2002: The Year That Should Have Been
by Tommy Burton

I don't know about you, but I feel almost gypped by 2002. Maybe I put way too much stock in the even-numbered years, but I remember 1994 and 1996 as golden years. Perhaps there was a time when the popular music of the day seemed to be better. Before you go thinking that I'm an old curmudgeon who sits and longs for the good old 90s, let me say that there was music that I really enjoyed this past year. I will also say that a few of these releases will be among my all time favorites for a time to come. The problem is that I seemed to have to dig for them and discover them on my own. And when Tom Petty releases a lackluster record, you know that something has to be awry. The fact that a song like "Lost Cause" by Beck isn't the hit of the year simply reinforces my statement about the state of the music biz. But we all know that pop music is based on trends. This year was the year of Puddle of Creed Saliva of a Deadman. While I am happy that guitar-based music is back on the radio, I have this empty feeling that these bands will be but a footnote in the grand scheme of things. Next year, we can look forward to new stuff from R.E.M., Radiohead, and the up and coming Juliana Theory. (If there is a God, and if this record is as good as it should be, these guys will be big.) Good music will always exists, and we had some fine moments this year. Here are ten examples (these albums are not listed in a "Top Ten" fashion, they are merely numbered as a point of reference):

1. Up Peter Gabriel (Geffen) This album manages to get under your skin and live. Each track builds upon the previous one and by the end, you are left with a satisfying listening experience. "Darkness" sets the tone by scaring the bejesus out us of before it gives way to a gorgeous melody. "Sky Blue" features a sing-song chant with the Blind Boys of Alabama. "I Grieve" is a sad, haunting melody. It is indeed a grieving song. Peter Gabriel is one of the old dogs who refuses to live in his own past. He's always looking to the future and creating some memorable music to match it. This is certainly pop music for the 21st Century.

2. Don't Give Up On Me Solomon Burke (Fat Possum) Joe Henry and Solomon Burke may have given us one the year's greatest stories: Soul legend retreats to studio to record tracks by some of the greatest songwriters (Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Elvis Costello, to name a few). The result is an earthy, soul-drenched delight. His voice can still move mountains and he interprets the material with amazing clarity. "Fast Train" may well be one the greatest soul songs of the last twenty years, and this recording is proof.

3. When I Was Cruel Elvis Costello (Island) Elvis decided to strap on the guitar and rock again. "Tear Off Your Own Head" sounds like a modern update of an old song from This Year's Model. While the album may be about ten minutes too long, the end result is one of immediate satisfaction. Each song carries the reason why E.C. is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. And his delivery is always sincere and believable. Snuggle up and rock out with an old friend.

4. American IV: The Man Comes Around Johnny Cash (American) You would think the formula would be wearing thin by now: Johnny records ultra-hip cover tunes with ultra-hip producer Rick Rubin. The novelty of Johnny singing Trent Reznor and Soundgarden should wear off quickly. But Cash is Cash, and each one of his American albums prove that he is still hungry. He breathes life into these songs as if he had written them ages ago. This one has too much of a sense of finality to it, but what a way to go. Thanks, John (and Rick).

5. Sea Change Beck (Geffen) This is one of the prettiest records of this past year. Beck shows us that he is indeed a songwriter of incredible depth. I may go so far as to say that he is my generation's Bob Dylan, as if we need one. This album will knock you off your feet and pick you up and turn back around all in a single listen. Every song reveals a soul wrestling with life's great issues, but mostly lost love. "Lost Cause" may be the song of the year.

6. Free Beer Tomorrow James Luther Dickinson (Artemis) I don't know a thing about world boogie, but this is one of the most lived in records I have ever heard. Dickinson delivers these songs (all written by other people) with an intensity that demands his ownership. Jerry Wexler remarked of Dickinson's first album (in 1972) that "if Bob Dylan had recorded it, they'd call him the risen Christ." The same may be said of this record. Dickinson has been around. He's an amazing storyteller and one of music's great treasures. Music needs Dickinson. I hope world boogie hurries up, but if it keeps Dickinson around, then may it take its time.

7. Brainwashed George Harrison (Dark Horse) This record could have easily been a throwaway. Just some leftover Harrison stuff left in the vaults for a reason. It could have been a simple, folky little record of quiet, spiritual tunes. Throw Jeff Lynne into the mix and the arrangements are going to grow into lush, thick pop tunes. Either way, they are great songs and this is solo record worthy of an ex-Beatle. The songs all seem to say something, and George's playing is impeccable.

8. Maladroit Weezer (Geffen) Weezer has yet to record a bad song. The streak continues with this edgier release of proto-metal. Rivers has learned to shred, and the band's sound is tightened, possibly due to all the touring it has done. While he refuses to bare his soul as he did with 1996's Pinkerton, Rivers is one of the best songwriters. Hopefully this band will be around for a very long time giving us this great music. Be sure to get the numbered edition with those great music clips that add so much more to the enjoyment of this already-excellent album.

9. Velocity Of Sound The Apples (in stereo) (Spinart) Leaner and edgier. The Apples have learned to rock! Robert and Hillary still give us some of the biggest pop hooks in music, but the cranked guitars and driving beats have diminished the accusations that these guys are nothing more than Beatles/Beach Boys wannabes. It does run a short time, but it's always better to leave them wanting more. I'm anxious to see where this band will go.

10. Heathen David Bowie (ISO/Columbia) This was a tough one. There are so many records that almost made this list and didn't. I could have cheated and made some crazy tie situation, but I listened to this record again. What I found was the same thing I found earlier this year: A great record. It does sound classic, but you can hear Bowie pushing to the future. He's always been a chameleon, which is one of his endearing charms in the music world. But sometimes the songs lack the focus to make truly classic records. The songs are up to par here, and he gives us an album that warrants many further listens.

I also feel the need to mention a few reissues that made the grade: The Rolling Stones reissues are some of the finest discs I have heard. The clarity is utterly amazing. Rhino continues to give us quality with their extensive Elvis Costello program. The liner notes are superb and they way the albums are presented (one disc is the original album, the second one is outtakes, B-sides, and demos) should set the standard for further reissues by other artists. The new edition of Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted will surely replace the original in your collection. John Coltrane's Love Supreme was given deluxe treatment and rightfully so; it's a great disc. We also have seen the reissue of James Luther Dickinson's Dixie Fried (see the above list for Jerry Wexler's comments on this record).

It wasn't the best of years, but I have seen worse. Here's to 2003 and praying for some truly inspired music to find its way into our stereos. I'll be here to keep you up on what's in mine.

Copyright 12 Dec 2002 We Like Media.
You may email Tommy Burton.