Thursday, February 18, 2010

Top 10 Albums: 2002

Bless me, blogosphere, for I have sinned. It has been over two weeks since my last blog entry. The days have been filled with work, sleep, drinking, San Diego trips, and more procrastination than a cohort of second-year freshmen. These are not excuses, and I ask not for atonement (awesome book/film combo, by the way). I merely ask that you bear with me as I, slowly and somewhat un-surely, make my way through this backlog of entries. After all, it's not like I'm getting paid for this... ha!

Moving on, today we're talking about the year 2002 and my favorite albums thereof. It was a good year, 2002 -- I began my second year at ASU, I moved into an off-campus apartment, went on an epic trip to San Diego with high school friends, and spent the summer working at a bar on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. It was also a good year for driving -- which means it was a good year for music. Many of these albums (the ones I actually bought and listened to in 2002) were on regular rotation in my pre-boat Corolla (if you don't know, you don't) as I crisscrossed between California to New Mexico and everywhere in between. I remember cruising I-8 back from SD blasting RBF and screaming down Route 666 with dredg as my soundtrack. There's nothing like getting to know an album like scorched rubber and cracked asphalt under an unrelenting sun.

Here's my list of some stuff I was into in that road-weary summer, some stuff I found out about much later, and some stuff that's just timeless. As always, we begin with some Honorable Mentions:

Ben Folds - Ben Folds Live (probably my favorite live album ever, if only for "Army"), Millencolin - Home From Home (doesn't hold up as well as Pennybridge, but it was one of my favorites back in the day), Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates (plenty raw but awesome), Phantom Planet - The Guest (actually pretty decent, if you can get past "Californiaaaaaaaaa..."), Vanessa Carlton - Be Not Nobody (Damn right... "Makin' my way downtown, walkin' fast, faces pass...), and I'll be honest -- I've never really listened to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If you have a lawyer, go ahead and sue me).

Now the top 10:

10) Unwritten Law - Elva
Produced by: Unwritten Law and three other dudes
Standout tracks: "Up All Night," "Sound Siren," "Seein' Red"

One of my favorite all time "punk" (so it's more like pop-punk, but still) albums is Unwritten Law's self-titled album. It was my entire JAM junior year of high school and it got me cred with the "punks" at my high school, who in turn introduced me to some pretty awesome bands that I still listen to (Bad Religion, All, Strung Out, etc.). Now, as "punk" as that album was (or wasn't), its follow-up removes all pretense of "punk." It's more like pop-rock with just enough edge/brashness to keep it from being mainstream. I think this album was actually pretty big on MTV2 if that gives you any idea. Anyway, this is the last good album by what was once one of my favorite bands, and I still give it fairly regular airplay, so I figured I'd throw it on here at #10 over the Millencolin album Home From Home, which I don't really give much airplay to anymore. It's the kind of anthemic chorus and hook-laden album that smacks of blink-182 meets Jimmy Eat world (and I mean that as a compliment). Tom DeLonge even gives a shout out after the last track -- SoCal "punk" at its finest.

9) Foo Fighters - One By One
Produced by: Foo Fighters and two other dudes
Standout tracks: "All My Life," "Times Like These," "Come Back"

Dave Grohl once told Rolling Stone that he didn't much care for this album. Something about it being rushed. What's funny is that it later won a Grammy for Best Rock Album. I'm not sure if that says more to the badassitude (it's a real word, trust me) of the Foos that they can basically shit an album out and take home hardware, or to the general crapitude (again, a real word) that is the Grammys. Either way, I respect both points of view -- I can see where the album pales in comparison to some other efforts by the Foos (although it's not my least favorite Foo record), but I can also see how it's better than probably 90% of the other stuff out there (I'd rather listen to a recording of Dave Grohl taking a shit than, say, the last 3-4 U2 records). The singles are right up there with anything Grohl and Co. have ever released (the opening to "All My Life" is aurgasmic (see what I did there?)), and the album cuts aren't half bad either, especially the slow burners like "Disenchanted Lullaby," "Burn Away," and "Come Back." Not exactly live show staples, sure, but perfect for the sunshine-and-shrubs monotony of the I-40 East.

8) Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf
Produced by: Josh Homme, Adam Kasper, Eric Valentine
Standout tracks: "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar...," "No One Knows," "Go with the Flow," "Another Love Song"

Speaking of driving through the desert, Songs for the Deaf is a concept album about just that. That's right, a concept album about driving through the desert. In any other hands, this would probably be a complete disaster, but it turned into a minor masterpiece in the confident hands of Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri, Mark Lanegan, and, you know it, Dave Grohl. This is probably one of the most badass collections of musicians this decade has seen. Key word: "badass." No wonder it only lasted one album -- too much testosterone for one recording studio. If only they got "THE" Bruce Dickinson to produce... Regardless, their one foray into the studio is as rockin' as some bands' entire discographies. I'm also a sucker for concept albums -- all the songs are linked together by random snippets of Mojave Desert radio stations -- from hippy deejays to Spanish stations to what sounds like some guy broadcasting out of his trailer. It makes a stark counterpoint to the blistering rhythms, screaming guitars, and triumvirate vocals that mark the songs themselves. The resulting record is as complicated and varied as the desert itself -- alternately rugged, challenging, spare, and even tranquil. It's a trip, man -- too bad this experiment couldn't have lasted longer.

7) Reel Big Fish - Cheer Up!
Produced by: Reel Big Fish, Val Garay
Standout tracks: "Ban the Tube Top," "What Are Friends For," "Valerie," "New York, New York," "Boss D.J.," "Drunk Again"

This is probably the best -- but not my favorite, I don't think -- Reel Big Fish album. It's a ska record, so take that how you will. Can there even be such a thing as a "good" ska record? Tomas Kalnoky sure thinks so. But whatever your stance on ska, this is just an awesome record that contains a lot of staples of their always fun live shows -- "Tube Top," "Where Have You Been?" and the title track come to mind. It also continues their tradition of upbeat, vibrant covers (remember "Take On Me"?) -- their mostly a capella rendition of Ol' Blue Eye's "New York, New York" and the positively pop-tastic cover of Sublime's "Boss D.J." are both fantastic. The standout, however, might be album-capper "Drunk Again" where trumpeter/sidekick Scott Klopfenstein takes center stage for a Burt Bacharach-esque ballad about, what else, drinking your troubles away. It's not exactly a "cheery" track (or album), but RBF never really did shy away from irony.

6) New Found Glory - Sticks and Stones
Produced by: Neal Avron
Standout tracks: "Understatement," "Sonny," "It's Been A Summer," "The Story So Far"

A quick note before we begin: I recently saw NFG perform their self-titled album in its entirety. It made me realize that I probably ranked it too low in a previous entry. My bad, and I apologize to all involved.

That said, while this album isn't as good as that one, I'm still probably ranking it too low. But how do you rank an album (band) that has such obvious aesthetic flaws (it's unclear if they know you can have more than three chords in a song) and very limited subject matter (read: all the songs are about girls... literally, all of them)? It's tough, especially since it's so easy to relate to the material. Relationships, breakups, casual hook-ups, the one who got away, the one you're chasing -- there isn't a song in the band's catalog that I haven't been able to relate to personally at some point. I have memories attached to just about all of these songs like so many post-it notes. There's not many bands out there -- at least for me -- that I can say that about. I know they're just silly pop-punk songs about girls, but I'd like to think they mean something, dammit! Or maybe I'm just a sucker for three-chord love songs with breakdowns.

5) Rilo Kiley - The Execution of All Things
Produced by: Mike Mogis
Standout tracks: "The Good That Won't Come Out," "Paint's Peeling," "With Arms Outstretched," "Spectacular Views"

Another moment of honesty: I've never really been into the whole "Omaha Sound"/Saddle Creek thing. I'm only really into Cursive's later stuff, Bright Eyes bores the fuck out of me, and I've never heard The Faint. All that Midwest scene shit is slow, morose, and with a predilection toward quiet -- hey, kinda like life in the Midwest must be! All kidding aside, yes it can be intricate and moving at times, but what on this list so far would make you think I'd be into that scene? That said, I absolutely love this record. Maybe it's the L.A. connection or the random flourishes of electronica (probably the same thing anyway), but Rilo Kiley hits all the right buttons on this one. The songs all seem like little short stories, with full-fledged characters and arcs, all sung/narrated by my indie crush Jenny Lewis. Yes, guitarist Blake Sennett makes an occasional appearance, but who really listens to Rilo Kiley for his vocals? I mean, really? As a whole, the album dips from country to electronica to indie rock all with a kind of playful, self-aware vibe that only makes sense from a band featuring two former child actors (Lewis and Sennett). To sum the album up in four words: As Lewis says in the phenomenal final track "Spectacular Views": "It's so fucking beautiful."

4) dredg - El Cielo
Produced by: dredge and a bunch of guys
Standout tracks: "Same Ol' Road," "Whoa Is Me," "The Canyon Behind Her"

"It's so fucking beautiful" might be an even better descriptor for this album -- to date, dredg's finest work. This one is another concept album based on -- wait for it -- a painting by Salvador Dali. It's about as mindblowing as you'd expect. I've taken the liberty of embedding the painting below. Let this marinate for a minute:

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bumblebee around a Pomegranate One Second Before Awakening
It's got it all: fish, tigers, fish eating tigers, flying elephants, a naked chick, bees, cliffs. The album's got it all too, traipsing around from hard rock to metal to jazz to prog, all with excellent musicianship and featuring vocals by one of my favorite singers, Gavin Hayes. The guy seriously has one of the best voices around -- and it totally translates live as well. And, to keep with the theme of amazing album closers, "The Canyon Behind Her" is probably one of the most beautiful songs of the decade.

3) The Decemberists - Castaways and Cutouts
Produced by: The Decemberists
Standout tracks: "Leslie Anne Levine," "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect," "July, July," "California One"

This was the first Decemberists record I ever heard... and I didn't really like it. I think I was still firmly entrenched in my third-wave ska phase, and this record was too slow, too acoustic, too... accordion-y. I definitely missed the boat there (get it... there's a boat on the album cover!), but it's a good thing I came back to this record after hearing -- and falling in love with -- Picaresque and The Crane Wife. I would have missed the macabre amazingness of the aborted baby-POV "Leslie Anne Levine." I would have missed the hypnotic melancholy of "Here I Dreamt..." (one of my favorite all-time Decemberists songs). I would have missed the sunny, twisted shout out to my birth month, "July, July!" And I would have missed "California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade," perhaps the best tribute to the two-faced nature of my home away from home, California. And I would have missed all the Gothic-folk-indie gems in between, peppered with accordion and sarcastic barbs and sailors and literary references and star-crossed lovers and dark humor and a distinct fascination with the morbid. And that would have been a damn shame. This was the first Decemberists record I ever heard -- and it just might be my favorite.

2) Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around
Produced by: Rick Rubin, John Carter Cash
Standout tracks: "The Man Comes Around," "Hurt," "In My Life," "Sam Hall"

Honestly, I'm not sure which is the greater achievement: the use of "The Man Comes Around" over the opening credits of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake or how Cash absolutely crushes NIN's "Hurt" (and the accompanying video). Either of them -- an appearance in a zombie movie and the Grammy the "Hurt" video picked up -- is a feat, marking Cash as a cultural force in his 70th year. I mean, the man was DYING as he made this record. As if you couldn't tell, with cover choices like "In My Life" and "Desperado" -- not to mention "I Won't Back Down" off the previous American Recordings record. There's just something abso-fucking-lutely profound about a man confronting his fate with nothing more than a gravely, world-weary voice and a guitar. There's an added earnestness, an urgency, when he sings a line like, "You better let somebody love you, before it's too late." Whether it's an old country standard or a contemporary industrial song, to hear Cash cover it here is to hear the song again for the first time. Here, here, ya hear? It was the last album released in Cash's lifetime, and it has to be considered one of his best.

1) Red Hot Chili Peppers - By the Way
Produced by: Rick Rubin
Standout tracks: "By the Way," "Can't Stop," "Midnight," "Minor Thing," "Venice Queen"

The Keidis/Frusciante/Flea/Smith incarnation of the Chili Peppers (everything from Mother's Milk through Stadium Arcadium, with the exception of One Hot Minute) is one of the most ridiculously talented collections of musicians of this generation. I'm not even kidding. Say what you will of Keidis's lyrics, but I've always thought they were more of a compliment to the group's sound than the driving force behind the music, and there's no denying the superior talent of the Flea/Smith rhythm battery. But the star of the Chili Peppers (or, if you're cool like me, RCHP -- and yes, I know that's not the correct abbreviation), to me, has always been lead guitarist/backup vocalist extraordinaire John Frusciante. Just think about it: the opening riff to "Under the Bridge" or "Soul to Squeeze." The slide guitar solos in "Scar Tissue." The haunting backing vox that permeate By the Way. All Frusciante. Without Frusciante, they're a bunch of funk-rock wannabes with socks on their dicks that hang out with Dave Navarro. With Frusciante, they're one of the defining mainstream rock bands of the last 20 years. All of which makes me nervous about the future of the band without Frusciante. That said, this album is Frusciante's finest hour. His guitar sound throughout is... incendiary. Incendiary. And his pitch-perfect backing vocals add a layer of depth to an already-deep album. Just listen to the song "Venice Queen" (quite possibly a) the best song the Chili Peppers have recorded or will ever record and b) one of the best songs of the decade). The song -- a heartbreaking tribute to Keidis's late drug counselor, Gloria (or G-L-O-R-I-A) -- is a veritable playground for Frusciante's many talents. From the delicate fingerpicking of the first half of the song to the frenetic acoustic strumming of the second half to the melodic backing vox throughout, it's all a stunning display of talent. It's a shame his solo stuff -- what he ostensibly left RCHP to pursue -- isn't as good as his stuff with the Peppers. But enough talking. I'll let the song speak for itself:

Done at last. Lemme know what you think. As always, thanks for reading. Until next time, whenever it may be...

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