The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of 2002
By: Glenn BurnSilver
Out with one year and in with the next. The music, of course carries across time. 2002 can be broken down into three simple categories: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly releases of the past year. (And yes, there was even an excellent Ennio Morricone remix album, Morricone RMX, that included numerous mixes of Clint Eastwood movie soundtracks.) So, let's get the bad and ugly out of the way first this time so we can close 2002 with pleasant musical memories.
The Bad: Surprisingly, Eric Clapton's One More Car, One More Rider (Reprise) is little more than an uninspired live album from his last tour. There are a few great solos from this former guitar God, but otherwise nothing to write home about. Chris Isaak suffers the fate of repetition on Always Got Tonight (Reprise). The title track incorporates a heavy modern funk layer and rock power cords over that ever-present twang -- the albums highlight. Otherwise, Isaak's formula is too tried and true, but unlike his first albums when his "sound" felt fresh and new and he was willing to experiment more, this one comes across a little stale around the edges. The debut self-titled album by the Sahara Hotnights (Jetset) represents little more than an attempt to cash in on the current "rough and raw-sound" re-popularized by The Strokes. This four-piece girl band attempts to be The Runaways for the new millennium, but even with black leather jackets and tough attitudes, can't pack the punch. Want the real thing? Try The Donnas.
The Ugly: The seriously awful releases last year, owed more to overblown image and wasteful media attention (in such trashy fashion magazines as Rolling Stone) as more of a successful guiding force than actually musical quality. Of course, the is no need to belabor the sad contributions from J. Lo, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. 'Nuff said!
The Good: There was certainly plenty in 2002, but the best of the lot included:
Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up On Me (Fat Possum). Burke, a top rock 'n' soul performer in the 60s, makes a glorious comeback with an album that exudes a fiery brand of gospel-tinged soul shot straight from the, well, soul. The songs, originally done by others (including Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Brian Wilson) receive glorious makeovers as Burke's baritone breathes new zest into each number. Gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama guest on the uplifting spiritual "None Of Us Are Free," adding even more gospel zeal along with stunning vocal harmonies that are nothing short of inspirational and revelatory. Don't Give Up On Me is a showcase of what soul music really is, raw, powerful and feverish in sweat, heart and desire.
With every album The Flaming Lips have progressively reached for new heights and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Brothers) is this year's masterpiece. If it wasn't the Lips, an album like Yoshimi -- the central character who must battle evil robots set on world domination - coming from some other band would have been a tossed aside like a stray lounge/easy listening album trying to hard to masquerade as a trippy rock album, which in some ways it is. And that is where the difference is most relevant. Only for the Lips can this succeed, backed by years of following an internal and slightly skewed musical vision that has once again created a masterpiece of sound and heartfelt emotion amongst a backdrop of unlimited musical imagination.
A positive note for musical crossover experimentation, the Tin Hat Trio reach the furthest with a blend of avant country swing jazz with old world, Eastern European leanings and new world Americana romps on The Rodeo Eroded (Ropadope). At times the music conjures up images back porch southern hill country tales of woe and lament - slow and melancholy - but packing an emotional wallop that only a mournful viola can bring out. Imagine, if you will, songs that seem to float in outer space like some twisted twangy-jazz version of the Twilight Zone and it won't be surprising this album is unparallel and mysterious in a way that is too compelling to ignore.
An uncompromising mixture of styles and overall creative experimentation propels Cornershop's Handcream For A Generation (Beggars Group) with all the moves and grooves, shakes and pops, toasts and hymns of a modern disco, rock, techno, soul, jazz, reggae, dub, power-pop, hip-hop and Indian raga-inspired masterpiece. Whoa! It is all there in a manner of controlled mayhem that works to perfection under Singh's guidance. "Lesson's Learned from Rock I to Rocky III" may just be one of the best songs of 2002. Handcream bounces around in the head until you just have to play it again--and again.
Unlike Wilco's previous efforts, the country twang and pedal-steel wail is much more subdued and in many cases barley discernable altogether. Instead, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel (Nonesuch) finds front man Jeff Tweedy pushing the musical envelope once again, albeit in a new direction beyond the somehow defined alt-country limitations. Where does it say the songs have to be whiney and mellow to the point of sleepiness? Guitars feedback and distort, Rolling Stone "ooo ooh's" reverberate in the mix, sampled sounds come and go, horns and piano appear in the most unexpected places with an occasional psychedelic excursion thrown in. YFH feels more like a vintage rock album that has been updated and reworked into something fresh and accessible for a modern generation of listeners searching for something extraordinarily different.
One of the best jazz releases in 2002, Vietnam: the aftermath (Justin Time) finds violinist and composer Billy Bang reaching into his heart to musically extract the nightmares and demons he has carried inside since his days as a soldier in Vietnam. Bang takes lush Southeast Asian harmonies and carefully sets them against jazz formats that run the gamut from traditional to abstract to classical, dabbling as well with rock and blues textures. The music conjures up sad images, tension filled moments, disturbing experiences and the horrors of combat on a tortured walk through a mysterious jungle landscape; one that is full of dangerous surprises.