The Best Albums of 2002
If there was one thing I learned this year, it was that when it comes to music, the past isn't a good prophet. Half of this year's top ten albums are, for all intents and purposes, debuts. Meanwhile, several of my favourite artists - Beck, Bright Eyes, Sigur Ros, Damien Jurado, Coldplay, Songs:Ohia, Gomez - released new records that simply didn't live up to their pedigrees. Though in 2001 it looked like the Strokes, the Hives and the White Stripes might usher in a new age of blazing rock'n'roll, instead, they simply served as templates for a series of boring, cookie-cutter copies. The best advice, therefore, seems to be prepared for the unexpected. 2002 was a fantastic year for records, and though it demanded that listeners look beyond the force-fed sensations, there was a great deal to love, and very little to loathe.
10. The Reindeer Section - Son of Evil Reindeer
It is a collection of rainwashed songs whose greyness is struck right through with reds, yellows and celebratory purples. There is sorrow alongside joy - love, loss and loneliness. Scotland's only supergroup has even outdone its excellent debut, blending pop and acoustic folk for this bright, grand delight. [Original Review]
9. Solomon Burke - Don't Give Up On Me
Burke is the lost King of Rock & Soul, a voice like creaking oak. Pedigree aside however, this is an overwhelming album - songs by luminaries such as Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison, delivered with a passion that ranks with the best of Al Green and Otis Redding.
8. The Streets - Original Pirate Material
The best hip-hop record of 2002 lets you dance to urban decay, finding in it hope, melancholy and momentum. UK Garage hisses and pops beside Mike Skinner's earnest flow: it's funny and furious; clever, brave and illuminating. The Streets finds the regret that churns under the sloshed life of a "geezer", shows its traps and its rewards. And Skinner does so with a tight, lean groove. [Original Review]
7. Greg Macpherson Band - Good Times Coming Back Again
[G7 Welcoming Committee
A fierce, driven debut by Canada's best new songwriter. In a year where Hayden has gone from sincere to smug, Macpherson blazes like a supernova. Good Times Coming Back Again is strong and sincere, menacing and passionate. Working-class folk meets punk-streaked rock'n'roll: the band rises from quiet to snarling, punching through the speakers - through ears and into hearts. [Original Review]
6. Little Wings - Light Green Leaves
Spring, summer and fall, contained within the smiling pop-folk harmonies of this strange and wonderful record. Voices mingle with acoustic guitar, organ and found sounds: it's airy and wide and fresh as a breeze. This is an album for afternoons with the windows open, daisies and mint in vases. Like the Beach Boys at their weirdest and best, or Belle and Sebastian when the mood is light: a cool and lovely record.
5. The Bees - Sunshine Hit Me
[We Love You
Although still nearly impossible to find on this side of the Atlantic, this debut record from an Isle of Man duo is affectionate and amazing. The Bees play a remarkable blend of 50s doo-wop, 60s folk and pop, 70s soul - with a generous dose of reggae and contemporary collage. This is giddy and fragrant music, blurring genres, fun and serious in equal portions. There's an Os Mutantes cover and a glowing, organ-pumped opener better than anything on this year's overhyped disc by the Notwist. Well worth scouring for, beautiful beyond expectation.
4. Tom Waits - Alice
2002 was a double-whammy year for Tom Waits, but Alice was by far the superior to Blood Money. It is perhaps the most gorgeous album Waits has ever recorded - liqueur-soaked strings coax sorrow from hushed songs; flowers, mist and mirrors swirl in Waits' cracked voice. This is not cottony muzak, however: the stories are twisted, the souls lost, the lyrics gothic, carnivalesque and strange. In "Kommienezuspadt", madness rises like a German ghost - fierce, furious and spitting. An artist who recorded some of the twentieth century's finest music enters the twenty-first with perhaps the best record of his career: romantic, phantom and evocative. [Original Review]
3. Okkervil River - Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See
I love listening to Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See. It is a mellow stomp, a riveting lament, a record so full of life and death that I can imagine it emerging from the woods a full-grown thing, bristling and thorny, with flames in its green-black eyes. It is an album to dance and sing and crow to; the songwriting is the very definition of sublime, majestic and terrifying. It's folk more vibrant than a forest fire, the cracked voice of old, weird America. It is astonishing, delirious, and oh-so-utterly excellent. [Original Review]
2. Damien Rice - O
It is not easy for a singer-songwriter to make an album that startles. O, however, is an album of clarity, beauty and spirit - songs that glimmer and hurt, assembled to make something haunting and whole. The arrangements are superb, Rice's voice and guitar shadowed by cello, clarinet, glass-clink and the sadness of Lisa Hannigan's harmonies. The end of the album has echoes of its early parts, the early parts foreshadow the end, and through all of it is melody, poetry, and a delivery that rings like silver truth. Rage is nestled beside longing and loss, regret laces laughter. A triumph. [Original Review]
1. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
As I listen more and more to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as I give Wilco's earlier records a second (unredeeming) chance, I gradually gain the impression that YHF is a better album than Wilco is a band. That is, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is better than Wilco. It is battered, creaking and magical. Wilco is, I think, a roots-rock band. But these are pop songs split apart like pomegranates, the melodies like beating hearts - beating hearts with xylophones, whirrs, radio static and ache. Though "Heavy Metal Drummer" is breathless, it is not 'rollicking'. This is not music for men in plaid shirts and jeans; it is music for human beings. When Jeff Tweedy says "diet Coca-Cola", it makes me glad to be alive... and I can't explain why. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, like history's finest music, something different than what came before. It breathes, yearns and soars. It is the year's best record. [Original Review]
Records That Mustn't Be Left Out
16 Horsepower - Folklore [Jetset]
Dark skies over a country-tinged spectre. Music for storms and nights on the steppe. [Original Review]
Blackalicious - Blazing Arrow [MCA]
A soundtrack for the summer; clever, smooth, joyous and live. Hip hop with mind, groove and smile.
The Boggs - We Are The Boggs We Are [Arena Rock]
A frenetic indie bluegrass stomp, riotous and crazed. This year's dazzling anachronism. [Original Review]
The Books - Thought for Food [Tomlab]
A bold and pleasing blend of warm acoustics and riveting, sample-driven sound. Strange and mesmerizing.
Cornershop - Handcream for a Generation [V2]
This is sixty minutes of the year's best party: it has dancing, boxing, cheering and sing-alonging. Sitar and disco and delirious smiles.
Hank Dogs - Half Smile [spinART]
An album like hot milk. Acoustic guitars and gentle voices embroider home and memory. [Original Review]
Iron and Wine - The Creek Drank the Cradle [Subpop]
Fuzzy folk that feels at home alongside troubadours past and present - Woody Guthrie, Nick Drake, Sparklehorse.
Norah Jones - Come Away With Me [Bluenote]
Say what you will about coffee-shops and soccer moms, this is an album of beautiful folk and soul, Jones' voice like something both close and far away.
Kepler - Missionless Days [Troubleman Unlimited]
A candlelit album whose slow songs flicker and change. Rock that trembles in the breeze. [Original Review]
Logh - Every Time a Bell Rings an Angel Gets His Wings [Deep Elm]
Like fire in the wintertime, a reassuring record of guitar glow and harmony.
Nina Nastasia - The Blackened Air [Touch and Go]
Brave, dark songs painted with strings, voice and thundering drums. All that Sea Change wasn't. [Original Review]
Rosie Thomas - When We Were Small [Subpop]
More than pretty, these are songs that fill empty rooms and hearts, that hang and ring like bells. [Original Review]
Warsawpack - Gross Domestic Product [G7 Welcoming Committee]
Funk and hip-hop laced with the flavours of menace and revolution. [Original Review]