Best Albums 2002 (1-5)

5. Corey Harris — Downhome Sophisticate

No really, we get it already–the blues came from Africa. Rather than setting out to prove the obvious, however, Harris explores what’s distinct about related diasporan styles that stretch westward from Kinshasa to Bamako to the Gold Coast, down to the Caribbean and then up the Mississippi from New Orleans.  Both the rumba-funk of “Sister Rosa” and the hick-hop title track, just for starters, are fusions sure to baffle anyone who likes history neat and orderly.  This decade, only Jack White offered as interesting a take on the electric blues as Harris and his fellow guitarist Jamal Millner. And when I say Harris has a livelier and steadier beat I’m not just being mean. (Obvious, maybe.)

4. Sleater-Kinney — One Beat

In a year of drearily Important Albums–whether political like The Rising, personal like Sea Change, or just plain Wilco–the World’s Last Greatest Rock Band spat their entitlement to collective joy right back in the face of historical impositions they refused to accept as the end of the world. “Far Away” recoils as current events pull back the blanket on our illusions of domestic security, “Step Aside” howls with energized solidarity, and “Combat Rock” puts its boot in some deserving asses in a very American way. Corin Tucker’s avenging angel may ring a notch too strident on calmer days, but I wish I could rule out her belligerence becoming handy again somewhere down the line. War is a force that gives us meaning, and sometimes that sad fact rocks.

3. Imperial Teen — On

Back when this boy-girl/gay-straight quartet gussied up tunes that someone with a checkbook might mistake for pop, they had to learn to write songs and self-mythology–two hard habits to break, no matter how long ago “the possibility/ Of us making history” has sailed off into the improbable. In the years since alt-rock’s demise, the quartet’s members ducked into ashrams, grad school, the convent—anywhere “safe from society’s rules,” as they put it–to regroup rather than retreat, and re-emerged with their sense of rhythm punchier and sense of purpose stronger for the experience.

2. DJ Shadow — The Private Press

Crate-digger’s delight as gilded lily, Shadow’s impossible encore to Endtroducing… one-ups perfection by overshooting the mark. Amidst a babble of competing voices–Lateef berating poor drivers, folkish 70s Brits bewailing war, and, most notably, an impertinent woman whose taunts of “What you gon’ do now? What you gon’ do this time?” Shadow slices to bits on his turntables–Josh Davis spews brilliance in every direction. To hell with “making it look effortless”–watching an artist bust his ass can be a rewarding sight. And as we learned from our haplessly prog decade, where artists recoiled from the messy world outside and turned their virtuosity (real or faked) inward, there are worse sins than imperfection.

1. Orchestra Baobab — Specialist in All Styles

Their oldies remain goodies, and neither guitarist Barthelemy Attisso nor saxophonist Issa Cissoko lost a lick of melodic ingenuity during their fifteen-year hiatus. Still, with the electrified mbalax that preempted these Senegalese masters’ Afro-Cuban fusion already as prehistoric to African kids as disco is to yours, this revival could have packed less punch than the Temptations at the State Fair. What made Baobab the African comeback story of the decade instead was how dead serious they meant “all styles”: Dakar-meets-Havana is just the beginning for a band composed of Malian immigrants, Casamance provincials from south Senegal, and Toucouleur from the north. And if co-producer Youssou N’dour owed Baobab one for putting ’em out of business, his duet with Ibrahim Ferrer was more than we had a right to ask.

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  • richard Cobeen  On May 2, 2010 at 2:21 am

    Alright, now I have two new albums to investigate. Desaparacidos I completely missed first time around, and I’m a late convert to Oberst. Corey Harris I ignored because the blues doesn’t often call me. Your write-up intrigues me and certainly rings some bells I love (from Kinshasa to New Orleans).
    Specialists in All Styles has been one of my go to albums since it was released. Everybody I’ve played it for loves it. And it still didn’t prepare me for how amazing they are live. Lived-in music that feels not old but timeless. Plus it makes me want to dance.
    One Beat is the last great album by the band that made me remember the feeling of being 16 and seeing Springsteen and the Clash for the first time. Can’t believe in 2000 I was 38 and going out of my way in Olympia to find the Sleater-Kinney cross street sign. When will we hear from either Carrie or Corin again (nice to hear Quasi come out with another good album)?

  • usefulnoise  On May 4, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    The Corey Harris is definitely not a straight up blues album, so don’t be put off by the genre. Not too crazy about his newer blues-reggae kind of stuff though.

    So much fun going back to listen to these albums again.

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