I get most of my music in an unconventional manner these days. I don't listen to the radio, aside from when I'm in my car. We no longer have cable television in the house, but even when we did, I never watched MTV. My computer is primitive, slow, and mute, so even acquiring songs from the ether of the Internet is currently a no-go.
So, I burn a lot of music from my friends and roommates, specifically Gene, Mike, and Khurram. Which is great in that I'm exposed to a large sampling of music, much of which I would not have heard elsewhere. I doubt I would have ever found myself with Autechre's Tri Repetae in heavy rotation without the influence of Gene. And it is unlikely that I would be slowly sifting through a stack of jam bands' CDs (Medeski, Martin, and Wood; String Cheese Incident) had Mike not given them to me (The debate over MMW's excessive "whiteness" can take place elsewhere).
The point is, music I listen to is not very determined by when something is released, or is on the radio. When I was trying to compile a "Best/Favorite Albums of the Year" list, I found out that much of the music I've discovered and listened to this year was not actually released in 2002. White Blood Cells came out in 2001. So did Oh, Inverted World, by The Shins, Rockin' the Suburbs by Ben Folds, and Powderfinger's Odyssey Number Five. That being said, here is my list of the Top Five Albums of 2002, four of which I actually purchased, with money and everything. So what if it's June of 2003?
I bought this album at the same time as Endtroducing, during the summer. Before that time, I had been woefully unexposed to Mr. Shadow. Though I like Endtroducing better, The Private Press was in my CD player a whole lot. "Six Days" is the best song. There's also a version of that track, not on the album, which features Mos Def - well worth checking out.
If you see the movie "Scratch", there are some great scenes with DJ Shadow going through huge stacks of vinyl in this crowded storeroom which is floor-to-bottom records, all different genres, that have been accumulating over the years. "The Private Press" has that same feeling of having different styles and music together, along with random sounds and spoken word Bible recitation. It's like music created the same way as sedimentary rock, with layers and time, but less sand and more funk.
This album feeds my jones for hip hop where all the guys in a group yell out the rhyme together, and all sing together on the chorus. And as much as I love the music of the LBC, it's nice to hear hip hop that is actually about social issues, rather than Dr. Dre pretending to be a gangster or Eminem discussing TRL. And it has a lyric about the "verbal Herman Munster."
I heard a girl once say, "I want to have sex with this album. Not have sex while listening to this album, but somehow manage to make love to the actual music itself." I don't actually want to fuck the music here, but I can understand the sentiment. Beck sings really well on this album, and it's full of slow, pretty songs about heartbreak and breakups, but not breakdancing. This is non-dancing Beck, a Beck waking up the night after a long cocaine binge, wondering where he was, what he's been doing, and what kind of stuff Winona Ryder stole from him while he was unconscious. So Beck has cleaned up, replaced turntables with more strings, and reached back to the past for a few old unrecorded songs like "It's All in Your Mind" and made a very melodic, lovely album.
This album is great, eminently listenable, but I like Beck better when he's being funny as well as beautiful and poignant. He seems to shift, album to album, from wacky to somber, wacky to somber, with a string going Odelay-Mutations-Midnite Vultures-Sea Change. I just wonder if tender songs about lost love are necessarily incompatible with singing in falsetto about picking up girls at JC Penney.
Art that is funny always get less critical respect than art that is serious. You see that at the Academy Awards, where there hasn't been a comedic performance awarded since Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Jerry Maguire," and even that Oscar was mostly given because he's the first minority character ever to appear in a Cameron Crowe film. So "Sea Change" is great, go out and listen to it/burn it/download it, but don't diss Beck's previous lesbian-scream-inducing work in the process.
There's a fascinating story behind the making of this album, involving the record company refusing to release the album and the keyboard player getting fired. Other people can probably give you a good lowdown on that aspect of the album - I didn't know anything about Wilco before I got the album, so it didn't really matter to me if Jay Bennett was going to be touring to support the CD. I liked that this album is very catchy and listenable, but at the same time doesn't really sound like other music out there. Much like Garth Brooks, this album is a little bit rock and a little bit country. Except this is better than Garth Brooks.
I enjoy country music for twangy guitars and lyrics about heartbreak and killing men just to watch them die. I don't much like country music that is covers of previously-recorded pop songs, or sounds like a Nashville version of Matchbox Twenty, or involves putting boots up Bin Laden's ass. Wilco's brand of country is the kind I like.
I like "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" the best, particularly the section where he finally says the title line ("Still I'd be lying if I said it wasn't easy/ I am trying to break your heart"). The song, and particularly the double negatives in that verse remind me of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," which Ben Harper has dubbed the best song of all time. This song also sounds fuzzy and distorted, which makes "Jesus, Etc." has strings, but in a country music fiddling sort of way, not in a "String Tribute to Uncle Tupelo" sort of way. "Pot Kettle Black" is good. I think "Heavy Metal Drummer" is catchy, but there are a lot of people who really fucking go nuts for that song, so keep that in mind if you're casually listening to the album or just picking tracks out to download.
If you want, there's a documentary called "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" which deals with the business side of the recording, and is supposed to be good. I'm mostly going from something I read in Rolling Stone and a poster owned by aspiring superstar and infrequent weblog updater Monica Fitzpadrick. So I can't vouch for the movie. But the album is not just a friend of mine; it's a friend of ours.
1. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
This album has songs about robots learning to love, karate-kicking Japanese girls battling killer robots, and a man meeting a time-traveling version of himself. ("Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," "One More Robot," and "All We Have Is Now," respectively) There are songs a lot of songs about death, good and evil, and all kinds of weighty subjects that are often both uplifting and poignant at the same time. Listening to "Do You Realize?" it's hard not to get caught up in singing along with the cheerful melody, even when the lyrics warn that "everyone you know someday will die."
But mostly, I come back to the robot songs. Even though robots are a little bit played out now, they're still excellent and underused subjects for neo-psychedelic alternative rock anthems. In fact, though the brave and black-belted Yoshimi is the album's namesake, her lovesick robot opponent is perhaps the most sympathetic character, losing on purpose so as not to destroy his human love.
What happened to robots, anyway? Former Daily Cal writer Tag Savage theorized that "pirates are the new robots...The late 1990s thing of robots is starting to give way to a millennial thing of pirates. Expect pirates in whatever the Beastie Boys release next. The hippest kids know that the pirate thing is already pass�, and they are already moving on, on to something like cowboys." I don't think it will be cowboys myself, but maybe astronauts? Clowns? Firemen? Whatever the new cultural flashpoint is, I'm sure the Flaming Lips will be there to meet it with fuzzy guitars and high harmony vocal stylings.