By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Right now, there's a high-school kid somewhere perfecting a file-sharing system that makes Napster look like Columbia House. There are students working in college dorm rooms on file-compressing software that would render MP3s the equivalent of eight-track tapes. In a few years--or a few months, possibly--there will be technology on the market that will make this year's give-and-take over music on the Internet seem as quaint as those heated discussions in the 1950s about something called television making movie theaters obsolete. We're not on the verge of a digital age; we're in the middle of it. Get used to it.
So MP3s replace CDs, which replaced cassette tapes, which replaced vinyl albums, which replaced shellac 78s, and so on. Who cares? It's only one more way to listen to music, another way that will never completely replace the one before it. Honestly, thanks to firewalls at work and slow connections at home, Napster is just another idea that may sound good in theory, but that I don't really have anything to do with. Kind of like communism. And as far as Napster being the new radio, well, it probably is, because I don't listen to that either. Something about keeping my sanity appeals to me. Silly me.
Lost amid the various digital-music debates and depositions was the fact that more good music came out this year than I could figure out what to do with; after all, there are only six slots available in the CD changer in the car, and only 24 hours in a day. Centro-matic and the pAper chAse both put out records (in Centro-matic's case, two) that were too big for this city to hold, and Bright Eyes and Grandaddy took sad songs and made them better. The Apples in Stereo showed Britney and the Backstreets what pop was really all about--like anyone cares--and Queens of the Stone Age reclaimed rock from Korn and Limp Bizkit and the rest of the Luckiest Bands Ever. (Seriously, if cursing is a talent, consider me your reigning Star Search champion.) Built to Spill released a live album that actually lived, complete with a 19-minute version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" that felt as if it should have and could have lasted an hour. Ghostface Killah, Jurassic 5, Deltron 3030, and the ever-present RZA proved that hip-hop was more than just shock politics and tabloid fodder, while Outkast saw and raised all of them. Both Björk and PJ Harvey managed to get Radiohead's Thom Yorke to sing into a microphone instead of out of his ass for a change. (Kid A? More like Kid Ain't.) And Johnny Cash proved that rumors of his demise had been greatly exaggerated. Again.
It was a good year. Trust me.
The following are not necessarily the best records of the year, but rather, an alphabetical list of my favorites; remember, there is a difference. These are the ones that hit me in the ear and the gut and the nuts, occasionally in that order, and sometimes not. What follows is strictly my opinion, and yours may vary drastically--that's why it's called an opinion. And who knows: A year from now, I might look back at this list and regret one or all of these; Destiny's Child, I think I'm looking in your direction. That said, if you haven't heard them yet, I urge all of you to seek out these albums and songs as soon as possible. More than likely, they're all available on MP3.
At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command (Grand Royal): Forget the Sweathog hair and the Beasties seal of approval, At the Drive-In doesn't need any gimmicks--just plenty of room and a sturdy set of speakers. With lyrics straight out of an encyclopedia and a Ross Robinson-produced wailing wall of sound that's heavier than a library full of Encyclopedia Britannicas, Relationship of Command is intense and intelligent and fun, a fist fight with Ian MacKaye and Jon Stewart on commentary.
Badly Drawn Boy, The Hour of Bewilderbeast (XL Recordings); Elliott Smith,Figure 8 (DreamWorks): You only wonder how much better both of these records would have been if Damon Gough (otherwise known as Badly Drawn Boy) and Elliott Smith had editors, someone to trim away the extraneous handful of songs that linger on both discs. Of course, flawed greatness is still greatness, and any album with such near-perfect songs as "LA" and "Stupidity Tries" (Smith's Figure 8) or "Everybody's Stalking" and "Pissing in the Wind" (BDB's Bewilderbeast) must be forgiven a few errors in judgment. Gough wins a few extra points for writing the best song Paul Simon never got around to, "This Song."