Best Music of 2002: Jason Damas

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 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, 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:)

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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