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Favorite Albums, 2002

(No real order implied - the numbers are just handy placeholders.)

1) the Black Keys - the Big Come Up

Label = Alive

    Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are conjurors of the highest order. With naught but drums and a single guitar, they call forth the spirit of the dying art of the blues - all that wailing, passionate spirit - and simultaneously make it their own. Thank goodness for the Black Keys, two white guys from Akron who break the stereotype barrier on the blues. John Lee Hooker they're not. Muddy Waters they're not. But their blues has a soul that I began to fear we'd lose when the great blues artists of yesteryear sadly passed into history. Until I saw them perform live, I had the hardest time believing that Dan Auerbach was a 20-something year old kid from Akron - just listening to this album, I could have sworn his voice was born of years of hard drinking and hard living down on the Mississippi Delta.

2) Solomon Burke - Don't Give up on Me

Label = Fat Possum

    Let me make it easy for you - BUY THIS ALBUM. Why? Because you will like it. For those who don't relish in digging up dusty old records as much as I do, Solomon Burke is a soul singer who's been active since the mid-1950s, but never really got hit with limelight quite the way folks like Otis Redding, Al Green, or Marvin Gaye did. I like a lot of what he did in the mid-to-late 1960s, but this new recording is in my opinion perhaps his best - his phrasing and timbre are so expressive and tender - in a way that he was never able to attain early in his career. I know a lot of you might shy away from "soul", fearing the schlocky overproduced sound that seems to exist everywhere on modern R&B radio, but this album sounds every bit like a classic recorded years ago and only just now unearthed. Did I mention that you should buy this record? Well, you should.

3) Mum - loksins erum við engin

Label = smekkleysa / Fat Cat

    Mum oozes cuteness. Their music is full of cheery electronic chirps and little tinkling bells - their voices are childlike and innocent - and darn it, go to their website, and tell me that they don't just *look* cute. (Or check the cover of Belle & Sebastian's "Fold your hands child..." as the Mum twins grace its cover.) I found Mum the same way that I suspect others did - because they're Icelandic, and their name seemed to come up a lot in tandem with current Icelandic cultural emissaries Sigur Ros. And while to me they both manage to achieve some of the same elements of sonic peace, they go about it in rather different ways. Where Sigur Ros seems to breathe magical life from some kind of ethereal spirit world, Mum creates their environment of lush softness from electronics, thoughtfully supplemented by organic instrumentation like cello, piano, and if I'm hearing right, melodica. I bought what turns out to be a limited edition Icelandic version of the album when I was in Reykjavik - but there's an English language release as well, titled "Finally we are no one".

4) Aimee Mann - Lost in Space

Label = SuperEgo

    I think it's really just a curious footnote at this point that Aimee Mann was in the band 'Til Tuesday back in the 80's (if it's not clicking yet, dig up the song "Voices Carry" in your memory), as she's created her own unique career subsequently, boosted largely by the prominent appearance of several of her songs in the movie 'Magnolia'. Let me cut to the chase on this one - 'Lost in Space' is my favorite album of Mann's - her sweet melodies, thoughtful instrumentation, and finely crafted songwriting all collide beautifully here. This is an album I think anyone could cherish.

5) godspeed you! black emperor - yanqui u.x.o.

Label = Kranky

    On this their most recent release, the godspeed team have taken two important steps. First, they have moved the exclamation mark in their name from the end to the middle of their moniker. And second, they have eliminated all of the narration, "found sound" recordings of street preachers, bizarre broadcasts, and Arco station announcements, and focused more completely on the music. While I will freely admit that godspeed's neo-chamber pieces remain reasonably formulaic - repetitive quiet bits that build gradually into whirling storms of sound (sometimes over the course 20 minutes) - it's a formula that's uniquely their own. For those looking for an introduction to godspeed's marriage of classical canon and rock volume wrought through violin, cello, an array of guitarists and bassists, and 2 percussionists - this is I think the best place to start.

6) Chains and Black Exhaust compilation

Label = unknown (perhaps Memphix)

    If you ever get into obscure 60's and 70's funk and soul, you have to be prepared to live with frustration. Frustration because there are records out there so obscure, so terribly limited in their release, that you'll never actually own a copy of the original yourself. Such is the case with this dingblasted compilation, which manages to set a whole new level of frustration. First let's start out with the fact that there is actually no "official" title of the CD - nothing printed on the cover art, nothing along the spine of the CD, and only the word "Jones" curiously printed on the CD itself. Second, let's cover the fact that there is no record label listed. Finally, and most irritatingly, there is no track listing of any kind so you have no idea what the names of the artists or any of the songs are. People tend to call this CD "Chains and Black Exhaust", supposedly released by a group called Memphix. It's a fantastic collection of late 60s / early 70s apparently predominantly black bands that made music somewhere between funk and Hendrix, and it's very clearly put together from a bunch of old, scratchy 45rpm singles (the sound quality varies widely), not the original masters - so it's more than likely a bootleg collection (i.e. the artists won't see a dime from the sales). And the most frustrating thing? I have no idea where you can find your own copy. I got mine from - if they're sold out, I'm afraid you're probably out of luck. But if you ever spy one - buy it won't be disappointed.

7) DJ O-Dub - A Groove Thing

Label = self-released

    Remember what I was saying about being intensely frustrated with finding old LP's and 45's? If it weren't for people like SF-based DJ O-Dub (aka Oliver Wang), a lot of truly wonderful music would go by the wayside trampled and forgotten. I found this mix in Amoeba Records in SF, and picked it up on a whim as I was curious to see how he managed to link funk, latin jazz, Bollywood film music, and hip hop together in a single mix. The answer is "very, very well". There's stuff on this mix that I promise you'll probably never hear elsewhere unless you're willing to look a long time and shell out an obscene amount of cash. Take "Streets of Calcutta", a tune from a record Ananda Shankar (Ravi's nephew) released only in India - a masterful blend of both funk and traditional Indian instrumentation. Or "Que se sepa", an absolutely stomping latin jazz tune by Roberto Roena y Su Latino Sound which has a really snappy, wicked beat - again, nigh impossible to find the original. Or "Baby, Let's Dance Together", which might have been a forgotten groovy hit single here in the US were it not released a bit far away - in the score from the 70s Bollywood film 'Shalimar', by genius composer Rahul Dev Burman. You get the picture. This is one of the single best DJ mixes I've heard in ages - and makes a great companion when I go running, by the way.

8) the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Plastic Fang

Label = Matador

    Back before there was such a thing as the White Stripes (and don't get me wrong, I love Jack and Meg), the Blues Explosion kicked the arse of the blues raw by stirring it up with the rude freedom of punk rock. It's easy to listen to just about anything that Jon Spencer and his pals have done over the last eleven years or so and wonder if it's tongue and cheek or some kind of hip post-ironic blues revival. To me, it really doesn't matter so much where the Explosion is coming from - when they get it right, as they do on Plastic Fang, they rock severely and without respite. If anything, the Explosion's current groove reminds me most of the early Stones, but seen through the eyes of someone who likes things louder and faster. Jon Spencer has been my running buddy off and on this year as a result.

9) Sigur Ros - ( )

Label = MCA

    When nothing seems to be going right, when anxiety reigns and comfort seems inexplicably distant, this is the album I listen to. Sigur Ros's music is a tender salve for all that is wrong and hurtful in the world - a beauty that bathes with intense bliss. While there's less focus on vocalist Jonsi's bowed electric guitar than on their prior album (the similarly stellar 'Agaetis Byrjun'), they have lost none of the epic, open quality that makes their sound unique in modern music. Sigur Ros commented at one point that their music is influenced by the landscape of their home country of Iceland, and while you might be tempted to discount such a statement as pretentious, I can say that it's absolutely true, as I had the opportunity to gaze across the broad, desolately majestic expanses of the Icelandic landscape. And when I did, I swear I heard echoes of Sigur Ros somewhere in the distance.

10) Gomez - In our Gun

Label = Virgin

    I've always enjoyed Gomez in concept - rock-esque, electronic-esque with twitchings of folk and blues - but at least to my ears, it never seemed to gel properly. And then suddenly, inexplicably, a few albums into their career, "In our Gun" is the album where it all started to make sense for me. Here Gomez balance their electronics, their (very) occasional slamming dance-y beats with rhythmically strummed acoustic guitar and a bit of blues undertone. It is a blues album without being outright bluesy, an electronic album without being dance-y, and a folk album without being too sing-songy. I never seem to tire of it. Many thanks to my friend Chris for convincing me not to give up on them...

11) Rye Coalition - On Top

Label = Tigerstyle

    Allow me to start out with the disclaimer that Rye Coalition is one of those things on my year end "Best of" list that I absolutely adore, but which I know with 100% certainty will annoy the living crud out of a whole lot of people. This album is full of reckless exhilaration like igniting a box of bottle rockets in your bathroom. Like setting fire to your trousers. Like chugging a gallon of Tabasco. The chaos is exquisite, the adrenaline rush unbridled and dangerous - and while perhaps there's a time and place to enjoy such excitement, that time and place is not all the time. For me, this album is the perfect amalgam of the stadium-filling riffs of Led Zeppelin with the drunken, messy, virulent punk swagger of the now sadly defunct Austin-based Jesus Lizard. When I listen to it, I play it at a setting of 11, and I hereby apologize to all of my neighbors, but sometimes you just have to rock out.

12) Low - Trust

Label = Kranky

    Believe me when I say that I won't recommend every single Low release that comes down the pike. Did you hear me say anything about "Songs for a dead pilot" when it came out? No, actually you didn't, because I didn't care for it at all when it came out. This, Low's latest album, I love more as a collection of songs than as an album. I find it hard to listen to straight through because the emotion wanders a bit too much from very dark to exuberantly happy, and unless I'm in somewhat of an emotionally schizophrenic mood, it's a bit much to take in one sitting. But here we have some of Low's most beautiful, haunting, and dramatic songs. And as if they needed to prove it yet one more time, they demonstrate again that sometimes less is more. Low still manage to make better use of emotion by holding back than many folks do by going full throttle - and when Low does cut loose, it seems to carry so much more weight - to wit, when they build to the line "there's nothing as sad as a man on his back counting stars" in the song "A little argument with myself", it gives me goosebumps every single time.

13) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP

Label = Touch & Go

    Like a swarm of mosquitoes on a sticky August day in Houston, the buzz about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has gotten both deafening and more than a tad annoying. I don't want to rain on the YYY's parade or anything, but I just don't want to hear about the parade everywhere I go. It's easy to see why everyone is so wee wee'ed up over them - this short (not even 14 minutes) collection of 5 songs for guitar, voice, and drums is really an exciting little recording. It's rough, raw, rude, and gets right to the point. I can't put it any better than Chris Dahlen of the online music news / review site Pitchfork did when he said that it "sounds like it's playing out of a $39 boombox on a stripper's windowsill". It just sounds filthy in every respect - musically and vocally - the guitar skronks rudely, the drums sound at times like overturned pails banged in a NYC subway station, and Karen O's shrieks and panting are downright unsanitary. If this were the only thing they ever put out, I would be OK with that - but unfortunately, they followed it up with a second EP I can politely describe as "atrocious", and an album which I must quite frankly describe as "I haven't listened to it yet".

14) Neko Case - Blacklisted

Label = Bloodshot

    I really hope someone out there in Country Music land is listening because it's about time y'all quit it with the Shania Twain and Dixie Chicks and started promoting something with more fire than flash, more soul than gloss, and more heart. In that category, I hereby nominate Neko Case, who's got a voice to be reckoned with - from a roomfilling wail like Loretta Lynn, a delicate croon like Patsy Cline, and delicate tenderness of Emmylou Harris. For me at least, her albums have always been about her voice as the primary instrument, but this time she outdid herself by getting the nice "we can do no wrong in Richard's eyes" guys of Calexico to provide outstanding accompaniment.

15) Amon Tobin - Out from Out Where

Label = Ninja Tune

    I think Amon Tobin's music is like benchpressing for stereos - it's a real workout in the range of sound he covers, from the deep pathological booming of his often piledriving rhythms to the occasional swooping orchestral string interlude to a looped acoustic guitar sample. Tobin's music really doesn't belong to a "genre", and it isn't neatly package-able into a "category". In fact, I have no idea what to call it. Furthermore, I have no idea how his music comes together, but I find myself imagining this gray metallic industrial laboratory where he takes innocent sound samples and mercilessly bends them to his will, concocting ever more foreboding ever more mutated creations. It's not really the kind of thing to play at a tea party, or maybe even when the sun is shining, but when you have time to sit, listen, and concentrate on what he's assembled, the depth of his work is really astounding.

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