Something Old, Something New (Jason Dungan)
Every year features some good albums, some great albums, and a bunch of crap. 2002 had its share of all three, but somehow, this year's music amounted to more than the sum of its parts. It was a great year for music, one of those years where music feels vibrant and important, the kind of year we haven't had in a while. There were exciting new bands on both sides of the Atlantic, New York sprouted a full-blown scene, and MTV played actual good music from time to time. Even in the quite narrow reaches of indie rock, we had amazing records by Destroyer, Wilco, Low, Sleater-Kinney, and the Mendoza Line. Promising young bands like Interpol and Gogogo Airheart helped make guitars interesting and danceable again; Candlebox remained inactive. Even with all the bullshit hype about the "return" of rock, and the ensuing third-rate Strokes copies, it was a good year for rock.
What made it truly an exceptional year, however, was the resurgence, rebirth, and rediscovery of several veteran bands that not only remain relevant, but continue to release influential music many years after their inception. The first, and perhaps most dramatic resurgence of this sort came from Sonic Youth, who made the year's best album, Murray Street. Theirs was a funny kind of comeback, since they hadn't really gone anywhere. Albums still came out, many of which were quite good; side projects, challenging small-label releases, and a host of collaborators kept things interesting, but something was missing. Sonic Youth were becoming the Woody Allen of indie rock, consistently releasing material and following their muse wherever it took them, with mixed results. Time was when a new SY record ruled without question, rarely leaving the stereo for months. Records like Washing Machine and 1,000 Leaves had moments of true greatness, but their most recent, NYC Ghosts and Flowers, left many fans feeling like the muse had finally departed. When you have to start convincing yourself that an album is good, something's wrong, and that was often the case with Ghosts' spacey, airy drones.
This all changed when Murray Street came on for the first time. The opener, "Empty Page," still stands as one of the band's best "pop" songs, and the three-guitars-and-bass attack made possible by Jim O'Rourke sounds more stunning and complex with each listen. Every track, from the Tom Verlaine-inspired guitar spirals of "Rain on Tin" to Ranaldo's rocking "Karen Revisited", reestablish the Youth as a band capable of simultaneously kicking your ass and blowing your mind. Their summer tour fully confirmed their greatness, with shows every bit as exciting as (I imagine) their shows were twenty years ago.
Live music figured big in what truly shone this year, as newer bands proved themselves and older bands made clear why we liked them in the first place. Interpol was first on this list, using their live show to push past the Joy Division comparisons and stake their claim as the Echo and the Bunnymen of the new millennium. However much one might want to dismiss the band, in concert they were impressive, layering catchy, echoey guitars around tightly constructed post-punk. Singer Paul Banks also seems to have perfected the frontman thing, standing almost perfectly still and emoting with his eyes closed, while the band rages around him. Ian Curtis as pin-up.
But for me, the two highlights of the year were seeing two bands, the Breeders and Fugazi. Both bands have been much-loved for years, but despite making quite an effort, I'd never witnessed a live performance by either. Things were good for the Breeders in 2002, as they emerged from a haze of crack smoke and depression to record a solid album with Steve Albini, Title TK. It was more reminiscent of their earlier, scrappier work, but it's a record that ages well, and the Deal sisters can now sing about regret and anger with real conviction. That said, their show at the Avalon in Boston was approached with a bit of caution. It had been almost ten years since they had played as a fully-functioning unit: would they be good, or just a bloated nostalgia trip? The first thing you notice at a current Breeders concert is their unusual stage set-up, with all five members lined up next to each other, all the exact same distance from the audience. This setup functions somewhat as a visual pun on their wall-of-sound performance aesthetic, with three guitarists and a shit-hot drummer. The new band is impressive, loud, and able to make garage rock sound like the most important, beautiful thing in the world. It helped that the band was so tight, since Kim Deal was plainly stoned, and would occasionally forget lines or flub guitar parts. Rather than derailing the proceedings, however, her state only added to the charm of the music, and the band maintained a solid foundation that kept things moving, even as Kim giggled and "improvised" guitar lines. They played for over two hours, and the show was full of amazing moments: Kelley Deal's ham-fisted but still beautiful violin on "Drivin' on 9"; the lovely and sad "Off of You", stretched out long beyond its normal running time; the taut pop of their recent single "Huffer". It felt like both a return and as if the Breeders had been here all along. Hopefully they'll keep their hands off the pipe long enough to record another album.
The peak of the year, however, was two back-to-back shows by Fugazi in London's Forum. After good opening sets by Q and Not U and Erase Errata, I was instantly transported to being thirteen again, excitedly waiting for Fugazi to take the stage. It's common knowledge that Fugazi are amazing live, but their energy and precision were stunning nonetheless. The shows were epic, hugely energetic celebrations. Ian MacKaye was short on between-song proclamations, preferring the songs to do the work; occasionally, he cracked a few jokes. A second drummer augmented the material from last year's The Argument, which still sounds great; like a synthesis of the band's entire career. Guy Picciotto provided the bulk of the show's performance energy, as he careened around the stage in a spectacular manner, executing backflips and diving mic-grabs that were perfectly timed with his vocals. It's now de rigeur to talk about Fugazi being perceived as an overly serious band, but it's hard to believe that this ever came about given that dancing is an integral part of their show. The band hadn't played in London for almost four years, and this translated into an incredible level of energy as the songs poured out in an almost non-stop frenzy. Fugazi not only sounded amazing, they sounded like the only band that mattered, and even after the euphoria faded, it was difficult to be convinced otherwise. Fifteen years ago, they decided that what a band said and how it said it was just as important as the music it made, and they haven't wavered in this conviction. To see them at this point so many years later was a real inspiration, and in the context of our current political situation, they're needed more than ever.
Honorable mention also goes to Silkworm, simply for making the incredible Italian Platinum, and to Yo la Tengo, for releasing two very different oddities and playing an incredible show in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science documented the music they played to accompany Jean Painleve's surreal nature films during a short tour earlier this year; Nuclear War showcased the band's love of Sun Ra and provided a subtle political jab at our current war-mongering Presidential administration. Their show in Brooklyn this summer was triumphant, the band clearly touched and slightly awed by the multitudes that came to see them. They showcased some new material, which featured frequent use of a grand piano and suggested that their forthcoming album might be one of their best.
So, like most years, there were highs, lows, mostly mediocre in-betweens, but it would seem that 2002 provided more than its share of sublime moments, memorable records, and music that we'll lug around with us for quite awhile. As we move into another year with war looming and the sense that the world could go to shit relatively quickly, perhaps we can appreciate music even more. Art is supposed to provide more than mere entertainment, and this year, from time to time, it did. To close, in the tradition of year-end lists, here is my own. Twenty albums, in no particular order, either released this year or listened to so much that they barged their way in. Happy holidays.
1. Sonic Youth - Murray Street (Interscope)
2. Destroyer - This Night (Merge)
3. Low - Trust (Kranky)
4. Sleater-Kinney - One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)
5. Rolling Stones - Exile on Mainstreet (London)
6. Yo la Tengo - The Sounds of the Sounds of Science / Nuclear War (Egon / Matador)
7. Mendoza Line - Lost In Revelry (Misra)
8. Clinic - Walking With Thee (Domino)
9. Silkworm - Italian Platinum (Touch and Go)
10. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
11. Talking Heads - '77 and Songs About Buildings and Food
12. Bedhead - Beheaded (Trance Syndicate)
13. Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)
14. Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner)
15. Guided By Voices - Universal Truths and Cycles (Matador)
16. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Greatest Hits (Fantasy)
17. NoahJohn - Water Hymns (Killdeer)
18. Fugazi - The Argument (Dischord)
19. Ugly Cassanova - Sharpen Your Teeth
20. Fairline Parkway - s/t (Lazyline)
By Jason Dungan