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Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2002

Yancey Strickler's Favorite Recordings Of 2002

Neumu's Yancey Strickler writes: In terms of great music, 2002 is as good a year as I can remember. It says a lot that when making this list, and my year-end mix of favorite singles, I had to make revision after revision to include incredible songs and albums I had briefly forgotten. In the end I came up with this list of 30 albums I'd obsessed over at one time or another. I realize it's lengthy and my descriptions are sometimes a bit lacking (the list is daunting — even for me!), but please read it through to the end. These albums are worth your time.

1. And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes (Interscope): The last thing needed is another pure rock album, but it's hard to deny one as good as this. Trail of Dead's Sonic Youth/Unwound homage served them well on the first two records, but Source Tags & Codes finds the Texas quartet eschewing artier impulses and locking onto big guitar sounds. It suits them perfectly.

2. 90 Day Men, To Everybody (Southern): Despite its predictability and weary tone, I was a big fan of 90 Day Men's last album, 2000's (It (Is) It) Critical Band. To Everybody is such a monumental leap — in such aspects as songwriting, arrangements and vocal ability — that it makes Critical Band seem an embarrassment. Check out "Last Night, a DJ Saved My Life" and the silky, Morrissey-bashing "A National Car Crash," in particular.

3. Hella, Hold Your Horse Is (5RC): Lo and behold — Hella, a duo from Sacramento, Calif., released a math-rock benchmark in Hold Your Horse Is, with astonishing musicianship and a heavy emphasis on metal, long after the pseudo-genre had aptly been declared dead.

4. Michael Mayer, Immer (Kompakt): I was a latecomer to this record, and the Kompakt microhouse sound in general (well documented by Neumu's Philip Sherburne in The Wire), but I've become a swift convert. Subtle, fluid and completely engrossing, this seamless compilation of 13 tracks is stunning from beginning to end.

5. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice): The best hip-hop album of the year. The key to Original Pirate Material is its laziness — Mike Skinner tosses off day-to-day lines clunkily, but with a sense of relaxed ease that contrasts perfectly with the jumpy beats.

6. Metro Area, Metro Area (Environ): A veteran pair of DJs creates an album that nicks from every conceivable source and emerges with a sound that's surprising yet familiar. Funk, electro, disco, rock, house — all of it sewn together with reckless abandon.

7. Missy Elliott, Under Construction (Elektra): Missy goes for broke on the futuristic "Work It" and scores big, yet the rest of Under Construction is decidedly retro. In Missy's typical genius timing, the '80s wistfulness is spot on. She's consistently great, and the bright-eyed longing of cuts like "Bring the Pain" and "Gossip Folks" re-appropriates the nostalgia of the Baby Boomers (minus the curmudgeon-ness, of course).

8. Thomas Fehlmann, Visions of Blah (Kompakt): More great German microhouse from Kompakt. Fehlmann actually appears on the aforementioned Immer with the swinging "Gratis," and his full-length is just as good. "Streets of Blah" grooves best, and the album as a whole is nicely hypnotic.

9. Isis, Oceanic (Ipecac): A stellar aquatic concept album that bites equally from Neurosis and Tortoise. Oceanic opens and closes with a graveled growl, but hovers in between with a sensuous formlessness.

10. Various Artists, Chains and Black Exhaust (Jones): This compilation contains absolutely zero information on its contents. No artists are named, no tracks listed. The songs, culled from old 45s from the early '70s (a guess), come across like Jimi Hendrix fronting Booker T. & the MG's, with acid-drenched guitars and crazy-tight rhythm sections.

11. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): So the breathless tone of my Neumu review seemed to destine this record for the top of my year-end list. Yet even though Jeff Tweedy has been one of my favorite songwriters since Uncle Tupelo's sparse March 16-20, 1992, the power of this record has waned significantly in the past year. There's some great stuff here, but much of it feels cold to me now.

12. Hot Snakes, Suicide Invoice (Swami) AND Rocket From the Crypt, Live From Camp X-Ray (TVT): Automatic Midnight, the Hot Snakes debut, still tops the follow-up, but Suicide Invoice is a startling collection of great songs performed with the vigor that frontmen Rick Froberg and John "Speedo" Reis first displayed with Drive Like Jehu. And Speedo struck gold twice this year: The latest from his Rocket From the Crypt outfit is a strong album ruminating on the aftermath of 9/11, sounding emboldened as a result.

14. Xinlisupreme, Tomorrow Never Comes (Fat Cat): A Japanese duo that strips sheets of white noise into poppish cuts that recall the glory days of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Contains the unsettlingly murky "All You Need Is Love Was Not True," one of the year's best.

15. Liars, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Gern Blandsten): Since I'd been turned off by their live sets, where frontman Angus Andrew comes across like a poor Aussie's Gibby Haynes, this album was a shocker. A perfect blend of dance and punk, it shines from start to, well, the second to last song, anyway.

16. Secret Machines, September 000 (Ace Fu): While this debut EP is strong, you only need to hear one song, "It's a Bad Wind That Don't Blow Somebody Some Good." In several years, when this young NY-via-Texas trio launches yet another stadium tour in support of their Pink Floyd-derived stardom, it'll be the one fans clamor for. And rightly so.

17. tenEcke, Block Terrain (K20): A criminally overlooked album from Wayne Magruder, drummer for New York's soon-to-be-renowned trio Calla; it blends his talent for creating stuttering beats and the Ennio Morricone-style guitar of (fellow Calla player) Aurelio Valle. It's simultaneously dreary and hopeful, a mishmash of emotions and sounds that perfectly mix.

18. Out Hud, S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. (Kranky): Sometimes electro, sometimes punk, sometimes funk, sometimes hip-hop ... you've got the idea. The most assimilable quintet since Voltron.

19. El-P, Fantastic Damage (Definite Jux): As a rapper, El-P's wit pales in comparison to labelmates Cannibal Ox, and his vocabulary rides backseat to Aesop Rock. But in terms of creating moody tones, his only peer might be Nick Cave.

20. Broken Spindles, Broken Spindles (Tiger Style): The solo debut from the Faint's Joel Petersen easily cancels out the lifelessness of Danse Macabre with 11 intricately-constructed instrumental tracks that touch on electro, early electronic and straight dance music. "Matte," the album's best cut, must be heard.

21. The Walkmen, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (Star Time): The Walkmen dress up their reaching melodies in ill-fitting clothes (the vocals often slower than the rhythms and vice versa), always keeping the tunes alluringly off balance.

22. The Roots, Phrenology (MCA): It's too long, and thus tough to get through in one listen, but there are many stellar sounds here, most notably the barroom groove of "The Seed 2.0."

23. Nina Nastasia, The Blackened Air (Touch & Go): Gorgeous songs with even better arrangements, Nina Nastasia's latest is a spellbinding lament.

24. Do Make Say Think, & Yet & Yet (Constellation): Their best to date. Disappointed Godspeed You! Black Emperor fans should turn to this similarly orchestral release, which downplays the melodramatic in favor of thoughtful melodies.

25. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge): This album bored me for months, as its stripped sound pales in comparison to their masterpiece, Series of Sneaks. When I finally gave in and listened with fresh ears, the album's many positives started hitting me one after another.

26. Black Dice, Beaches and Canyons (DFA): A collection of formless Kraut-rock-inspired ruminations that shift directions with the breeze.

27. Doug Martsch, Now You Know (Warner): A white man from Idaho does the blues and does it well. Will wonders never cease?

28. The Blood Brothers, March On Electric Children (Three One G): More ear-splitting hardcore from this Northwest quintet. Not as strong as their debut, This Adultery Is Ripe, but the theatrical "Siamese Gun" is a stunner (and just wait until you hear their breathtaking 2003 release, Burn, Piano Island, Burn).

29. Iran, The Moon Boys (Tumult): The second album from this San Francisco (I think) trio continues down the same fuzz-drenched path as their stellar debut. The production aesthetic is pure early-'90s lo-fi, but, unlike that sound, the songs are fully formed, if purposely obscured by noise and found sounds.

30. Superdrag, Last Call for Vitriol (Arena Rock): I'm not a power-pop fan at all, but it's impossible to deny the sublime tone of Superdrag's latest. "Feeling Like I Do" is drone gone pop, while "Safe and Warm" is Rubber Soul-era Beatles; "Baby Goes to 11," with GBV's Bob Pollard, is pure Who bombast. A pleasure, through and through.
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