The Best CDs of 2002

As I seem to note every year about this time, my “Best of” lists tend to suggest their own themes, and 2k2, despite some truly outstanding efforts from the US, UK, and the Commonwealth of Canadia, was clearly the year of the Swedish Invasion. Three bands from the Kingdom of Sverige – The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Kent, and The Hellacopters – cracked the Pit’s top ten this year, and if I’d ever gotten around to picking up the latest from Skelleftea’s own Wannadies, I wonder if there might not have been four.

All of which raises an obvious question – how is it that a nation famous mostly for eight-month winters, a nonexistent bikini team, and Peter Forsberg is able to take our popular music forms and produce better stuff than our own artists? Hmmph. Well, I could probably go on for days there, but I shan’t. Let’s just leave it at this: Sweden is lately home to a spectacular popular music culture, and in 2002 our Nordic brethren really showed us how it’s done.

As always, I bought about a tenth of what I wish I had been able to afford, and apologize profusely to all the worthy bands who might have been mentioned here had I only time enough and a budget.

1: Space Team Electra – Intergalactic Torch Song
Despite the popular sense that rock artists are the poets of our time, the truth is that most popular music lyrics don’t work very well outside the context of the music. So it’s always remarkable when you find a CD where the words, at least in places, are capable of standing on their own. Space Team Electra’s Intergalactic Torch Song is just such a disc, owing largely to the fact that the release began its long, winding journey to completion a few years back as a series of poems. These powerful, sometimes stunningly compelling words provided an infrastructure around which singer/guitarist Myshel Prasad then set about building some fitting tuneage. If I’m inadvertently making this sound all arty and free-form, like some bad ’60s beat poet accompanying himself on bongos, I apologize. Fact is, Torch Song rocks, and all the fuss about the words notwithstanding, is every bit as spectacular musically as the band’s 1998 debut, The Vortex Flower. It’s a measure more self-conscious artistically, perhaps, owing to the fact that Vortex Flower was more of an all-band enterprise while Torch Song was primarily the work of Prasad and producer Sandy Pearlman (who has worked with the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash, Digital Underground, to name a few). You simply must hear this to believe it… More on STE…

2: The Soundtrack of Our Lives – Behind the Music
I’m going to begin by quoting what Jim Booth wrote to me about this: “This is the goddamdest record I have ever heard. It’s Sgt. Pepper, Days of Future Past, Buffalo Springfield Again, Beggar’s Banquet, Pet Sounds, The Who Sell Out, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ first album, Fleetwood Mac before all the chicks, like Kiln House, maybe, PreFlyte (The Byrds), and a bunch of others all put into the Waring blender and so thoroughly pureed that it sounds like all of them and none of them. I’m gonna say this despite the danger. It reminds me of the Klaatu album. And I mean that in a good way.” Umm-hmmm. And then some. Unless you’re the sort who pays very close attention to popular music (which is to say, you don’t limit yourself to what’s on the radio) you perhaps wouldn’t expect this sort of overwhelming accomplishment by a Swedish band. But unlike most American acts these days, Soundtrack appears to have assimilated just about everything recorded since the mid-1960s, and the result is something that is highly informed, completely reverent, but not the least bit derivative. Behind the Music is a very smart record, and one you’re going to want to listen to over and over again.

3: Peter Gabriel – Up
There’s a small group of artists out there who are so incredibly, consistently brilliant that their average work is better than most people’s best. So it goes for Peter Gabriel, who’s latest release (his first “real” CD in 10 years, if you don’t count live discs, soundtracks, and experimental side projects with apes and keyboards) perhaps isn’t as ground-breaking as his first or third solo records, but is every bit as nifty as So or Us. It’s not as accessible, though – I don’t know if Gabriel has given up on radio or not, but when pulling this disc together he was clearly not overly concerned about generating commercial airplay. Up is a subtle, thoughtful record, taking its own sweet time to unfold, and if you can’t make time to give it at least four or five spins before drawing conclusions, save your money. The one track that perhaps did have radio in mind, “The Barry Williams Show,” has been hammered by some critics I’ve read, with the All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine dismissing it as “a ham_fisted, wrong_headed trash_TV ‘satire'” that “feels utterly forced and out of place here, as if Geffen was pleading for anything resembling a single to add to the album.” Well, maybe, but I thought it was both lyrically hysterical (the whacking of Jerry Springer and his ilk continues unabated for 7:16) and musically catchy as hell. Still, it was tonally at odds with the rest of the CD, so perhaps you dock PG a +/- for caving into The Man….

4: Leisure McCorkle – Jet Set Baby
I’ve been a Leisure fan for a few years now, and Jet Set Baby is his best CD yet. His tunes are about as catchy as guitar pop gets, and his lyrics occupy an odd sort of ground – love songs written by a man who wants love to be simple and idyllic, yet who has read a little too much to come intellectually uncluttered into a relationship. There are a couple moments where I question production decisions (Jamie Hoover does a wonderful job overall, but I can’t make myself approve of the echo track on “Like That”), and some people think Leisure sounds a little too much like Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, and Joe Jackson circa 1978 for his own good, but the bottom line is you won’t be able to stop humming stuff like “She Can’t Count the Stars, “Does She Really Know?” and “Blum’s Lullaby.” You just won’t. More on Leisure McCorkle…

5: Kent – Vapen & Ammunition
Ever since Kent’s1997 release, Isola, I’ve been arguing that the best BritPop band going was actually Swedish. That disc (which, thanks to a very late arrival in the US, made The Pit’s Best of 1999 list) and their 2000 follow-up, Hagnesta Hill, were written and recorded in English, and met with a good deal of success, at least back in Europe. So it was a bit surprising to see Joakim Berg and his bandmates revert to their native Swedish tongue on the new disc. It’s hard to argue with the result, though. Vapen & Ammunition (“vapen” meaning “guns”) is a bit less brooding than Isola – one might even say a little less BritPoppy. Not that there’s anything wrong with Radiohead-style murk-rock, but it’s good to see a group like Kent avoiding the stylistic gravity well that a genre as substantial as indie pop can exert.

6: Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf
One of the curiouser records of the year, Songs for the Deaf sort of goes back and forth between bone-mashing, noisy stoner rock and surprisingly catchy, noisy power pop. The first half of the record is mostly the former, and the last half is mostly the latter, and frankly the track arrangement baffles me. Still, QotSA were the consensus Best of the Hard Stuff this year, with a disc that went out of its way to please nobody besides the artists, and still managed to please a pretty huge array of fans and critics alike.

7: The Hellacopters – High Visibility
The third of our Swedish Invasion entries. Geoff Ginsberg of AMG calls The Hellacopters “fast, extremely hard, and loud beyond reason,” and he’s hard to argue with. Hands-down my favorite record of the year (albeit not the best by any critical standards), I pop High Visibility in the CD player and I’m 17 again. This disc makes me want to crank the stereo up to 11, roll down the windows and cruise all over town annoying the hell out of old people. It’s like these Swedish kids grew up listening to KISS, Skynrd, Molly Hatchet’s Flirtin’ with Disaster, and Graham Parker circa 1979 (yeah, I know, that’s what I thought, too, but listen to “No Song Unheard” and “No One’s Gonna Do It for You” and you tell me). I don’t know – all the critics can do is talk about how the band worships The Stooges and MC5, but I’m hearing a lot of Jacksonville. Anyway, after spinning this CD for the 15th straight time all I can do is wonder how in the name of Iggy Pop any teenager looking to raise hell and piss off his parents can possibly waste a dime on Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit when he could be listening to The Hellacopters. Sigh. Maybe they’re just trying to annoy me because I’m old….

8: Feel – Feel
Scot Sax, the driving force behind Wanderlust, has drifted in and out of projects since the band broke up in 1998 or so (I’m never sure of exactly when the axe fell) and he moved to LA. Neither his solo work to this point, nor his band Bachelor Number One, ever really nailed it for me quite like the haunting, beautiful guitar-pop gems that inhabited the Wanderlust record. But now Sax is fronting a new band, Feel, and finally I have the CD I’ve been waiting on since 1995. At first listen I thought the infectious “I Am the Summertime,” which originally appeared on the American Pie soundtrack as a Bachelor Number One song, was the strongest cut on the disc, but after a few listens the newer songs begin to assert themselves. It’s wonderful to hear an artist like Sax grow, especially when newfound depth and expanded songsmithing skills don’t come at the expense of the exuberance that originally attracted me to his music in the first place.

9: Superdrag – Last Call for Vitriol
Superdrag has evolved so much in such a comparatively short time that I occasionally feel lost trying to chart one record and its progression with respect to what came before it, and that has never been more the case than with their latest. More accomplished than the debut and less dominated by catchy (read, radio-friendly) fare than Head Trip in Every Key and In the Valley of Dying Stars (although those CDs apparently weren’t accessible enough for Elektra, so what do I know?), Last Call for Vitriol actually feels to me like the record you produce once you’ve spent a few years learning your lessons about the music industry (the hard way), have put it behind you, and made your peace with who you are and who you want to be as an artist. Maybe the word I’m after here is “comfortable” – John Davis and crew seem to have found a groove that frees them to make the music they want to make, and on their own terms. I don’t like it as much as I do Head Trip, really, because I’m a sucker for the pop hook, but I really respect

10: Cockeyed Ghost – Ludlow 6:18
Adam Marsland is the kind of musician we all wish was having more success. He writes great songs, has a strong sense of his own musical heritage (not a lot of guys out there these days who even know who Todd Rundgren is), works his ass off, tours like a madman – essentially, he lives the starving, but dedicated artist lifestyle to the hilt. And he doesn’t whine about it, either. He sees the hand he’s been dealt and understands the deal he’s made. He probably realizes that had he been born 20 years earlier he might be living the large life right now. Ludlow 6:18 is wonderful stuff for the select few of us who wind up hearing his records (and inevitably buying them). But it’s also maddening – as in, I get so mad I want to kill the entire music industry and everybody associated with it – to hear a song like the title track and to know that it ain’t coming to a radio station in your town. Cockeyed Ghost didn’t go platinum and didn’t win any Grammies, but damn, they put out a better record than most of the people who did. [Note: This was actually a 2001 release that I didn’t get my hands on until 2k2.] More on Cockeyed Ghost…

Honorable Mention

Assemblage 23 – Defiance
Sadly, I didn’t hear a lot of darkbeat this year, but thanks to Mike Smith of Fiction 8 I did get my ears around this delicious bit of industrial dance/pop wonderfulness. I’m reminded a lot of VNV Nation’s Empires and Apoptygma Berzerk’s brilliant Welcome to Earth, with the occasional echo of New Order 1997, as A23 strikes a near-perfect balance between the darkly atmospheric and the up energy necessary for dancefloor relevance.

Sneaker Pimps – Bloodsport
Sneaker Pimps are a very different band form the one that debuted with Becoming X back in 1996. That CD produced an actual hit single, “6 Underground,” voiced by then-lead singer Kelli Dayton. Dayton is now gone, and with guitarist Chris Corner now handling most of the vocals the Pimps have edged away from their sultry Euro trip-hop sound and into territory that is decidedly more rock in nature – almost as though they set out to create trip-grunge. I’m still trying to decide how much I like the results in this instance, but regardless, I very much appreciate the effort. Trip is a genre that seduces a lot of artists into a certain sameness – smooth, jazzy, driven by torchy female vox, etc. The style can benefit from being kicked in a different direction, although it remains to be seen whether the Sneaker Pimps wield enough influence to make a difference.

Supreme Beings of Leisure – Divine Operating System
While we’re on the subject of trip-hop bands with evolving styles…. LA-based SBL apparently made a conscious decision to work the dancefloor a little harder on the new record, which is not necessarily a bad idea, as dance-minded downbeat can be a marvelous thing. However, Ramin Sakurai and Geri Soriano_Lightwood (they have apparently parted ways with Rick Torres and Kiran Shahani) decided to build their dance structures on an electronic neo-Disco platform, and frankly, the formula wears a bit thin for me after a couple songs (in the interest of full disclosure, I hate the absolute hell out of Disco, so this may be clouding my judgement). Still, if the CD is a bit less spontaneous than the band’s eponymous debut, it is nonetheless a masterwork of smoothness and craftsmanship, and polyethnic, technophilic SoCal audiocool just oozes from the speakers. If I had never heard the first record, I might well like this one a lot more.

Trespassers William – Different Stars
Trespassers William is without question the make-out record of the year. The Costa Mesa-based indie-pop quartet (I’m almost tempted to call them slo-core) is primarily a vehicle for singer/songwriter Anna_Lynne Williams, who possesses one of the most striking voices I think I’ve ever heard. Her original tunes include the plaintive, Chris Isaak-esque “Lie in the Sound” (which you can hear and download free so as to draw your own conclusions) as well as an achingly beautiful cover of U2’s “Love is Blindness” that may be even prettier than the original.

Tuuli – Here We Go
If everybody were to give this Toronto chick-pop outfit’s CD a spin there’d be a hell of a lot less chatter about The Donnas, that’s for damned sure. Unlike current flavor of the month and cynical label put-up job Avril Lavigne, Tuuli (from the Finnish word for fire) actually write their own songs and play their own instruments, and the fact that all the songs except one are about breaking up and failed relationships just makes the trip all the more enjoyable, oddly enough. The Bangles were never this good, and I’m not sure the Go-Go’s were, either.

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