Thursday, August 30, 2007

Brain vs iPod: 2002 edition

With all this talk I’ve made recently about how great hip hop was in late-2002, I figured it would be interesting to go back and look at 2002’s albums. I figured I’d throw out the Top 10 albums of the year according to my memories and perceptions and compare them to what my iPod ratings of each song actually tells me.

Hip hop did indeed make four outstanding late-year contributions to 2002’s quality output, but 2002 was really a great year all around. The Flaming Lips put out Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Dave Matthews Band released their best studio album (Busted Stuff), Counting Crows (remember them?) had a decent one in Hard Candy, and of course Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finally saw an official release after a long ordeal (Jim DeRogatis actually counted Yankee as a 2001 release since that’s when Wilco intended for it to come out…and since that’s when the bootlegs hit the internet). I’m sure I’ll end up doing something similar to this for 2003-2006, and I may be proven wrong, but right now I think 2002 was the deepest musical year of this decade so far. Just a ton of great stuff.

So based purely on opinion, here’s my 2002 Top 5.

1. Common, Electric Circus. I said quite a bit about this one recently, but I just can’t say enough about how interesting and weird this album was.

2. Jurassic 5, Power in Numbers. I was so excited about this one when it came out—I had religiously memorized just about every second of their 2000 release, Quality Control, and I just could not wait to see what they did next. This was a deep album, and it actually threw me off a bit. The group that made the most fun album in a long time in Quality Control actually got a bit serious on PiN, and the result was an album that got a little better to me each time I listened to it. Plus, it has the added benefit of being one of the only hip hop albums (possibly the only one) that my wife loves.

3. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Possibly not quite as great, top-to-bottom, as The Soft Bulletin, but songs like “Fight Test” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Pt. 1)” are outstanding, and “Do You Realize???” really might be the greatest song of all-time. It doesn’t make me cry or anything, but I think it’s safe to say my eyes glisten every time I listen to it. Every single time. And I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity to admit that.

4. Dave Matthews Band, Busted Stuff. The best capitulation-to-the-fanbase album of all-time. After taking a large step in a different direction with 2001’s Everyday, they went back and finalized the demo’s leaked on The Lillywhite Sessions that the DMB fanbase loved so much, and the result was a moody, bluesy, wonderful album. “You Never Know” and “Bartender” might have been my favorite two songs of the year if not for the aforementioned “Do You Realize???” and Talib Kweli’s “Get By.” Have I mentioned how great a year 2002 was?

5. The Roots, Phrenology. Like Electric Circus, we see lots of strangeness and experimentation here. “Water” and “The Seed 2.0” are also strong candidates for Song of the Year in any other year but 2002. Seriously—any of the six songs I’ve mentioned here (“Do You Realize???”, “Get By,” “Water”, “The Seed 2.0”, “Bartender”, “You Never Know”) would be the #1 song of 2007. But one of those won’t even make the Top 5.

So what does my iPod tell me about 2002 albums? Here are the Top 15 based on my star ratings...

1. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Apparently I like the Lips even more than I thought I did!

2. Common, Electric Circus. One of my thoughts when I was starting to use iPod ratings to judge albums was than an album’s overall groove would be neglected by simply looking at star-ratings. A song that furthered the overall mood of the album might by itself not merit a strong rating. In other words, I was suspicious that albums like Electric Circus would not grade out as well as they should. Apparently that’s not a problem, as when I randomly hear a given EC song, I’m reminded of the groove as a whole. If that makes any sense at all.

3. Jurassic 5, Power in Numbers. Damn shame that this was the last fantastic album we got from them.

4. Dave Matthews Band, Busted Stuff. My brain’s mostly agreeing with my iPod here.

5. Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things. I actually had no idea this came out this year. I got into RK a few years later, so I wasn’t connecting it with a date. What a neat listen this is. The more I think about it, the more I think this one’s better than its follow-up, More Adventurous. Both are quite strong, but only Execution has “With My Arms Outstretched” and “A Better Son-Daughter.”

6. Talib Kweli, Quality. Going by star ratings, I guess this is the best overall Kweli album…though we’ll see what happens when Eardrum starts growing on me. A lot of really strong songs, but only one truly great one—“Get By.” Might have been the best album of 2003 if he’d just waited another two months to release it.

7. Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Live at the Wetlands. This one surprised me. I don’t usually list live albums in the “Best Albums” category because they’re usually supplemental to the studio albums. For RR&FB, this was their debut album, so I’m counting it. And oh, how fantastic it is. Six songs, 60+ minutes of pure blues, soul, and joy.

8. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. More interesting than great (the greatness would come with the next album, A Ghost is Born), this is still a lovely album all the way, from “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” to “The Late Greats.”

9. Pearl Jam, Riot Act. An highly underrated album. “Thumbing My Way” is possibly the saddest, prettiest song in the PJ catalog, while “Love Boat Captain” and “I Am Mine” are as emotional as Eddie Vedder’s vocals has ever been. Really, 2-3 weak songs were enough to knock this all the way down to #9.

10. Bruce Springsteen, The Rising. Oh yeah. Damn near forgot about this one.

11. David Gray, A New Day at Midnight. And this one. To me, David Gray’s one of the more underrated artists in a long time…underrated even by me. I listened to this album for the first time in a while last week, and I was surprised by how emotionally effective it is. Not as emotional as A Century Ends and not as catchy as White Ladder, but strong. And he’s the only person I know of who can get away with a lyric like “Jumpin’ Jesus, holy cow/What's the difference anyhow” (from “Be Mine”) and maintain respect.

12. The Roots, Phrenology. This one shocked me. I guess the high points (“Water”, “The Seed 2.0”) distracted me from the fact that there are a few low points and dull moments. And as I mentioned with Pearl Jam above, a couple weak moments are enough to knock you a long way down in this list.

13. Cody ChesnuTT, The Headphone Masterpiece. It’s a bit of an understatement to call the sound quality of this album “lo-fi”. Well, not only is it monstrously lo-fi, it’s also immature, slightly perverted…and just so much fun to listen to. I imagine this one of those “you either love this album, or you absolutely loathe it” albums, but with songs like “Up in the Treehouse” and “Serve This Royalty,” count me in the “love it” group. Plus, ChesnuTT provided “The Seed” for use (and upgrade) by The Roots.

14. Norah Jones, Come Away with Me. A perfect mood piece. My buddy Walsh (immortalized, ahem, in the Lollapalooza posts) made a copy of this album for me some time in the late-summer/early-fall of that year and said “Just listen to it. You probably don’t think you’ll like it, but you’ll love it. Her voice is unbelievable. And while she’s pretty attractive, once you hear her sing, you’ll think she’s the hottest person in the world.” He was just about right on all counts. And I could very easily write 1,000 words on just how amazingly gorgeous “Nightingale” is. Sheesh…another song that needs to be at the top of the “Best Songs of 2002” list…they’re everywhere…

15. Counting Crows, Hard Candy. Another underrated album. In the Crows’ three previous albums, the great songs were unbelievable, and the not-great songs were darn near unlistenable. In Hard Candy, a certain consistency is reached. The best songs (“Richard Manuel is Dead”, “Miami”) are strong and emotional, but they’re not classics like “Round Here” or “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby.” However, every song is solid.

Honorable Mention:

Beck, Sea Change. I was going through a pretty tough breakup when this was released, and my roommate at the time wouldn’t let me listen to this ablum more than once a week or so. Every song’s the same tempo and the same emotion, and while that wears you down, there are some unbelievably good songs here, like “Golden Age” and especially “Lost Cause.”

Atmosphere, God Loves Ugly & Lucy Ford. These two albums established MC Slug’s credentials as more than just an ‘asshole with a heart of gold’ persona. Dude’s got talent, and he’s managed to craft himself into a sympathetic, simple figure even though half the songs are about getting drunk or being pissed at a girl for dumping him. At the time of Lucy Ford’s release, Walsh—who LOVED that album—surmised that it was likely a “lightning in a bottle” type of situation, where no other album would be nearly as good as that one. Instead, every album since then has been better than its predecessor, right up to 2005’s You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having.

Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf. I’m the only person in the world who enjoys Lullabies to Paralyze far more than this one. It’s still good, though.

Matchbox 20, More Than You Think You Are. Not amazing, but better than you think it is. No, really.

Audioslave, Audioslave. Nothing amazing, but strong hard rock is still enjoyable from time to time.

Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow. Blackalicious is solid, never spectacular, and this is an enjoyable listen.

And just for the hell of it...

Top 34 Songs of 2002

1. “Do You Realize???”, Flaming Lips
2. “Get By,” Talib Kweli
3. “Nightingale,” Norah Jones
4. “Water,” The Roots
5. “Thumbing My Way,” Pearl Jam
6. “You Never Know,” Dave Matthews Band
7. “The Seed 2.0,” The Roots
8. “Bartender,” Dave Matthews Band
9. “With Arms Outstretched,” Rilo Kiley
10. “Love Boat Captain,” Pearl Jam
11. “Lose Yourself,” Eminem
12. “Lost Cause,” Beck
13. “I Got a Right Ta,” Common
14. “Bright Lights,” Matchbox 20
15. “A Better Son-Daughter,” Rilo Kiley
16. “Fight Test,” Flaming Lips
17. “Freedom,” Jurassic 5
18. “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1,” Flaming Lips
19. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Wilco
20. “Come Close,” Common
21. “My City of Ruins,” Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band
22. “If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is Dead),” Counting Crows
23. “Up in the Treehouse,” Cody ChesnuTT
24. “Hard Candy,” Counting Crows
25. “What’s Golden,” Jurassic 5
26. “Save You,” Pearl Jam
27. “Ted’s Jam,” Robert Randdolph & the Family Band
28. “If I Was Santa Claus,” Atmosphere
29. “Be Mine,” David Gray
30. “Caroline,” David Gray
31. “Waitin’ for a Sunny Day,” Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band
32. “Miami,” Counting Crows
33. “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” Wilco
34. “Cochise,” Audioslave
35. “High Fidelity,” Jurassic 5
36. “Come Away With Me,” Norah Jones
37. “God Is In the Radio,” Queens of the Stone Age
38. “Brown Sugar,” Mos Def & Faith Evans
39. “Freedom,” David Gray
40. “Don’t Know Why,” Norah Jones

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