Allow me to apologize in advance for this highly-subjective and completely personal list. Year-end roundups of CDs always seem to be determined by some Illuminati-style Star Chamber of rock critics. You've probably already noticed the numb repetition of 2002's lists. Well, allow me to diverge from what will surely be a seemingly endless barrage of praise for Wilco, Norah Jones, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, The White Stripes and Eminem to share with you a rundown of CDs that came out in 2002 that actually got played around the house, in the car and at the office. And got played a lot. As far as I'm concerned, they're definitely the best of 2002.
Everything old is new again
Reissues and compilations have become the most exciting by-products of a struggling record industry that can't sell its new crap. Available on substandard import CD for some time, the classic "Damned Damned Damned" (Castle/ Sanctuary) by, er, The Damned finally got a proper reissue this year. The liner notes are great, but finally, "New Rose" sounds as good as it did on vinyl. Another punk masterpiece reinvigorated by improved fidelity is "Never Mind the Bollocks," as included on the whimsically titled box set Sex Pistols (Virgin UK). The "original analogue master" really brings out the fire that ignited the revolution. Given that the other two discs of demos and live tracks should have been three discs, Virgin left the bootleg market wide open. But to be able to get 1976 demos, various alternate versions and the legendary "Screen on the Green" gig with a beefed-up version of "Bollocks" makes up for any shortcomings.
Considering the exact opposite of punk rock, you'd come up with David Sylvian, whose "Camphor" compiled instrumental tracks and various remixes from the ex-Japan vocalist. Taking Sylvian's ostentatious warblings away from his densely textured musical atmospherics (on which he's accompanied by everyone from Talvin Singh and Ryuichi Sakamoto to Robert Fripp and Mick Karn) just helps you realize how much of a pretentious twit he is. In a good way.
Filed under "if it wasn't for alt.country, we wouldn't have thought of it," rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson finally got her two classic Capitol albums reissued. Of the two, her second, "Rockin' With Wanda" is superior, pushing the sexpot rocker's twang to the redline with "Mean Mean Man" and "Fujiyama Mama."
Jazz is well-served by reissues and a recent surge in vault-digging has meant that "lost" classics will be able to be noted for quality rather than rarity. Free-jazz warbler Leon Thomas (best known for his work with Pharaoh Sanders) is a legend in France, where an excellent reissue series includes the classic "Spirits Known and Unknown" (RCA Victor Gold Series France). Orlando's Sam Rivers also found one of his buried treasures rediscovered this year: "Crystals" finds the blower in "an orchestral context," which means otherworldly improvisations flying atop lush string arrangements. If Rivers is still nuts in 2002, you know this album was crazy in 1974. Though not technically a "reissue," "Naked City Live, Vol. 1: Knitting Factory 1989" is an early, barnstorming set from John Zorn's squonking free-metal ensemble.
Boxes o' Beats
With hip-hop having numbed itself by hitting the wall repeatedly, finding interesting variations on rap can be a challenge. On one hand, Talib Kweli just stepped up to the plate and delivered the goods with "Quality" (Rawkus), a solidly excellent record that managed to incorporate both Bilal's crooning and the lyrical slayings of Cocoa Brovaz. On the other hand, The Roots pushed the genre a giant step forward with "Phrenology" (MCA), a dizzying exploration into the outer reaches of what it means to work in the rap game. Unfortunately, there are no other hands; despite the fact that hip-hop releases were as common as diarrhea on a Disney cruise, only a few others like Clipse, Blackalicious, MC Paul Barman, Cee-Lo and DJ Shadow managed to display any real ingenuity. But even those CDs seemed a little tired. (Both Common's "Electric Circus" and "God's Son" by Nas came in too close to the wire to get fully digested, but damn they're both good.)
Electronic music seemed similarly flustered. Although "Intelligent Dance Music" was the order of the day and certainly holds hope for the future, it ain't there yet. Releases by Minus 8 and Thievery Corporation were nice, but not necessary. "Electro-globalism" stood out as a personal bright spot. "Krishna Lila" (Six Degrees) by DJ Cheb I Sabbah (a pulsing spiritual meditation) and the drone-by-drums hypnotism of "Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove" (Axiom/Palm) by Bill Laswell's Tabla Beat Science project were both excellent "tablatronic" adventures. Compilations like Arabica (Bar De Lune UK) -- featuring Nickodemus, Khaled, Digital Bled and other hummus-filled folks -- and "Buddha Lounge" (Beechwood Music UK) -- a cut-rate knockoff of the ultrapricey "Buddha Bar" series featuring Nitin Sawhney, Fila Brazilia, Jazzanova and others -- kept the chill-out room well-chilled.
Oh yeah, that record by The Streets? Totally overrated.
Rock is not a trend
Notice that all the fashionable rock bands -- The Vines, Sahara Hotnights, The Datsuns -- were eventually unmasked as frauds? It's because rock doesn't brook trendiness for long. But there were a lot of good, untrendy rock records that remembered that it's all about having fun and being loud. Former That Dog leader Anna Waronker released her solo debut Anna (Five Foot Two), which found her utilizing both the pop-floss expertise of her boyfriend (Redd Kross' Steve McDonald) and her own penchant for thick, guitar-driven harmonies. My subwoofers were given a bit of a workout thanks to Fu Manchu -- the insanely catchy stoner rock of "California Crossing" (Mammoth) blew out the speakers in my car -- and High on Fire, whose "Surrounded by Thieves" (Relapse) combined dense thuds and gut-busting riffage in a truly evil fashion. Sure, punk, hardcore and metal are still vital, but "Irony Is a Dead Scene" (Epitaph) by The Dillinger Escape Plan with Mike Patton raised the bar for combining them all with hyperbolic insanity.
Oh yeah, The Flaming Lips released the best rock record of the year and it was called "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." But that's on all those other lists, isn't it?
Ironically, the aftermath of "the tragic events" saw an upsurge in interest not in traditional American music (that had already been done to death by O Brother), but in music from far away places. Long in the works, the Yo Yo Ma-curated "The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan" (Smithsonian Folkways) -- a double-disc collection focusing on the musical traditions of Central Asia (with an emphasis on Iran and Afghanistan) -- didn't seem the best idea in a country full of flag-bearing SUVs. Yet somehow it found a niche.
But it was music from subcontinental Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that, as usual, most often worked its way into my ears. "Vira" (Sona Rupa UK) was an excellent, under-the-radar collaboration between the tabla-playing of Talvin Singh and Rakesh Chaurasia's flute, while "Electric Highlife: Sessions From the Bokoor Studios" (Naxos World) brought together 13 poppy tunes from Ghana's massively influential '60s and '70s "highlife" scene.
Where'd you get these?
Without giving too much away, an Internet download of "Zero" by Van Halen (the Gene Simmons demos, long a holy grail of Van Halen fans) and a Sabotage 3-CD bootleg of Prince's legendary 1986 "Hit & Run" tour titled "Parade Around the World" (a collection that inarguably makes the case for the little man's reputation as a live performer) were big hits around the house. But you know, I have no idea where they came from.