List 2002: Ben Varkentine on Music
A few things you should know before we begin:
1) Ordering a list like this is difficult because it is arbitrary. What I mean is that I would not want anyone to think that I’m saying Eddie Harris’ A Tale of Two Cities is necessarily a “better” album than Run-DMC’s Greatest Hits. Though one appears higher on my list than the other, both are collections of merit and very different listening experiences. You can’t really compare one to the other.
It’s very roughly (and that’s especially true after the first seven) in bottom to top order. But as you read this list, please keep in mind that the order is essentially unimportant. You could just as easily read it top to bottom or throw all the pieces into the air to see where they come down. In fact, I’ve decided to remove the numbers from it, but the mathematically inclined among you will notice that:
2) There are only 18 titles but 19 CDs (one of them being a two-disc set) on this list. If you like, you can say that the missing 19th title represents all the great music you and I both missed last year.
3) A couple of these picks were originally released, technically, in 2001, but either they were not released in the US, or I just did not hear them, until 2002, and I want to single them out for special attention.
And now, on with the countdown:
Pet Shop Boys, Release (Sanctuary)
Biggest disappointment of 2002. First reaction: I do not know what this is, but it certainly isn’t a Pet Shop Boys album. Second reaction: “London,” “Home And Dry” and “I Get Along” are the only likely candidates for Discography 2 (which the boys must know, since they were singles). Conclusion: When only three Neil Tennant/Chris Lowe songs on a collection of ten are distinctive, and one of them a complete rip-off from Hoagy Carmichael, its a sign of something. Even as seemingly surefire an idea as a love song to Eminem comes off faulty.
It still makes this list because I wanted to write about it. And because I can’t conceive of PSB not appearing on a year-end list in any year when they’ve released a new LP. However, all together it makes for the worst Pet Shop Boys album in nearly ten years.
Menthol, Danger: Rock Science! (Hidden Agenda)
Though flawed, this promising, unabashedly retro record may have deserved a better review than I gave it. Certainly, the most distinctive tracks have continued to grow on me.
Donny Osmond, Somewhere In Time (Decca)
Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. But I have to tell the truth, and the truth is that I’ve been listening to this record a lot (especially “Crazy Horses”). I must respect that. Osmond has recently found employment as host of the latest incarnation of the game show Pyramid. I imagine this is a good way to pay some bills and stay in one place so he can have a home base for his family, and no one could begrudge him that. But I actually find myself hoping he won’t stay out of the recording studio too long, and no, I can’t believe I wrote that either. But his voice is in excellent form, and throughout this CD he shows he has an ear for the good commercial pop hit, which is not the same as the same old hit.
Various Artists, Digital Disco (Force-Tracks)
This self-descriptive compilation of music big on novelty effects has grown a bit in my esteem since I reviewed it in our pages. I still hold that what makes synth-pop groups like New Order more fulfilling than some of their peers (cough, Madonna, cough) is emotional engagement, and this still doesn’t have a lot of that, but it competes pretty heavily on it’s own ground.
Violet Indiana, Casino (Instinct)
Violet Indiana is Robin Guthrie, late of The Cocteau Twins, and Siobhan De Marë, formerly of Mono. Together, they are a duo that is deceptively consistent, and perfect for The Hour of the Wolf.
Dot Allison, We Are Science (Mantra)
“An electronically produced countryside lit by amorphous drops of color.” That’s what I called these songs, and I was serious. I also said that they were better off leaving their meanings a question mark, and I am serious about that too, but it does not seem to matter as much now. Sardonic and peculiar in some of the best ways, the burble-bop of songs like the title track is the kind you want to start sticking on mix tapes. We Are Science might be an intermediate album, but Alison’s next may very likely make her, as she should be, as popular as Moby. Or at least, 808 State.
Al B. Rich, Club Nation America Volume Two (Ministry Of Sound)
This two-disc electronica/alternative/synth pop/club/whatever set is one of the most crisply played and programmed compilations of well-constructed dance music I heard all year. Especially strong sides from Static Revenger and Frou Frou — who I still hope to hear more from in the future. It’s all too easy to make generic dance-floor “anthems,” and this collection deserves to be singled out for spotlighting the good stuff.
Run-DMC, Greatest Hits (Arista/BMG Heritage)
We lost a couple of once-brilliant musicians in 2002, and Jam Master Jay was a king of his genre as much as Joe Strummer of his. I don’t think anyone was kidding themselves that Run-DMC hadn’t already passed their peak long before Jay’s stupid death in October of last year. But this compilation serves as a reminder of just how high that peak was and what a figure Run-DMC cut across all of music in America. And if you don’t agree… you be illin’. It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.
Music From the Motion Picture, Ocean’s Eleven (Warner Sunset/Warner Bros)
I missed this beautiful caper movie in the theaters but caught up and fell in love with it on DVD, and David Holmes’ soundtrack brought a lot to the party. Anybody who can mix Perry Como with funk and Percy Faith with break beats is okay by me.
Paul Hyde, The Big Book of Sad Songs, Vol. I
Hearing this album was like reconnecting with my 16-year-old self, the boy who was first amazed by Paul Hyde (and his then-partner, Bob Rock) in 1987. The incredible intimacy of The Big Book Of Sad Songs, Vol. I is only part of what makes it such a staggering record. One of only two that I knew from first listen would be finding a place on this list. On a song like “Loudmouths,” the lyrics even answer the question of where Hyde has been since I was 16:
“Maybe you thought I didn’t care, the way I acted like I wasn’t there I left it for the loudmouths, to the loudmouths comes everything“
Maybe. However, honest to god, one of the best things about this gig is being able to speak up for people like Paul Hyde.
Stars, The Comeback EP, (Le Grand Magistery)
Stars are a four-piece electronic pop band currently based in Montreal. This EP contains one of the best pieces of material they have produced in their 20 solidly crafted songs (to date of this release) of existence: “Aspidistra Files.” And they’ve got enough keyboard hooks to make you hope it’s Thomas Dolby come again, which is no small thing to hope for.
Venus Hum, Hummingbirds, (Mono Fi)
Venus Hum is a band I could easily come to love, if I haven’t already. Their forthcoming major label full-length debut is one of my most anticipated records of the New Year. The well-regarded songwriter Neil Finn once defined pop music as “simple, elegant melodies over interesting chords”; and that is what turns up on Hummingbirds. Vocalist Annette Strean and her band mates Tony Miracle and Kip Kubin, Venus Hum, are the newest generation in a line that includes Yaz and Electronic: Strean’s voice colors the songs with airy warmth, adding the breath of humanity to Miracle and Kubin’s (both credited simply with computers and electronics) material. Smooth as skin under satin, if the rumors are true and a ’80s revival is afoot, Venus Hum should reap the benefits. As should:
Lifestyle, Frontier (ArchEnemy)
Spirited synthesizer sequence driven songs and great lyrics rightfully ought to make Lifestyle enjoy cult status; they deserve such devotion. Perhaps a still in-the-works new LP will fulfill this promise. I certainly hope so, as I would like to revisit this fresh, new Frontier. It’s made up of equal parts Duran Duran, New Order and Erasure but at it=EDs best, crucially, it adds Lifestyle’s own take on same.
Club 8, Spring Came, Rain Fell (Hidden Agenda)
And this is the second record I knew from first listen would be finding a place on this list. Club 8, Karolina Komstedt on vocals and Johan Angergard on Everything Else, sound both cold and tender, like the kind of friends and lovers that leave scars despite their best intentions. Which, or course, are the kind we fall in love with.
Wendy Carlos, Tron: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Disney)
Probably the most anticipated album I reviewed all year, anticipated by me, anyway. I’ve been waiting for a CD release of this record since CDs were invented. Wendy Carlos is significant on a large scale, a key figure in the popularization of electronic, synthetic music. However, on a more personal level she and this album are significant to me because it’s the one that introduced me to that music. Synth-pop fans are made, not born, and this still-astonishing gem was the making of one.
Tears For Fears, Shout: The Very Best Of, (Mercury)
Roland Orzabal’s songwriting, singing and multi-instrumental gifts along with Curt Smith’s keening voice helped define the pop new wave sound on such tracks as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” But beyond that, Tears for Fears were a fucking great band, and more diverse than you might think if all you ever heard are the trademark hits (good as they are). This record is the best single compilation extant, despite an unfortunate choice of the “US Remix” of “Mother’s Talk.
Les McCann, Les Is More (Hyena)
The “top” two titles on this list are half of the four reissues on jazz “populist” Joel Dorn’s latest label, Hyena, which were initially released on his first, Night Records. What gets the Hyena/Night records so “high” on the list is that they are all groovy live performances mostly from the ’70s and ’80s.
But pianist Les McCann’s entertaining, slinky record sets him a height above Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s The Man Who Cried Fire and Cannonball Adderley’s Radio Nights, to my tastes, anyway.
Eddie Harris, A Tale of Two Cities (Hyena)
This moving album makes a credible argument for Eddie Harris as a genius forgotten. It’s a great record, and one of my favorite things about it is it’s playfulness. Another is the way it sounds like the expression of a spirit left behind in a horn, and sparkles with the feeling of connection between Harris and the crowd. You can just feel it washing in waves back and forth between them.