Last year around this time, I was sweating out my end of the year best-of list. There had just been so many albums released on the majors and indies that I was especially fond of that it was quite the daunting task to just come up with ten albums, when there were about 20 or so I really loved. This year was different. To me, everything seemed to be overshadowed by bands that I felt were getting too much hype (The Strokes, The Vines, The White Stripes, The Hives), and the remnants of the teen pop landscape that started trying to legitimize itself by offering more "mature" albums (Christina Aguilera's Stripped). The funny thing is that rock never really died, but the labels tossed out some of the aforementioned groups to anyone eager enough to hear a guitar once again that wasn't part of some boring nu-metal thrash attack that the masses bought into the "rock is back" hype.
So be it. Music is a business, by and large anymore. The bands come and go faster than you can tally up this week's Top 50. Some of my picks in the list here surprised me a little. If you had told me who my top pick this year was going to be last year, I would have laughed and forgotten all about it. Others were things that you either had to know about in a small town setting somewhere from whence the band came, or be introduced to it via the music reviewing business. I believe it's a well-balanced mix of the familiar and not-so familiar. But enough chit-chat. Here then are my picks for the Best of 2002.
1. Kylie Minogue, Fever (Capitol)
This album is still working the hell out of the radio and MTV. The last time I had personally listened to Kylie was probably the last time many of you did as well. Yes, it was the '80s and her version of "The Locomotion" was cleaning up at the record stores everywhere. The States forgot about Kylie after that, but the rest of the world didn't and she went on to forge a formidable pop career with a slew of hits. Fever is also the sexiest album of the year. The original mix of "Love At First Sight" is unbeatable, while the title track and "Fragile" are achingly indulgent with the big time sensuality. On top of that, Fever was also the best dance album of the year, with the nagging "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" still inciting head bobbing and rump shaking everywhere. A surprise and most welcome attack from the all grown up Kylie. If you happen to have her previous album Light Years to go along with Fever, then you have an instant party all ready to go.
2. No Doubt Rock Steady (Interscope)
It finally happened. No Doubt won me over. In the past, I had enjoyed some of the group's tunes, and had even purchased The Return of Saturn but found it an unmitigated snore. Here, the ever-magnetic Gwen Stefani and the rest of the gang just cut loose with a great pop album that mixes up the genres while keeping the good time groove up front. Not once did I ever get sick of "Hella Good". A great dance song about dancing is always a good thing, and that song couldn't be any better. The recent "Underneath It All" is what finally sold me, though. Stefani's cooing performance and the excellent video for the track were too hard to resist. Then of course there's the incessant "Hey Baby" that feels like it could annoy the hell out of you but manages to just make you want more. I'd like to see them release "Making Out" next.
3. Rawbone - Symmetry Breaks (self-released)
Who is Rawbone you ask? Well it's none other than Roly Skender, an Australian electronica / mixmasting wizard that has seemingly come out of nowhere with this excellent album. There are nine tracks here that run the gamut from lush ambient excursions to funky commercial-like dancefloor tracks and even some fun novelty items. Moby had better look out, because Skender is jaw-dropping good. Along with the audio disc, Skender has also created a video disc with his own home made videos for each track. It's an absolute thrill to watch the videos and see just where Skender got his material to sample and play with. My favorite tracks are "Floration", "Bike Song", and "Wiggle Worm". This is probably the best value of the year as well, as you get both the audio and video disc set all in one. Check out www.rawbone.tv for more info on how to obtain this extraordinary album.
4. The Icicles - Pure Sugar EP (Drive-In)
The Pure Sugar release was the best EP of the year, no contest. Six tracks of gleeful, pretty pop that can't help but make everyone who hears it feel good. Gretchen DeVault is the perfect front lady for a group like this, and the rest of the band shines as well. The yearning "Margie" is undoubtedly one of the best songs to come out this year, while the sweet "Polyester Dress", the summertime lilt of "Lemonade & Somersaults" and the snappy "New Haircolor" all fell in line right behind it. This is definitely a band to keep your eyes on if you're a pure pop fan. Plus, they have a song called "Skater Boyfriend" that's a million times cooler than Ms. Wannabe Respected Avril Lavigne.
5. Weezer - Maladroit (Geffen)
And the hits just keep on coming. It's really great to see a band reverting back to the old ways of the music biz and releasing an album every year. Especially when it's a band you really like. Maladroit seemed to combine the personal turmoil of Pinkerton with the sunny pop of The Green Album and outdid them both. Pinkerton was always my least favorite Weezer album, but it was nice to hear the guys really rock out on Maladroit. Rivers Cuomo still digs throwing himself into the middle of his songs, even if he sometimes likes to claim otherwise. But if he didn't, they wouldn't be Weezer, would they? Take your pick from a mighty slew of tracks here that come in, get the job done, and zip out, barely giving you time to catch your breath. "Dope Nose" is just too damn good, and "Fall Together" is just too damn good. And so, as they say, it's all good. I'm eagerly awaiting the next one.
6. Chris Butler - The Museum of Me (Future Fossil)
I'm probably the biggest Chris Butler fan. Well, maybe not, but damn close to it. Check out the original review for this disc to really find out why. Butler wowed me last year with his exceptional Easy Life and managed to do it again this year with The Museum of Me, an album filled with songs that were recorded strictly on vintage equipment. Thrill to the cowboy hi-jinks of "The Idiot Trail" as recorded in the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit. Groove to "Thinking About Them Girls" and "Davy's Sister's Home From College" direct from an old Edison wax cylinder. And there's more. Lots more. From wire recorders to four-track machines, this one's get it all. And as usual, Butler exacts his sharp wit across everything he sees. Someone do me a favor and give this guy the credit and career he deserves. A true genius of the modern music scene. And I do not say that lightly.
7. Jana McCall - Slumber (Up)
Jana McCall released the most moving and beautiful album of 2002. Slumber packs it in with all sorts of aching, spooky songs that transcend most every other moody musician on the indie circuit today. "Eyes Aglow" is a masterpiece in itself, while other tracks like "Bloodlines" and "Clary" work deep into the listener's system, rooting themselves permanently. Plus, the album ends on a terrific cover of Pink Floyd's classic "Echoes", so how could you go wrong? Jana makes the song her own here and even betters it. Perhaps I was just too familiar with the original, but still it's not everyday that someone chooses to cover a Floyd track like that. McCall deserves a long and fruitful career as she's easily one of the best female acts currently out there.
8. Various Artists - Super Troopers Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (TVT)
The movie was hilarious. Most of that had to do with the Broken Lizard comedy troupe's sharp writing and hilarious style of film making, but an even amount had to do with the film's fun and rambunctious soundtrack. Though it opens with the dud "Trooper With An Attitude" by .38 Special, the album starts coming into its own by track two, where The Unband is nestled with its over the top "Geez Louise". Southern Culture On The Skids weigh in with four tracks, with "Pass The Hatchet" and "Cheap Motels" being especially outstanding. But the best tracks are undoubtedly Steak's "Big Bear" and The Unband's closing "Pink Slip". The former sounds like one of the best truck drivin' songs that never was and the latter completely destroys all the emo-lovin' fans and leaves no evidence behind. Purely exhilarating.
9. Sheryl Crow - C'mon, C'mon (A&M)
Another one that surprised me. I was never a big Crow fan, and still do not consider myself to be, but this album caught my ear pretty hard. Another album that finds the musician exploring a range of styles, C'mon, C'mon might not have even been the true Sheryl Crow fan's favorite album, but it was a lot of fun to these ears. From the obvious hit "Soak Up The Sun" that sounded great on any radio it played from, to the thrills of "Steve McQueen" and the lush "Diamond Road", there was a whole lotta Sheryl goin' on here. It will probably be a while again before my ears perk up to Crow, but this album made for some really good summertime listening and was pretty much inescapable even if you didn't want to be secretly grooved by "Soak Up The Sun" for the millionth time.
10. Dixie Chicks - Home (Columbia/Monument/Open Wide)
The Chicks return with their third album Home and get back to basics. Gone are the shiny productions. Stripped away are the drums. What remains is the best modern country act out there laying down 12 honest tracks of rustic beauty that can't be topped. Whether it be in the witty strains of "Long Time Gone", the super cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" that the ladies make their own, the instrumental thunder of "Lil' Jack Slade", or the fun of "White Trash Wedding", the Dixie Chicks still know how to make a great album even without the bells and whistles. But that's true talent for you. So while Shania Twain's trying to do a balancing act between the pop and "country" fans with her new album, Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison will be holding down the fort and turning out the real thing. Going back to your roots was never so fun.
Worst Album of the Year: Nirvana - Nirvana (Universal)
I was never a big Nirvana fan, but this cash cow of a release really seemed pointless. Surely all the fans have all these songs and then some. Surely they already downloaded "You Know You're Right" way before it was ever offered here. True, it's probably a nice primer for those just getting into the band, but I can't help but see how so many were truly ripped off on this one. Especially for one "new" song. But hey, the box set's coming soon so you'll be able to undoubtedly buy all these songs yet again for the third time. Ahhhhh...smell the money.
Best Compilations / Reissues of 2002
Various Artists - Grand Theft Auto Vice City Official Soundtrack Box Set (Epic)
Rolling Stones - Forty Licks
Elton John - Greatest Hits 1970-2002 (Universal)
The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico Deluxe Edition (Universal)
The Who - My Generation Deluxe Edition (Universal)
Lou Reed - Live - Take No Prisoners (BMG Heritage)