Landmarks: The Year 2002
Over the last seven years, I have had no fewer than four favorite albums of 2002.
At the end of that year, when I published my annual list, I named Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as my favorite from the year– and indeed, for its ambition and innovation, it was an album that genuinely impressed me and remained in frequent rotation throughout the year. It’s still considered a classic in some circles, but I admit that it hasn’t aged well for me; as the novelty of the experimental production wears off, it becomes increasingly clear that Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics alternate between real brilliance and impenetrable muck, while the production masks the hard-edged rock and roll chops that the band so ably demonstrates in their live performances.
So, sometime in 2003, I retroactively decided to name Beck‘s Sea Change as my favorite of 2002, and it’s an album that still moves me to this day. I prefer its emotional candor and its focus on rich songcraft to his more famous, postmodern art-rock albums, and its rich, enveloping sadness proved to be something of a gateway for me, leading me into a greater appreciation of sadsack folk music, as well as weary country rock.
Later, there was a brief period when I became so enamored with The Roots‘ Phrenology that I thought it might be my actual favorite from 2002. It’s probably not the most consistent or powerful of the albums made by ?uestlove and Co., but it’s surely their most ambitious and eclectic– so much so that I think of it as their “Outkast album” on some level, simply because it’s so all-over-the-place and unrelentingly creative. Not all of it works, yet it’s an album so sprawling and diverse that it’s great because of its epic sweep and ambition, the rough spots only adding to its character and complexity.
But over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that, of all the albums released in 2002, the one I come back to the most– and the one that most clearly influenced my own understanding and appreciation of music– is Don’t Give Up on Me, the big comeback album by Solomon Burke. Produced by Joe Henry, it’s a masterpiece of minimalism in which everything is in service of the Singer and the Song: The sparse arrangements bring out all the nooks and crannies in Burke’s voice, and the material is all top-shelf stuff. Rather than settle for cover songs or standards, Henry insisted that Burke record all-new material, penned by some songwriters you may have heard of– Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Van Morrison, and Brian Wilson, to name a few. It’s not just the most important soul album of the decade, but also a textbook case of just how important Song really is.
But speaking of Tom Waits: No discussion of 2002’s new music releases would be complete without mention of the fact that, in that year, Waits released not just one, but two new albums on the same day. And though neither the sour, raucous rock of Blood Money nor the nightmarish jazz of Alice quite qualifies as Tom Waits’ best, both albums are excellent, artful, and complete, if not quite as daring or deep as the albums Waits would release later in the decade.
2002 saw some other historic releases, too. Blackalicious released their summery, block-party hip-hop classic, Blazing Arrow, which I still unpack every year when the weather starts getting warm. Sixpence None the Richer released their long-delayed, hotly-anticipated Divine Discontent, a polished pop delight in which the sweet melodies concealed rich theological and existential exploration and refined poetry. Spoon put traditional R&B through a blender to make the fractured pop of Kill the Moonlight, still one of their best records. The Flaming Lips traded epic weirdness for warm electronics and dreamy psychedelia on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. And of course, Bruce Springsteen released his rousing E-Street reunion album, The Rising— which, for many, remains the essential 9/11 album.
That’s what 2002 looked like for me. What were your favorites?