You'll love anything you got for free, and if you don't think that's true, you've never seen a free-pass preview audience applaud a Rob Schneider movie. That's why Aimee Mann's tuneless-soulless Lost in Space tops some tone-deaf crits' year-end lists, why Beck's Sea Change is praised as a "masterpiece" when it's really just a little moody (upon 12th listen, I'm allowed to change my opinion, damn it), why Elvis Costello's When I Was Cruel is hailed as a "return to roots" when it's really a "return to used-CD stores," why writers keep taking a trip to Nellyville when they're really dying to take the exit ramp and why some schmoes keep trying to push Raphael Saadiq and Musiq as the hottest things to happen to cool since Terence Trent D'Arby proved neither fish nor foul. See what you're playing a year from now: Odelay or Sea Change, I'm With Stupid or Lost in Space, This Year's Model or When I Was Cruel. If you answer the latter even once, well, you're just lying.
Not that I'm totally prepared to bite the hand that feeds my family (and you need something to sell back in order to buy what you really want). Sleater-Kinney's One Beat, Badly Drawn Boy's About a Boy, Missy Elliott's Under Construction and N.E.R.D.'s In Search Of... are all doing exceptional pro bono work in the car's 10-CD changer. The first beats The Rising for post-September 11 commentary, the middle has more to say than BDB's "proper" 2002 release and the latter two prove the hip and the hop can make lowbrow art soar to exquisite heights.
But rare is the insurrection that takes place while everyone's watching (and listening); the true revolutionary does his or her dirty work under the cover of darkness. It just happens: One day you wake up and Christina Aguilera's jamming with the Strokes or Britney's singing over the Skatalites, and suddenly a cruel world seems a little friendlier. You don't know how it happened, really, or who's responsible--someone named Freelance Hellraiser, like a music-biz or journalism superhero--only that the road blocks have been torn down to reveal a freshly paved interstate that stretches past the horizon.
Most of what got me hot and bothered came after a long day of hunting and returning with fresh kill--something downloaded, something illicit, something long-ago buried and recently retrieved from an excavation site, something purloined and purchased under the counter. (Strange, but at year's end, what reminded me of how much I love rock and pop was a book about rock and pop: Nick Hornby's McSweeney's-published Songbook, a sort of musical autobiography in which he writes, among so many other things, that the first time About a Boy meant anything to him was when he heard the soundtrack to the movie based on his own book; strange the curves life in the batter's box will throw you.) In all their grousing about the decline in CD sales, industry bizzers miss the point completely: Why buy stale product from the grocery-store shelves when there's plenty of fresh produce to be bought and borrowed from the back of a farmer's pickup or the side of the road?
For some reason, my year-end bests feel sturdier than those celebrated in years past. Maybe it's the peek some provide behind the velvet curtain of creation; found here are demos of old standards and some that should be. Or maybe it's the inventiveness of the anonymous troublemakers who fashioned new music out of old trash; I may be growing weary of the mash-up, but the virgin still finds them beguiling and not a little taxing. And, damn it, there's something special about a year when Oasis stops covering the Beatles and owns up to its debt to the Who, God rest John Entwistle.
The Best Album of 2002 (Not Properly Released in the United States, But Still): That Out of Season, fashioned from misery and magic by Portishead's Beth Gibbons and Talk Talk's Paul "Rustin Man" Webb, sells for top-dollar import isn't the beef; it's worth every penny and pound and then some. But when the year's best album, on which Gibbons peels back some very strange fruit and sounds like Nina Simone fronting a choir of grievous angels and an orchestra of muted strings down in the Motown studios circa 2012, has no U.S. distribution at all, well, all your questions about the bankruptcy of the American music biz are answered in one tear-stained sitting. Also, Best Singles of 2002 Not Properly Released in the United States: Norah Jones' "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," and bless her for saying so, and Oasis' "My Generation," which you can't put down. Also, Best Compilation of 2002 Not Properly Released in the United States: Both Sides Now: The Spirit of Americana, on which BMG Ireland finds on two exceptional discs room enough for Warren Zevon and the Flaming Lips, Josh Rouse and Hope Sandoval. Wait, uh, is she American? No matter.
Bootlegs, Mash-Ups and Other Acts of (R)Evolution: What began as a trickle in 2001 turned into a flood come 2002: one un/official disc (Soulwax's 2 Many DJ's, legit in Belgium but not elsewhere), one wholly illicit comp (The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever..., which stretches it but not by much) and hundreds of other monster mash-ups spread across dozens of clearing-house Web sites credited to the likes of Go Home Productions, Ultra396 and the aptly named Bastard Pop. Too many favorites to name, too many missteps to recall, but in all a brilliant year for bedroom geniuses swiping from pop's past to craft a delirious future in which Missy Elliott busts one over Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Britney does it one more time with the O'Jays' "Back Stabber," Basement Jaxx loses its head to the Hives (and the Talking Heads, even better), Madonna turns in a "Bittersweet Symphony," Public Enemy does "The Charleston," Iggy Pop pushes it real good with Salt 'N' Pepa, Prodigy gives it up for "Independent Women" everywhere, Kool Keith took Cheryl Lynn to a disco and Eminem cuddled up with Morrissey (and everyone else, pretty much). "If you think about it," writes Nick Hornby in his Songbook, "bootlegging is more democratic than punk." And more danceable.
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On the Download: Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tops crits' year-end lists, but its illegitimate stepsister is even better: Somewhere on the Web lurk two discs' worth of YHF demos, which contain not only enormously altered versions of official tracks (a hard-rocking "Kamera," say) but a mess of tracks inexplicably left off the Reprise-to-Nonesuch release. I'd pit "Magazine Called Sunset" and "Not for the Season" against anything on YHF, and dare say they'd win without breaking much of a sweat. Wilco should make like XTC's Andy Partridge, who's pocketing short green by selling two volumes' worth of new and old experiments, the Fuzzy Warbles series, at www.xtcidearecords.co.uk; for no extra quid, they arrive with Mr. P's autograph.
Also found on the Net, free for the taking with permission: some 16 demos from the forthcoming Weezer album (tops: "Modern Dukes" and "Hey Domingo!," which prove Rivers C. isn't quite over Pinkerton, blessedly); Redd Blood Cells, Steve McDonald's thunderous bass-hit version of the White Stripes' outta-nowhere hit record; dozens of odds and sods available from Pete Townshend's eeelpie.com, including plenty of Who live (when John E. lived), low-fi demos, a sweet "Goin' Up the Country" and the for-Web-purchase-only twofer Scoop 3; and the r.e.m.ix collection, wherein R.E.M. let the likes of Her Space Holiday and Chef tinker with a handful of bad R.E.M. songs, none of which were saved nor slaughtered in this tepid incarnation. Best of all: On bobdylan.com, Mr. Mumbles pays in-concert homage to the dead (George Harrison, "Something") and the dying (Warren Zevon, "Mutineer"), and only the moribund won't feel their heart skip a beat.
And There's a Magazine, Too?: Reason No. 3,274 why British music magazines will always be more relevant than their American counterparts: They come with compilation CDs worth more than the price of the mag itself. Uncut provided two of the year's best collections: the two-volume Hard Rain set, wherein the likes of Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg, Johnny Marr, the Charlatans, Sonic Youth and 25 other estimables do mighty justice to Bob Dylan; and Instant Karma 2002, which gathers rare and exclusive tracks by Weller, Roddy Frame, the Pretenders, Mercury Rev, Ash, Robert Wyatt and a dozen others bending knee to John Lennon. Stuck to the front of Mixmag's September ish was The Mongo Hotline, on which Earl Zinger reduced "Song 2" to a dubbed-out blur. Mojo's June issue arrived with The Score, which gathered 20 tracks from swinging, "ultra-cool" and hard-to-find soundtracks, among them Quincy Jones' "Something's Cookin'" (The Italian Job) Elmer Bernstein's "Frankie Machine" (The Man with the Golden Arm) and Roy Budd's "Get Carter."
Love You Live: Never did go in for live bootlegs; you just had to be there, dig? But I'll make exceptions for these two direct-from-soundboard scores, highlights of 2002's biggest tours. The Rising Tour 2002, recorded before and after MTV cut away from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's Video Music Award performance of "The Rising," bests the official release and then some; the falling rain rinses the material of its pretensions, and you're left attending not a memorial service, which is what The Rising sounds like, but a wake among good friends. Appropriate the setting is the Museum of Natural History as Boss and band play fast and loose with new and old cuts, among them the string-Steen "Lonesome Day," "Thunder Road" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." A close second is Live Licks, plundered from the August night the Rolling Stones played to a thou in Toronto and rescued from the dustbin such gems as "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose"; turns out Mick's not as old as he looks after all. Same for Keef, who died in 1994.