My goodness what a lot of great music came out in 2002. Even despite a few big disappointments (unlike a lot of people, new releases by Doves and Beck left me cold, and the apart from the bright spots listed here, the trance and house scenes started sounding really tired), there was more cool stuff coming out than I could possibly keep up with. Here's a sampling of the best, listed roughly in order of how obsessively I listened to it:
1. Kinky, Kinky (Nettwerk)
I'm cheating a little bit by making this my number one -- Kinky probably isn't really 2002's best album, and certainly not its most consistent, but the band behind it is the most exciting thing to burst on to the scene this year. In concert, Kinky's raw rock 'n' roll energy and flawlessly executed mix of samples and live instrumentation is jaw-dropping; on disc, they're not quite as good, but still pretty incredible, a deliriously creative jumble of dance club beats, Latin percussion, pop hooks, and frat-party funk. Star producer Chris Allison (Coldplay, the Beta Band) deserves a lot of credit for keeping it all stitched together, but make no mistake -- these guys are the real deal. Just listen to the way they veer effortlessly from the Latin-horn-fueled disco funk of "Ejercicio #16" to the lilting "Sambita", with its jazzy vocoder and guitar licks, to the album's highlight, and maybe the coolest song of the year, "Cornman", a shape-shifting, irresistible dance track that features, among its many highlights, the funkiest riff ever played on an accordion. Kinky is the kind of album that, for all its occasional flaws (some songs do get too eclectic for their own good, and lead singer Gilberto Cerezo is a worrisome weak spot), gets me excited about the future of music.
2. Sasha, airdrawndagger (Kinetic)
For dance music, 2002 will be remembered as the Year of the Artist Debut, when every DJ under the sun finally decided to stop coasting along on mix CDs and the occasional producer's track and have a go at a full-length album of original material. There were a few bright spots, like Miguel Migs' Colorful You (which made my "honorable mention" list, below), but most of the debuts were more along the lines of Paul Oakenfold's Bunkka or Timo Maas' Loud: wildly uneven affairs that scrapped whatever individual style their creators may have behind the decks in favor of derivative blends of pop hooks and dance beats. Amidst such shameless attempts at mainstream pandering, the debut album from Alexander Coe, a.k.a. DJ Sasha, shone like a freakin' klieg light of artistic integrity. A startling departure from the trance and progressive club anthems for which he's best known, airdrawndagger is at once more abstract and more fully realized than anything Sasha's ever done, a 70-minute tone poem that guides listeners through ambient, trance, breakbeat and even industrial textures. With nary a vocal, breakdown, or recognizable club beat to be heard, it still manages to be unmistakably a Sasha album, filled with the same tension and grace that makes him such a good DJ, but here used to much subtler effect. I hesitate to throw around words like "masterpiece" and "instant classic," but airdrawndagger came closer to meriting them than any other album I heard in 2002.
3. The Baldwin Brothers, Cooking with Lasers (TVT)
An impulse toward retro kitsch wanders through the techno-funk landscape of the Baldwin Brothers' deeply groovy debut album the way a lost Esquivel might nervously walk the streets of the Beastie Boys' Brooklyn. This Chicago quartet isn't the first to mine this particular juxtaposition of sounds, but the wit and energy they bring to the formula makes Cooking with Lasers the most entertainingly funky release of the year. Tracks with names like "Viva Knievel" and "The Bionic Jam" bounce, groove, get down and rock out with a mind-bending blend of space-age bachelor jazz, old-school funk and postmodern synths, scratches and drum loops. It echoes the work of other rare groove revivalists like David Holmes and Money Mark, but somehow manages to out-geek and out-groove them all at once. Maybe it's the ubertight rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Deer and drummer Jason Hinkle; maybe it's JB Royal's tasty turntable fills; maybe it's the clever use of sultry guest vocalists like Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and Supreme Beings of Leisure's Geri Soriano-Lightwood -- but I think what finally pushed this album over the top for me into greatness was the work of head Baldwin T.J. Widner, who on cuts like "Funky Junkyard" and "Urban Tumbleweed" proves that no electric guitar will ever sound as positively bad-ass as a fuzzed-out Fender Rhodes.
4. dZihan & Kamien, Gran Riserva (Six Degrees)
The debut album from dZihan & Kamien, Freaks and Icons, was a solid but anonymous collection of downtempo and cocktail house; a collection of remixes, Refreaked, was a little more interesting, but still nothing to write home about. So nothing prepared me for the sheer lushness of Gran Riserva, their sophomore effort. Where Freaks and Icons was just a supreme act of mimickry, as D&K jumped track-to-track through dead-on impersonations of Kruder & Dorfmeister, Jazzanova, Kid Loco and every other downtempo and nu jazz outfit in the book, Gran Riserva trumped all of the Austrian duo's forebears' latest efforts with an irresistible sound anchored in dense, sticky basslines (most, not coincidentally, recorded live), subtle hints of Latin percussion (ditto), and flawless sampling that, like a really good magic trick, lets you just glimpse the edges of the illusion without ever showing you how it's done. This newfound richness in the D&K sound reaches its apotheosis on "Basmati", which chops up piano samples and distorts the sultry vocals of Daniela Muller over a luscious jazz bassline and housey backbeat. It's the sexiest song I heard all year, but the amazing thing is that the rest of the album is almost as good.
5. Lemon Jelly, Lost Horizons (Beggars/XL)
As with dZihan & Kamien, I liked Lemon Jelly's debut but wasn't especially blown away by it. As with dZihan & Kamien, Lemon Jelly's second full-length was a revelation. Where the tracks on Lemonjelly.ky always seemed to be trying too hard to be clever, every minute of Lost Horizons seems to be striving for a kind of childlike, effortless joy, and very often achieves it. The trademark corny vocal samples are still here, but instead of ironically commenting on the music, they provide a solid platform from which the music rises and takes off for some higher plane of pure sonic bliss. Even the nursery rhyme silliness of "Nice Weather for Ducks" blossoms into the kind of guitar-and-trumpet-driven Brit-pop that makes you want to, I don't know, go running through a wheat field or something. And when the tune suddenly mutates into a brassy mambo band, it's so totally unexpected and totally perfect you want to stand up and cheer. By far the year's sunniest album.
6. Blue Six, Beautiful Tomorrow (Naked Music/Astralwerks)
No one does laid-back funkiness better than the San Francisco collective of DJs, producers, singers and musicians who make up Naked Music. And Naked co-founder Jay Denes' full-length debut under his Blue Six alias is nothing if not laid-back and funky. But what really made it the best house music album of 2002 for me was Denes' songwriting, which has a gorgeously soulful, melancholy quality to it that is unique in all of dance music. Tracks like "Music and Wine" and "Love Yourself" command attention not just for their head-bopping beats, but for their sweetly sad melodies and the world-weariness of lines like, "Used to get high just to pass the time/Music and wine were the only friends I had". It seems like an odd combination, but in the end it's precisely all those echoes of sad yesterdays that make Blue Six's Beautiful Tomorrow live up to its name.
7. Badly Drawn Boy, About a Boy (Beggars/XL)
A lot of people thought it was an odd career move for Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, to follow up his stunning avant-pop debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast by doing the soundtrack to a comedy starring Hugh Grant. But what else are you going to do for an encore after winning the Mercury Prize and leaving music critics everywhere grasping for superlatives? As it turns out, making the music for About a Boy was the smartest thing Gough could have done; having proven that he could make a glorious, Beatlesque mess of a record, he now demonstrated that he was equally adept at the sort of pure, mostly acoustic pop that hadn't really been heard on a film score since Simon & Garfunkel leant their tunes to The Graduate. The songs here feel smaller and more intimate than did the more grandiose gestures on Bewilderbeast, but under their deceptively simple arrangements, Gough's songwriting remains as deliciously quirky and innovative as ever. Just listen to the tricky chords of "Above You, Below Me", the delicate, breathless phrasing of "Silent Sigh", even the '50s-style "doo-wah" chorus of a seeming throwaway track like "File Me Away". Badly Drawn Boy is at the top of his game here, more so than he was on the "real" Bewilderbeast followup, the meandering, half-cocked Have You Fed the Fish?. Maybe for Gough, simple is better.
8. DJ Shadow, The Private Press (MCA)
No, it's not Endtroducing; it's not trying to be. I admit, I had as hard a time getting past this concept as anyone, but once I did, DJ Shadow's long overdue followup to his stunning debut quickly found a place in my top ten. Where the best moments on Endtroducing were all about texture and mood, The Private Press is a far more playful album; it's clear that, six years later, Josh Davis realizes he doesn't have to prove to anyone that turntablism is a serious art form, and he's free to get back to the more important business of just being a "bad motherfuckin' DJ", as a vocal sample on "Walkie Talkie" gleefully boasts. Still, this is nervy, forward-thinking music that cuts and pastes together everything from '60s psychedelic pop ("Six Days") to funky breaks ("Right Thing/GDMFSOB") to, perhaps most memorably, '80s new wave ("You Can't Go Home Again"). No one else right now has the unique combination of skills and vision that allows Shadow to be this experimental and entertaining all at once.
9. Deepsky, In Silico (Kinetic)
Despite all the haters, trance just refuses to die; instead, kind of like an evil Terminator, it just keeps morphing and oozing and reshaping itself into all kinds of interesting new musical nooks and crannies. While Sasha was busy taking it out of the dance club and into abstract expressionism, the New Mexico-based duo Deepsky were grafting it onto breakbeats, electro and synth-pop and producing this difficult but ultimately rewarding debut album. The BT-like mix of gushing epic trance and tweaky electro-breaks that's always been Deepsky's stock-in-trade is evident throughout In Silico, but on tracks like "Until the End of the World" and especially the mind-blowing "Jareth's Church", they push the envelope further than ever, until their music starts to sound like something you might hear blaring out of the boomboxes of a gang of hip-hop aliens crashing a psy-trance party. Then, as if all this weren't enough, they start singing, and convincingly, too -- J Scott G's vocals on "Ride" are as coolly earnest as the trance-meets-synth-pop sound of the music, reminiscent of Underworld at their bounciest. This is probably the most uneven album to make my top ten, but it takes a lot of chances and pushes trance in some new directions that may have even the haters taking notice.
10. James McMurtry, Saint Mary of the Woods (Sugar Hill)
Okay, this is another cheat: Saint Mary isn't quite top ten material, but James McMurtry remains my favorite singer-songwriter that not enough people have heard of, so I'm including it to give him a much-deserved plug. McMurtry, son of the novelist Larry, is the Raymond Carver of American songwriters, a master of keen-eyed character sketches that play out like beautifully crafted short stories set to chiming, chugging roots rock. This, his sixth album and first in four years, finds him rocking harder than he has since his John Mellencamp-produced debut; it also finds his outlook on the state of his native Midwest bleaker than perhaps it's ever been. Images of booze and "bathtub speed" abound; songs deal with fighting couples ("Gone to the Y"), dysfunctional families ("Choctaw Bingo"), and one of McMurtry's favorite themes, the loss of regional identities and traditions in America ("Now we even got Starbucks," he sings to a coastal friend on "Out Here in the Middle"; and "we're puttin' up towers for your cell phones"). It's not McMurtry's best -- for that you need to go to 1995's Where'd You Hide the Body -- but there's still a quiet power to most of these songs, and occasionally, as on the ethereal title track or the soaring cover of Dave Alvin's "Dry River", you'll catch a glimpse of why I still think James McMurtry is the most underrated singer-songwriter of his generation.
Also pretty great:
- Supreme Beings of Leisure, Divine Operating System (Palm Pictures)
- Sander Kleinenberg, Essential Mix (Warner/Rhino)
- Gus Gus, Attention (Moonshine)
- David Holmes, Come Get It I Got It (13 Amp)
- Medeski Martin & Wood, Uninvisible (Blue Note)
- Neil Finn, One All (Nettwerk) (note: this is the American version of his album, not One Nil -- this one features better sequencing and two additional tracks that were not included on One Nil and are the album's two best)
- Thievery Corporation, The Richest Man in Babylon (Eighteenth Street Lounge)
- Amon Tobin, Out From Out Where (Ninja Tune)
- Miguel Migs, Colorful You (Naked Music/Astralwerks)
- Blue States, Man Mountain (Eighteenth Street Lounge)