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2002 and 5 Best Indie Albums

2002 and 5 Best Indie Albums

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Published by vijoos
Slate selects the best Indie albums of 2002
Slate selects the best Indie albums of 2002

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Published by: vijoos on Jul 13, 2007
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03/22/2011

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Slate.Year 2002. Five best indiealbums.
By David SamuelsPosted Friday, Dec. 13, 2002, at 1:29 PM ET The most important story of the year in indie rock is that Elliott Smith didn'trelease a record—and when he does release one, sometime in the middle of next year, it will be on Dreamworks. The reigning bard of passive-aggressiverock, Smith is a younger Neil Young minus the country-rock influence—theprototype for an entire generation of indie singer-songwriters, none of whomhave come close to matching his gift for embittered lyrics and deceptivelygentle melodies. The fact that he records for Dreamworks, the corporatemegarock giant owned in part by David Geffen, rather than Kill Rock Stars—the Olympia, Wash.-based indie
 
for which Smith recorded his first twoincredibly influential records—is as clear a sign as any that indie labels arenow the minor leagues for the big-corporate majors. Only the redoubtableCat Power (whose new record will be coming out in February on Matador),the queen of sadcore, continues to make the case for indie rock as a worldapart.Which isn't to say that niche-market singer-songwriters and bands on theirway up can't still produce great music. What follows is a brief anthology of five of the most notable indie rock artists of the year.
Neil Halstead
's first solo album,
Sleeping on Roads
(4AD), contains nine modest, literate, intensely tuneful songs. (It actuallycame out last year in Europe but has only been available in the United Statesthis year.) The difference between Halstead and most literate singer-songwriters who play acoustic guitar is that Halstead writes beautiful,dreamy melodies, has a wonderful voice, and can play his guitar—workadaytalents honed by his day job as lead singer and songwriter for Mojave 3, thesadcore champs whose
Excuses for Travellers
was my favorite record of 2000(Elliott Smith's
Figure 8
was a close second). "Driving With Burt" is anaccessible favorite withmoody, autumnal guitars
 
that seem to move in timewith the wheels of a bus. Halstead writes songs about gentle losers, addicts,lovers, and people looking for shelter—his voice is quiet, tuneful, andunsentimental.
 
Guided by Voices
is a great rock band routinely derided by major-labeltypes as symbolizing everything self-indulgent, weird, and annoying aboutindie rock. My first impression after hearing GBV for the first time, way backin the '80s, was that I was listening to a poorly produced rock and roll recordby a fourth-grade teacher from Ohio who wrote fractured, surrealist rockpoetry, set it to atmospheric thrash, then sang the whole mess in a fakeBritish accent. Which is exactly what it was. And it was awful. Then,suddenly, it wasn't.Part of the success of this recipe has to do with the madconviction of lead singer and lyricist Robert Pollard in his own material. On
Universal Truths and Cycles
(the group's homecoming record on
Matador
), Doug Gillard adds some unusually disciplined and exciting guitar—chug-a-long '80s punk mixed with heavy gusts of Pete Townshend-esqueclassic rock guitar (to match Pollard's increasingly Daltrey-esque vocals). Theresult is the closest thing to
Tommy 
that indie rock is ever likely to produce.(For a lovely early-Who steal, clickhere.)But the real payoff for Guided by Voices listeners is that Pollard simplyinhabits a different stylistic universe than any other rock songwriter. Songtitles like "Christian Animation Torch Carriers" and "Factory of Raw Essentials"have a loony, fun surrealism, making great use of a genre that is usually theartistic refuge of scoundrels. Pollard's genius as a writer is his way of startingwith nonsense, then letting you in for a glimpse of meaning, then following itup with more nonsense. "Does she blend well?/ Your choice, I mean/ Yourangel-baby-monkey girl/ a gift of smiles and love reduction?" he asks. Whenhe follows this with a stately chorus of "Does it hurt you/ to love, I mean" youthink you have the fox cornered: It's a confessional song about a girl. Thenit's not. In the end, every Pollard song collapses in on a phrase that is built tosustain repeated listenings without ever quite becoming fixed in its meaning.It's hard to say whether the fact that
Universal Truths and Cycles
was thebest rock record of the year—and that the single "Everywhere Is Helicopter"was thebest heart-pounding rocker of the year—is good news or bad newsfor indie rock, especially considering that it's music by guys over 40 who aremining a stylistic vein they pioneered in the '80s. OK, it's bad news. But thisis still a great record.
 
Sarah Utter and Maggie Vail of 
Bangs
sing with theinfectious energy of the great Susanna Hoffs: With the accompaniment of asolid drummer, they sound like the greatest girls-school punk band ever.(Obsessive indie fan alert: Maggie's sister Tobi is credited on the liner notesfor "screams, backup vocals, hand claps." Tobi Vail was Kurt Cobain'sgirlfriend.) Bangs' debut EP,
Call and Response
, is also a timely reminder of how little the (supposedly virtuous) hipsters of the indie rock business havedone to redress the commercial imbalance between the sexes. If Bangs were,say, the Strokes—hunky guys playing warmed-over Velvets and Iggy Pop,rather than indie girls playingold Go-Gos' riffs—they'd be celebrating theirfirst gold record right now instead of touring the South to support a 16-minute-long EP on Kill Rock Stars. Bangs are women who rock—and who singlike the Bangles. Slimy A&R guy alert: Get these girls into a major studioright now, surround them with a bunch of production pros, put Susanna Hoffson one track, and then market the crap out of them!
Richard Buckner
sounds like a froggy, bumptiouscombination of Warren Zevon and Ryan Adams, conveyed in the voice of a'90s shy-guy-who-can't-sing. The spare arrangements on
Impasse
—releasedon tiny
 
Chicago-based Overcoat Records—thankfully return to the sound of his terrific debut,
Bloomed 
, dispensing with the orchestral impasto he laiddown on his forgettable major-label work for MCA. At heart, Buckner is anhonest craftsman writing country-tinged relationship ballads: I picture himliving alone in Canada in some place with no furniture, a drifter-type in aRussell Banks novel.What's unusual about Buckner is that he writes well-crafted dysfunctional-guy songs. The lyrics seem like verbal litter when you read them on paperbut cohere into allusive stories when sung. Buckner's strongest point, I think,is always the beginnings of songs. The opening line is usually the best: "Borninto giving it up/ and closing down when it's done," or "Was I there/ all loaded at the wrong door." Overall,
Impasse
is a tight, focused record from a guywho got dropped by a major label and badly needs to recapture his audience.I have played it with my old Dusty Spingfield record, with Gram Parsons

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