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December 3, 2002

Voices Best and Worst of 2002

Jon Garrett's Top Albums of 2002

Top 20 lists are a sham. For that matter, so are top 10 lists. How many albums from any given year can you honestly say you listen to on a regular basis? Five or six, if you're lucky. The bottom line is that very few albums endure, and yet publications like Spin and Rolling Stone continue to pump out massive year-end lists--as if your collection would somehow be incomplete without the latest Sleater-Kinney record. If a release makes my list, it's there for one reason alone: I firmly believe I'll be listening to it three or four years from now. That's really the only standard I have, and, in my opinion, it's the only standard that truly matters. With so much new music and old music vying for our eardrums on a regular basis, an album or EP has got to have something special to merit spins past the two- or three-month mark. These are the ones that did it for me.

1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco.

Like I said, the contest was over in April. This is an album for anyone who thought Radiohead got a tad too obtuse with their eletronic glitchery in recent years. Tweedy and Co. aren't afraid of being postmodern, but they never allow the studio frosting to cloud their sense of melody. From start to finish, this is a colossal achievement, one that needs no David and Goliath story (arty Midwestern band against the big, bad record industry) to justify its place in rock history. But it got that too, just in case.

2. Protect Us From What We Want by Thirdimension.

I'm still pissed that it took me over four years to hear anything about a band this good. But I suppose I should be thankful I heard of them at all. After Warner Sweden essentially stopped promoting this debut, the group languished in obscurity until "The Swedish Sound" became the next big thing, with bands like the Hives and the Soundtrack of Our Lives getting generous major label offers. Thirdimension still hasn't been the subject of a bidding war, but at least their debut album reached the ears of a few discerning listeners at Parasol Records, which finally released it Stateside this past October. If you're a fan of the Beatles, the Who, and their more modern derivations like the Super Furry Animals, this is an album you simply can't do without.

3. Sea Change by Beck.

Beck always rubbed me the wrong way. His albums are daring and adventurous, but have consistently lacked the emotional depth of any truly enduring work. Mellow Gold, Odelay, and Mutations were clearly the work of a genius, but they aimed squarely for the cerebral cortex. As a result, they wound up coming off like well-constructed facades: technically flawless but empty once you got beyond the witty wordplay and instrumental tomfoolery. Sea Change, on the other hand, is a masterful, profoundly demonstrative work. Rather than hide behind a veil of nonsensical phrases and sonic patchwork, Beck has finally imbued his compositions with warmth and meaning thanks to an intimate folk approach. Even if it proves to be a fleeting moment of truth for this notoriously guarded artist, he's proven once and for all that he's capable of something beyond silly rhymes and ironic cool.

4. Tremulant EP by the Mars Volta.

The two former stars of At the Drive-In manage something truly incredible with their new project: they make prog rock sound vital again. It was always quite obvious that Omar Rodriguez was a phenomenal guitarist, but rarely has he been allowed to show the extent of his range. The Mars Volta, however, gives the afroed wonder ample opportunity as they explore everything from dub to reggae to punk and back. Rodriguez's partner in crime, frontman Cedric Bixler, has also ditched the confines of his former band's sound, trading in the emo lyric sheet for a more sci-fi focus. Plus his high-pitched squeal is--thankfully--nowhere to be found. Supposedly, the band is in the studio right now laying down the tracks for its debut full-length with Rick Rubin. Can't say I'm too thrilled at that pairing, but as long as Rubin parks the rap-metal at the door, the album is almost guaranteed to eclipse anything ATDI ever attempted.

5. Read and Burn 01 by Wire.

Instead of quietly retiring and retaining their hipster cachet, Wire decided to take a stab at relevancy again. Most of these attempts from older artists end in disaster and ridicule. Listened to Iggy Pop's Beat 'Em Up lately? But I give credit where it's due: Wire not only came back, but they managed to sound more angry and vital than during their supposed peak period in '77. Taking a few cues from latter-day Primal Scream and the rest from the Thrill Kill Kult, Wire took the best elements of proto-dance punk to update their original template. "Agfers of Kodack" is a true standout, but the rest aren't too shabby either.

6. Collected EPs by the Music.

Okay, so I cheated a bit. This wasn't actually released. I burned all the tracks on a single disc because, well, I don't believe in shelling out cash for a bunch of import EPs. (Have you seen the prices on those things?) Still, if there were ever such things as U.K.-only EPs that were worth your money, these would be among them. The a-sides, "Take the Long Road and Walk It," "You Might As Well Try and Fuck Me," and "The People," are pretty neat tunes, but the Music save their best for the b-sides. The two instrumentals that accompany the "Long Road" EP are positively mind-blowing in their grandeur and musicality--somewhat akin to Mogwai on speed or GYBE! with a sense of rhythm. Meanwhile, "Let Love Be the Healer" and "Jag Tune" are dashed with the Verve at their cocky, anthemic best. But, hey, don't take my word for it. You can stream every track they've ever recorded straight from their Web site at www.themusic.uk.com.

Most Disappointing Album: Life On Other Planets by Supergrass. After three albums of unrelenting brilliance, the 'Grass deliver their first bonafide turd. This is unlistenable mid-tempo muck that Tom Petty wouldn't have even included on a non-Heartbreakers album. "Grace" and "Never Done Nothing Like That Before" provide momentary relief, but for a band that started their career by stringing together two perfect albums, this is a spectacular dip in quality.

Tom Zimpleman's Top Albums of 2002

1.Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco

This pick doesn't require a tremendous amount of thought; for once, the most anticipated and talked-about album of the year is also the best. The spacey, formless approach to songwriting that frontman Jeff Tweedy brought to the band's previous release, Summerteeth, was even more evident on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and while in some hands this may be a recipe for inaccessibility, Tweedy managed to write some of the best songs of his career. Not only are there the wonderfully experimental "Radio Cure," and "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," but also the invasive folk melodies of "Kamera" and "Jesus, etc." Wilco loves the audience enough to run through an entire bag of tricks for our benefit. We're lucky they pull off everything so well.

2. This Night by Destroyer

Dan Bejar might have followed up the success of the New Pornographers' Mass Romantic by releasing a similar breezy romp through the world of pop music, but instead he moved away from the New Pornographers' native Vancouver, settled in Montreal, and released an album of decidedly less flashy material. The long running time and poetic leanings of This Night aren't exactly attention grabbing, and it's the sort of album that needs multiple listens to finally make sense. But Bejar uses just enough off the traditional formulas to pull us along, and when everything finally starts to fall in place, we realize that he's doing more with the pop song than we ever imagined possible.

3. Sharpen Your Teeth by Ugly Casanova

Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock's fascination with acoustic music finally found an accommodating outlet through this side project with producer Brian Deck, former Red Red Meat lead singer Tim Rutilli, and Holopaw singer John Orth. It's pretty much a song-to-song effort. A lot of the album is obvious filler, but a handful of tracks are truly superb. The atmospherics of "Barnacles" and "Cat Faces" show the benefits of using the studio as an additional instrument, and "Smoke Like Ribbons" is one of the most infectious songs you'll ever hear. Bonus points are also awarded for the album's fictional history: Ugly Casanova is the name of Edgar Graham, a crazed Modest Mouse fan who crashed a show in Denver and forced Brock to look over a notebook of lyrics he'd written. Contrived, pseudonymous work is always appreciated.

4. Italian Platinum by Silkworm

They keep changing cities and record labels, but currently Chicago-based Silkworm can always be counted on for a solid album every year or two. This year's Italian Platinum isn't going to have any 17 year-olds forming bands and practicing in their basement's all night, but its low-key indie rock succeeds nonetheless. Killer hooks abound, whether it's during Andy Cohen's nearly off-key harmonizing with Kelly Hogan on the chorus of "(I Hope U) Don't Survive," or the angular guitar work from "White Lightning." Once billed as the future of slacker rock, Silkworm has grown up, gone to law school, found a job and fallen into a nice little groove.

5. Arrhythmia by the Anti-Pop Consortium

The canon of underground hip-hop consists of either bloated jeremiads on the political and economic state of the United States or mindlessly positive drivel (primarily from a group I don't really need to name that's signed to Interscope and thus can never, ever be underground anyway). Prior to their breakup earlier this year, the Anti-Pop Consortium was a lone holdout. They were willing to experiment in ways nobody else was--not just using samples from unconventional genres, but bringing in Tortoise's John McEntire to produce a single, and using the sound of a ping-pong ball hitting the floor as a beat. The experiments usually worked, and if the esoteric flash of their lyrics occasionally became too much, the effort was laudable nonetheless. We'll miss the APC, but at least they left us this album as a final reminder.

Honorable Mention: Rickets and Scurvy by David Grubbs; You Can Play These Songs with Chords by Death Cab for Cutie; God Loves Ugly by Atmosphere; Demolition by Ryan Adams

Best Album I Can't Put on a Best-of List Until Next Year: The Remote Part by Idlewild, due to the vagaries of U.S. distribution deals.

Most Disappointing Album (tie):

Murray Street by Sonic Youth. My hopes weren't high for the new Sonic Youth album, and I was still disappointed. A collection of mid-tempo toss-offs that fulfills whatever self-imposed release schedule the band members have settled upon (and need to rethink), Murray Street swiftly becomes agony to sit through, and the stabbing instrumentals of tracks like "Disconnection Notice" are not aided by further listening.

Blobscape by Geoff Farina. His work with Boston-based emo (in every sense of the word) group Karate is so vastly different from his acoustic work with the Secret Stars and his two previous solo albums that anyone approaching a Geoff Farina album knows not to expect anything. Even that knowledge can't really shield someone from the letdown of this album, however, a collection of improvised jazz that Farina recorded during his daily practice sessions. That sounds an awful lot like a collection a musician should just keep to himself, and after hearing this album I can verify the usefulness of such a superficial judgment.

Pete Beatty's Best of 2002

Here's the deal with Music Criticism: it's like the PGA. You get your tour card, and you have to really screw things up for them to take that card away. Maybe it's more like the Masters. You win once, and you get to come back every year, even if you lose your golfing hand to barracudas. I guess that doesn't make any sense; you can't really "win" Music Criticism. So it's not really like golf at all, now that I've thought through things. At any rate: Music Criticism!

1. Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe by Pavement

Choosing a reissue from 1992 as the best record of the year is a copout, but it's also a testimony to how much music sucked this year. As far as I can tell, Jay-Z released the only decent hip-hop record of the year, and everything that was supposed to good very much wasn't. Pavement wins because they haven't been ripping off Sam Cooke, because they didn't write a tribute to Flight 93, because they aren't channeling Joy Division. Because Pavement isn't around anymore to release more songs like "Type Slowly."

I put Slanted first because anyone who hasn't heard it still should. I should be able to yell "She's got the radio active and it--" and someone should say "--makes me feel OK," instead of a confused look. Fuck this shit. I played Wowee Zowee today at work and all I got was several frightened looks during "Serpentine Pad." Nobody gives me the respect I deserve for liking a band that was extremely cool in 1992. I'm retro! Hug me!

2. Brainwashed by George Harrison.

The fact that he was in the Beatles really doesn't enter into a reasoned criticism of the record. I've only had it for a few weeks. It's cheesy, and Harrison's guitar playing isn't what it used to be, and he's running through bluesy stuff he's been doing since Living in the Material World. Not the point. The point: Come listen to a bitter, ferociously private old man, dying of cancer, doing everything he can to make the world understand him, on a record he didn't have the strength to finish. George Harrison's music, prior to Brainwashed, is about as personal as some of Limp Bizkit's more emotive moments, save for his first credited original composition, "Leave Me Alone." After that, George started doing acid, then he took up Eastern religion, then Eric Clapton started sleeping with his wife. Still, we had no record called I'm on Acid and Eric Clapton Humped My Wife released, to the best of my knowledge. Then again, this record isn't called I'm Dying of Throat Cancer But I Am Actually a Genius, Check Me Out. But that's pretty much what it is.

3. The Last Broadcast by Doves.

Yeah, I think they used the opening riff from "Words" in a commercial for some German automobile company. I don't care, Chewbacca. If Modest Mouse is shilling for MGD, any licensing short of Moby is OK in my book. I spent two months this summer listening to this record from beginning to end. It's a happy record, full of riffs and electronic texture and crap like that. It's what Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was supposed to be. The main point: Many bands are better than Wilco. And I like Doves.

4. Sharpen Your Teeth by Ugly Casanova.

Not exactly a shining example of a coherent, fully realized album. Nothing close to it, actually. There are more mediocre songs than bad. But there are three or four songs as good as anything else Modest Mouse has done. I hate Interpol and Wilco ain't making on this list, so Sharpen Your Teeth it is!

5. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips.

About as coherent as Sharpen Your Teeth, and they managed to rip off Cat Stevens ("Father and Son" on "Fight Test," by the Lips' admission) and, let's be honest here, is fake blood really that cool? Over and over again? Anyway, this album meets the meager requirements for being the fifth best record of the year, as it's not Wilco or Interpol, and I own it. WTG Flaming Lips!

Thing that everybody thinks is good but isn't: Interpol.

They remind me of a young AC/DC. Which is to say, they'd be better off if their lead singer froze to death while passed out drunk in his backseat in the merciless Australian tundra night. Is that how Bon Scott actually died? Not important. AC/DC went on to sell more records than the Beatles in the U.S., mostly because Brian Johnson sounds exactly like Bon Scott, who is awesome. This city I built on comparing AC/DC and Interpol is sinking and I'm about to drown but before I die: Interpol's music is good, the lead singer is R-E-P-R-E-H-E-N-S-I-B-L-E, but he doesn't deserve to die, at least physically. Maybe professional death. Also, Joy Division isn't actually good.

Whet Moser's Top 5 Singles

1. Eminem: "Rabbit Run"

The subject of writer's block is historically in literature's court, and it's usually dealt with badly: think Gass's The Tunnel, writer's block done to death. When pop musicians can't think of anything to say, they deal in obscurity (Pavement) or nonsense (Little Richard) or cliché (name it). Eminem's "Rabbit Run" is a ballad of writer's block, and as such is an anomaly in pop music. It's rare for good reason: lack of inspiration is rarely inspiring. Yet Eminem has the skill to raise artistic frustration to the level of sexual and emotional frustration. It's about the terror of being forced to create something from nothing--being forced by artistic urge or economic necessity to mine the ephemeral and intangible. But it's also about the pleasure that this necessity brings: "You don't feel it then it must be too real to touch / Feel to touch, I'm about to tear shit up / Goosebumps, yeah I'm a make your hair sit up." The song threatens to rush past the beat, not stopping for a chorus or bridge--one wave of fear and ambition after the next. It's alternately vengeful, scared and thrilled. "Rabbit Run" is a reminder of how electrifying art is without giving an inch on how intimidating it is--which is to say how important it is for the artist, and the audience.

2. Bruce Springsteen: "The Rising"

Sometimes you don't want Toby Keith's jingoism or Steve Earle's humanist challenge or Neil Young's inappropriately cool heroism. Sometimes all you want is a great rock song: middlebrow that expands beyond itself. "The Rising" grounds its populist details--"left the house this morning," "wearing the cross of my calling," "like a catfish dancing on the end of my line"--in power chords and a big rock chorus. The familiar religious imagery lends its populism weight without pushing the song beyond the commonplace: "bells ringing filled the air," "Lord as I stand before your fiery light." The American tradition of great preaching, ever since the Great Awakening, is to make the metaphysical proverbial without doing it injustice. "The Rising" stretches the abilities of classic rock to do this, and if it's not great art, sometimes you have you have to go with what you have when you need something at all.

3. Wilco: "War on War"

It's hard to choose a single off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and I'm afraid I'm doing the album dishonor by grabbing a song and pinning it on the wall. But "War on War" is the track off of YHF that grabs me first. It's so pleasant: jangly acoustic guitars overlying a solid rock bass and a simple drum line that shifts between rolling and mid-tempo. Tweedy's boy-next-door voice trades off with single piano notes to hold the melody. Electronic freak-outs give the song texture without tearing through. It's all sweet and comforting, save for the lyrics: "you've got to lose, you've got to lose, you've got to learn how to die, if you want to learn how to be alive." I can't tell whether taking the old art-as-treaty-with-mortality trope and turning it into a folk-rock sing-a-long is a clever joke or a Dadaist put-on or an earnest experiment, but it's a strange bit of cognitive dissonance that flashes the grim reaper's wink as it flies past.

[Author's note: Yeah, um, sorry to get so ambitious and dark and epic on everyone. It's snowing and cold and Chicago outside. There's something to be said for Sarah Vowell's comment that this aspect of music is "the most reassuring solace in the world, the notion that a radio in the corner of a room can cast out grief and death like some kind of miracle." But too much of this shit will eat you and ultimately itself. Having been forced out of an 8 Mile showing by a sellout and into Die Another Day this weekend, I'm reminded of the value of escapism. Thus:]

4. Weezer: "Keep Fishin'"

Rivers Cuomo is my pick for whenever the new Bachelor series starts up: perpetually single nu-Brian Wilson with surgically extended leg seeks girl to date and dump him so that he can fulfill his contract. He'll enjoy it, and so will the rest of us. "Keep Fishin'" finds Rivers in love, out of luck, and bordering on cliché, everything that made their debut album good. This song is Benadryl, sweet syrup, the best part of being sick. It's a compendium of everything that's good about dumb rock: crunchy guitars, call-and-response bridge, hand claps, white-boy doo-wop backing vocals, big drum fills. Is sex necessary? Ask Rivers.

5. Guided By Voices: "Everywhere With Helicopter"

Makes no sense; has something to do with helicopters. Maybe a song for the X Files soundtrack four years too late; maybe an paranoid fantasy; maybe Bob Pollard has been hitting the sauce ever since he left TVT and got his Pabst stock back from their A&R man. Not that it matters: the lyrics are just a vehicle for his Lennon-by-way-of-Akron voice, pretty but still reedy enough for the rest of us to aspire to. The song kicks off with an unadorned guitar, a single circular riff that's the year's best. Rolling drums carry the song between its three solos, each one brief and perfectly timed. It's been a hard year, and it's comforting to know that music can take a break from signifying.

Most Disappointing: Anything from Sea Change

Beck gets dumped, thinks he's Nick Drake and/or Jay Farrar, isn't even Gordon Lightfoot. Staggeringly boring, condescendingly hopeless, exhaustingly morose. Takes the atmospherics that Radiohead and now Wilco have made vogue and drives them into a parking meter at 5 mph, and each track is about as interesting. His next album is supposed to be with Dan the Automator; let's hope he slips Beck a tab and brings his weirdness back.