Before I begin, I'd just like to put out a little qualifying statement. Every year, the same question gets asked in the entertainment writers and critics' community: was this a good year for music (film/television/books/games/etc.)? I've heard it said that 2002 was generally weak in comparison to past years, and I've heard it said that 2002 was a treasure trove if you just knew where to look. A part of the problem with being an audiophile and a reviewer is that you wind up dedicating a lot of time and attention to the things you have to review, and don't always have time for every album that you're interested in. You shouldn't have to qualify a top ten list, but I feel it's necessary to say that this list represents the best albums that I heard this year. They made the list by staying in my head and in my CD player for longer than any of the others. Maybe this list represents a weak year, maybe not. I may have missed some great ones, but these are my personal winners, and both my record collection and I are the better off for having them. So, for better or for worse...
1. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)
I don't know if there's anything I could say that hasn't already been said by Adrien Begrand in his review. After producing a stunning full-length debut in Parachutes, Coldplay overcomes the odds by turning out an even more amazing follow up. The pressure of popularity and critical gunships with sights targeted doesn't seem to have affected Chris Martin and crew unless it was to push them that much harder to succeed. A Rush of Blood to the Head places Coldplay in the same camp as Radiohead, at least for the fact that it reveals a band willing to push its own boundaries in the reach for new heights. The austerity hasn't been lost even as a wider sense of grandeur has been achieved. Pop music should always sound this complex.
2. Counting Crows, Hard Candy (Geffen)
This album should be terrible. Counting Crows should be washed-up has-beens, drifting out to pasture on the keening, shrill voice of Adam Duritz's wavering last notes. Instead, the band has reinvented itself again. Or rather, they've re-ignited themselves again. Hard Candy is the most accomplished thing the group has yet produced, reaching far beyond the rootsy anguish of August and Everything After and building upon all the sounds that have reared their heads on following albums. Solid, complex, full of variety, and impeccably crafted, it may be the death of your cool to buy this disc, but you should, you really, really should.
3. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
Perhaps it's because I grew up with a fascination for Japanese robot-worship and manga culture, perhaps it's because I like my psychedelia a bit more on the accessible and subtle side, but I think that the approachability of Yoshimi makes this among the best of the Lips' work. Finding the limits of your creativity, inspiration and talent at the outer limits (The Soft Bulletin), sometimes the challenge becomes mining the spaces that you skipped over on your outward journey. The Flaming Lips open up their spaces enough to let characterization and pop craft surface once more, and the result is wonderful.
4. Masters of the Hemisphere, Protest a Dark Anniversary (Kindercore)
To my delight, I had occasion to hear a great many indie pop records over the last year, reaffirming my belief in the power of pure pop's legacy, but none stood out as greatly as Masters of the Hemisphere. Sometimes folksy, sometimes twee, sometimes psychedelic, the thing that makes the Masters' music so wonderful is its simplicity. There's an effortlessness to this album that gives it its light and airy edge. Bren Mead and Sean Rawls sound like they were born with a pen in their hands. Dark Anniversary isn't a powerful album so much as it's an impossibly catchy album. Athens scores again!
5. Menthol, Danger: Rock Science! (Hidden Agenda)
Okay, I'll admit, after the first listen to this disc I was willing to laugh heartily and then write it off as novelty. But it kept drawing me back to it. I set the player on repeat and bopped my head for hours without care. Even still, the homage to New Wave makes me smile, but the wonder of Menthol is that it's entirely irony-free. It's as if the '80s have been resurrected through a Weird Science blending of Devo and John Hughes. The Blank Generation's children have inherited the torch and have discovered that being synth-heavy and unabashedly Euro-pop isn't a crutch; it's a blessing. Danger: Rock Science! is serious fun, recalling New Wave's glory without a hint of the kitsch factor that makes retro-radio and The Wedding Singer such a distorted look backwards. Brilliant.
6. Snowglobe, Our Land Brains (Bardot)
This album is so hard to qualify and quantify, so difficult to pin down, that it really stands alone. Of all the year's performances and products, Snowglobe's debut effort smacks of a band that has found a vein of the lifeblood of music itself. Shimmering, shifting, and golden, pop psychedelia at its finest (hmm, heavy on the psychedelic influences this year). The promise of future output from this band is great, and as long as they can maintain the vision they've set out with, they're set to achieve marvelous things.
7. Wonderlick, Wonderlick (Future Farmer)
Just because it's output by members of one of my favorite bands of all time, that hasn't influenced my inclusion at all. Well, okay, a little. But really, Tim Quirk and Jay Blumenfeld's Wonderlick project is a joy in itself. Ambitious in its intimacy, this slice of dream pop is infectious, ear-catching, inventive, etc. All studio affairs should be so lucky. Even with a shift in musical styles, the duo's songwriting chops haven't faltered at all. The fact that the songs weren't intended to hang together yet manage to sound like a complete album is a testament to the successful formula Wonderlick has established.
8. Reel Big Fish, Cheer Up! (Jive/Mojo)
For a gimmicky, completely un-serious ska band, Reel Big Fish have a knack for genius that's hard to swallow. I have argued in a scholarly publication for the accidental brillance of Why Do They Rock So Hard? as a postmodern exploration. No kidding. So, after four years, I was almost surprised by the release of Cheer Up!, which is vastly different and heads so far into the direction of power pop that RBF has basically stopped being a ska band. I say "almost" because bandleader Aaron Barrett has always professed to being a rocker first and foremost. This album takes some getting used to for old fans. The humor has been subdued by serious musicianship, but the results are so rewarding that it's not a loss at all.
9. Indigo Girls, Become You (Epic)
A return to their roots (some pun intended), Become You sounds more like the Indigo Girls we've come to expect than their last couple of releases. However, their dabbling outside the realms of folksy acoustic rock have rewarded them with a broader scope and sound. This disc shows that these two women are still some of the most talented songwriters of the last few decades.
10. Josh Clayton-Felt, Spirit Touches Ground (Dreamworks)
We lose musicians every year, and a great many of them are a true loss to music in that they'll never have the chance to write and perform again. In early 2000, Clayton-Felt lost his life to cancer. However, his friends and family lobbied to have his long-delayed and much labored-over final musical work released, and it's a worth tribute and swan-song to a beautiful soul. Sentimentality aside, it's a strong disc that shows the unique musical vision and powerful voice Clayton-Felt possessed, made all the more poignant by his loss.
Best Box Set: (Tie)
XTC, Coat of Many Cupboards (Virgin)
Camper Van Beethoven, Cigarettes and Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years (spinART)
Alright, so you know it's a big deal when I'm willing to admit that something has even tied an XTC product for my affections. Challenging fanboys is just that difficult. But both of these sets deserve the spot because they approach their audience with different intentions. Coat of Many Cupboards is produced for the fans, a final acknowledgement from Virgin that they "may have" undercut one of the greatest pop bands of all time (in my humble), and put together a retrospective look that includes some rarities and live cuts and basically acts as a career scrapbook. Cigarettes and Carrot Juice, on the other hand, acts like a record of a time and a place as seen through the eyes of one strange band. It gathers up that which has almost been lost to time and represents it as a piece of history, not trying to appease old fans so much as convert some new ones and hang on to a tenuous legacy. Both are triumphant and sad in their own ways, for different reasons, and both are worthwhile purchases for any music fan.
Best Concept Album:
Tori Amos, Scarlet's Walk (Epic)
While a great many artists have tried to capture something of the post-September 11, 2001 feeling in America, none have been quite as thorough as Amos's project. Mixed with those curious feelings is her own family's connection to the history of the Native Americans, as well as the sense of America as an individual. This all gets swirled together into a collection of stories that reads like a novel, in which Scarlet, who is a shade of Amos herself, journeys through America searching for herself, just as Amos herself did. A road trip, an homage to the American spirit, an exploration of bloody pasts, and a dissection of relationships, the album's thoughts and feelings are complicated and convoluted, as one would expect with Amos, but also intimate and emotional. Musically, it may be her most sedate and languid recording, but this only serves the overall effect of the story. The CD also includes an Internet-interactive feature that adds a layer of depth to the concept. Overall, it's an ambitious effort, and one which greatly succeeds.