2002: A Very Musical Year
Assembling this year-end list was tougher than usual since there were so many varied and distinguished releases. First off, the criterion for my picks is that I'd rather recommend someone you might not know (so for instance, wonderful releases from the likes of George Harrison and Elvis Costello will not make my list). Secondly, I am partial to melodic pop (guitar or keyboard driven), strong song-craft, and whenever possible, clever or unexpected lyrics. I had a difficult time even paring my list down to a top 40, but given deadlines and self-imposed logic, here are my baker's dozen selections:
1. Richard X. Heyman, Basic Glee, (Turn Up)
A celebration of all things guitar takes the form of 14 shimmering power pop songs rich with harmonies and retro feel. The talented Heyman lets loose with his best yet, a very full offering of melodic music that wends its way into your subconscious over time, each song delivering small treasures for those patient listeners able to give these tracks enough plays for full appreciation. There's a lot here, neatly packaged for radio play in some alternate universe where corporate monopolies don't dictate mediocre tastes for the masses. If you love guitar and/or harmonies as I do, basically you need Basic Glee.
2. Candy Butchers, Play With Your Head, (RPM/Sony)
Mike Viola takes off the sunglasses and delivers a more diverse, personal and eclectic collection than ever before. The unmistakable raspy voice remains and is now the focal point of expressive ballads and wryly acid lyrical turns. This is Viola the engaging storyteller, drawing us in and leading us beyond the realm of accessible three-minute pop/rock. Again, this one takes many listens and some patience -- headphones are a good idea as well -- but when it does click, you'll truly understand why it lands on this list. Play With Your Head is an emotional well-crafted collection from a seasoned veteran of life, love and the independent music scene.
3. Sean Altman, alt.mania, (Chow Fun)
Former Rockapella member gone solo delivers his first CD with full band accompaniment. That sweet voice and an abundance of melodic hooks deliver lyrics with bite; it's a big bunch of bitter that sounds sweet. This is slick polished pop with a high sheen, packed to the brim with entertainment value. Songs are broken up by shorter tracks of jingles, promo tags, mini-songs and song excerpts, and you also get some of Sean's personal answering machine messages too. These are songs that linger in your head; songs you'll find yourself humming aloud. alt.mania is a warm and generous musical step forward for the self-deprecating and very talented Altman.
4. Ben Kweller Sha Sha, (ATO)
The first official solo release from a guy who, at age 20, has already been through the hype mill, used up and spat out (with Radish). Eager for a new start on his own terms, Kweller offers a fun release of a wide range of original music that plays as easily as a summer's day. Enthusiasm, wordplay and heartfelt emotions set against the junk of a too-busy world, these eleven well-crafted songs showcase a newly exuberant, more relaxed Kweller. The talented prodigy plays keyboards and guitar and explores loud and soft styles, often within the same song. Sha Sha indeed is "How It Should Be".
5. The Vinyl Kings, A Little Trip, (Vinyl King Records)
Seven studio musicians out of Nashville present a loving musical tribute to the Fab Four in the guise of 13 "original" Beatle-esque tunes, bound to please many and still create instant controversy with less-forgiving purists. I'm solidly for the project, old becoming new with the spirit of the originals, and great pains taken to get the musical details just right. These guys know their stuff; and provide a load of fun if you're into citing specific musical reference points. It's fun nostalgia, short songs that don't overstay their welcome and trigger pleasant memories. Strong musicianship well-executed and clean production make A Little Trip one worth taking.
6. Andrea Perry, Two, (Trust Issue)
This is smart, quirky pop with a difference from chronically shy Andrea Perry. Her sophomore effort holds a dozen newly intriguing musical gems that feature intricate rhythms and deceptively spare arrangements. Her soft voice lulls you with its sweetness, often masking the swirl of inner portent her lyrics convey. There is precision and confidence on each track, as Perry contributes guitar, keyboards and bass. She is a natural in finding the right amounts of nuance and musical texture, and writes honest evocative songs that are a refreshing distance apart from the mainstream. Two is an obvious title for a second album, but everything else about it remains fascinatingly complex.
7. Darren Hanlon, Hello Stranger, (Drive-In / Candle)
Sometimes simple pleasures are the best. From the land down under (Gympie, Queensland to be precise), Darren Hanlon serves up unaffected songs that are fresh and disarming. Ten tracks of great storytelling are presented simply, often belying the wit and gracious naiveté that reside within. In the style of a Billy Bragg (minus the politics), Hanlon examines "different" things: the inventor of the bicycle kickstand, the night before he met his great love, a roommate hell-bent on playing punk music at all hours, an ex-lover's broken leg, switchboard operators and more. Long on clever and unpretentious charm, Hello Stranger is a surprising delight.
8. Josh Clayton-Felt, Spirit Touches Ground , (Dreamworks)
When Josh Clayton-Felt was hospitalized in a coma, these songs remained tied up in a legal quagmire. Unfortunately, it took his tragic death from cancer at age 32 to free this project for eventual release (thanks in large part to the efforts of his immediate family who recognized how much Josh wanted to have his music out there). This posthumous musical legacy to the talents of an artist taken too early from our midst is surprisingly optimistic and upbeat. Clayton-Felt's gentle takes on classic rock and blues are a celebration of life, love, self-realization and human emotions. This is friendly and funky fare, inviting comparisons to Buckley and Clapton, among others. An added bonus: some proceeds from sales of Spirit Touches Ground will go to different charities in Josh's memory.
9. The Orgone Box, Things That Happened Then, (Minus Zero)
A year later, and I'm still a fool for the music of Rick Corcoran. This collection from the D.I.Y. psych-pop maestro actually pre-dates his first release, presenting 14 older new songs from 1990-1995. Many of these are four-track home recordings, but the songwriting and guitar sounds still shine through. Corcoran as The Orgone Box always sounds like the genuine deal, as if he arrived here through time travel, rather than legion others who try to mimic the style and sadly get no further than pale imitation. Things That Happened Then still leaves you eager to hear musical things that are happening now from Mr. Corcoran.
10. The Shazam, Tomorrow the World, (Not Lame)
Hans Rotenberry and company return in rocking form with impressive results and a dozen songs that make you want to go to an arena and flick your bic. Hans is in fine voice, his guitars rule, and Mick Wilson's basswork and Scott Ballew's drumming are equally superb (and again, kudos to Brad Jones' production). Cheap Trick meets The Who meets Mott The Hoople meets The Move meets Big Star meets The Stones meets Badfinger, etc. and yet all is surprisingly fresh and original. Who says that no one does good old-fashioned tuneful rock and roll anymore? Tomorrow The World is audio proof that The Shazam still does (and thank goodness for that)!
11. John Cunningham, Happy-Go-Unlucky, (Parasol)
Sweet grown-up melancholy captured in gorgeous melodic arrangements with well-placed string and horn accents. This intricately layered Brit pop comes across as simple and new, yet seems as familiar as a favorite dish, due in some part to the Beatle flavors that are integral to the overall recipe. The CD tends toward softer acoustic sounds, with vocals that seem a little like Nick Drake or Robert Wyatt, complemented with lush baroque pop orchestration. Happy-Go-Unlucky is an existential treasure that keeps giving the more you listen, beautiful music that should deliver a larger audience to the under-appreciated Cunningham and his many talents.
12. Kristian Hoffman, &, (eggBert)
Broadway musicals once attracted the best in songwriting talent - talented musicians capable of creating memorable tunes in any number of different styles and able lyricists who could twist words in witty and innovative ways. Doubters who think such talented song stylists disappeared along with the lindy, I urge you check out Kristian Hoffman. His collection of duets with a number of talented West Coast musicians is proof positive that this former member of The Mumps, The Swinging Madisons and Bleaker Street Incident has such talents. Somebody get this man working on a musical now! Until then, & is a wonderful pop soundtrack to one Hoffman might not even realize he's already written.
13. OK GO, OK GO, (Capitol)
Smart guys making fun music that's not overly silly, intelligent music that won't make the mistake of being too self-important: that's OK GO. Youthful exuberance meets rock smarts in an impressive debut's melodic tunes that mix in some Cars, some J.Geils Band and requisite handclaps. Damian Kulash doesn't appear to be taking the rock star trip too seriously, nor should you. Have a good time is the real musical message here. Yet what could have been mere summer radio fare turns out to be more. OK GO is a musical cut above other over-hyped garage bands, and darn if it's not catchy too.
Honorable Mentions (another dozen worth checking out -- truly)
1. Sukilove, Talking In The Dark, (Hidden Agenda)
Some wonderful Americana from Belgium's Pascal Deweze.
2. Eric Lichter, Palm Wine Sunday Blue (Hidden Agenda/Parasol)
Soft-spoken, quirky and unexpected material on this first solo CD from Green Pajamas band member Lichter.
3. Doug Powell, The Lost Chord, (Parasol)
A moody expansive musical journey from this consummate thinking man's songwriter with one of the best voices in music.
4. sparklejets*u.k., Bamboo Lounge, (Smile)
Mike Simmons, Susan West and band provide a total entertainment experience, with multimedia extras. Hang out in the lounge and enjoy.
5. The Lackloves, Starcitybaby, (Rainbow Quartz)
Mike Jarvis and company serve up deliciously retro Britpop-style songs strong enough to take their place alongside the originals.
6. Jimm McIver & The Boxes, Polaroid Angel, (Ptarmigan)
A wide variety of pop talents on display in this first solo CD from a Seattle singer/songwriter.
7. Epicycle, Swirl, (Cirkle)
Multi-instrumentalist songwriter/producers/brothers Tom and Ellis Clark present a phantasmagoric aural experience, at times like Pink Floyd meeting Harry Nilsson.
8. Parallax Project, Oblivious, (Tallboy)
Cherry Twister bass phenom Michael Giblin steps out into the solo spot with a surprisingly diverse and melodic debut.
9. Phantom Planet, The Guest, (Epic)
A healthy variety of smart pop from these "music-first" actor/model/musician left coast young 'uns. The musical equivalent of a fun sunny day.
10. Wondermints, mind if we make love to you, (Smile)
Darian, Nick and Mike deliver more celebration than innovation, but with rich harmony-filled music you won't find elsewhere. The true heirs to Brian Wilson are an aural delight.
11. Brendan Benson, Lapalco, (Star Time International)
Singer/songwriter returns to his roots on his sophomore release, again with the help of friend Jason Falkner. Maybe he doesn't write traditional choruses and has a propensity to occasionally over-rhyme, but it's still a fine album.
12. Saul Zonana, Guinea Pigs , (20/20 Music)
Talented multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter with a great voice arrives ready to run with an impressive second CD.
Special Category: UK notables from 2001, released in the US in 2002:
The Contrast, Mystery #1 (Rainbow Quartz)
David Reid unleashes his creative force with jangly Rickenbackers: Tom Verlaine meets Tom Petty, infused with the spirit of a younger Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson.
Farrah, Moustache, (Ark 21)
The energy and tunefulness of skinny-tie era British pop translated through the talent of Jez Ashurst and mates: melodic radio-friendly fare great for any road trip.
Special Category: If you can't get enough Neil Young-ish sounds, "Let's Roll" onto these two:
Ray Mason Band, Three Dollar Man, (Captivating)
Veteran Ray and cohorts present the rocking fun musical equivalent of NRBQ fronted by Neil Young.
The General Store Local Honey, (Not Lame)
Tam Johnstone channels the spirit of Neil Young and a few others in an impressive D.I.Y. debut.
Special Category: Two great Alt.country/American albums:
Dolly Varden, Forgiven Now, (Undertow Music)
Stephen Dawson, Diane Christiansen and bandmates put together a classic collection of emotionally honest songs full of thoughtful insights and melodic beauty: one that rewards patient listeners.
Jack Logan & Bob Kimbell, Woodshedding (Parasol)
When these two get together, expect musical magic: a CD of warm and inviting alt-country sounds.
Special Category: Best Box Set
Jellyfish, Fan Club, (Not Lame)
A superb 4-CD treat for fans of this very talented band that only had two official studio releases: wonderful packaging and a great mix of live performances, demos, covers and unreleased material.
Special Category: For children of all ages:
They Might Be Giants No! (Rounder)
Silly, melodic and often irreverent fun: a wonderful interactive multimedia experience from the two Johns and their band of Dans.