be commensurate with the skills that you bring. Sinking into Age of Everything is probably akin to what other disciplines call meditation a thought that's only occurred to me because I've come through listening to it (and music like it) feeling quieter and sharper.
Love, Four Sail (Elektra) Reissued in 2002 (originally released 1969)
Some 14 years after digital technology made the compact disc the music industry standard, we're still seeing old LPs transferred to the medium for the first time. In some cases it seems that there are some barrel bottoms being scraped -- I could name a number of utterly superfluous 'lost classic' releases this year alone -- and some blatant attempts to make a few more bucks off of re-packaged, re-mastered, re-whatevered back catalog before the CD is usurped by the DAD in the next, oh, five years or so. Other cases are real head-scratchers, like this 1969 Love album, which was released for the first time on CD this year. Some of the material has been available on the Love Story 1966-1972 compilation, but that release misses the best song on Four Sail, "I'm With You", and some other great ones, like "Nothing". This album, Love's last for Elektra, was released after the disintegration of the original lineup, whose output had culminated with the masterpiece Forever Changes the year before. Lee's professional resilience (compellingly chronicled in the Four Sail liner notes) is remarkable, but more importantly, his creativity was as confidently alight for these sessions as it was on the band's more heralded releases. Lee was (maybe is he's out there touring right now) a distinct rock n roll genius. And Four Sail is some of his best work.
Matthew Shipp, Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear)
2002 saw an amazing run of great releases from the small Thirsty Ear label's Blue Series. Though the series features some fairly traditional releases, like William Parker's Raining on the Moon (see below), the meat of it is concerned with an innovative blend of jazz and electronic production. That is to say that they're not concerned with there mere adoption of electronic instruments -- since, of course, exploration on that front began in 1967 or thereabouts with Miles Davis -- but some Blue Series releases are incorporating the multi-layered pre- and post- production electronic techniques usually only encountered in cutting-edge hip-hop and electronica. Nu Bop, which was released in January, is for my money the one that strikes the best balance between innovation and grooviness to date. It's also the most fiercely rocking of the bunch.
Iron and Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop)
It's been noted with some wonder in the press that Sam Beam, the Floridian who wrote, performed and recorded these beautiful songs, is a cinematography teacher -- as if it's utterly remarkable that a college teacher could be so soul-bearingly creative. Beam's music is a kind of soft rock, back woods folk that he records with multi-tracked acoustic guitars, a banjo and his layered, nearly whispered, harmony vocals. It's part Crosby Stills & Nash, part Simon and Garfunkel, and part Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The entire album deals with romantic loss and is remarkable for its consistent beauty and eerie, intimate atmosphere. It sounds as if he recorded it late at night so quietly as not to wake the family or stir too many ghosts. The Creek Drank the Cradle is eerie and incantory -- and will resonate in your inner swampland.
Greg Osby, Inner Circle (Blue Note)
Of Greg Osby's long recording career, Inner Circle is the zenith. It's also one of the best albums that the storied Blue Note label has put out in years. There are no guest artist frills, no flashy 'new direction' or tribute concepts -- just a solid hour of hard-driving jazz. Between the rhythmically challenging music and the choice of instrumentation (standard saxophone-led quartet with vibes), there's a direct line back to Osby mentor Andrew Hill's 1964 Blue Note date Judgment. But Osby's got his own thing. His tunes are harder-edged and math obsessed, and his playing is unlike any other alto saxophonist's in the music. His phrasing is as effortless and soulful as can be, but the content of his lines evinces an idiosyncratic harmonic concept. Also, Blue Note's engineers have done a great job capturing the music -- this is a richly hued band, and their sonic depth is well captured on this CD.
Blossom Toes, We Are Ever So Clean (Polygram Japan) Reissue 2002 (originally released 1968)
A Japanese import of this largely forgotten piece of British psychedelic lunacy turned up in record stores around New York late this past summer. The Blossom Toes had a ticket to the big-time in that they were under the care of famed rock impresario Georgio Gomlesky (of Rolling Stones and Yardbirds fame) when they recorded this, their debut, in 1967 for Gomelsky's Marmalade label. But the Toes never made a dent in the charts, despite fantastic pop tunes like "Telegram Tuesday". It could be that they were too weird. Even some of the poppier numbers like "I'll Be Late for Tea" were oddly arranged and a little 'off', and then there's the music hall dementia of "The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog". But what set their very frilly brand of psychedelic pop apart from the pack was the musically adventurous and unusual writing of band leaders Brian Godding and Jim Creegan, whose songs take catchy melodies on unusual and unpredictible turns. The combination of Beefheart cum Pete Townshend guitars and lovely studio orchestration is another startling feature. An awesome album, presented in unimpeachable sonic richness on this reissue. Personally, I find it to be up there with the better albums from 1968 -- and that was a particularly great year for music.
William Parker, Raining on the Moon (Thirsty Ear)
Parker is something like the mayor of the downtown New York jazz scene. Since the start of his career in the late seventies, he's played with most of the names in jazz and improvised music, and has held positions in some of the more storied groups of the last 20 years, including those of Cecil Taylor and David S. Ware. He's also a composer and bandleader of broad scope; in the past few years he's released albums by his big band, an album of duets with drummer Hamid Drake, and what might be called his hard-bop group, which was featured on 2000's O'Neil's Porch and now Raining on the Moon. Not one to rest on past accomplishments, Parker augmented the critically acclaimed O'Neil's Porch group (Hamid Drake on drums, Rob Brown on flute and alto sax, and Lewis Barnes on trumpet) with soulful singer and relative newcomer Leena Conquest. The result is an album of great beauty and power. Parker and Drake, are, as usual, a rhythm team that's a wonder to behold: interlocked and churning, and with an empathy that's so palpable it's heartwarming. Brown and Barnes are bold and declamatory, and Conquest's voice is all warm hues and flashes of history -- from Billie Holiday through Abbey Lincoln -- that makes one feel enveloped by a rich and living ancestry.
And here are those additional 2002 releases of note:
New Rock (etc.): Of Montreal, Aldhils Arboretum on Kindercore; Town and Country, C'Mon on Thrill Jockey; And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Source Tags and Codes on Interscope.
Rock reissues: The Action, Rolled Gold on Reaction Records; Skip Bifferty, Skip Bifferty on Acme; Fairport Convention, Liege and Leif on Island; Public Nuisance, title on name records; and The Incredible String Band, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter/The 5000 Layers of the Onion on Collector's Choice.
And in jazz, don't miss: Bobby Previte, 23 Pictures by Joan Miro on Tzadik; Tim Berne, Science Friction on Screwgun; and Keith Jarrett Trio, Always Let Me Go on ECM.