1. Knievel – Name Rings a Bell that Drowns Out Your Voice (In Music We Trust)
The most sublime, beautiful, subtle (not to mention best) album of the year. These are songs that might very well pass you by on first notice, but upon further inspection, will sink so deep into your subconscious that you’ll hear them in your dreams. Wayne Connolly is one of the most respected figures in the Australian music scene, mainly for his production work with such amazing Aussie bands as Glide and You Am I. However, with Name Rings a Bell he and his band have stepped out of the shadow of their friends and influences and recorded a record as good or better than the lot of them.
2. Bigger Lovers – Honey in the Hive (Yep Roc)
Although this Philly foursome’s first record, How I Learned to Stop Worrying was really good, it did nothing to prepare me for the sheer awesomeness of Honey in the Hive. Gleaming, shimmering hooks coupled with real guitar muscle and sweet, sweet vocals worthy of Alex Chilton or Matthew Sweet at their best equal complete and total power pop bliss. Just try to not swoon to the chorus of “Emanuelle”, or sing along riotously to “Bought Your Ghost”. Quite possibly the best power-pop record to come out in the last 10 years.
3. . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Source Tags and Codes (Interscope)
The one album of the year (apart from most of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) whose hype was actually justified. Source Tags and Codes finds the Texas hellions shedding just enough of their Sonic Youth influence to emerge with a singular sound, which manages to bridge the gulf between ecstatic beauty and bludgeoning noise. Like they used to say in the old days, it’s like getting whacked over the head with a velvet hammer. Although it’s fairly baffling to think exactly what Interscope was thinking when they signed the band and forked over a few hundred grand to create this monster, in the end, I’m damn glad they did, and I hope that they’re able to move enough copies of this tremendously unmarketable, comercially unviable, yet extraordinarily brilliant record to allow them to make another one. Extra props to the chiming guitar riff to “Relative Ways”, which made it the “#1 song that was stuck in Jeremy’s head during the year 2002”.
4. The Maroons – You’re Gonna Ruin Everything (In Music We Trust)
Although he’s probably better known as being Steve Malkmus’ new drummer (or Elliott’s Smith’s old one), Jon Moen is actually a much better singer/songwriter than his boss, and You’re Gonna Ruin Everything is damn near perfect. Although it might come across as a tad glossy on first listen, this record sports absolutely massive, bulletproof hooks that don’t take long to insinuate themselves into the folds of your brain. If you give them a chance, songs like “Dance Floor Flirt”, “Lonely Summer” and “Blindfold Follies” will follow you wherever you go, chiming their insistent choruses and sublime verses to you as you drive down the street, in the middle of the grocery store, or wherever you happen to be. And you won’t mind one bit.
5. The Notwist – Neon Golden
Since they’ve moved away from their hessian metal roots (listen to ’92s Nook back to back with ’98s Shrink and restrain your astonishment that the same band could have made such completely different records), this German band has yet to disappoint. Neon Golden may well be their strongest album yet, with its gorgeous melding of classic pop hooks, fragile electronic beats (courtesy of Martin Gretchmann, AKA Console), and Markus Acher’s droning, aching voice. Neon Golden finds the band building on the advances of their last two records and incorprating more organic elements (such as the banjo that runs through the title track) into their sound, as well as honing in on a pop sense that hasn’t been this strong since “Puzzle” from their ’96 effort (and first American release), 12.
6. Kind of Like Spitting – Bridges Worth Burning (Barsuk)
Ben Barnett finally gets to make a full-on rock record, and the results are just as eyebrow-singeing as anyone who’s ever seen a full-band Kind of Like Spitting live show might have expected. With a crack band behind him (and yes, that is Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie kicking ass all over the drumkit on here — the man is so talented, it’s almost embarassing), Barnett delivers his most consistent set of recorded vitriol yet. Although there are individual songs on other records (“Dodge Dart” from Nothing Makes Sense Without It springs to mind) that trump anything on Bridges Worth Burning, as a whole, it’s the enigmatic singer/songwriter’s most consistent, accessible recording.
7. You Am I – Deliverance (BMG Australia)
Australia’s favorite sons return with another set of thoughtful yet kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll. Although it doesn’t quite scale the heights of last year’s Dress Me Slowly (which was my #1 pick for 2001), it still mops the floor with practically every other record that attempts to include “roots” and “rock” in its description. Although their current incarnation as a shaggy-haired rock machine is a far cry from the Kinks-and-XTC-isms of some of their earlier efforts, it’s no less pleasing to hear these guys lay back and flat-out rock, which they do here with aplomb, while still leaving room for more sensitive, acoustic ruminations.
8. The Long Winters – The Worst You Can Do is Harm (Barsuk)
Although I was initially slightly befuddled by the dreamy, hazy nature of this record, which stands in great contrast to the band’s energetic, poppy live show, it has grown to be one of my favorites of the year. You simply can’t front on a guy who uses the lines “I’m leaving you all of my carparts, I didn’t have the money or I would have gotten roses”, “I mean to quit stealing as soon as I steal for the last time” and “at least my watch is right two times a day” in the same song. John Roderick manages the feat, and turns it into an incredible song. Add to Roderick’s songwriting acuity Chris Walla’s gauzy production, Sean Nelson (of Harvey Danger’s) angelic harmonies, and an all-star cast of some of the best drummers Seattle has to offer, and well, you end up with a fantastic record. The anti-pop record of the year.
9. Dolly Varden – Forgiven Now (Undertow)
How is it that married couples usually make the most heartbreaking records of anyone? From Richard and Linda Thompson to the Handsome Family, it somehow seems to be the case. Add Dolly Varden’s Diane Christensen and Stephen Dawson to the list, as for the past eight years, the couple have been making some of the most sublime misery-loves-company music you’re ever likely to hear. Hell, Christensen even sounds a little like Linda Thompson. Forgiven Now continues the trend of gorgeously atmospheric ballads established on the band’s last record, 2000’s sublime The Dumbest Magnets, and simultaneously broadens the band’s palette, offering everything from straight-up rock n’ roll to country-style hoedowns. To the band’s immense credit, it’s all tied together with a cohesiveness that few bands can match.
10. The Mendoza Line – Lost in Revelry (Misra)
They moved from the deep south to deep Brooklyn, and have simultaneously mellowed out and gotten more complex, but the Mendoza Line continues to be one of the most interesting, dynamic, unpredictable bands on the indie scene. Their song “I Know I Will Not Find the Words” (from the Like Someone In Love EP) is literally one of my top ten favorite songs of all time, and with Lost in Revelry, they’ve penned two songs, “Whatever Happened To You?” and “Under Radar”, that actually come close to giving that song a run for its money. Add to that a raucous, joyful live show, and you’ve got a pretty good summary of what makes me love music so much.
11. Neva Dinova – s/t (Crank!)
Jeff Buckley’s ghost met Mark Lanegan in Omaha, they listened to a lot of Radiohead, and they wrote some songs. Somehow this band called Neva Dinova picked up on their frequency, recorded the songs, and released them on Crank! records. One of the most interesting, promising debuts of the year.
12. Damien Jurado and Gathered in Song – I Break Chairs (Sub Pop)
“Urban Folkie” sets down his trusty acoustic guitar for a moment, picks up a Telecaster, and proceeds to make the best record of his career. Jurado’s booming voice always begged for a full band to add heft to his compositions, and on I Break Chairs, Gathered in Song provide this in spades.
Les Mentiones Honorables:
Frames – Breadcrumb Trail
The best live album of the year from one of the best bands currently operating in the UK.
Dillinger Four – Situationist Comedy (Fat Wreck)
The best punk record of the year. Lightning fast, smart as fuck, catchy as hell. What more could you want?
Chris Mills – The Silver Line (Powerles Pop)
Another extremely solid release from one of the country’s most underrated singer/songwriters.
Richard Buckner – Impasse (Overcoat Records)
As his lyrics become more indecipherable, his songs somehow resonate even more sweetly.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
What, did you want me to be the only critic in the free world to not mention this?
Aroah – No Podemos Ser Amigos (Aucarela)
A gorgeous voice, sharp-as-nails songwriting, and beautiful guitar playing. Plus, some songs sung in Spanish to die for.
Mines – The Way the Wind Whips the Water (Woodson Lateral)
This Seattle crew is quickly becoming one of the Emerald City’s best bands, period. This is their debut record, and it’s great.
Chris Cacavas – Bumbling Home from the Star (Normal)
The 20-year vet releases an understated gem of a record. Of course, it’s only available on German import.
New Christs – We Got This! (Laughing Outlaw)
20 years later, and the ghost of Radio Birdman lives on in Rob Younger’s New Christs. Blazing, intense rock n’ roll, plain and simple.