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.
Joseph Arthur, Come to Where I'm From (Real World/Virgin): Don't think I want to take Joseph Arthur up on his offer, because where he's from, people are happiest when they're sad and are prone to saying things like, "Swallowing a thousand pills/Trying to change how I feel/There's just too much time to kill/Between all my mistakes." Or, "Can't find my smile or my gratitude/I'm afraid of what I might do/'Cause there's no me/If there's no me and you." Good times, eh? On Come to Where I'm From, Arthur proves he's a troubadour for the 21st century, with one hand on his acoustic guitar, the other on his sequencer, and tears on both sleeves.
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."
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American Recordings): Only Johnny Cash could make songs so identified with other singers ("I Won't Back Down," "Solitary Man," and "One") sound so much like his own. Tom Petty, Merle Haggard, Will Oldham, Sheryl Crow, and a host of others come along for the ride, but Cash might as well be the only member of the cast. He hasn't sounded this good, this alive, in years. Somehow, the voice of God and the devil live inside one man.
Chappaquiddick Skyline, Chappaquiddick Skyline (Sub Pop): Backed by music-box guitars and don't-wake-the-baby harmonies, Joe Pernice sums up Chappaquiddick Skyline (the band and the record) one line in: "I hate my life." And it's all downhill from there.
Destiny's Child, "Independent Women, Pt. 1" (Sony Music): Try hearing this song once and not end up singing it for the next week, even if you don't want to. They might be the new Supremes, but I'm not sure if it's in terms of talent, or just because Beyoncé Knowles is planning to become the first independent woman in the group, with a solo debut due next year. Throw your hands up at that.
Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis Records): Still not sure if I'm actually in love with Transcendental Blues or just Steve Earle's version of Nirvana's "Breed" on the bonus disc that comes with some pressings. Guess it doesn't matter, since both rescue Earle from a series of well-intentioned if not terribly exciting albums, including his brief and volatile partnership with bluegrass great Del McCroury. "Everyone's in Love With You" shows off his Beatles fixation more than any other song on here, but they all seem to be window-shopping on Abbey Road. The older and sober Earle meets his young and fucked-up version head-on, resulting in a record that's neither rock nor country, just great.
Various Artists, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Epic/Razorsharp/Sony Music Soundtrax): You wanna know why The W, the Wu-Tang Clan's third go-'round, was so weak? Because The RZA wasted all of his good beats on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's retelling of Tsunetomo Yamamoto's samurai how-to Hagakure. (And no, I didn't know who wrote it either before I looked in the liner notes.) Forest Whitaker's gravelly recitations from Hagakure pop up occasionally, as they do in the film, so the only thing missing from the Ghost Dog soundtrack is Cliff Gorman's Flavor Flav homage. Which, if you've seen it, is quite a bit.
Jurassic 5, Quality Control (Interscope): Nothing new here, and in fact, that's probably why it works so well. Straddling the gap between the old and new schools, MCs Chali 2Na, Marc 7, Zaakir, and Akil trade rhymes like baseball cards while DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark stay out of the way like the best jazz sidemen, never letting you see them sweat.
J Mascis + The Fog, More Light (Ultimatum Music): Who cares if J Mascis already made this album?
Outkast, Stankonia (LaFace): Though Andre 3000 and Big Boi lost a step after 1998's Aquemini, how can you fault a disc that contains the two best hip-hop singles of the year--"B.O.B." and "Mrs. Jackson?" Fuck Limp Bizkit: "B.O.B." is where rock and hip-hop (and electronica and funk and pretty much everything else) come together. The only way I know Eminem hasn't heard this is that he hasn't given up yet.
Queens of the Stone Age, "Feel Good Hit of the Summer"; U2, "Beautiful Day" (Interscope): Hands down, the two best rock singles of the year. Though, strictly speaking, any song with the lyrics, "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy and alcohol"--and that, by the way, is the entire lyric sheet--has to have the edge.
Radiohead, "Optimistic (Live from Dublin)" (Capitol): What Kid A could/should have sounded like. It's clear from the security-camera video MTV2 shows once an hour that they enjoy playing this way. So why don't they? The bastards.
The Wannadies, Yeah (BMG): Instantly catchy, with huge choruses, more harmonies than a boy-band audition, and melodies that immediately reprogram your internal jukebox. This is pop music at its finest, 14 songs that shake your ass, loosen your lips, and lower your defenses. Yeah is irrepressible and irresistible, the kind of disc that never overstays its welcome in the CD player.
The Waxwings, Low to the Ground (Bobsled); The Figgs, Sucking in Stereo (Hearbox): An entire library of rock and pop on two too-short discs. The Waxwings and The Figgs don't over-think things here, remembering that rock and roll was, is, and always will be about what three or four guys can do within the guitarbassdrums setup with nothing except blood, sweat, and cigarettes--and in The Figgs' case, a cowbell--to help them along. You may hear a little bit of every one of your favorite records on Low to the Ground and Sucking in Stereo, but it's only the beginning, never the whole story.
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