Paying more than Lips service
December 29, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
The Flaming Lips, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" (Warner Bros.) It's a narrow call for album of the year between the 10th offering from Oklahoma City's fabulous Flaming Lips and the fifth release by alt-rock icon Beck, made all the more complicated by the fact that the two toured together and nicely illuminated each other's talents. But while I can hear my editors groan ("Not again, Jim!"), in the end, I have to go with the Lips' brilliant concept album about the triumph of the human spirit over the pervasive soullessness of the technological age. All I can say to doubters (besides "Listen to the album!") is, "Would it have been wrong in another era to rave about all of Pink Floyd's or Jimi Hendrix's or Led Zeppelin's masterpieces?" As one of the most consistently creative and life-affirming bands of their generation, it is no exaggeration to mention the Lips in such company, and the more I lived with "Yoshimi," the more I became convinced that it is their finest album ever.
Beck, "Sea Change" (Interscope) Reluctant Gen X spokesman Beck Hansen made the most mature and least ironic album of his career, a deep and moving dark-night-of-the-soul record that found him seeking catharsis from a shattered romance via dreamy and beautifully orchestrated folk songs and his most personal and heartfelt lyrics ever.
Common, "Electric Circus" For former Chicagoan Common, the Electric Circus is a place of infinite possibilities, and his fifth album embraces a broad spectrum of inventive sounds (from Pink Floyd to psychedelic soul to New Orleans jazz), bringing them into the hip-hop realm with seductive, laidback grooves and the rapper's free-flowing rhymes of positivity, acceptance, and the quest for peace, both personal and political.
Mary Timony, "Golden Dove" (Matador) The second solo album from the former leader of Boston's Helium finds her weaving her wonderfully creepy spells via a mix of '60s psychedelic folk music (a la the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake) and modern electronica, with hints of Gothic ambience and Renaissance Fair minstrelsy thrown in for good measure. These are dark, purple vibes for threatening times, but the witchy chanteuse also offers a hint of optimism, reminding us that "Music sets us free."
Marianne Faithfull, "Kissin' Time" (Virgin) Rock's perennially cool and sexy Mrs. Robinson made the hottest album of her career, recruiting some of the leading talents of Generation X (Beck, Billy Corgan, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn) to enhance that distinctive rasp, piercing wit, and licentious lyricism with a set of unforgettable and deliciously risque tunes.
Steve Earle, "Jerusalem" (Artemis) Along with the Mekons' "Oooh!," this album by the Nashville bad boy stands as rock's smartest and most moving response to 9/11, and Earle was roundly pilloried in some quarters for even daring to suggest the complexities of America's current situation. But it's wrong to take the title track or "John Walker's Blues" out of context, either as part of the album's varied tunes of mourning, warning, and protest, or as a part of the artist's greater body of work and tradition of humanist activism.
Peter Gabriel, "Up" (Geffen) Seems to me that critics who dislike this album were never really Peter Gabriel fans, since the artist's first new effort in 10 years is not only reminiscent of the best work of his career (his first four solo albums), but a refinement and improvement upon it. Throughout the disc, there are moments of stunning beauty and intense power, but they hover just below the surface, rewarding repeated and thoughtful listening in the way that great art rock always has.
Moby, "18" (V2) The followup to the phenomenally successful "Play" was neither as much of a hit commercially nor as much of a surprise artistically (following a very similar formula). But it is nonetheless a beautiful and entrancing album that can be heard as another soulful chronicle of a doomed romance from one of the greatest pop craftsman working today.
The Roots, "Phrenology" (MCA) Though it is not quite the equal of 1999's classic "Things Fall Apart," the sixth album by the best live band in hip-hop confirms that the crew is just as potent a force in the recording studio as it is onstage, once again ignoring any and all genre boundaries in the quest to produce musically and intellectually challenging hip-hop.
The Warlocks, "Phoenix Album" (Birdman) All due respect to the Hives, Clinic, and the Soundtrack of Our Lives, but the best garage rock I heard in 2002 came from this Los Angeles quartet, which tapped into the darker psychedelic vibes of the classic "Nuggets" bands, with a heaping dose of the Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3 added on top. Not for nothing does the album open with a song called "Shake the Dope Out."
Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (Nonesuch) Even before Roger Maris, a tribute with an asterisk seemed like a dubious tribute indeed, but I would be remiss if I did not mention Wilco's fourth album in some way on this list. Granting that Internet-only releases are now an inextricable part of the pop-music landscape, I named "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" the best album of 2001; the band had made the disc widely available on the Web starting that July, but it was not officially released until early this year. Mired in the past, many of my rock critic brethren seem to think an album is not officially an album until a record company makes it available for sale in the stores, so the disc is only now appearing on most best-of lists. If it needs to be placed in perspective among the 10 above, it would rank as No. 2, just below the Lips, but slightly ahead of Beck, nudging the Warlocks out of the Top 10.
WHY STOP AT JUST 10?
As in many other aspects of American life, 2002 was a year of transition and uncertainty in popular music. Yes, there were encouraging trends: the resurgence of garage rock (the Hives, the White Stripes, the Mooney Suzuki), a tremendous flourishing of creativity in underground hip-hop (Cee-Lo, Blackilicious, Mr. Lif), and the continuing emphasis on brains and passion in emo-punk (the Get Up Kids, the Promise Ring). But while the nu-metal, teen-pop, and cartoonish gangsta-rap that have dominated the mainstream for the last few years were clearly on the wane, nothing emerged to definitively take their place.
Then, too, with a handful of notable exceptions, there was the hesitance of major artists responding musically to 9/11. As far as I'm concerned, we're still waiting for rock's undeniable, emotional, all-encompassing response to the events and their aftermath. (And while it will certainly place in the Top 10 lists of many of my critical peers, I hold fast in my opinion that Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" is not that album.)
This is not to say that 2002 was lacking in significant accomplishments. It's just that, as has been the case since the alternative-rock heyday of the mid-'90s, consensus has been harder to come by in the rock world as we all search for buried treasures and hidden pleasures in the nooks and crannies of the Internet, college radio, and small rock clubs (and once in a while, even on mainstream radio and MTV).
As a result, your best-of list may look very different from mine, and I'd be interested in seeing it. You can send your picks for the Best of 2002 to email@example.com , along with a one-sentence explanation for each of your choices, and Sunday Showcase will publish a sample of the responses in a future issue.
Meanwhile, here are my picks for 2002's 10 Best Albums, as well as my list of the next 120 discs that made life worth living this year, all of which received ***1/2 stars or more on the Sun-Times rating scale, and were at some point contenders for the Top 10.
The next 120
* Add N to (X), "Loud Like Nature"
* Damon Albarn, Toumani Diabete and Friends, "Mali Music"
* ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, "Source Tags & Codes"
* Apples In Stereo, "Velocity of Sound"
* india.arie, "Voyage to India"
* Arlo, "Stab the Unstoppable Hero"
* The Atomic Bitchwax, "Spit Blood"
* Azure Ray, "Burn and Shiver"
* Jay Bennett and Edward Burch, "The Palace at 4 a.m." (Part I)
* The Bigger Lovers, "Honey in the Hive"
* Bis, "Plastique Nouveau"
* Blackalicious, "Blazing Arrow"
* black tape for a blue girl, "the scavenger bride"
* Box-O-Car, "In the future ... On Mars!"
* Brick Layer Cake, "Whatchamacallit"
* The Brought Low, "The Brought Low"
* Burning Brides, "Fall of the Plastic Empire"
* The Business, "Hell 2 Pay"
* Califone, "Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People"
* Caitlin Cary, "While You Weren't Looking"
* Neko Case, "Blacklisted"
* Johnny Cash, "American IV: The Man Comes Around"
* The Catheters, "Static Delusions and Stone-Still Days"
* Cattivo, "Cattivo and His Orchestra"
* Cee-Lo, "Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections"
* Cheer Accident, "Variations On A Goddamn Old Man"
* Cherrie Blue, "Chemical Messiah"
* Citizen Bird, "Citizen Bird"
* Clinic, "Walking With Thee"
* Coldplay, "A Rush of Blood to the Head"
* Cornershop, "Handcream for a Generation"
* Sheryl Crow, "C'mon, "C'mon"
* De La Soul, "AOI: Bionix"
* The Dictators, "D.F.F.D."
* DJ Shadow, "Private Press"
* The Doves, "The Last Broadcast"
* Electric Wizard, "Let Us Prey"
* Enon, "High Society"
* Eternal Elysium, "Share"
* Even in the Blackouts, "Myths & Imaginary Magicians"
*.Bryan Ferry, "Frantic"
* The Fire Show, "Above the Volcano of Flowers"
* Foo Fighters, "One by One"
* Four Corners, "Say You're a Scream"
* Fu Manchu, "California Crossing"
* Gadjits, "Today Is My Day"
* GC5, "Never Bet the Devil Your Head"
* Get Up Kids, "Something to Write Home About"
* Girl Harbor, "Shine On" (www.girlharbor.com)
* Gov't Mule, "The Deep End Vol. II"
* Grand Magus, "Grand Magus"
* Grip Weeds, "Summer of a Thousand Years"
* Neil Halstead, "Sleeping On Roads"
* Handsome Family, "Live at Schubas Tavern"
* Hellacopters, "High Visibility"
* Hives, "Veni Vidi Vici"
* High On Fire, "Surrounded by Thieves"
* Imperial Teen, "On"
* (International) Noise Conspiracy, "A New Morning, Changing Weather"
* David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, "Shaker"
* John Paul Jones, "The Thunderthief"
* Jucifer, "I Name You Destroyer"
* Jurassic 5, "Power in Numbers"
* Kinky, "Kinky"
* Knodel, "Dawn of the Butterfly"
* Ladytron, "Light & Magic"
* Local H, "Here Comes the Zoo"
* Luna, "Romantica"
* Aimee Mann, "Lost in Space"
* Mary Lee's Corvette, "Blood on the Tracks"
* Shannon McNally, "Jukebox Sparrows"
* Mekons, "Oooh!"
* Mellow, "CQ: Original Soundtrack Album"
* Melvins, "Hostile Ambient Takeover"
* Chris Mills, "The Silver Line"
* Mooney Suzuki, "Electric Sweat"
* Morcheeba, "Charango"
* Motorhead, "Hammered"
* Mr. Lif, "I Phantom"
* National Trust, "The National Trust"
* Negro Problem, "Welcome Black"
* Sinead O'Connor, "Sean-Nos Nua"
* Outrageous Cherry, "The Book of Spectral Projections"
* Pere Ubu, "St Arkansas"
* Robert Plant, "Dreamland"
* Polara, "Jet Pack Blues"
* Promise Ring, "Woodwater"
* Polyphonic Spree, "The Polyphonic Spree"
* Porcupine Tree, "In Absentia"
* Queens of the Stone Age, "Songs for the Deaf"
* Joey Ramone, "Don't Worry About Me"
* Kimberly Rew, "Grand Central Revisited"
* Missy Roback, "Just Like Breathing" (www.rainparade. com)
* Rocket From the Tombs, "The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs"
* Rush, "Vapor Trails"
* Scorched Earth, "Fed to Your Head"
* Selby Tigers, "The Curse of the Selby Tigers"
* Shams, "Take Off" ShelleyDevoto, "Buzzkunst"
* Soft Boys, "Nextdoorland"
* Sonic Youth, "Murray Street"
* Soundtrack of Our Lives, "Behind the Music"
* Spoon, "Kill the Moonlight"
* Stereo Total, "Musique Automatique"
* Stratford 4, "The Revolt Against Tired Noises"
* Stew, "The Naked Dutch Painter"
* Sunshine Fix, "Age of the Sun"
* Superbees, "High Volume"
* Super Furry Animals, "Rings Around the World"
* Linda Thompson, "Fashionably Late"
* Tomahawk, "Tomahawk"
* various artists, "I [Heart] Serge: Electronica Gainsbourg"
* Walking Wounded, "Artificial Hearts"
* Warlocks, "Phoenix Album"
* Anna Waronker, "Anna"
* Weezer, "Maladroit"
* Paul Westerberg, "Stereo/Mono"
* Witches, "Universal Mall"
* Yakuza, "Way of the Dead"
* Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Master E.P."
* Zelienople, "Pajama Avenue"