Although there has yet to be a single standout album released in 2002, Talib Kweli’s Quality stands out as a reason not to give up on hip-hop yet. Though money and fame constitute a large portion of the subject matter of today’s rap, Kweli’s intelligent musings reassure us that there are still hip-hop artists with more on their minds. The beats combine skillful sampling, a solid snare, and live instruments to smoothly complement the earnest sound of the Brooklyn MC’s voice. Kweli’s rhymes maintain a philosophical and political edge while still leaving no doubt that he can hold his own in a battle.
Rock music, like any art, cycles between summers of intuitive, authentic brilliance and winters of clever, ironic intelligence. Interestingly, this trend correlates strongly with America’s political cycle. Punk, rap, and grunge all arose in Republican eras. Perhaps Republican control reminds musicians of the repressed passion that spurred the rock pioneers in the Eisenhower Era.ÊNow, in the infancy of the Bush regime, we can see a tremendous sea change towards sincerity and integrity in popular music. Wilco, Moby, Beck, Bruce Springsteen, and Boards of Canada are all moving in the right direction, although they are all (save Wilco) still too tainted and self-conscious to tap rock’s roots. On White Blood Cells, the White Stripes show the most potential to recapture Eden.ÊTheir sound is pure and elemental.ÊWith the energy of “Fell in Love with a Girl,” the strength of “Offend in Every Way,” and the angst of “The Union Forever,” the White Stripes mine deep, rich veins in the bedrock of rock music.
DJ Shadow’s Private Press was a close runner up, but it paled in comparison to his earlier releases, so I went with John Zorn’s Filmworks 12. I wouldn’t say it’s the most influential album of 2002, but I’ve seen Zorn live three times this year, and he continues to amaze me. While his albums are incredible in recording (Filmworks included), there is an exciting energy and choreography that comes through in performance. Over the course of his 20-year Masada (Zorn’s major project in the ’80s and ’90s) he has collaborated with the likes of Cyro Batista, Marc Ribot, and John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin, and Wood). Zorn also manages one of the most successful and innovative indie labels, Tzadik, boasting Elliott Sharp and Ikue Mori, among countless others on its roster.
I feel a bit guilty picking Beck’s Sea Change, because if I’d been asked before it came out, I still would have picked it. Yet this said, listening to the album only reinforces my bias. In previous albums, Beck has shown that he is a miracle worker in the fusion of different styles and sounds. Sea Change shows us he is also an amazing song writer without the James Brown meets the Chemical Brothers gimmicks. There really is nothing to be said about this album; just listen to it and enjoy the feeling of a slack jaw.
When Wilco presented Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Time Warner-owned Reprise Records, they officiallyÊcalled the album a “career-ender” andÊreleased the band. It took Wilco twelve months toÊfind a label who’d release the album,ÊNonesuch Records,Êhilariously another subsidiary ofÊTime Warner. The story, like bootlegÊcopies of YHF,ÊspreadÊquickly:Ênot only had Nonesuch paid a million dollars more than their cousin Reprise would have, but the album was a hands-down masterpiece. Weaving together Dylanesque poetry, KidÊA psychedelia, Al Green’s horn section, Gram Parson-likeÊguitar and Tom Wait’s dismissal of the traditional, every second ofÊYHF is rich, true, and very much rock ‘n’ roll. Each songÊisÊmore interesting than the next, yet not one sticks out as the best; this is an album in every sense of the word,Êand certainly the best one of the year.