Music Year 2002: Top Ten/Extended Notes

  1. DJ Shadow: The Private Press (MCA). It seems so slight. Minimalist music, little synth rhythms that take their own sweet time to play out, with farflung samples that infuse humanity -- the shock and sadness of "Six Day War," the fury and frustration of "Mashin' on the Motorway," the endless search for "just the right thing," the "story about freedom" that is just instrumental. Anonymous. Inscrutable. A little perfection posed as random experience, so unassuming that you figure there must be dozens more like it, but this one's unique.

  2. N.E.R.D.: In Search of . . . (Virgin). Esquire claims that there's a 43% chance that whatever you're hearing right now has been produced by the Neptunes, but while their day jobs involve polishing Nelly's boots and trying to breathe life into that Christina Aguillera manikin, here they get to do their thing without the clutter of needy superstars. What makes them tick is shameless hedonism and an unerring ear for details that tickle their pleasure centers. These twelve slices of perfectly manicured studio slick share the pleasure, and their weirdness measures how far we've come. Nerds? Nah, they're the shit.

  3. Mekons: Oooh! (Out of Our Heads) (Quarterstick). I guess it takes world-shaking events to jog them from their side-projects and get them to drop another masterpiece. The trick here is that everyone shows up for work. They dig deep, past the American cowboy tunes they've long loved, back into the English folk of their own sod, like they feel the need for deep roots to weather the storm. Yet those are roots for postpunks, who love fiddle and accordion not because they're trad but because they squeak and froth. 'Tis a messy world, all the better.

  4. Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul (Atavistic). The jazz avant-garde stopped looking for the new back around 1970, and started picking through the scrapheap of the old for whatever's reusable. This trio's first album built transcendent funk out of Sun Ra and George Clinton, but this album works the scrapheap more broadly, with dedications to suave baritonist Serge Chaloff, Sly bassman Larry Graham, and Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste, among others, and this diversity yields music that is delicate and muscular, suave and seriously funky. The rhythm section of Nate McBride and Hamid Drake is superb, and Ken Vandermark is paying big dividends on his MacArthur grant.

  5. Youssou N'Dour: Nothing's in Vain (Nonesuch). The tricky rhythms and acoustic string instruments may need some acclimation, but N'Dour's singing has never sounded so assured or comfortable, and that's what grabs you immediately. This singing puts over the plaintive lyrics, even when they are in Wolof or French, or for that matter English. As background this is gorgeous; pay close attention and the rhythm comes to the fore. Africana to live with.

  6. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation (Beggars Banquet). More dance beats, mixes, samples, anonymous voices; not multicultural so much as global, a postcultural aether where nothing means much but everything is accessible. But in Tjinder Singh's hands all this novelty is still fresh and more than a little wonderful, and his delight is contagious.

  7. Buck 65: Square (Warner Music Canada). Charles Barkley's quip about how messed up it is that while the best golfer is black the best rapper is white only scratches the surface. In a year when Eminem made a pretty good album, three white girls from Long Island (Northern State), a bloke from the U.K. (the Streets), and this guy from Nova Scotia made even better records. What brings Richard Terfly to the head of the class are words so frequently clever that you crane your ears to pick them out of the delectable beats. This is his subtlest album yet, after the breakthrough of Man Overboard and the punchier Synesthesia, but overall it may be his best.

  8. Spoon: Kill the Moonlight (Merge). Having resisted the Strokes and the White Stripes, the last thing I figured on liking this year was an alt-rock whiteboy guitar band, but this record is flawless: the songs are stripped down to the chassis, then built up carefully with no waste, no bombast; they hold your interest, never get foolish. The most similar record I can point to is the Feelies' Time for a Witness, but whereas the Feelies had Velvets on the brain, these guys are even tighter.

  9. Van Morrison: Down the Road (Universal). In a year when most good records sound anonymous, this can be identified on the first note. A few more notes in and you start to wonder whether this is something more than just his annual product. In fact, it sounds near-classic. If he's feeling nostalgic -- and why else would he sing about P.J. Proby? -- maybe he's re-experiencing what it feels like to be an all-time great.

  10. Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (Arista). Goodie Mob's rapper tries his hand at singing -- a fluke, given that his voice sounds like a hoarse, shrill Dr. John, but also a feat, since what comes through is both sweet and hip, a home-fried funkiness that occasionally asks the "what would Jesus do" question and makes you think that the artist is not just concerned, he's curious.

The real good records don't stop at ten. In particular, this list barely hints at one of 2002's most interesting developments: the meeting of jazz with electronica (Matthew Shipp's Nu Bop, Nils Petter Molvaer's NP3), with world music (Roberto Rodriguez's El Danzon de Moises, David Murray's Yonn-De), and for that matter with both (Jean-Paul Bourelly's Trance Atlantic). What gave jazz fusion its bad rep in the '70s was the smell of sellout, but it's resurfacing in 2002 is not compromise but innovation at the margins.