Putting together a "Best Of" list for 2002 proved a far more difficult task than it has in previous years. Sure, it always requires a bit of effort, simply because I'm always tempted to include releases by some of my favorite artists, even if I didn't necessarily find myself listening to their 2002 releases as much as their previous releases.
For instance, take Robbie Williams' Escapology. Please. Or consider Elvis Costello's When I Was Cruel . Sure, it's a strong record . . . but, ultimately, I just didn't find myself returning to the disc as much as I have with some of his other albums.
The albums featured on this list, however, are the albums that I kept coming back to, time and time again . . . often when I really ought to have been listening other items from the ever-growing stack of discs that I'm supposed to be reviewing for PopMatters.
Surely, that's high praise in and of itself . . . uh, right, Madame Editor?
1. Ash, Free All Angels (Kinetic)
It came out in the UK in 2001, but it didn't make it onto these shores until this year. While the uber-music-geek in me would normally cry "foul" at the thought of including it in my top 10 of 2002, let alone at the top of the heap, dammit, it really is just that good. It's far and above the strongest, most consistent album the band has ever released, that much is certain. Punk-pop, orchestration, Beach Boys harmonies: this one's got it all, kids. Additionally, the band released a nice companion piece in Europe: Intergalactic Sonic 7"'s , a collection of their singles, coupled with a bonus disc of B-sides. Given the group's jump from label to label in the US, don't hold your breath on waiting for it to come out Stateside; go ahead and plunk down the dough for an import copy. Pay great attention to the obligatory new track, "Envy", which shows that Ash's future is shaping up to be quite bright, indeed.
2. They Might Be Giants, No! (Rounder)
It was hyped as the band's first children's album, but, frankly, if it hadn't been played up that way in the advertisements, most folks would just think the band had released another classic TMBG album. Last year's Mink Car was excellent as well, and it's been awhile since the band has produced two stellar albums back to back; apparently, all they needed to do was return to the indie world. Guest vocals by bassist Danny Weinkauf produce the album's catchiest track, "Where Do They Make Balloons?" Proclaiming that "I Am a Grocery Bag" while also declaring that "I Am Not Your Broom", some might say that They Might Be Giants are sending mixed signals. No! They're just putting out some of the best music of their career.
3. George Harrison, Brainwashed (Dark Horse/Capitol)
The only Beatle to release a new album of studio material this year isn't even among the living anymore . . . but that isn't even the most amazing part. What's arguably more startling is that it's the best album of original material by a former member of the Fab Four to be released since Macca's Flaming Pie, which came out in '97. Jeff Lynne says he might've made the material a bit glossier than George would've wanted, but, hey, so what if it sounds like Cloud Nine, Part Deux? There are a lot worse things it could sound like. How sad that there won't be anything further to follow this.
4. a-ha, Lifelines (WEA)
This might not be the breaktaking work that its predecessor, Minor Earth | Major Sky, was, but call it a grower, because, over the course of the year, it's gotten stronger with each listen. Of course, like the album that came before it, Lifelines wasn't released in the US. Obviously, there's no accounting for taste; this is lovely, mellow, occasionally melancholic pop music that deserves to be heard by as many ears as possible. But, of course, everyone knows that, since the band released its biggest hit in the '80s, a-ha can't possibly produce quality music nowadays. Except that they do. And Lifelines is just further evidence to back up that fact.
5. Willie Nelson, The Great Divide (Lost Highway) / Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (American/Lost Highway) (tie)
These two country legends really can't do much wrong in my opinion, but, then, that's what happens when you grow up listening to them. The funny thing is, these two albums really couldn't be more dissimilar. Willie brings an all-star cast of mainstream superstars with him, one that includes Rob Thomas, Lee Ann Womack, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Brian McKnight, and Bonnie Raitt, among others, has smooth and glossy production by Matt Serletic, and he covers Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time". Johnny, meanwhile, does songs by Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, has Rick Rubin provided the mostly-sparse production that's been the hallmark of the Man in Black's other "American" albums, and features assistance from Nick Cave, Fiona Apple, Roger Manning, and John Frusciante. Two very different albums, but, dammit, I like 'em both.
6. Chris Difford, I Didn't Get Where I Am (A)
He was the lesser-heard vocalist in Squeeze, best known for his croak on "Cool For Cats", but this, his first solo release, finds him in full-on singer-songwriter croon. With production and co-writing assistance from Francis Dunnery, Difford proves much closer to Glenn Tilbrook's vocal equal than anyone would've expected; he sounds like the just-slightly-older brother of Prefab Sprout's Paddy MacAloon, singing about his partnership with Tilbrook on the song "No Show Jones": "We were the Monkees / We were the Captain and Tennille / We were Lennon and McCartney / We were sometimes so surreal / But we never missed a party / A party of one." Perhaps surprisingly, I Didn't Get Where I Am rivals Tilbrook's solo debut of last year in seemingly-effortless fashion, and, hopefully, sets the stage for a tour. Please? Pretty please?
7. Del Amitri, Can You Do Me Good? (Universal International)
Since Del Amitri achieved at least one radio hit with each album that came before this, it seems utterly inexplicable that they remain without a US record label at present. Can You Do Me Good? was a flop in the band's homeland, possibly because it was the most eclectic bunch of songs the group had put out to date; to these ears, however, it's still mighty strong stuff, with a lot of '70s R&B influence in the production. If you heard "Cry to Be Found", one of the new tracks on the band's 1998 best-of collection, that's basically the direction they're going in here. Still, there are exceptions to be found . . . in particular, "Drunk in a Band" is a garage-pop nugget that's as catchy as "Roll to Me", if a bit less radio-friendly. All in all, though, it's a worthy addition to the band's catalog. Since they were unceremoniously dumped by their UK label after Can You Do Me Good? 's failure, may their next label give them half a chance . . . and score them US distribution.
8. David Cross, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! (Sub Pop)
I don't think I've ever included a comedy album on a top 10 list before, but this comes closer to social commentary than straight-ahead comedy. Then again, if Messr. Neil Soiseth is correct in his theory that "the best comedy makes you uncomfortable with the idea of laughing because it means that it's hitting some verbotten areas", then, God knows, this is definitely comedy. Cross, who declares himself to be an atheist within the early minutes of this two-disc set, isn't afraid to skewer religion, from Southern Baptist to Judaism to Catholicism. He also takes lots of shots at the government, and he gladly ridicules rednecks and, well, basically, stupid people in general. People have uttered Cross's name in the same breath as Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, and those are two very acceptable comparisons, particularly the latter. Since both of those comedians died far too young, maybe Cross had better go ahead and start scheduling regular visits to his family physician, just to play it safe.
9. Arlo, Stab the Unstoppable Hero (Sub Pop)
Sub Pop had a great album on their hands that could've easily spoken to the Jimmy Eat World crowd, but, for some reason, it didn't even remotely take off. Whether it's because Sub Pop couldn't be bothered to promote it or if it's because radio simply doesn't care about any artist who isn't on a major label, it's hard to say. (I'd bet it's the latter.) Too bad; this is great, straightahead, catchy power pop that the mainstream audience, given half a chance, surely would've embraced. There's a slightly retro feel to some of the material, with echoes of the Knack, the Smithereens, Badfinger, and the Raspberries, but they're only echoes; there's nothing here that could be categorized as a rip-off of any one artist. It's always preferable when artists pay tribute to their inspirations without swiping their riffs wholesale.
10. Original Cast Album, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More, With Feeling (Rounder)
This is what happens when you're exposed to Broadway musicals at an early age, I guess; if appreciating this album is the worst of it, I guess it's not so bad. No, the show's cast wasn't hired for their singing ability, and, no, you won't get a lot of the jokes in the lyrics if you're not a dedicated viewer of the show . . . but, hey, this is my top 10 list, not yours, right? Joss Whedon, the man responsible for creating Buffy, composed the music and lyrics, and, hey, the guy's not half bad. Amber Benson's vocal turn on "Under Your Spell" is certainly the highlight of the disc, though Anthony Stewart Head isn't half bad, either . . . but, then, anyone who saw the Buffy episode where he crooned "Behind Blue Eyes" already knew that, right? Or does the fact that I know that make me too much of a geek? Eh; either way.
Honorable mention (to say the least):
- The Barrys, Who Else
- Billy Bragg and the Blokes, England, Half English
- Elvis Costello, When I Was Cruel
- Def Leppard, X
- Idlewild, The Remote Part
- Tom Jones, Mr. Jones
- Avril Lavigne, Let Go
- Mello Cads, Soft As A Rock
- Rhett Miller, The Instigator
- OK Go, OK Go
- Pet Shop Boys, Release
- Phantom Planet, The Guest
- Kimberley Rew, Great Central Revisited
- Remy Shand, The Way I Feel
- The Soft Boys, Nextdoorland
- The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Behind The Music
- Suede, A New Morning
- Swing Out Sister, Somewhere Deep in the Night
- Various Artists, Right to Chews: Bubblegum Classics Revisited
- Various Artists, This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks
Best Box Sets:
1. Jellyfish, Fan Club: I ordered this on the day that Bruce Brodeen, the man behind Not Lame Records, announced that it would be forthcoming. It was so long ago that I can't even remember when it was that I did it, but suffice to say that it wasn't in 2002. The fact that it arrived on my birthday, well, that was pure poetry. Fan Club is a four-disc set: two discs of demos, two discs of live tracks, almost all of it previously unreleased. Some would say that there's no damned good reason for a band with only two albums to their credit to score their own four-CD set. Those people would be totally and utterly wrong.
2. XTC, Coat of Many Cupboards: Not quite the treasure trove that Fan Club is, since there's a lot of previously-released stuff spread amongst these four discs, but, still, it's a great collection that mixes the familiar with the heretofore-unheard. Andy Partridge didn't open the vaults and dump everything onto the set, mostly because he's got a series of nothing-but-demos discs heading for fans (dubbed Fuzzy Warbles), but this is certainly a treasure trove for XTC obsessives. Amateurs, however, would do well to start with a single-disc compilation of the band's material before diving headlong into this collection.