erasing clouds

Best Albums of 2002

by John Wenzel

1. Spoon - Kill the Moonlight (Merge)
With Spoon's latest full-length, lead singer/songwriter Britt Daniel finally and permanently silences his detractors (all three of 'em). By applying stark instrumentation and an ultra-lean melodic sense to considerable songwriting chops, Daniel refines the strong points to their sharpest essentials: art-obtuse lyrics, cutting vocals, clever restraint, angular guitar riffs, and a detached sincerity that borders on maddening. Without any hyperbole I can safely say Kill the Moonlight is one of the best pop-rock records in memory. The album also signals Daniel's slow but inevitable trajectory towards solo performer, a career that will likely surpass the creative flowering of front-man-turned-solo-artists like Eric Bachmann and Steve Malkmus.

2. Beck - Sea Change (DGC/Geffen)
Focused, pained, and dripping with gorgeous melodies and instrumentation, Beck's "break-up" album cements him as one of the most vital artists of a generation. Which generation? Depends on his mood. Mr. Hanson's ability to weave disparate genres together while retaining a singular voice is unmatched in contemporary music, popular or otherwise. Brilliant, morose, and ultimately uplifting, Sea Change is a monumental achievement in a career already filled with so many. To listen to this album and not be affected is to lack the emotional (or perhaps, musical) context of an intelligent human living in the early 21st century.

3. Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
The Flaming Lips, everyone's favorite acid-damaged mad scientists, managed the seemingly impossible task of living up to the hype of their best, most critically acclaimed album, 1999's The Soft Bulletin. Psychedelic electronics, sampled acoustic elements, and a sublime philosophical underpinning thrust Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots past easy reference points and into Classic Status. Intense work from a band that gets better with every release, which is astonishing since they formed over 20 years ago.

4. Guided By Voices - Universal Truths and Cycles (Matador)
There's no going back to their mid-90's glory days, you say? Well, that may be true, but GBV comes as close as possible with Universal Truths and Cycles, their first release for Matador since 1997. Robert Pollard's songwriting is in tip-top shape, and the taut, propulsive performances are as winning as any previous incarnation of the band. Songs like "Back to the Lake," "Zap," "Wire Greyhounds," and the title track rank up there with anything Pollard's done, and certainly sound more spontaneous than anything on GBV's last two albums. A great return to form and an encouraging sign of life from indie rock's reigning/aging kings.

5. The Beatings - Italiano (Midriff Records)
Boston isn't known for its rich contributions to the indie scene of late (The Pixies and Mission of Burma broke up before many of us had even lost our virginity) but The Beatings go a long way toward rectifying that. After releasing the modest 6hz EP, they went on to record one of the most listenable, original-yet-familiar rock records of the year. Alternately slow and fast, playful and serious, Italiano finds this quartet banging out impassioned guitar/bass/drums rock that draws from all the best aspects of the indie wellspring. Bristling with energy and enthusiasm (and a charming lack of irony), this LP is a solid listen from start to finish.

6. Neil Cleary - Numbers Add Up (Doozy Records)
Brooklyn-based songwriter Neil Cleary finally sheds the scattered remnants of his indie-folk East Coast past with this collection of countrified love songs. As a part-time member of Essex Green, Sunshine Fix, and other Elephant Six-related bands, Cleary cut his teeth on a precious, 60's-influenced hipster scene. However, Cleary's own work is measurably more mature than his comtemporaries'. The James Taylor-meets-Hank Williams vocal style drapes itself over ballads that are alternately intellectual, sly, and flat-out depressing. Subtle instrumentation and crisp production reinforce a rock-solid offering from one of New York's most under-appreciated musical poets.

7. Kid Dakota - So Pretty (Chairkickers Music Union)
Originally released as an EP, the album's added tracks boost the already towering stature of this small band from Minnesota. Featuring some of the most throbbing vocal feats in recent memory, Kid Dakota's morose indie fuzz-folk balances delicate emotion and screaming guitars with a sophisticated, perpetually downcast worldview. The result is unsettling and affecting, leaving the listener in an addicted daze, hitting the "repeat" button more often than is healthy. Keep an ear on this sullen Midwestern trickster.

8. DJ Shadow - The Private Press (Mo' Wax)
DJ Shadow proved that five years isn't too long a wait to follow-up to his groundbreaking album Endtroducing. Slathering obscure samples over hip-hop beats, rock breaks, and string cuts, Shadow created a genre all his own, and one that rapidly became the industry standard. Private Press is both a return to form and a continuation of the unique forms Shadow trailblazed. Orchestral Turtablism? Epic Scratch? I'm not sure what to call it, but I know it kicks ass.

9. Thee More Shallows - A History of Sport Fishing (Megalon Records)
This oddly-named group ties together the fragile emotional intensity of Low, the instant appeal and melodicism of Death Cab for Cutie, and a bevy of aquatic, unpredictable pop structures heavy on the orchestral side. They make it sound easy, hijacking the superlative facets of moody indie like Granddaddy but discarding the invariable self-indulgence. Riddling them with comparisons doesn't do them justice, as shimmering and dark as their songs are. A History of Sport Fishing is a tremendous full-length from these solemn San Franciscans that has not left my stereo since the first listen.

10. Volta Do Mar - At the Speed of Light or Day (Arborvitae Records)
Volta Do Mar are not the saviors of post rock. At the Speed of Light or Day careens from the speakers like the unholy bastard of an orgy involving Tortoise, Guided by Voices, and Ennio Morricone. The production aesthetic is anything but perfect, the somber cinematic mood stifling at times, and the performances frayed around the edges. It's exactly what indie has been missing: a jazzy, prog-influenced instrumental group without a pole up its ass or an eye on the composition professor. These guys remind me why I used to get lost in music. Just try to capture and pin down a genre on their songs -- your legs will give out before you even get close.

Best Concerts: (all shows in Denver or Boulder, Colo.)
10. The Flaming Lips and Beck
9. Swearing at Motorists
8. Unlimited Sunshine Tour (Cake, Modest Mouse, De La Soul, etc.)
7. The Shins
6. Spoon
5. The Apples in Stereo
4. The Warlocks
3. The Greenhornes
2. Beck (solo acoustic)
1. The Beatings

John Wenzel is also co-editor of Sponic.

Issue 12 1/2, February 2003 | next article

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