Seas of Change and Trotting Yankees

BY JEFF LEVEN

Somewhere in the warm glow of midnight oil and a boarded-up Hastings fireplace, a pensive music writer exhales sharply, pauses for a moment and begins typing. It is the last issue of the year/semester/whatever and he’s trying to put a little capstone on the year in music. Given that the usual ten-paragraph monologue seems lacking in user-friendliness (mind you, not that this has ever stopped him before), the thought seems to be to compose some sort of list of the ten best albums of the year.

The realist in him accepts that this is intrinsically a bit of a silly idea. You don’t have to be too much of a cynic to realize that when any self-appointed rock critic writes this sort of thing it ends up being a “let me tell you all what’s in my player these days” sort of thing and inevitably dropping the names of all the oh-so-clever little esoteric bands that you’d like to give a plug for makes the average reader shrug and wonder why you don’t listen to the radio more often.

So the trick seems to be to frame the sort of list in a way that begins to organize it a little bit — make the rankings and inclusions less arbitrary. Hmm… well, why not think of it this way: A lot of albums came out this year. A thousand or more probably, depending on how much digging into the indie world you do. This happens every year, and sooner or later you look back on a given year and only remember a few albums. And it might not even be the ones that seemed to dominate the airwaves at the time. No, for one reason or another, various albums just seem to stave off the dustbins of pop cultural history with more resolve than many of the obvious hit paraders. Here, then, perhaps, are some from 2002 that will turn up regardless of whose list they are on (in reverse order):

10. Eminem: 8 Mile Soundtrack – This will undoubtedly be remembered as a big year for Eminem, but not because of The Eminem Show. No, in a mere four tracks on the soundtrack to his much-ballyhooed ersatz biopic, Mr. Mathers demonstrates just how it is that he remains so vigorously relevant despite the perpetual media circus that surrounds him.

While it might at first be mistaken as an “Eye of the Tiger” for the hip-hop set, “Lose Yourself,” the album’s first single, shows Eminem at his leanest and meanest. With renewed focus and unstemmed flow, Eminem manages to be emotionally earnest without all the self-adoration and almost voyeuristic enthusiasm for his own fictionalized past that, ironically, is more visible on his regular albums than on this work of musical drama.

The Eminem Show found Eminem gleefully spinning off into his own mythology. 8 Mile, however, cuts him back down to size while still leaving him just a little larger than life. In the same way that the movie is often preoccupied with the Elvis-esque tensions of being a white superstar in a black art form, the soundtrack, with contributions from no less than Rakim and Jay-Z serves to contextualize Eminem in a hip-hop tradition in which he, for reasons beyond mere ethnicity, is a standout.

9. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights — A much-talked-about debut from a band that just naturally seems to place itself well within the midst of the sensibilities of just about every hardcore indie rock connoisseur. The music, within seconds, takes you back to lots of familiar moments of the nerd-rock past — Built to Spill, Joy Divison, Comsat Angels, maybe even the Talking Heads. The ambition, though, is well at home in this year of masterful, sprawling attempts to do everything at once (witness the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or the American release of the Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around the World).

Grainy, edgy, focused and even more memorable than it sounds on first listen, the album presents 11 reasons why Interpol will be a band to watch in the years ahead.

8. Paul Westerberg: Stereo/Mono — As a writer, you get one completely personal judgment call on a list like this, and this is mine. This was not a record that will change the music world anytime soon. This was not a record that sold too many units or started, marked, or ended any trends. Instead, this was simply the triumphant return to form of a songwriter whose relative absence from the field in the last few years has been one of rock’s greatest silent tragedies. Sure Costello’s new album is good, and Bowie and Peter Gabriel seem to still be relevant, but Paul, well, Paul is a revelation. Basically recorded in his basement with little or no organization or pretense, Stereo/Mono rolls up its sleeve and reveals a few road tattoos, some bruised guitar-wrists, and a heart that still beats with all the pathos and charm of any street-corner poet, anguished punker, or still-viable cult legend.

7. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising — In times of crisis, some Americans look to our political leaders, while others look to the Boss. It’s been said before — if anyone could channel the anguish and uncertainty of September 11 into a meaningful exorcism it was Bruce. If anyone had the hard stories of a complex American reality in his blood it was Bruce. If anyone could so lovingly rock his way into redemption it was Bruce. What time will add to this album, though, is all the praise that it deserves when stripped from context. Issues of national healing aside, The Rising ranks even within the Springsteen canon as an amazingly sensitive and lyrical exploration of relationships between people. Better yet, it manages to do so with a bare minimum of navel-gazing. With the guitar-loving grit of Brendan O’Brien’s production, Bruce and the E-Street Band manage to quite legitimately rock out with one sprawling, epic heartland anthem after another.

6. Queens of the Stone Age: Songs for the Deaf — Having reviewed this in depth this year, little needs to be said in addition here. Hard-rocking, high energy, grindy, catchy, quirky and inspirational. Don’t call it grunge, don’t call it metal. Just call it damn good.

5. …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead: Source Tags & Codes — Perhaps the only album this year that could be said to rock harder than the Queens of the Stone Age, Trail of Dead pushes their sonic roar to a new plane of intensity. Intensely emotive, Source Tags & Codes takes the Sonic Youth formula and makes it sound angry, scared, confused, and revolutionary again. Undoubtedly helped by their blistering live shows and tendency to be occasionally mistaken as another ’60s-’70s retro rock revival group, Trail of Dead has crawled from relative obscurity into the hearts and minds of record snobs everywhere. A punishing, breathtaking ride for the ages.

4. The Doves: The Last Broadcast — If Interpol lays claim to the well-loved musical terrain of indie record jocks and other corduroy-clad hipsters, the Doves have set out to conquer not just their own corner of the Britpop world, but the best-loved recesses of the American musical vaults themselves. One of the most-loved compliments rock writers pay to a band is to compare their album to the album widely regarded as the Beach Boy’s unfathomably visionary opus — Pet Sounds. The problem is, R.E.M. doesn’t usually sound all that much like Pet Sounds, and even if someone like Badly Drawn Boy is good, he still doesn’t sound quite like Pet Sounds. But, at the risk of overstretching, in moments here and there, the Doves do sound like a very Anglicized, trippy, dreamy, guitar-heavy version of Pet Sounds. Chiming guitars, drowsy vocals, and intricate bass melodies do more than fill the time between Radiohead albums— they suggest that Radioh
ead, Travis, and even the much-adored whiners in Coldplay should take their time — if The Last Broadcast is any indication, the future of thoughtful Britpop is well under control.

3. DJ Shadow: The Private Press — Despite the buzz around the Streets’ Original Pirate Material, DJ Shadow’s second full-length album remains the gold standard for electronica/hip hop excellence. Blurring across sonic categories ranging from pure funk to pure trance to something resembling 80s synth-pop, The Private Press broods, grooves and simmers into your psyche. Unlike, say the Avalanches’ dizzying Since I Left You (a turntablist masterpiece of yesteryear), though, Shadow’s production remains subtle to the last — for an album with tons of samples and lots of smoke and mirrors, The Private Press never once sounds unduly complicated. Versatile, lyrical and humble all at once, it is the elegant calling card of our generation’s master DJ.

2. Beck: Sea Change — Having also covered this one in relative depth, it suffices to say that on repeated listens Sea Change remains revelatory, weighty and utterly unforgettable.

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — Certain to top most critics’ lists this year — the story of Wilco, the little band that could, did, and eventually sold their album to the same big label twice — perhaps overshadows what is, on its own terms, a stunning, smart, lovingly-rendered, and incontestably classic album. Sprightly in some moments, sublime in others, it represents the continued excellence of a group that those in the know have loved to love since the moment of their conception. If Wilco didn’t exist, perhaps the critics would create it, but if Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was never made, it’s hard to imagine anyone else having the vision, heart and natural yen for musical complexity that makes this undisputed masterwork all that it is.

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