Politically and socially, 2002 was complete bullshit. In terms of music, though, it wasn't that bad. From Out Hud to Alan Jackson, here's what Michael Crumsho liked a lot and liked...well...not so much.
George Bush Is Still an Idiot (Michael Crumsho)
Just so we’re clear on one thing: this is less of a “best of” list and more of a “favorites” list. Without attempting to be definitive, cohesive, or even all-encompassing in any sort of way, here’s what I really enjoyed throughout 2002.
- I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again right now: it’s a good time to be a music fan in New York. As proof I offer my three favorite bands from 2002: Out Hud, Black Dice, and Liars. Out Hud’s two years in the making debut long player S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. (Kranky) was nothing short of fantastic, full of dub basslines, electro beats, occasional bursts of noise, sweeping cello lines, heady keyboards, and melodic little guitar parts that crashed together into something truly wonderful. On Beaches and Canyons (DFA), the Brooklyn quartet known as Black Dice completed their transition from confrontational artcore band to sublime psychedelic noise band. And through a series of releases including a reissue of their debut LP They Threw Us In Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top and a new EP entitled Fins To Make Us More Fish-Like (both Blast First/Mute), Liars continued to work their way from an excellent post-punk derived band into a slippery beast all their own. The best part about all of these bands is seeing them live. The records are great, but each group remains light years ahead of themselves on a stage, Liars in particular.
- The Notwist’s Neon Golden (City Slang, forthcoming on Domino US) is one of those albums that’s ridiculously great from start to finish. It’s a mix of so many different elements that just complement each other so well. On this disc, dub, jazz, pop, chamber strings, and electronic music come together to form one of the most intricate and inviting pop albums you’re likely to hear in a long time.
- Former Goodie Mob member Cee-Lo stepped out to give us Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (Arista), which to me was one of the most underrated albums of this past year. It samples from the same freaky funky gene pool that made Outkast such a success, and it delivers the goods time and time again with great singles like “Closet Freak”, the xylophone (and Primus-sample) enhanced “Bad Mutha”, and the funk freak-out “Super Chicken”. Sure, it’s about twenty minutes or so too long (try to find a commercial rap record that isn’t these days), but I’ll forgive that for one important reason: it sounds dope at normal speed and even better at half. Talib Kweli’s newest disc Quality (Rawkus) also suffered a bit from over-reaching, but still, it warrants a mention. The Kanye West-produced tracks on this disc are worth the price of admission, capably translating a Blueprint aesthetic to a more “conscious” rapper.
- On the reissue front, Priority takes top prize from me this year for the crucial re-release of both NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove. The Italian label Abraxis is a close runner-up, though, for their spot-on reissues of the vast majority of the ESP-Disk catalogue. With albums by people like Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Steve Lacy, Marion Brown, and Pearls Before Swine, it was enough to keep me happy all year. Basic Channel also gets a gold star for their amazing series of reissues spotlighting Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes reggae and dub releases from the 80s (on the Bullwackie’s label). From lover’s rock to ethereal dub, albums like those by the Meditations and Horace Andy were great all around. Sunspots also has an intriguing and diverse reissue program in place. This year saw great records by people ranging from Sonny Sharrock and Alan Silva to the 13th Floor Elevators to Curtis Mayfield’s old group the Impressions. Smog Veil’s ridiculous collection of Rocket from the Tombs live tapes (The Day the Earth Met…) is outstanding, as was These Record’s re-release of This Heat’s great full-lengths.
- After dropping Cannibal Ox’s amazing debut last year, Def Jux continued to shine in 2002 with a couple of great releases. El-P’s Fantastic Damage was the best, an album that allowed him to indulge his chaotic production and lyrical techniques to the max, daring both his critics and fans to follow him. RJD2’s Dead Ringer was also pretty solid, at its best sounding not like the work of a DJ, but of a top-notch producer carefully assembling the ultimate soul and funk ensembles.
- Mash ups held everyone’s attention for a little while this year, including mine until I realized that despite the fact that odd juxtapositions of artists like Christina Aguilera and the Strokes were kind of funny, I never really liked either to begin with. Kid 606’s The Action Packed Mentalist Brings You the Fucking Jams (Violent Turd) was enjoyable, but not nearly as much as DJ /rupture’s virtuoso mixing on Minesweeper Suite (Tigerbeat6). Both on this disc and the superb record he made as Nettle with Spanish artist DD (Build a Fort, Set That on Fire, which is actually a collection of twelve inches re-released by the Agriculture label), /rupture picks through sounds ranging from Brooklyn to Babylon to Bhangra, twisting it all and incorporating into vicious jungle raggas that crush with noise and crunk with beats. This is not a formulaic mix, either. /rupture isn’t seeking a linear transition from track to track, but rather jarring juxtapositions that make you think and move. Really truly excellent stuff all around.
- I thought 2001 was all about Jay-Z, but to me his double disc sequel to The Blueprint kind of fell flat on its face, the result of spreading his talent far too thin. I thought his best moments this year came out on some of the numerous guest appearances he made on other people’s albums. He kicked a great little verse on Scarface’s excellent new record The Fix (Def Jam South), which still shines despite some overly sentimental tracks. He also showed up to help Missy Elliott harken back to the glory days of rap on her amazing new one Under Construction (Elektra). It didn’t really cause as much of a stir as her last full-length, but “Work It”, with its addictive backwards looping, is well on its way to becoming nearly as ubiquitous as “Get Ur Freak On”. Other great tracks abound on this one as well.
- Norwegian label Rune Grammofon continued to release some great records this year. The appropriately named Scorch Trio record with Björkenheim/Håker Flaten/Nilssen-Love was simply outstanding, almost using rock as a base for great noisy free jazz workouts. And Spunk’s Den Øverste Toppen På En Blåmalt Flaggstang was an unreal improv workout, blending so many indescribable elements in to one truly bizarre and intoxicating sound. Also from Norway, Kim Hiorthoy’s Melke (Smalltown Supersound), a collection of odds and ends he’s accumulated in his short but prolific career, is one of those records that I listen to all the time but almost always forget, just because it’s so effortless and consistent. Part lo-fi electronica, part odd hip-hop sounding beats, this one is pretty good from start to finish.
- Soul Jazz did two great things for me this year: they released a new ESG record (Step Off – which while breaking no new ground is still a great record) and A Certain Ratio’s Early, a near perfect collection of tracks from their formative years.
- A lot of critics dismissed the new Lambchop record Is a Woman (Merge) for precisely the reasons I liked it. On this disc Kurt Wagner and his cohorts took a nice long stroll through a batch of wonderfully laconic pop songs, delicately ornate and haunting all at the same time. Also on Merge, the new Radar Brothers disc And the Surrounding Mountains was thoroughly excellent as well.
- Everyone already knows the story of Wilco, but politics and music business idiocy aside, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch) survives the year not as a particularly odd rock masterpiece, but simply as a collection of good songs. On a similar note, the Flaming Lips didn’t transcend their landmark Soft Bulletin with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Brothers). They did, however, what they always seem to do: make a record with a whole lot of great songs, particularly the beautiful single “Do You Realize?”
- Having never really been a fan of SND before, either, I have to say that Tender Love (Mille Plateaux) me completely by surprise. It was a nice blend of both the laptop clicks and cuts aesthetic with a nice hint of garage and Neptunes-esque production.
- Most of my favorite electronic music this year, however, came from people less interested in making beats and more concerned with gloriously heady explorations of sound. Janek Schaefer’s Pulled Under (AudiOh!) was outstanding, kind of like the aural equivalent of floating in the middle of the ocean while reading J.G. Ballard: peaceful and relaxing but still unsettling. Ekkehard Ehler’s collection of ten-inch and seven-inch records he released on the Plays (Staubgold) disc were similarly amazing. Only instead of seeking to highlight a particular emotion, he mostly succeeded in evoking the work of folks like John Cassavettes and Albert Ayler. Philip Jeck also released a great record this year in the wonderful Stoke (Touch), full of weathered vinyl snippets of longing, remorse, and even hope. William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (Mosex) was also pretty great, an amazing disc that came from the gradual loss of some of his music during the digital transfer process. What’s left is one of those amazing moments in time that can never be created, a random creation of beautiful sounds.
- My favorite electronic album by far, though, belonged to the trio of Christian Fennesz, Peter Rehberg, and Jim O’Rourke aka Fenn O’Berg. Their second full-length effort The Return of Fenn O’Berg (Mego) was just an all around great disc for obvious reasons: three outstanding musicians with a singular mind and ability to communicate and work off each other that is almost unparalleled. Similar, Matmos’ High, Live, and Dirt with J. Lesser (Vague Terrain) disc (which was only sold in a select few stores and online) became an unexpected favorite of mine for many of the same reasons. Mostly improvised and thus showing how they have managed to become one of the more intriguing live acts out there.
- And lastly, SunnO)))’s latest Flight of the Behemoth (Southern Lord) absolutely floored me with its doomish Earth-meets-Rhys Chatham array of drones. Equal parts metal and highbrow concept, this is a record that is likely to both make you deaf and shit your pants.
I know, I know – criticizing pop culture is fairly useless and stupid when everyone already knows how base and vapid MTV, People, and Entertainment Tonight can be. But still, these are the things I noticed that kept popping up again and again, mostly leaving me with nothing good to watch on television or to read in magazines on my lunch break.
- When Jam Master Jay died, Music fans everywhere mourned the loss of a true pioneer, someone who helped take rap out of the “fad” category and establish it as a force. It pissed me off though when people used his death as an excuse to renew some sort of idiotic crusade against hip-hop. Instead of respect, we get to hear assholes like Bill O’Reilly talk about how rap is just violent music made by violent people, which is such an obvious over-generalization it makes me nauseous. Not only is it wrong to say things like that, it’s also disrespectful. Jam Master Jay didn’t die because hip-hop is violent; he died because someone with a beef shot him. It’s not a rap thing; it’s a sad and horrible fact of life. People make stereotypical criticisms like these without trying to look for realistic explanations, and then they smile and clap when George Bush reads his cue cards to tell us that we need to stomp the shit out of Iraq.
- Nelly is the Disneyland of rap. He’s fun for kids of all ages.
- When did the guy from Dashboard Confessional graduate from high school? Like ten years ago, right? Let it go, man. You got dumped before the prom. Move on.
- So, I guess, when one fad ends you just try and become part of a new one? Justin Timberlake wants to be the new Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera a whore, Joey from New Kids on the Block an actor, and countless more I’m forgetting. And we still don’t care.
- Rock came back. It was in Sweden, apparently, where it had spent a good deal of time listening to the Stooges, MC5, and countless other American and British Nuggets-esque bands and looking for skinny ties. Not that I don’t like revivals. I’m all for them, actually, when some of the bands have something new or particularly good to add to it (like the White Stripes, who write good songs first and then go for the style points). But you can’t just be like “I have a black suit!” and have that be it. Rock didn’t die or go out of vogue or anything. It just plain sucked and sucked hard for a good long while.
- Eminem released a new record this year and everyone and their mother (literally) lined up to join the now almost obligatory media circus. Backtracking a bit, The Slim Shady LP was hot mostly because it came out of nowhere. But since then, Eminem has consistently done the same thing over and over again and people still get pissed off about it or exhaust themselves patting him on the back. At this point he’s a name brand. He’s wholesale rebellion sold in handy little discs to teenagers. Even some of his pop culture jabs were dull. I mean dissing Moby? That’s like shooting fish in a shot glass. But wait, he did take a break from rapping about being poor and white, and how he has a bitch of a mother, a whore girlfriend, and ray of sunshine daughter to star in a movie about a rapper who’s poor and white with a bitch mother and…a whore girlfriend. But the daughter part gets changed to a sister and the rapper of the film is not famous. Whew. Acting is tough. And now, months after people lose their shit over the content of his rhymes, a lot of these same people want to give him an Oscar. Tell you what, if you made a movie about a recent college grad and struggling freelance writer who works for his former university and spends all his money on records and pot when he should be doing something more constructive, hell, I think I could knock that role out of the park. Even when he’s not doing anything, he still manages to piss me off, especially when I read articles by high society wannabes in the New York Observer who talk about their naughty and forbidden love of Eminem’s music. Listen, oldie – you don’t know dick about hip-hop, so stop intellectualizing and deconstructing it. Get in your car, go to the nearest Border’s, and do your part to help make the new Andre Bocelli disc an international smash sensation.
- Alan Lomax passed away in 2002. One of the most important people who tirelessly worked so hard to preserve and study the music he loved dearly and in turn share it with the world, he will be missed.
- See, here’s the part where I would have included Moby, but no one bought his record. And no one really wants to license any of the songs for commercials. The bald vegan loses, and the public wins.
- Billy Corgan started a new band. They’re called Zwan. My friend Ari described them to me as “the shittiest supergroup ever.” Yup.
- The two remaining members of Nirvana and Courtney Love stopped fighting long enough to agree to strip-mine Kurt Cobain’s legacy at fifteen bucks a pop for one new track and forty dollars for a book of wrenchingly personal journal entries that were never intended for the public. I would say Cobain is rolling in his grave, but he’s fucking dead and dead people don’t move. I think if he were here to see this he would punch a lot of people in the neck. What, are you going to sell the shotgun next? How about some of his old needles? A beloved flannel shirt, perhaps? The only good thing to come out of this was Pete Townsend getting very upset.
- And on a final note, people continued to profit by making money off the emotions of others. Nope, I’m not talking about MTV’s newfound interest in emo, but rather people like Alan Jackson who wrote tacky tribute songs about September 11th. If you’re a New Yorker and his song helps you deal with the aftermath of September 11th, then that’s great. But recognize it for what it is: a shameless attempt to sum up an entire nation’s sentiments in three-and-a-half minutes, and more importantly, to try and make a buck off it. Arguably, capitalizing off emotions is what most music does. Hell, that’s why so many fucking love songs even exist in the first place. But still, this is different. This is one event that has changed this entire planet in ways too numerous to even mention and here’s this one guy trying to ride the coattails of an event he was hundreds of miles away from to parlay that into a career full of shitty songs. Let’s get one thing straight: everyone was influenced by September 11th and everyone feels a mess of emotions attached to it. But in my opinion, if you don’t know what that day and those that followed it smelled like, you have no business trying to sum up the feelings surrounding it. This is like having a high school class song (I think mine was, unofficially, “Rapper’s Delight”), only a bit more twisted and a lot worse.
And that’s it.
By Michael Crumsho