The boy bands, the Britney clones and even the original navel-barer-all started their slow parade to the digital bone yard this year. And that wasn’t the only reason to celebrate. There was a lot of good music released this year, much of it from a bunch of old warhorses who were big when analog was still king: Bowie, Waits, Wolf & Springsteen. Here now, the best of 2002-in alphabetical order-as chosen by The Observer ‘s music critics.
Beck , Sea Change (Geffen): A longtime Big Deal of massive, if schizoid, virtuosity, Beck can sometimes show off too much for his own good. It is only with this, his sixth album, that the D.J. Wunderkind accepts that, because he can do anything he wants, he needn’t do it all at once. Resting his trademark hyperactivity, Beck gambles his coolness credentials, confronting the whole humiliating spectrum of self-exposure: love, heartbreak, introspection, suffering, sadness. The resulting album is hands-down the finest of his career; a seamlessly slick fusion of the best of all Becks: C&W bandleader, hip-hop D.J., godless rocker, class clown and now, his most endearing persona yet: Boy Who Hurts.
David Bowie , Heathen (Sony): That slipperiest of cultural con artists came up with the perfect scam for this reissue-heavy moment in music: Take old producer, glory-days musicians and best bits from the big albums ( Ziggy Stardust , Heroes , Scary Monsters , Let’s Dance ), mix them up in a big blender, pour them into digital molds, allude to their post-9/11 relevance and- hoo-ah! – big comeback-album results. Funny thing is, Heathen ‘s even better than Springtime for Hitler . For the first time in a long time, Mr. Bowie sounds hungry, sexy and slightly ahead of the curve-whether he’s referencing Uncle Floyd on “Slip Away” or crooning his way through the high-school fuck track of the year, “Slow Burn.” He even manages to bring things full-circle by covering “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft” by Norman Carl Odam, a.k.a. the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, from whom Ziggy Stardust nicked his name.
Neko Case , Blacklisted (Bloodshot): Hers is the voice of salvation. The one you need when it’s 4 a.m. and all you can think about is when and where they’re going to drop the Big One. Ms. Case is scared too, as a matter of fact. On the first album in which she does most of the writing, she’s thinking about love and fear and, on the magnificent “Deep Red Bells,” the ghosts of those who came to violent ends. But her voice is strong and old-fashioned and comforting-like your parents’ country-and-western albums-even when she’s dealing with uncomfortable subjects. And if you need it, that voice will calm you until daylight comes around again.
Johnny Cash , The Man Comes Around (American/Lost Highway): Johnny Cash might well be running out of steam on his fourth collaboration with hip-hop producer Rick Rubin, but he’s still got enough in him to power the Union Pacific. Though this album contains a few soft-rock throwaways, such as “In My Life” and “Desperado,” Mr. Cash’s more surprising borrowings-Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” in particular-reaffirm his right to pirate anything he wants. Ultimately, though, it’s the title song that clinches this album’s greatness. The product of a seven-year-old, “Kubla Khan”–like dream about the Book of Revelation, it’s a thumping, staccato masterpiece destined to survive among the handful of Mr. Cash’s lasting contributions to American music.
Coldplay , A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol): Comparisons to Radiohead have dogged these young Brits for years, and justly so. Singer Chris Martin sounds a bit like Thom Yorke, especially when his voice leaps into falsetto range, which is often. Lead guitarist Jony Buckland shares a taste for alluring six-string textures with Radiohead’s Jon Greenwood. And both bands make music that manages to be mopey and expansive at the same time. Add another similarity to the list: Only two albums into its career, Coldplay is already trying for the Great Masterwork. With A Rush of Blood to the Head , they come real close. Though the album is full of such aching epics as “Politik,” “Clocks” and “Warning Sign,” the key to the disc’s success is that, even as the strings swell, the songs remain winningly unpretentious.
Elvis Costello , When I Was Cruel (Island): In which Mr. Costello craftily melded his musical past with the sounds of today and hitched it to some of his most exhilarating lyric writing since Blood & Chocolate . Not so much angry as unabashedly lucid, this is the album to buy that teen who wants a goddamned pony for Christmas. Next up, his version of Tunnel of Love ?
Custom , Fast (Artist Direct): Remember how your parents felt about your music? They feigned annoyance, but in reality, they were scared half to death. There aren’t too many artists today who pull that off while they’re sucking you in. But Custom, a.k.a. Duane Lavold, has got the goods on his debut album. He’s a white boy who sounds like Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker might have if he’d grown up hooked on both hip-hop and heavy metal. Like Mr. Cocker, Custom’s attuned to the anthropology of middle-class adolescence, and he uses it to frightening effect. Take “Hey Mister,” a sinister gem of a song in which Custom taunts the father of some girl he’s seduced. “It’s not that she’s a tramp / it’s not that she’s not pure / she just likes getting her fuck on / and it’s good for that I’m sure.” At the end of the track, he sings “I hope I never have a daughter” while a chorus of school kids “na na na na” any self-respecting parent into the fetal position. Verrry scary, but damn good.
Eminem , The Eminem Show (Interscope): As the man himself says on “White America”: “Straight through your radio waves it plays and plays / Till it stays stuck in your head for days and days.” He’s our poet laureate of piss and vinegar, with an unerring ear for the kind of sweet hooks that keep you listening no matter how queasy the words make you (see “Drips”). If only 8 Mile were as uncompromising as this album.
The Hives , Your New Favourite Band (Poptones UK): Like most people, I missed out on the early indie days of these Swedish upstarts. And like most people, I was suspicious of the torrential hype that accompanied their signing to a major label. But the little snots won me over. They make punk rock in the arrogant, over-the-top tradition of the Stooges, the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols, and they do it splendidly. Every time I listen to “Supply and Demand,” I marvel anew at singer Pelle Almqvist’s flamboyant, saliva-packed performance and wonder how many microphones he’s shorted out with his spit. This British-only compilation selects the cream from the Hives’ previous catalog, and it’s worth the extra search.
Norah Jones , Come Away with Me (Blue Note): I’m not going to win too many “keeping it real” points with this pick now that the album has become middle-of-the-road aural wallpaper. But perhaps you can think back to the sheer pleasure of hearing Norah Jones for the first time last spring: the rumpled-bedsheets voice, the hint of womanly lisp and Southwestern drawl. Well, it worked for me then, works for me now. And I still like the story of this little jazzbo from Dallas-the illegitimate daughter of Ravi Shankar, as it turned out-taking Blue Note’s money, heading into the studio and coming out with a countrypolitan singer-songwriter record that sounded like it was produced by the Southern California Asylum hit factory, circa the mid-70’s.
Come Away with Me has just gone double platinum, and the point is, it deserved to be a success. Ms. Jones is working the mainstream without the obviousness or crassness of most of her pop predecessors. She sings with preternatural economy and control, and her piano accompaniment is on point. You might as well credit her jazz training for that.
Branford Marsalis , Footsteps of Our Fathers (Marsalis Music/Rounder): Back when Branford Marsalis was being tut-tutted by his younger brother Wynton for playing with Sting and Jay Leno, who would have guessed that the former would grow into the defender of the hard-bop faith while Wynton became the wandering musical polymath? On this debut recording for his new indie label, Branford and his ace combo-pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts- interpret works by the giants of modern jazz, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and John Lewis, all taken from the late-50’s/early-60’s period that served as the crucible for hard bop. But if Footsteps is an homage to modern jazz’s heroic past, it doesn’t lack for Oedipal brio. “The Freedom Suite” was Sonny Rollins’ raw, squalling paean to the civil-rights movement; “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane’s near-symphonic four-movement cry of the soul. For Mr. Marsalis to place these two seemingly one-of-a-kind musical documents at the heart of his new album is an assertion of his own musical manhood. That said, I think “The Freedom Suite” fares less well in translation, but “A Love Supreme” especially gets a magisterial rereading with a huge-toned Mr. Marsalis unshakably in command of his material. Both the composition and the interpreter are exalted. God ,too, if you like.
Wynton Marsalis , All Rise (Sony Classical): Wynton Marsalis has taken more than his fair share of shit from critics during his 20-year journey from young hard-bop savior to middle-aged composer of Ellingtonian ambition: He can’t write melody, he can’t edit himself, he has no feeling for the long form.
All Rise , a 12-movement work that on a grand scale mimics the structure of the 12-bar blues, will not refute the critics exactly. But this recording of the work, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mr. Marsalis’ own Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and no less than three vocal choirs, contains so much strong music, it may yet give the naysayers pause. The work as a whole moves in a succession of near-cinematic quick cuts: lush movie-score string fades to elegant jazz-swing fades to folk-music fiddling, and so on. The total effect is dizzying and not entirely satisfying, but then totality isn’t Mr. Marsalis’ thing. And for all his versatility, Mr. Marsalis’ ear is determinedly old-fashioned, attuned to the upbeat and diatonic, so his celebration of the 21st-century millennium seems closer in spirit to a mid-20th-century populist like Aaron Copland. Pretty respectable company for a guy who’s out of his depth.
Brad Mehldau , Largo (Warner Bros.): Brad Mehldau’s mission: to incorporate the pop music he’s imbibed at Los Angeles’ hip Largo club into his own classically inflected jazz pianism. Toward that end, he temporarily abandons his regular trio for a shape-shifting ensemble and weird miking set-ups that usually make for something interesting happening in and around the piano lines.
In the past, Mr. Mehldau would take a pop tune and deck it out with pretty Chopinesque harmonies. Largo has its Radiohead cover tune (“Paranoid Android”) all right, but this time Mr. Mehldau’s choices serve his larger project of hammering out an original jazz-pop fusional language, harmonically spare, percussive and beautiful in its rather severe way.
Jason Moran , Modernistic (Blue Note): Pity the poor jazz album in 2002, which, one way or another, has to shoulder the weight of jazz history: Is it fresh or just recycled mid-60’s Miles Davis? Mainstream jazz hasn’t done itself any favors either, fetishizing tradition and technique and generally isolating itself from the rest of the musical culture. That’s where Jason Moran comes in. One of two younger and immoderately talented jazz pianists committed to playing themselves out of the post-bop jazz box-see Brad Mehldau, above-Mr. Moran strives to connect with the inventiveness and emotional immediacy of the best pop and the rhapsodic density of the Romantic classical-piano literature.
As if it weren’t enough to suggest insistent hip-hop rhythms with heavily pedaled bass ostinati, or to give Schumann a whirl (“Auf Einer Burg”), Mr. Moran also throws into the mix a dollop of stride, the prewar two-handed school of jazz piano that’s all about instrumental virtuosity and high spirits.
Charm and humor co-exist easily with ambition in Modernistic -which is rare in life, rarer still in modern jazz solo piano. Mr. Moran is never afraid to sound less than polished in the service of chasing down an interesting idea.
Youssou N’Dour , Nothing’s In Vain (Coono du Reer) (Nonesuch): One of the leading lights of triumphal Afro-pop, Mr. N’Dour’s most recent release is a testament to the beauty and suasion of the solo voice, here working ravishingly in three languages, mostly Wolof with smatterings of French and English. Wearing his “praise singer” hat, he urges his people-and by extension, his listeners-to do a better job at the business of life. In “Moor Ndaje,” he memorably advises us not to be so nosy, “even the media doesn’t know it all,” according to the translated lyric sheet. Then he’ll muse wistfully about love or the passing of the seasons. Tribal exhortation and Gallic world-weariness wrapped up in a supple voice that moves between a pinched inspirational tenor and mellow baritone? Well, you can’t improve much on that-especially on this album, which forsakes the sax and synth lines of previous Afro-pop outings for a spare and self-consciously folkloric sound.
Nelly , Nellyville (Universal): Even the most cursory summing-up requires a four-gun salute to Nelly, he of 2002’s ubiquitous “Hot in Herre.” No need to assess the other 18 parental-advisory-protected songs on Nellyville : A single this catchy is the alpha and omega of pop-and besides, didn’t Francis Scott Key pen only one tune himself? This summer, “Hot in Herre” burst into the bars and jukeboxes of America with no less impact. Nelly can hang up his bandanna for good now.
Sinead O’Connor , Sean Nós-Nua (Vanguard) : Somewhere between “Lord Franklin” and “Lord Baker” on this collection of 13 traditional Irish songs, you will find yourself wondering: How can such an angry woman make such beautiful music?
Orchestra Baobab , Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit/Nonesuch): You won’t encounter more sublime music in 2002 than on this album-the sweet fruit, if you will, of the poisoned tree of slavery and colonialism. To sum up a little history: The Cuban son and rumba, shot through with an African rhythmic sensibility courtesy of the slave trade, make their return voyage back to Africa starting in the 1940’s. A Cuban music craze ensues, notably in the French-speaking Senegalese port city of Dakar, whose Club Baobab in 1970 provides a stage and name for the all-star home-grown ensemble, the Orchestra Baobab. The suave, hip-swiveling Cuban style miscegenates with the high, eerie vocals of the “praise singers” from Senegal’s Wolof region and musical history is made-until the mid-80’s, when the Baobab style is commercially shoved aside by the rise of Afro-pop.
Jump forward to 2002, when World Circuit impresario Nick Gold relaunches the Orchestra Baobab with an immaculately recorded reunion album. Specialist in All Styles rocks, from the sinuous Cuban rhythms to the haunting vocals of Ndiouga Dieng to the startlingly virtuosic electric-guitar work of the long-retired Barthelemy Attisso. Even Buena Vista crooner Ibrahim Ferrer, dropped into the mix on one tune, sounds right at home.
Sigur RÓs , ( ) (MCA): Reykjavik might be totally ’98, but Sigur Rós’ sub-zero opacity separates these Icelandic art-rockers from lesser Scandinavian cultural curiosities. For the post-collegiate crowd suckled on the cathedral ambiance of My Bloody Valentine, Sigur Rós animates a brain particle that we perhaps forgot existed.
You get them without quite understanding them, or so the band hopes: Frontman Jon Por Birgisson sings in a medley of Icelandic and an invented pseudo-liturgical dialect rather embarrassingly dubbed “Hopelandic.”
Still, for all its pretensions, Sigur Rós cares more about transport than meaning. Each of the eight dirges on ( ) unfurl over an average of 10 minutes, the effect as lunar as the landscape that inspired them .
Bruce Springsteen , The Rising (Sony): What more is there to say but this: The brilliance of The Rising is that, inasmuch as it honors the dead, it’s really an album about life and how it rolls on-charged with love, passion, anger, pain and the belief that we will be delivered to a better place-even when the world around us goes to hell.
The Streets , Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic): The most impressive hip-hop debut of the year-hell, the most impressive hip-hop album of the year (with apologies to the Roots and Missy Elliott)-was created by a white kid from England’s midsection. Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets, discusses what it’s like to be a Birmingham geezer in his mid-20’s with melodic style, wit aplenty and no attempt to water down the native slang for stateside ears. Some reviewers have claimed that Mr. Skinner doesn’t actually rap; he recites. They need their ears cleaned out. This is rap, all right, just not rap as we’ve known it.
Linda Thompson , Fashionably Late (Rounder): One of the greatest singers in the history of recorded folk music, Ms. Thompson absented herself from the business for 17 years due in part to a prolonged bout with hysterical dysphonia (a psychological condition that renders its victims unable to vocalize). Her long-awaited return to the studio in 2002 yielded results gripping enough to surprise even her most devout followers. Not only is there a pronounced lack of rust on the venerable Thompson pipes-she sounds as vital and commanding as she did three decades ago-but tracks such as “Nine Stone Rig” and “The Banks of the Clyde,” with their ancient-yet-modern timbre and air of melancholy bordering on morbidity, easily hold their own against the now-classic songs she performed in the 1970’s and early 80’s with her then husband, Richard. Aptly enough, Ms. Thompson’s ex guest-stars, but it’s only for one track; the rest is her triumph alone.
Tom Waits , Blood Money (Anti): Tom Waits had drafted himself as our post-apocalyptic carny long before the apocalypse occurred. And on Blood Money , the more visceral of the two albums that he released this year, Mr. Waits proves that he was the right man for the job. There’s something strangely cathartic about listening to him howl, croak and croon his way through “Misery Is the River of the World,” “Everything Goes to Hell,” “God’s Away on Business,” “The Part You Throw Away” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” And on “Coney Island Baby,” he proves that that scraggly soul patch of his stands for something.
Wilco , Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): Their record company thought their new music was too weird and dropped them. So they signed up with another branch of the same multinational conglomerate and promptly had the biggest hit of their career. Hardy har-har . Not that Reprise was wrong; Wilco’s latest is weird. But what the corporate folks missed was that amid the feedback, spaced-out tape loops and grunts of exploding amplifiers lurk a set of very catchy tunes. “Kamera,” “War on War” and the cheery “Heavy Metal Drummer” demonstrate that Jeff Tweedy hasn’t lost his touch for writing hooks, even as “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Radio Cure” show Wilco moving to darker, and deeper, places than they’ve been before.
Peter Wolf , Sleepless (Artemis): Former J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf has always had a gift for conveying the melancholy of lost love and opportunity without drowning a song in self-pity. And yet, this free-spirited collection of bluesy originals and covers-including Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Too Close Together”-is as sweet as it is sad, with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Steve Earle helping to keep it consistently cool. Check out “Five O’Clock Angel,” a song inspired by Mr. Wolf’s encounter with Tennessee Williams. The title is what the playwright called his first drink of the day. P.S.: Will Artemis please remaster and rerelease Mr. Wolf’s first solo album, Lights Out ?