Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 2002

The fact that the following list is filled with older artists (or artists working in older idioms) doesn’t mean that I haven’t heard anything more “hip” or contemporary from 2002. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is probably their best album; but I was introduced to the band in concert, and I’ve never been able to get over how emasculated they sound in the studio. Phantom Planet’s The Guest may be best known for housing the theme song to The O.C. (“California”), but it’s a fine example of alt-rock-tinged power pop. Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha makes it clear why he, Ben Folds, and Ben Lee decided to form a supergroup together (called, cleverly enough, the Bens). Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight is nervy, hooky, and melodic in just the right ratios. But hey – you have to go with what moves you.

5. SNOW (Spock’s Beard)

Snow (Spock's Beard)

A rock opera about a young man who’s ostracized on account of his physical peculiarities but ends up becoming a spiritual guru… sound familiar? Snow ends up going in rather different directions than Tommy, though. Despite its length and ambitions, this double-disc set gives precedence to the pop/rock, discrete-songs-withe-verses-and-choruses side of Spock’s Beard’s musical personality. But boy are there some great songs, “Wind at My Back” foremost among them.

4. DOWN THE ROAD (Van Morrison)

Down the Road

“Nowadays I guess there’s not much to relate to anymore, unless you wanna be mediocre,” Van Morrison sings on “Whatever Happened to PJ Proby?” Well, he may be past the point in his career where he’s breaking new ground, but that by no means makes him mediocre. After all these years, he just knows what he’s good at; and from the rants about fame to the rolling R&B classicism to the love songs that could just as easily be about a woman or God, Down the Road finds Van doing it very well.

3. THE RAGPICKER’S DREAM (Mark Knopfler)

The Ragpicker's Dream

Apart from a stopover in Mark Knopfler’s native Newcastle, The Ragpicker’s Dream continues and deepens the Americana fixation of Sailing to Philadelphia. Until Privateering (2012) it was Knopfler’s most folk- and blues-oriented album, as he trades in the guitar-heroism of his Dire Straits day for intimate portraits of circus sideshow performers, Northumbrian emigrants, and barflies with nicknames like the Scarecrow and the Rail King.

2. MIND IF WE MAKE LOVE TO YOU (The Wondermints)

Mind If We Make Love to You

The Wondermints do such a killer Beach Boys imitation that Brian Wilson hired them as touring band in 1999, a role they have fulfilled with aplomb ever since. Brian returned the favor by jumping on backup vocals on “Ride” and “So Nice” on Mind If We make Love to You, and it’s a testament to the band’s retro-fitted popcraft that it feels totally natural. The L.A.-based power popsters do much more than replicate the sound of ’66, however; they capture its spirit.

1. THE RISING (Bruce Springsteen)

The Rising

I have friends who were in New York City on September 11th for whom The Rising is THE Bruce Springsteen album. I’m not sure I’d go that far; but with Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band at last, it’s easily his finest since Born in the U.S.A., maybe even since Darkness on the Edge of Town. For better than on any album since those heady days, the Boss proves here his incomparable knack for transforming the struggles and triumphs of everyday people into the stuff of legend.

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