Best Music of 2002: Michael Christopher

Michael Christopher

Best and Worst of 2002

1. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
Pity those who have turned their back on the Flaming Lips for being too eccentric. Truth be told, Lips mastermind Wayne Coyne has pushed the envelope a bit in the past; quirky near hits, a late '90s four-disc set that had to be played simultaneously to achieve the proper listening experience, and even the video for the recent single "Do You Realize??" leap the border of wackiness. Still, Coyne has composed the most airy and melodic record since, well, The Flaming Lips 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin. Nonsensical or just plain simple lyrics under synthesized beats, rat-a-tat drumming and stunning acoustics fill Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Coyne himself has never been in finer vocal form, so much so that when he sings something off the wall like; "Cause you know that / it'd be tragic / if those evil robots win," you want to whole heartedly agree with him and pull for the downfall of those damn robots.

2. Audioslave, Audioslave (Epic)
Though 2001 was touted as the "Return of the Rock", nothing rocked harder than this year's debut from former Soundgarden wailer Chris Cornell and his collaboration with the Zack De La Rocha-less Rage Against the Machine. At times, it sounds exactly what you'd expect from the combination of the two. Hard as nails riffs and growling vocals ("Light My Way" and "Set It Off") along with some of the sickest spaced out guitar solos ever heard ("Hypnotize", "Bring Em Back Alive"). But unexpected was the soft side that Cornell brought to the band. A song like "I Am the Highway", with it's laid back tone doesn't even seem forced, though two years ago, it was inconceivable that Rage would ever attempt such a thing. This project had every chance to slip through the cracks on numerous occasions, but for the sake of those who really want the rock, thank God it didn't.

3. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (Interscope)
How good are Queens of the Stone Age? The actions of Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan speak for themselves. Grohl put the Foo Fighters on hold indefinitely to join while Mark Lanegan left The Twilight Singers, and king of cool Greg Dulli, to become a full-time member. The result is the most focused Q.O.T.S.A. release yet, which feels more like a band than any prior. Conceptual at times, it's mostly guitar riffs and non-stop plow down rock. Recalling both Kyuss and the bastard son of some ‘70s band at times, Songs for the Deaf isn't just stoner rock, it's a striking beast of musical elitism that delivers.

4. Phantom Planet, The Guest (Epic)
Hands down, the best pop record of the year. Soaring sing along anthems, a song called "Anthem", and poignant acoustic lullabies dot The Guest, while singer and Ashton Kutcher look-alike Alex Greenwald sounds at times like a cross between Elvis Costello, Thom Yorke and the next yearning rock star to light teen hearts aflame. Punctuated by one of the more high energy shows this year, Phantom Planet continue to expose their infectious brand of pop that hardly anyone else is doing these days, and they do it with an undying conviction.

5. N.E.R.D., In Search Of . . . (Virgin)
No one effortlessly drops beats like The Neptunes, and anticipations were high when they mixed their way to an almost unerring debut with rapper Shay under the N.E.R.D. moniker. Then, in one of the oddest moments of 2001, they pulled the album in order to re-record it with real instruments. Unnecessary and seemingly a career kill on the surface, N.E.R.D. proved just how brilliant they are. The revamped In Search Of . . . melds Stevie Wonder funk, Marvin Gaye soul and '60s style harmonies with rocked out party-up lyrics. The Neptunes may be breathing new life into everybody from declining teen pop kings and queens to established artists like Busta Rhymes, but they still save some of the hottest top shelf production for themselves.

6. Down, II (Elektra)
Keepers of the Black Sabbath flame, the members of New Orleans supergroup Down finally got together to make a sequel to 1995's Nola, widely regarded as the one of the best hard-rock records of the decade. This time, the sludge gets deeper, the themes darker and the music heavier. Bassist Rex Brown joins his Pantera bandmate, singer Phil Anselmo, bringing the low-end intensely downward. Down is really the baby of Corrosion of Conformity frontman and guitarist Pepper Keenan, who drops licks left and right that are directly reminiscent of Tony Iommi. "Ghosts Along the Mississippi" and "New Orleans Is a Dying Whore" are monsters of murk. Drugged out, discombobulated devastation in the best sense of the term fills most of II, making ideas that seemed good in an inebriated haze actually work.

7. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)
With Oasis on the steady decline, and bands like Pulp, Blur and The Charlatans never getting a fair shake in the States, America's best chance for Brit-pop exposure lies in Coldplay, and on their sophomore release, they don't disappoint. Singer Chris Martin continues to parlay his earnest longings into something not quite manic depressive, certainly not celebratory, but happily retaining a bleakness that filled their debut so well. Open chord acoustic melodies cry out from start to finish, "The Scientist" and "Warning Sign" relishing in what bands like The Verve and The Smiths once accomplished so well.

8. Bad Religion, The Process of Belief (Epitaph)
Welcoming Brett Gurewitz back into the fold and reuniting with Epitaph Records has allowed Bad Religion to regain their edge. From the frenetic first three songs on The Process of Belief checking in at just over three minutes to the dreary "Epiphany", the originators of So-Cal punk let it be known that it's ok to be diverse while sustaining melody. Within the span of one record, Bad Religion have reclaimed their title of the best that punk has to offer today. It's smart without being preachy, and just as accessible but not nearly as annoying as the punk-lite that is thankfully fading fast from TRL.

9. The Vines, Highly Evolved (Capitol)
Putting aside Vines singer Craig Nicholls over the top and annoying desire to be the next Kurt Cobain, he has managed to put together one of the most dulcetly diverse records of 2002. The Nirvana-esque "Get Free" is the most bombastic two minutes in music this year. The softness of "Homesick" recalls the Beatles at their most harmonic, while "Factory" could be a long lost Clash meets The Police track. Nicholls songwriting is surprisingly prolific, adding an edginess to even the slowest moments on Highly Evolved. The frontman is threatening the next Vines record will blow this one away, and if true to his word, he may show a chance of chasing down the Cobain legend.

10. Local H, Here Comes the Zoo (Palm Pictures)
Local H successfully survived the departure of half of their group to rebound with the best that Mid-west rock has to offer. Granted, there are only two members in the band to begin with, but the gaping hole left by drummer Joe Daniels exit in 1999 looked impossible to fill. Up stepped Brian St. Clair who attacks the drum kit no less ferociously than Daniels, continuing the dream of singer/guitarist/bassist Scott Lucas to make the dumbest rock sound cool. Drawing from the Stooges, Zeppelin and Nirvana, Lucas fuzzes out the guitar, bringing spacey riffs to the moody tribal beats from St. Clair. The motto in Local H has always been to keep it simple, and that may be the most genius stroke of all.

Just Missed

  • Danzig, I Luciferi: The aging, buff, king of the dark rediscovers the original Danzig sound and adds a modern slant.
  • The Supernaturals What We Did Last Summer: Scottish pop never sounded so good.
  • Doves The Last Broadcast: Manchester's finest these days.
  • 54-40 Radio Love Songs: The Complete Singles Collection: Canada's REM, shamefully unheard of anywhere else.
  • The Strokes Is This It / The White Stripes White Blood Cells / The Hives Veni Vidi Vicious: These were the most high profile recordings of the garage rock –- new rock whatever you want to call it rock in 2001. All three were re-released in 2002, and with bonus tracks, DVDs or enhanced CD Extras included, they were hard not to pick up and fall for all over again. The record companies won this time.

The Top Five Disappointing Records of the Year

U2, The Best of 1990 – 2000 (+ B-Sides) (Interscope)
While the requisite songs are on the "Hits Disc", it's the B-Sides that flop on this collection. In 1998, when the first U2 retrospective was released, the B-Sides were arguably better than the A-Sides –- at worst, they held their own. Four years later, we're left with mediocre mixes of average songs. Whatever happened to all of those covers that appeared on the B-Sides to the Achtung Baby singles anyway?

Oasis, Heathen Chemistry (Epic)
Heathen Chemistry, the fifth record by the bad boys of Brit-pop, isn't all bad. "The Hindu Times", "Stop Crying Your Heart Out" and especially "Little By Little" show flashes of brilliance. Even Liam Gallagher finally gets one right with "Songbird". But so much more is expected from Oasis than the odd stellar track. Their first two records were infallible, and while the third was badly produced, it still showed the cocksure musicality that put the Manchester lads on top. Now, two clunkers in a row, it doesn't look so good anymore knocking bands that are clearly better than you -- or losing your teeth in bar fights.

Avril Lavigne, Let Go (Arista)
This is the answer to teen pop? This is punk rock? This is an angry chick that is anti-Britney and alterna-Christina? Yeah right. Just add one more to the confectionary that is designed, packaged, and delivered for consumption. This time though, there's just a bit more bite. Does Joan Jett know about this? She might kick this girl's ass.

Nirvana, Nirvana (DGC)
Kind of a let down wasn't it? After months and months of legal wrangling, the masses were finally treated to the sounds of "You Know You're Right", apparently the last great missing Nirvana song. The track held it's own, but the rest of the record was a bit too "Greatest Hits". It comes down to what will make the most dollars in the end, which this set will eventually do. In the meantime, Nirvana purists wait anxiously for the real goldmine; a box set with rarities, alternate takes and live recordings.

Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy, (Interscope)
Another year passes by and still no new Guns N' Roses record? Shocking. While Axl Rose is off inciting riots and allegedly getting Botox shots, Chinese Democracy is beginning to sound more and more like a fairy tale while the band itself further descends into a self-parody nightmare.

Four Artists to Watch in 2003

The Warlocks -- With the stunningly lush epics and a dark love-in type feel to Rise and Fall in 2001, and the equally serene, but tighter Satanic Majesties Request meets Lou Reed from this year's Phoenix, The Warlocks are poised to fill high school kids bedrooms with sounds of quiet feedback from morose guitars and the harmonies of singer Bobby Hecksher in a Pink Floyd sorta way. Important fact; with two drummers pounding away in time with each other, no one can touch the cool factor of The Warlocks.

David Usher -- The former Moist frontman released Morning Orbit last year to both critical and commercial success in his native Canada, and word has it that he will be playing the SXSW in 2003. If America does get a taste of Usher, with his piano tinklings and acoustic strumming, expect Pete Yorn comparisons with a darker slant.

Gob -- More music from Canada; imagine Blink 182 with some credibility. Loudly plugging away north of the border, going the indie route for a few years in the States, Gob released F.U. EP in October on Arista, which mixed some old and new tracks to give us a taste of what we've been missing. Sometime this spring, expect the full-length Foot In Mouth Disease to lead these guys through the Warped Tour of 2003.

Comes With the Fall -- Fresh off spending the better part of 2002 not only opening for Jerry Cantrell, but doubling as his backing band, Comes With the Fall are poised to make their own mark. This trio, based in L.A. by way of Atlanta, are not afraid to rock. They'll give you Alice In Chains heaviness with Led Zeppelin power, and try something unheard of in music today: guitar solos, loud choruses and a kick in the face not felt this hard since Seattle in '91.

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