Scavenger Hunt

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.
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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky