Sunday, August 17, 2008

Look Back in Anger #2

Look Back in Anger #2
by John M. Cunningham

What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? The intention of this column is to go back in the ol’ time machine to examine the albums that we personally named the best of a given year and see if we still feel the same way about them. Did they age well? Do we still play them? Did we leave off an album that we’re now kicking ourselves over? These are the questions we will be asking ourselves in this WWIA? Series.

This week, ex-Stylus alum John M. Cunningham reexamines his top 10 albums of 2002.

It was a few days after Christmas, 2002, while on vacation with my family in New York, and I was rambling at my dad about how guilty I felt for not having seen more movies or heard more albums over the course of the year. How could I justifiably put together a meaningful top 10 list when I had so many blind spots? My dad didn't get all the agony. "You make it sound," he interrupted, "like you're some sort of working critic."

He had a point. This was months before I started a blog and a whole two years before I was deemed qualified enough to participate in the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll. I was writing for nobody. But mine was a generation weaned on Siskel & Ebert and Entertainment Weekly, and I had friends whose voracious appetites for pop culture resulted in a barrage of e-mails at year's end, trading lists of favorites. As someone who, at age 13, proudly designated winners of the 1st Annual JMC Movie Awards, I was hardly immune to these kinds of diversions. In fact, I took them embarrassingly seriously. Not long before I arrived in New York I'd had a dispute with my friend Matt, for instance, over whether or not critics' top 10s should be purposefully eclectic (he voted yes; I was put off by anything that bore any trace of dishonesty and loudly said so).

So of course I had attempted to assemble a list of my favorite albums of 2002 on the plane ride over, and a month and a half later, once I got over whatever trepidation I felt about my critical myopia, I revised it and posted it on the I Love Music message board, as follows:

1. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights

2. Do Make Say Think, & Yet & Yet

3. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

4. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes

5. Mum, Finally We Are No One

6. Archer Prewitt, Three

7. Pretty Girls Make Graves, Good Health

8. The Notwist, Neon Golden

9. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

10. Enon, High Society

There are a couple of things that make this snapshot interesting to me in retrospect. For one, though I had frequently pored over the best-of issues published by magazines like Spin, I didn't always make it a priority to actually hear the albums mentioned therein, instead choosing to follow my own increasingly rarefied tastes (by the turn of the decade, this meant mostly post-rock and lounge-pop). In 2002, however, I was reading Pitchfork more regularly than before (my brother, whom I lived with, was an intern there), and it suddenly seemed important to expand my listening habits, especially toward the guitar-based indie rock the site lionized.

The other thing is that shortly after I compiled this list, my musical taste would undergo a more significant shift, as the twin influences of ILM (discovered February 2003) and Limewire (downloaded July 2003) made me more sympathetic to hip-hop, chart-pop, and electronic dance music in particular, and hungrier to explore new music in general.

The main conclusion to be drawn here is that 2002 was a transitional year for me musically, which makes this list a perfect candidate for some ex-post-facto reconstruction. In the last couple of weeks, I've re-listened to everything above, along with a slate of more than a dozen other contenders, to determine which of these albums hold up six years later and which might be swapped out. Let's start from the top.

* * *


After Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights came out, you couldn't mention you liked it without having to fend off accusations that the band was a too-chic Joy Division rip-off. I strenuously argued against this claim, partly out of a firm belief that there was nothing wrong with derivativeness per se (I defended the Strokes a year before, too), but also partly because, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" excluded, I had never actually heard Joy Division. Turns out it didn't matter. Not only is it apparent to me now that Interpol borrowed from a whole host of early '80s Anglo mope-rock bands, but even hearing their fifth or sixth supposed influence has done little to lessen the appeal of this record. The tight, insistent rhythm section provides a superb foil for Paul Banks's preposterous non-sequiturs (which, like Morrissey's, are a trip to sing along to), and there are a handful of transcendent moments: I still get a rush when the drums kick back in near the end of "PDA." Their subsequent albums have suffered from diminishing returns, but this one's a keeper.


Another reason why I consider 2002 a transitional year is that I got a new iMac that summer and with it one of the most life-changing software applications I've known: iTunes. Nowadays the first thing I'll do upon buying a new CD is import it into iTunes, for ease of listening later. Back then, however, I didn't fully appreciate how awesome it would be to have my entire record collection at my instantaneous disposal, and so plenty of albums from around that time never made it onto the digital realm. Do Make Say Think's & Yet & Yet, a spacey, rhythmically jazzy Canadian post-rock record, was one of them. It's a challenge to re-evaluate something you haven't heard in several years (at some point I stopped listening to CDs altogether, and I had to dig this one out of a box in the closet), since you're never sure if your enjoyment is merely a result of enough time having elapsed to make it seem novel. But in fact, the reason I feel okay about hanging onto this album is because my recent listen wasn't surprising or revelatory at all. It was comfortable, like a lot of post-rock is for me. That expansive mix of shuffling drums and loping guitar lines seemed like something I could keep listening to for a while. So it, too, makes the cut.


Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a good example of an album I probably wouldn't have bothered with but for an inclination that year to keep up with critically lauded rock music. I liked the twangy "Box Full of Letters," from A.M., which got some local radio play when I was in high school, but I thought about the band so rarely over the next few years that I was somewhat caught off-guard when friends from college began to praise Being There and Summerteeth. Here's the boring truth, though: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the best Wilco album and, despite demurrals from the likes of Robert Christgau, one of the best albums of 2002, as well. It's not because it's "weird," though I do dig Tweedy's postmodern poetry and Kotche's ramshackle pots-and-pans approach to percussion. The album's main virtue is as a stellar collection of well-crafted songs, and the best of the lot (the mournful "Jesus, Etc.") is in fact one of the most conventional. Wilco's next two records are worthwhile but flawed (however much I love Nels Cline's rippling guitar solos); given the choice, I'll stick with this one.


Now here's where things get interesting. When ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Source Tags & Codes was released, I readily cottoned to the band's noisy art-rock aesthetic, which seemed equal parts Sonic Youth ("How Near How Far") and Fugazi ("Baudelaire"). It's another record I hadn't heard in maybe five years, however, and when I tried it on again, I was struck by two things: one, how the songs still sparkled, and two, how I had unfairly maligned Sonic Youth's Murray Street. There's an attractive swagger on the Trail of Dead record, but in putting it at #4 I know I was also swayed by Pitchfork's 10.0 review (that and the review of Wilco a month later were the last two perfect scores the site would give out for new albums) and the album's undeniable ambition and cohesiveness, qualities I don't generally value as highly in today's mp3-inundated environment. Murray Street, meanwhile, seemed to fall off toward the end (my friend Emily claimed that "Plastic Sun" was the only cut she liked; I thought it was annoyingly inept) and overall didn't feel like the big best-in-10-years comeback many reviews had promised. I still think it's an imperfect record -- it mostly sounds like a rehearsal for the superior follow-ups, which carve diamonds out of that cool jammy haze -- but it's an imperfect record by one of my favorite bands of all time, and there are moments here (the tangled solos on "Rain on Tin," especially) that a band like Trail of Dead wishes it could match.


In 2002 I didn't have anything against electronic music conceptually; I was just skeptical of what was played in clubs. In fact, I was thrilled to discover Múm's Finally We Are No One, since it grafted melancholic melodies onto a strain of otherwise icy, abstract IDM. I still think highly of "Green Grass of Tunnel" and "We Have a Map of the Piano," both delicately anchored by the bewitching Valtýsdottír sisters' ethereal vocals, but much of the album's second half now sounds tedious and formulaic; there's only so much lonely, sighing melodica one can take. These days I prefer Out Hud's S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D., which, dumb title notwithstanding, makes richer use of its "organic" materials (scratchy guitar, doleful cello) as counterpoint to its electronic beats. Plus, it's danceable. The band's second album is arguably stronger, but it lacks a single moment as gripping as the climax to "Dad, There's a Little Phrase Called Too Much Information," when that frantic twisted-metal synth-noise reaches a fever pitch, then simply falls away.


As a fan of the Sea and Cake, I was naturally drawn to dashing guitarist Archer Prewitt's solo work, and Three didn't disappoint. More '70s orchestral pop than the stripped-down, jazz-inflected style of his usual band, the album was crammed with full-blown sunshine-filled hooks, and most tracks took a clever or unexpected zig-zag or two between start and finish. But I hardly ever listen to it today, and I think that's because, as impressive an achievement as it is, it often feels overstuffed and devoid of personality beneath the expertly constructed, complexly arranged songs. There's more life to be found in the Aluminum Group's Happyness, an equally effortless indie-pop production from fellow Chicago scenesters John and Frank Navin. After experimenting with a different producer for each of their three previous records, the Navin brothers decided to take charge themselves on this one (though John McEntire is credited as an engineer), and the result is probably the best record of their careers. These are sleek, minimalist synth-pop songs that seem tailor-made for iPod headphones (indeed, as of this album, the Navins replaced their live band with an iPod backing track), with lush, buoyant harmonies bespeaking love and loss. I honestly have no idea why I snubbed this at the time.


I once wrote a treatise on emo in which I confessed that while never a full-fledged fan of the genre, I've dallied in it enough to find a few gems here and there. One such find that I somehow failed to mention was Pretty Girls Make Graves, whose 2002 debut, Good Health, wowed me from its first explosive note. It's a short album, just shy of a half-hour, but within that span it packs a lot of raw, infectious attitude, as Andrea Zollo's hopped-up snarls navigate a thicket of darting, swerving guitars. Since this sort of rough-hewn rock (emo or not) is still only an occasional pleasure of mine, and I've never even heard anything else they've done, I nearly surprised myself by deciding to keep it on the list, but recent listens sounded pretty rad. (Recommended, by the way, to those still mourning the demise of Be Your Own Pet.)


In my first-ever blog post (April 2003, yo), I praised the early-decade trend of blending analog melodies and glitchy rhythms, a microgenre that Rob Mitchum, in a Pitchfork review, termed "lap-pop." The Múm album above fit my conception of the aesthetic, as did the Books' Thought for Food (which I also auditioned for this piece), but the best example I had was probably the Notwist's Neon Golden, a pristine, spacious chamber-pop album decorated with crushing, skittering beats. (For some reason a measure of wistfulness was also central to this hybrid sound, and the Notwist had it in spades.) I've gone back to this one on and off for the last few years, but hearing a track like "The One with the Freaks," in which Markus Acher's fragile vocals set up a sudden outbreak of warm alt-rock guitar, made retaining this album a no-brainer.


Okay, I have to admit something now. I haven't re-listened to a lick of the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. That's partly because it never made it onto my iPod, but it's mostly because I don't like it anymore and don't want to reconsider. At the time I even defended it to detractors who considered it a step down from The Soft Bulletin; as a fan since Clouds Taste Metallic, I was happy to see them forging new directions, especially the foray into drum'n'bass on "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21." But not long after, I saw the band in an auditorium with Beck and began to be irked by Wayne Coyne's dumbshit grin and huckster routine; later, what I realized about "Do You Realize??" was that it was unforgivably mawkish, and when the bland "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon" won a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance, it felt like an affront. In 2008 the band feels like a relic of my nothing-but-indie-rock past, and so I take a perverse pleasure in substituting them here with a bona fide pop star: Justin Timberlake. I've often said that "Cry Me a River" was the song that perked up my ears and taught me how to love Top 40 again (via an accidental encounter on the radio), but the first eight tracks of Justified -- from the dazzling disco workout "Rock Your Body" to the luxurious ballad "Take It From Here" -- are all so solid and engaging that they make up for the album's admittedly weak back half. Like Coyne, Timberlake's a natural showman, but he benefits from better songs.


Lastly, I couldn't find much to quibble with on Enon's High Society, an album full of weird, tuneful nuggets of indie rock, some of which bear traces of singer John Schmersal's old spazz-rock band Brainiac, and others of which feature dance tempos and girlish vocals from Toko Yasuda. (My favorite cut is still the spiky "Natural Disasters.") Compared with the bulk of indie rock in 2002, Enon was plenty quirky, but if album covers are anything to judge by, let it be noted that a fun day-glo collage is one thing, but a cartoon of yourself in the form of a merman, playing the piano with your fins and the drums with your tail, is quite another. I didn't hear Max Tundra's Mastered by Guy at the Exchange until a couple of years after its release, after some glowing recommendations on ILM, but the scope of its sonic palette -- jumping from sped-up Casio jazz to spooky ambient burbles to a harmonium interlude that reminds me of Badly Drawn Boy -- drew me in immediately. Amazingly, Tundra also manages to weave in some strangely catchy melodies amidst all the hyperactivity. Six years later, and there's not much else that sounds like it.

* * *

So that's it. But there's no way I can rank these again without another prolonged bout of agony, so I'm going to be semi-scientific (and semi-bullshit) about it and list them in order of their iTunes play counts since mid-2003 (averaging out the number of tracks and not giving a shit that some of these weren't even in my library until a week ago):

1. Justin Timberlake, Justified*

2. The Aluminum Group, Happyness

3. Out Hud, S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D.

4. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights

5. The Notwist, Neon Golden

6. Pretty Girls Make Graves, Good Health

7. Max Tundra, Mastered by Guy at the Exchange

8. Do Make Say Think, & Yet & Yet

9. Sonic Youth, Murray Street

10. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

*Yes, I've played "Rock Your Body" 44 times.

And for a sampling of each album, check out

John M. Cunningham was a staff writer for Stylus Magazine and has recently written profiles of Timbaland and Miley Cyrus for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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Blogger hutlock said...

That was an awe-inspiring post, JMC. Just great.

August 20, 2008 at 9:28 AM  

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