Joe Strummer died the day before my birthday, which may explain the effect his passing away had on me. I didn't cry, mope around, write letters to the music press, or do whatever fans do when they lose a hero. No, I simply thought more than I would normally do about the extra mileage another year had put between me and my distant youth.
The Clash happened to come along whilst I was a teenager and, having just started my apparently lifelong dedication to doing dead-end jobs, could relate to 'Career Opportunities'. I also related to the line in 'White Riot' which states that 'White people go to school, where they teach you how to be thick'. I resented what school had failed to do, namely, teach me how to learn. So Punk came along at just the right time, when I was ready and willing to embrace the desperation and apparent hopelessness of everything except music. In retrospect, this strikes me as a terrible way to start adult life. Isn't that the time when you're supposed to be full of ambition and enthusiasm?
For my birthday Jane bought me the collected short stories of JG Ballard, thus providing my sole candidate for 'Book Of The Year', if I wished to nominate one. But since the stories date back to 1956, it wouldn't represent contemporary literature, would it? In a tale called 'Track 12', a character obsessed with 'microsonics' plays someone a recording he has made. The rhythms are described as 'huge and ungainly, overlaid by the deep leaden wheezing of a gigantic bellows'. When I first read that it reminded me of El-P's Fantastic Damage, one of my choices from 2002. Substitute the bellows for 'machines' and the description is quite appropriate. The rhythms on Jamie Meline's album are truly 'huge', and the sounds are frequently 'ungainly'. The density of noise matches the lyrical mass, both doing what the title of the album suggests by turning your brain into, as they put it, 'cranial mush'. A line like 'I touch with rusted clutch, then spun out of the dust and careen into the temples of automated destruct, nanotech bugs in the blood get unplugged' may be nonsense, but it has a poetic punch. In keeping with our age, Meline's damage to both narrative precision and sound structure reflects life's potential for chaos, and the lack of clear answers to anything.
My rediscovery of the art of rap in 2002 seems to have coincided with what looks like a resurgence in the genre. Those who've been keeping pace with it will have been aware of new developments much earlier than me, of course. The new school seems determined to reclaim the form as a worthwhile avenue of literary self-expression, rather a means by which to brag about 'bitches', money and guns. Perhaps Anti Pop Consortium, who disbanded in 2002, were early exponents, and their last creation, Arrhythmia, is another of my choices of the year. Like El-P, ACP succeeded, as they put it, in 'hacking your brain's main frame', but by stealth tactics, rather than intense information overload. The lyricism is frequently complex, but Earl Blaize's electro-minimalist production allows it to come across with considerable clarity. Who else could have imagined that the sound of a ping-pong ball could be transformed into a rhythmic device?
Forming a bridge between the word and the instrumental, The Opus produced First Contact 001, proving that DJ Shadow is not the only one capable of creating captivating hip-hop related soundscapes. His use of strings forms the impression of a cinematic beat orchestra, conjuring up melancholic moods, and mixing porn parody on 'Luna Landing' with such other-worldy excursions as 'Mind Surfas' and 'Guide To The Other Side'. The lyrical highlights are delivered by Aesop Rock on 'Take Me To The Basement', and Slug on 'River'.
Those fancying themselves as connoisseurs of cutting-edge sounds may well have abandoned DJ Shadow. He is now, after all, the prime example of coffee-table 'cool'. The Private Press, however, remains one of my favourite albums of the year. Despite having an ear for the accessible, Davis is still capable of crafting such worthwhile experiments as 'Monosylabik', whilst incorporating all manner of influences, from old protest pop to rock and rollicking good floor-shakers. His third album will determine whether he is able to maintain the momentum, or collapse under the pressure. The fact that there is any pressure at all is evidence of his standing, I suppose.
There was no pressure on Mike 'The Streets' Skinner when he made Original Pirate Material, but I suspect he's feeling it now that the world has taken notice. His debut was undoubtedly the best example of a truly British sound since The Specials, perhaps. His lo-fi concoction of hip-hop, reggae, garage and house translated the foreign elements into a very British form, thanks to his native tongue delivery. The album can be read as either wallowing in 'low' social status, or a creative expression of reality. It is partly na¥ve, and yet knowing. The messages reflect acceptance of things as they are, but also offer admittedly simplistic but worthwhile advice such as 'Stay Positive'. Success might ruin Mike Skinner, ironically, but he won't be the first to suffer that fate.
The success of Medeski, Martin & Wood over the last ten years has seen them become both the enemy of so-called 'purists' and the friends of those who might otherwise steer well clear of jazz. The seemingly eternal dilemma of any crossover act, namely, how to do it well without sounding desperate, is no problem on Uninvisible. The trio include DJs without coming on like conservatory-trained pros playing for 'street' cred and, perversely, insist on referring to the old-school funky Hammond sound. Let's face it, this is neither fashionable nor 'worthy' as a form of 'serious' inspiration. But one of the joys of MM&W is their apparent lack of concern for what anyone thinks. They're still able to skilfully situate 'experimental' noise amid all the good grooves.
DJ Spooky supplied one of the best examples of 'jazz fusion' that I've yet to hear, and his most accomplished work so far in the form of Optometry. Working with a core acoustic quartet, the Subliminal Kid exploited the skills of the players to suit his own mixological end and form a totally successful marriage between modernity and tradition. Guests, especially Daniel Bernard Roumain on violin, contribute greatly to the multi-cult brew of beats, ambience and typically Spookyish spins on funk filtered through technology. Laptop improv, if I may call it that, usually disappears up its own circuitry, but Miller cunningly avoids the meaningless twiddling trap. Perhaps the fact that he mentions Fats Waller as one of the 'ancestors' is crucial.
John Zorn's Invitation To A Suicide remains a favourite from 2002, partly because it is so easy on the ear without being devoid of imagination or stimulating musicianship. Zorn, by his very nature, can't help but stimulate, either negatively or positively, and as a super talented man of many musical guises, should by now be recognised as a genius of some kind. Specialist In All Styles might be a fitting description of Zorn, but it was also the title of Orchestra Baobab's album, another favourite which majestically proved that classic Afro-Cuban flavour tastes as good today as it no doubt will for all time.
The symphonic rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Yanqui U.X.O proved engrossing. There's no doubting the power of simple melodic lines made monolithic by the layering of guitars, bass, drum, violins etc to the point where the structures sound as if they may collapse. This could be symbolic of the fragility of the human spirit in the shadow of corporate domination, or simply a noise which they enjoy making. Either way, despite being a one-trick pony, the collective inspire feeling of some kind, possibly depression, annoyance, or even elation.
Finally, I must mention Suicide's American Supreme. The irony of the title belies the despair contained with Vega and Rev's attack on their country's culture, from gung-ho politics to grossing out on 'success'. Hip-hop, funk, Berlin tech and noise form the soundtrack as the veterans of shock still manage to surprise and agitate.
I wish you all happy hunting as you choose your musical leisure options in the New Year, but do bear in mind the question posed by Suicide: 'How can you think clearly in a record shop?'.
© 2003 Robin Tomens