2002 in Music

This page collects all my music reviews for the year 2002, focusing on music originally released in that year.

1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Yanqui U.X.O. (10/10)

Perhaps this is indeed a step towards more “accessible” music, though I don’t know that it is. It’s certainly less obviously avant garde, but this is still just about as dense and as uncompromising as “chamber” Post Rock gets.

Having heard all (most?) of these tracks live now I can say that the visceral experience of this music is not really present to the same extent on record – unless you’re, um, under the influence of something – but it’s still powerful stuff. That our ears can confuse it for “modern creative” is a testimony to the results. This is music that is pretty but grandiose; it can be melodic but it can also be terrifying.

Though this record is not my absolute favourite of theirs – that would be the even more uncompromising Lift Yr. Skinny Fists – this is still one of the great “chamber” post rock albums ever made and it’s essential listening.

2. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (9/10)

There’s a school of thought out there that we collectively overrated this record when it came out, because of the story – i.e. because this album – clearly a good album – was rejected by their label, perhaps us fans (and those critics) who loved it were fooled into acclaiming it a masterpiece by the compelling narrative of a band rescuing its art from the evil corporate impulses of the label.

Well, I call bunk. If something’s good, it’s good. If it’s great, it’s great. That doesn’t change with time. Saying that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is somehow not so good now that the narrative has worn off reminds me of those Food Network judges who like someone’s food more than another’s because that chef has a “good” story (inevitably they battled personal demons and/or are doing it for their kids).

Now that my rant is over, to the music:

Though Wilco had definitely gone rather overdub crazy on Summerteeth, most of those overdubs (though hardly all) were well within the pop rock tradition – numerous arrangements on that record recall other band’s work. Though it’s absolutely indie pop, it’s classicist indie pop most of the time (with the notable exception of “Via Chicago.”)

But YHF is an entirely different beast. Tweedy produced a strong a set of songs, but the arrangements that everyone put around are elaborate but also unconventional. Using the trick they tried out on “Via Chicago,” they often keep the vocal melody (or another melody) the same while the arrangement varies drastically underneath. And those arrangements are full of unusual percussion, atonal keyboards and strings, and other odd touches. The miracle is that it’s so accessible despite the elaborate, difficult arrangements and production.

I don’t know that I think this is their best album – it’s not something I have settled in my mind – but its older reputation as their best album was the correct one. Revisionist thinking on the subject is silly, and frankly, only indicative of the problems of overly subjective music criticism.

If you listen to one Wilco album, it should be this one.

3. Beck: Sea Change (9/10)

Not only is this a left turn into more conventional arrangements than his previous albums, but this is Beck’s best set of songs. (Seriously, what competes with this?) Sure, he’s gone full on singer-songwriter to an extent (I believe) he never did before, but the songs are so strong, as are the (relatively) conventional arrangements, that this makeover is completely, utterly plausible. Moreover, it’s more appealing (to me) than much if not most of his overtly po-mo music.

It’s my favourite album of his, even if that’s a rather ridiculous thing to say, given how unlike the rest of his oeuvre it is.

4. Oliver Knussen: Violin Concerto (8/10)

This is a fiery and propulsive violin concerto which has a little more straight out lyricism than I am used to from Knussen. It’s kind of short, like everything Knussen ever published but it feels to my ignorant work like a rather major work for the instrument and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is believed to be one of the better violin concertos of this century, including both demanding parts for the violinist and some interesting orchestral writing.

5. Sigur Ros: () (8/10)

Sigur Ros created such a distinctive sound for themselves with their early records that it’s hard to really think about them in terms of the greater context of post rock. I mean, as this music goes, you could say there is Sigur Rosian post rock, and then there are other forms of post rock.

This is not my favourite album of theirs, if only because it sounds so much like their Ágætis byrjun. Of course, that’s the problem when you have such a distinct sound.

But it’s not really a problem. If you like how this band sounds, it’s hardly a bad thing that they do a good job of sounding like themselves, right? The melodies remain strong. The arrangements remain wholly Rosian, and the made up vocals remain a useful additional instrument.

Probably my second favourite record of theirs.

6. Augusta Read Thomas: In My Sky at Twilight (8/10)

This is a pretty unique piece for soprano and orchestra. If it’s a song cycle, it’s brief. But it really aggressively changes the form if that is indeed what it is: it’s too “songs” and those songs (at least the first one) vary in their musical style to degree really unknown in the form, as far as I’m aware.

7. Do Make Say Think: & Yet & Yet (8/10)

This is probably their most Tortoise-y album, at least in some respects. So, on that side of things, it is disappointing given how they appeared to be overcoming that influence on the previous album – at least somewhat – and how on the next album they would overcome it (in my mind).

But on the other hand, this feels more consistent than their past attempts at combining Tortoise with “math rock” (ugh) in that they have fully embraced the Canadian Tortoise mantle, at least very briefly. So I must say that I like it more than some of what came before.

8. Tom Waits: Blood Money (8/10)

This is a solid set of songs with his standard fantastic arrangements which shows off his vocal range perhaps a bit more than most of his records (that I have heard).

I have a sneaking suspicion that he descends once or twice into self-parody, but I love him too much to follow up such a thought.

9. Tom Waits: Alice (8/10)

These songs were written in 1992 but not recorded and released until this year.

So expectations were going to be high for something like this; a “lost” album from a theatrical production ten years earlier. No doubt many people came to this expecting the “lost masterpiece” that we almost always associate with the work major artists don’t record / release.

Read the full review.

10. John Paul Jones: The Thunderthief (7/10)

This is another strong solo album from Jones – his playing (and that of his few guests) is impeccable and his fusion of this sort of hard rock with world music works perhaps even better than the first time out.

There is only one problem: Jones sings on multiple songs and he just cannot sing. Only the last of the vocal tracks isn’t embarrassing. And that’s too bad because it weakens what is otherwise a pretty great record.

11. Broken Social Scene: You Forgot it in People (7/10)

Though I agree with everyone that this is their best album, this is a band that I think was probably never truly capable of producing something that I would regard as great. (Whether or not it was capable of producing something truly great is another story.) And the reason I think that’s true is because of the very nature of the beast: when you try to be all about democracy, things are going to get inconsistent. Without someone to guide the overall sound you get…a collage.

That’s what I hear anyway. A collage that sounds like numerous different bands all playing fairly accessible post-rock or (usually less accessible) indie rock. I’m not sure if I ever know what they sound like, really. (And that’s just more confusing, given how they’re debut really sounds nothing like most of this record.)

There are a bunch of great tracks (as well as some misfires) but, if you didn’t know any better, could you identify them as being the same band? I don’t know that I could. And I find that weird. Not bad, just weird.

And I also don’t particularly like the lyrics, whether they be all from Drew, or for some others.

But that being said, it’s their best album and it’s certainly a unique beast. (And their existence and career is rather unique in the scheme of things.)

12. The Black Heart Procession: Amore del tropico (7/10)

An Indie Rock band that flirts with chamber pop, roots rock and numerous other genres. I don’t quite know what to make of them.

On the one hand, they certainly have a relatively lush sound, especially given the era. I can detect their influence on a lot of later indie rock bands that adopted strings in their songs. They also sound like the missing link between ’90s indie rock and Man Man.

On the other hand, though they skirt lots of genres – everything from roots music to soul – the overall sound of the album makes everything kind of sound the same.

And I guess that’s why I’m struggling with them. I should love this. Though the songs aren’t classics, they’re fine. And the arrangements are well-thought out and compelling. But, as others have noted, there’s sort of an unrelenting mood to the record that overpowers everything I like about it.

And that probably has more to do with my mood right now than it does with the band, but I find that I am inclined to respect this at the moment, not love it.

13. Cuff the Duke: Life Stories for Minimum Wage (7/10)

A shockingly good album. I say shocking because Cuff the Duke were really young at the time. It’s loud, it’s too ambitious, it’s not exactly consistent. It kicks ass in all the right ways. The songs may be a little weak and a little cliche, but the performances are all money and the dynamics are really sound. It’s way too ambitious and that’s a real part of its charm. Gotta love it when a band thinks they can do everything (well not everything, but lots of things).

Great for what it is.

14. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (7/10)

I have long preferred the earlier, zanier, guitar-based version of the Lips to their more elaborate, ornate early ’00s version.

This is one of those albums where I tried to will myself to like it more than I do. And I think part of the reason I wanted to like this more than I do is because I appreciate what they did: I appreciate how they had a pretty defined sound in the late ’80s through the ’90s and they went a rather radical makeover (and somehow that makeover made them more commercially successful, which has to be one of the weirder things that’s happened in recent music history). I usually love it when bands reinvent themselves.

But I just don’t like this version of the band. (I even prefer their 2010s weirdness – inconsistent and immature as it may be – to this era.) I want my crunchy electric guitars back.

But I also recognize the artistry here, even if I don’t like the direction. I certainly can’t criticize it for a lack of strong melodies or interesting arrangements, as both are in ample supply. I just miss the old version of the band too much.

15. Various Artists: The Pianist Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (7/10)

A fair collection of romantic music pieces.

16. Rush: Vapor Trails (7/10)

I had low expectations when I first listened to this, so I was inclined to like it a lot, despite the rather awful production. (I see they’ve released a remixed version…that tells you everything you need to know.)

This is a pretty straightforward but still loud Rush. It’s everything I think you’d like from aging rock stars – they don’t appear to have lost their muscle. It’s nice they were able to start off century on a strong note.
But I’m never inclined to listen to this. So it’s fine.

17. Ugly Casanova: Sharpen Your Teeth (6/10)

I don’t really understand why the the main creative forces of bands so often feel compelled to release side-projects / solo work that is so utterly similar to their main project.

I like this music. Some of the songs here are stronger than songs that Brock would use Modest Mouse for. But I have no idea why this is not a Modest Mouse record – the false backstory could have been used there too.

And I don’t know why that bothers me, but it does. And I think why be coy about this. Why not just mix it up under your regular moniker?

It’s basically rootsier Modest Mouse (at one point it sounds like Fred Eaglesmith!) and that’s fine and good, but it’s not any kind of lost classic and it is so Modest Mouse-ish that I think it’s for fans only.

18. System of a Down: Steal this Album! (6/10)

The internet is a funny thing. You’d think that people want to hear the music their favourite bands want to release, as opposed to things their favourite bands haven’t finished yet. But alas, that’s not how most people think. Most people just want, want, want.

Read the full review.

19. Bill Frisell: The Willies (6/10)

This is the most traditional-sounding Frisell album I have heard. It’s still recognizable as a Bill Frisell album, but these are pretty conventional – if not necessarily common – takes on both oft-covered and rarely-covered Americana. (There’s also the odd new Frisell composition, that he manages to fit in convincingly as something older.)

It’s all well and good, I guess. I mean, it’s better than competent; the musicianship is great. The vibe is nice and relaxed. But it’s just not moving me.

20. Tony Levin: Pieces of the Sun (6/10)

When I was younger, I loved musicianship above nearly everything else. I was willing to forgive so much if the musicianship was good. (That’s why I listened to Dream Theater!) I guess this is because I can’t play any instruments and so it seemed to be that I should love music made by people who are really, really good at playing instruments.

But there’s a weird thing that happens to a lot of really good instrumentalists. Actually two weird things: The first is that just because someone is awesome at an instrument (or many instruments) and might be a virtuoso, doesn’t mean they can write songs (or compose good compositions). And, second, it doesn’t mean they have taste. These two things are perhaps most glaringly true of talented people like Yngwie Malmsteen.

But it’s also true of the people here. Tony Levin belongs on a list of the great bassists ever – I think few people would doubt that. And the players accompanying him are all great. But these guys like their music cheesy. Fast and Levin in particular indulge in synthesizer and fretless bass cliches seemingly to their hearts content.

And that’s the big problem with this record. Though there are impressive performances and also parts of songs that are really, really great, there’s also a lot of shit that sounds like newer version of ’80s garbage “rock” music.

The one exception to all of this, which is worth the price of admission alone, is their cover of “Tequila,” which I would put on my list of the best covers I’ve ever heard. Seriously.

But the rest of the album is a real mixed bag made by some extremely talented people.

21. Nine Inch Nails: And All that Could Have Been (5/10)

I don’t really know why anyone would want to see an industrial band live (or a DJ for that matter, or anyone who is using pre-programmed music) but to his credit Reznor at least tries to make some of these songs sound a a little different. But that is the key word “little.” There a few songs that are slightly different from their studio versions and the rest are merely slightly rawer versions of approximately the same length. This is not why people go to concerts (or so I think). I think there is real potential here to make something interesting as a live show but certainly the audio part isn’t anything. Can’t comment on the visuals obviously.

Not ranked:

Compilations, archival releases, and new performances of old music.

Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar (10/10)

Christian may not be the first electric guitarist, or the first jazz electric guitarist, but he was the first important one on both counts. Though ostensibly a swing player, his influence on bop guitarists is beyond profound. I mean I absolutely love Wes, but wow does Wes ever owe a lot to this guy.

The only drawback about this set is the sheer number of alternate takes. It is complete as far as I know, and that’s great, but the thing can get exhausting listening to it all at once. Christian regularly produces totally different solos and fills, but the other band members often don’t and occasionally listening to the same song five times can make you a little crazy.

But on the whole this is truly great stuff.

Bill Evans and Jim Hall: Undercurrent (9/10)

This is an excellent duo outing which shows off both Evans’ sort of left field brilliance and Hall’s kind of safe, kind of conservative, but still very pleasant and exceptionally played lines. (I feel like I’m a little hard on Hall and I really shouldn’t be.)

Read the rest of the review.

DRI: Dirty Rotten CD (8/10)

This is a compilation of The Dirty Rotten LP, which I believe is a compilation including The Dirty Rotten EP and some other stuff.

You can really hear the influence of UK hardcore (something I just learned existed) on this band but they’ve clearly added something, most noticeably in the vocals (which are no longer as screamy) and the drums (which are significantly more metal to my ears). And I can really hear why these guys were so influential on other American bands, given that they appeared a little too metal for Hardcore Punk and way too punk to be Thrash (metal). I don’t know, myself, what differentiates a thrashcore band from a crossover thrash band, and I think it’s probably semantic, but I can really hear the origins of metalcore in this music (whether it’s thrashcore or crossover).

So, for people who into this style of music, it’s pretty essential listening. Also, the radio interviews are amusing.

Anton Kuerti and Erika Raum: Carl Czerny: Grand Sonata for Piano and Violin; 20 Variaions; etc (8/10)

Read the review.

Munich Symphony Orchestra, Douglas Bostock: Symphony in F; Suite No. 2; etc. by Gusta Holst (6/10)

This is a collection of both short and long orchestral works by Holst. It’s a scattershot collection, like so many others.

Read the review.