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How It Went So Fast
The Best of 2002
I hear a lot of records in a year, so there's never any real danger that I won't be able to find ten of them that I think merit places on a best-of list. Likewise for decades and the whole of recorded time, but in fact best-of-the-decade and my DID lists involve somewhat different criteria than the ones for individual years. The shorter the time-period under consideration, the more specific I can let a piece of music's appeal be. A song of the week, were I to be that obsessive, could be unsupportable in a hundred ways as long as it seemed indelible to me in one. At the level of years, maybe these numbers have to come closer to balancing, but still, years are going to pass anyway, so I don't see any reason to begrudge music similar transience. An album of a year really only has to be intensely present while I'm listening to it, where an album of a decade has to somehow be able to find its way into my thoughts even when I'm not, and the DID list is, perhaps perversely, the records that are with me when I have nothing. Generally my first draft of a best-of-the-year nomination list is twenty or thirty records long, and shortening it is painful only because it means imposing, for no better reason than the arbitrary discipline of a top ten (often tie-slacked towards fourteen, at that), a notion of finite-sum quantification onto work that is not of its own nature competitive. In a good year, though, there are two or three albums I suspect, even before I have any real perspective on them, may be bigger than their moments. In a great year, there might be four or five. In an absurdly great year, there might also be one, and surely no more than that, that I can already start to imagine eventually becoming a DID candidate.
There are thirteen albums by twelve artists in my top ten this year, and in only three cases (and neither I nor the list order will tell you which) do I feel like I'm making any of the kind of year-level concessions I'd happily allow. This may have been the best year for new music, for me, in my lifetime, and I say "may" only as a nod to the statistical possibility that eating less cheese has skewed my endorphins so far out of register that I'm just not discriminating effectively any more. Not only did essentially all of the usual sort of album-of-the-year albums get crowded off the list, this year, but there are some Great records, records I might claim (or have claimed) are important in some potentially enduring way, that still didn't make it. I was dumbfounded over and over again, by new discoveries and rewards for patience, departures and arrivals, transcendence and epitomization, notes and words. We already have my weekly journal, of course, of these ecstasies and awes as they happened, and this list is thus by definition redundant, oversimplified and incomplete. But years are going to dissolve in memory, so we make iterative abstracts of what they felt like, hoping we can consolidate faster than we forget.
Albums
1
Tori Amos: Scarlet's Walk
I said, once, that Scarlet's Walk was the best album ever, and you'll find (I hope) few more egregious examples of my chronic and deliberate failure to self-censor momentary total insanity. "Ever" can no more possess a best album than a planet can have a leftmostness. Even if you flatten it by picking somewhere to stand and closing one eye, there's no vantage point from which you can see enough of your hypothetical line to say anything sensible about its extent or its population. And yet, I have to stand someplace, and look in some direction, and if all I'm telling you is what I can see from here, and all that communicates is where I am, then so be it. There is a point from which the world looks like nobody has ever made a better record than Scarlet's Walk, and if you want to see this, too, I'll save you a spot and call "Polo"s until you find us.
2
Tsukiko Amano: Sharon Stones and Meg & Lion
Some of the scope of my feelings about this year, clearly, can be explained by the fact that during it I basically discovered a whole extra country of pop music. As a person who used to believe that language borders constituted real barriers in music, I can understand if your inclination is to draw lines to not cross, but I have long since stopped segregating Japanese music any more than I segregate music from Britain or Oregon or any other place from which I know how to mail-order. Admittedly, you will probably not run across copies of Tsukiko Amano's roaring debut and its credibility-strainingly-prompt same-year follow-up in an American shopping mall, and as of this moment a Google search for the exact phrase "Tsukiko Amano" on English-language web pages returns exactly seventeen hits, of which three are mine, seven are CD Japan's, six are bare lists of artist names and the last one is a 404 error in Japanese. Amazon's US site lists Sharon Stones at a price you'd be stupid to pay, and hasn't found out about Meg & Lion yet. But unless your only reason for listening to music is social conformism, these things are other people's problems. I know about her because that's what I do, and you know about her because I'm telling you. These are both loud, cheerfully (and globally) mainstream rock albums, not any kind of new-genre statements or oblique directions in art, but they strike a balance between urgency and polish that seems to be precluded at the moment by American style-schisms, and maybe deliver the kind of tense grandeur that originally drew to "You Oughta Know" people whom the rest of Alanis' actual idiom didn't hold. I won't pretend I can predict well enough to say what would become of these records, commercially or critically, if they were released here, but in my book Sharon Stones is every bit as arresting a debut album as In the Heat of the Night or The Lion and the Cobra and distinctly more mature than Exile in Guyville or Jagged Little Pill, and Meg & Lion is a surgingly assured demonstration that the first album didn't even begin to exhaust Tsukiko's capabilities. If improved sushi ordering and the rest of what I hope will be Tsukiko Amano's long career turn out to be all I've really fully earned from my first fitful year of studying Japanese, that will be fine.
3
Low: Trust
This is how good a year it was in music, for me: Low succeeded in constructing another step in, as far as I'm aware, musical history's most harrowingly architected straight-line ascension, and it only gets them to #3. Or this is how strange an exercise it is to conflate all the things that lists might be imagined to measure: for three studio albums in a row I have firmly believed that Low are making the most important long-form artwork currently being done in music, and yet again the new chapter of it isn't my album of the year. Low are bigger than years, and if you are not following how they're spending theirs, you are misusing part of yours.
4
Richard Buckner: Impasse
I think by now we may conclude that the new acoustic singer/songwriter class of 1997 or thereabouts has not amounted to much. Quiet tried to become the new loud, and loud kicked its ass. "Fuckers", Richard Buckner probably muttered with a note of I-told-you-so satisfaction in his voice, but he made it back home without ever having had to wear the Big White Suit of Shame. And right on schedule, now that the jackals are chewing on someone else, here's one of the albums whose throat they would have tried to tear out, a glitteringly fragile and raspily incisive album-length story-poem that is quiet, when it's quiet, not out of coyness but because you never know who's listening.
5
Idlewild: The Remote Part
I put "Let Me Sleep Next to the Mirror" on my song-list last year as an impulse, not at all sure how much I meant by it. But a CDR of my 2001 list was my backup car-listening for months, and every time it came around to Idlewild I was pleased with myself for including them after all. I feel justified tenfold now, and very nearly prescient. The best rock band on the planet is from Scotland again.
6
Glay: Unity Roots & Family, Away
But Tsukiko Amano is far from all I have to show for a year of boxes from Tokyo. Airy, shimmery beauty is another dialect not much spoken in the West at the moment, and even when it was, we rarely used it to phrase much as sweetly ebullient, crinklingly atmospheric, elegantly restrained and gracefully redemptive as this. If I ran everything in the universe except the category headings, this is what boy bands and Christmas music would sound like.
7
Stretch Princess: Fun With Humans
the brilliant green: The Winter Album
And nothing makes my point about cross-cultural continuity better, probably, than how happily I interchange songs from these two flawless pop albums from opposite sides of the globe. "Head Over Heels", "Manic Monday", "Crash" and "Awake With the Rain" are all alive somewhere, smiling, waiting patiently for their time to come again.
8
Frou Frou: Details
We can't see spirits, but we can sometimes track them by the pulse of their auras as they flutter in and out of flesh. The one that inhabits Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth for the duration of Details was with Sarah McLachlan and Pierre Marchand when they made Solace, Milla Jovovich and Rupert Hine when they did The Divine Comedy, Madonna and William Orbit during Ray of Light, Nicola Hitchcock and Saul Freeman while they were Mandalay. It loves synthesizers, and birdsong, and what breath does to starlight.
9
Nightwish: Century Child
Shania Twain: Up! (Red & Green)
Through a combination of careful restraint, meticulous planning, vigilant discretion and a set of really good maps, it is possible to painstakingly traverse the labyrinthine path through the fire-swamp of cliché and excess. Of course, if your hovercraft is big enough you may not even realize that you just blew right through it.
10
Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights
I kind of meant to become a scientist, but I got sidetracked somehow. Here, nevertheless, is a stray holistic insight about the nature of space-time, in case it proves to be a useful catalyst for specialists: There is always at least one place where it is just turning 1985.
Other Songs
1
Chitose Hajime: "Hummingbird" (from Kono Machi single)
Garnet Crow: "Spiral" (single)
A stubborn part of me believes I could win you over to the cause of Japanese music with just these two unassumingly cinematic little pop songs. "Hummingbird" is effortless and magical, like "Hole Hearted" as the forgotten theme for the version of Harold and Maude in which he figures out a way to talk her out of it. "Spiral" is the sugar-glass-brittle credits music for the cut of LA Story that ends with all the characters marching down a sun-drenched aqueduct à la Buckaroo Banzai.
2
Alanis Morissette: "Precious Illusions" and "Surrendering" (from Under Rug Swept)
After hearing the outtakes, I now think Alanis could have made a somewhat better album than Under Rug Swept with a few judicious substitutions, but I still think she got the best moments right. "Precious Illusions" might be her strongest straightforward epic, and "Surrendering" is a short catalog of everything clever she's learned since "Hand in My Pocket".
3
Hitomi Yaida: "Ring my bell" and "Myounichi no tegami" (from i/flancy)
Yaiko's third album was not, as a whole, as engrossing as I anticipated or wanted, but she set herself a tough challenge by prefacing it with a brilliant advance single, and for me did finally manage to contrive a match for it on the album's last track. Stripped of the songs between, though, and my expectations for them, these two are positively breathtaking, and a little excerpting is a tiny, tiny price.
4
The Reputation: "Alaskan" (from The Reputation)
Pedro the Lion: "Penetration" (from Control)
I feel certain that if I'd been more depressed this year, Elizabeth Elmore and David Bazan's matched pair of venomously conflicted rock albums would have fared better with me, but even severe mood-mismatches can't much dim my favorite moments from each, the Reputation's imperturbably uplifting setting of one of Elizabeth's most resigned relationship postmortems and Pedro the Lion's menacing entry into the roll of great sell-out kiss-offs.
5
Tullycraft: "Sent to the Moon" (from Beat Surf Fun)
Atom and His Package: "I'm Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy With Just a Hammer" (from Hamburgers EP)
Sean Tollefson and Adam Goren would probably win my Most Effective Use of Cheap Gadgets awards for any year during which they made records, but I really think the toys are a front, and I'd love their songs in any arrangement. Sean's "Sent to the Moon" is an affectionate and only half-removed collage of youthful hopes and delusions, like he couldn't quite decide whether the kid from Shampoo Planet is his narrator or his subject. Adam's earnest ode to DIY home-remodeling could be a text for a course on public pop songs as a private journal form.
6
Dolly Parton: "Stairway to Heaven" (from Halos & Horns)
globe: "Stop! In the Name of Love" (from Lights)
I've phased out the separate category for covers, in part because these two surreally wonderful performances strike me as absolutely no less worthy for deriving from pre-existing material. Dolly's reverent bluegrass reconception of Led Zeppelin's bloated pseudo-epic is almost exactly counterbalanced by globe's hallucinatory deconstruction of the Supremes' succinct Motown classic into a thumping and twittery rave anthem.
7
Cyndi Lauper: "It's Hard to Be Me" (from Shine EP)
Gerty: "Short Drive Home" (from Sweets From the Minibar)
If Cyndi's much-delayed next album, when it finally emerges, has more deliriously whooshy synth-pop-punk songs like this, I won't mind having had to wait for it. In the meantime, there's Gerty sounding like Rainer Maria or Helicopter Helicopter trying to simultaneously channel the Human League, the B-52's, the Waitresses and Barcelona.
8
Nanase Aikawa: "Owarinai Yume" (single)
Ayumi Hamasaki: "independent" (from H EP)
Nanase Aikawa's new album is scheduled for 2003, but both her 2002 singles bode extremely well for it, especially this complicated and energetically clattery one from the summer, in which ragged guitars and reedy synth-hooks gnash at each other with such zeal that the instrumental version has almost as much personality. Ayumi Hamasaki, conversely, got her name on two studio albums, four singles, three remix albums and two DVDs (and I probably missed something), and while my yield-rate is rather lower with her songs than Nanase's, this alternately bouncy and blaring opener from Ayu's late-summer EP seems to me like an even closer match for "Owarinai Yume" than any of Nanase's others, and redoubles my standing wish that Ayu would cancel her subscriptions to Kyliefan and Lucky, downsize her Sugary Ballad and R&B Diva staffs, and make a real rock record.
9
Starlet: "Stop and Let It Go" (from When Sun Falls on My Feet)
Timo Tolkki: "I Believe" (from Hymn to Life)
The buoyant have more or less routed the pensive, in my year with music, especially at song lengths, the sole notable survivor being Starlet's echoey, plaintively-aching piano-and-kettle-drum lullaby, from somewhere between a-ha and Kings of Convenience. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Finnish metal titans Stratovarius's year off unexpected engendered an admirably human-scale solo album from their guitarist, which includes this surprising proof that Peter Gabriel used to be both Boris Grebenshikov and Martin Briley.
10
Tommy Keene: "All Your Love Will Stay" (from The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down)
Boston: "Corporate America" (from Corporate America)
And as if all these scattered lands weren't sending enough music, this year there were even new records by two of America's own national treasures. Keene's and Scholz's pealing guitars are starting to converge in my mind, more than ever with these two songs, Keene's wistfully-romantic mode sounding bizarrely similar to Scholz's helplessly cuddly attempt at vitriolic social criticism. But arguably these impulses are always closer than we tend to think, or if they aren't, maybe they should be. Our official public discourse pretends to be emotionless and abstract, but even if abstract solutions could be devised, why would we want them? It's 2003 now, on Earth, and although plainly we still have some problems that are more material than emotional in manifestation, even the ones that seem most literally life-and-death demand responses that are evocative first, and efficiency will take of itself later. It's easy to think that guitars are irrelevant, and songs, but they are only irrelevant if people are irrelevant. Another year ends, and I make my lists, and in other rooms people are writing tax codes and cleaning guns. And as these years dissolve and pass, how do you want to remember them?
 
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see:
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