20. THE LIGHTNING SEEDS – ‘3 Lions (Osymyso Mix)’: Kicking off my Top 20 with a record I’ve only heard once and may well never hear again – typical pop contrarianism, right? Well, this represents my favourite musical memory of 2002 – dancing at Glastonbury, in the (ahem) Rizla Tent at the (ahem) Vibe magazine party; Osymyso dropping this most uncool tune and Pete and I dancing our socks off while the floor cleared. Here’s what I remember – Osy kept the melody and robotized the voices, and let the track gradually turn into a clanking, buzzing mecha-version of its sentimental self. England had been knocked out of the World Cup the weekend before. It sounded fantastic.
Here’s a point about the bootleggers and mix-kids, though. English pop, good and bad, has usually worn a sneer; usually taken the piss out of England’s past and people even as it was using them. And as its flipside the sneer hides a sentimental attachment. Look at the Beatles – goading war veterans in A Hard Day’s Night, then dressing as bandleaders for Sgt.Pepper’s. Bootleggers don’t despise pop or love it without a hint of the other creeping in. If that’s irony, it’s a fruitful and perhaps inescapable kind.
19. NAS – ‘Made You Look’: I’ve written before about the way the production on this track refreshes one of the oldest breaks in hip-hop (and one of the corniest sound effects) by stretching and squashing and generally time-twisting the beats until they become a VR backdrop for Nas’ flashy, clean-lined moves. Nas himself is generally too understated to excite me much – he has the words and the control but he seems to shun inflection as if it detracted from his rhyme-book purity. Eminem cartoonifies rapping and Jay-Z turns it into Godfatherly chat but Nas keeps it plain if rarely simple, a formal exercise of which he is the declared master. I like ‘Made You Look’ better than anything else he’s done because it’s a Nas track which doesn’t reward concentration, it just glides past and leaves you breathless with its instancy.
18. SOULWAX – ‘No Fun/Push It’: Your masterclass in basic bootlegology, this. Take a track – ‘No Fun’ – that’s a grinding spasm of dead-eyed animal nihilism and mix it up to accentuate the, uh, ëgrinding’ by dropping Salt’n’Pepa on top of it chanting about just that. Result – ‘Yes Fun!’. The great vanity of 40 years of garage rock – that when you’re making music which throbs with a primitive yet awesome sex swagger it’s somehow a good idea to yowl like a loon all through it – is righteously and ruthlessly exposed. If we learn any lesson from ëmash-ups’, let it be that one.
17. OSYMYSO – ‘Intro-Inspection’: Does for schooldisco.com what ‘Losing My Edge’ does for Trash, sort of. ‘Intro-Inspection’ is an artpop comment on nostalgic populism that can’t quite shake off how much it loves the hooks it’s threading obsessively together. In the end it won its many many repeat plays from me by sound alone: ‘a dream pop is having about itself’ I called it in March and I can’t better that now. It’s comforting and queasy at the same time – and trying to dance to it just reinforced the oddness. (2001’s short version is better than this long one, though, so get that first if you can.)
16. DJ SAMMY – ‘The Boys Of Summer (Humate Remix)’: Several years ago Alex T and I brainstormed a Top 100 records list after getting very drunk. The idea was that being very drunk would allow our inhibitions to break down and let us list the records we really liked, so we ranked the 100 in the order we remembered them. Don Henley’s ‘Boys Of Summer’ came second. I have always had the idea since that it is a really good song but never quite dared download it and find out. Finally this year I did, and yes, it’s a fine – melancholy disco-rock, a last boogie for the ageing boomers. One week later I heard about DJ Sammy’s version.
Sammy elbows Henley off the dancefloor once and for all, letting a sweet-voiced trancenonymous girl take his place. The song becomes the waiting-and-mating tune it might always have been if Henley hadn’t laden it with all that deadhead-sticker portent. So far so good – but then this remix comes along and hollows out Sammy’s pop breakdowns to leave drones, echoes and a fleeting sorrow and unease. The easy-to-mock (but kinda powerful) cultural specifics of Don’s lament disguise the truth that Summer always goes and Autumn always comes, to boomer and trancer alike. Et in Ibiza ego.
15. CLIPSE – ‘Young Boy’: My favourite Neptunes production trick is their most retro- the explosive-horns-and-shouting thing you get here and to some extent on Beyonce’s ‘Work It Out’. It’s where their digital funk thing comes together best – they keep filling their tunes with zap-gun blips and dinky keyboards which are madly enjoyable but never quite top the first Kelis album, so the newer Neps directions you hear on the Clipse record are more rewarding. ‘Young Boy’ was my favourite Neptunes track this year, because the Clipse themselves are so laidback and contemptuous and because the hook is so coiled and compressed. (Plus their topics may be nasty but Pusha T and Malice are great storytellers – check Malice’s verse about his supertough Grandma!)
FT Readers’ CD-Rs Of The Year: Michael Wells
thomas fehlmann – “making it whistle”
golden boy w/miss kittin – “rippin kittin”
recloose – “up and up”
los hermanos – “birth of 3000”
josh one – “contemplation” (king britt funke mix)
sascha funke – “when will i be famous?”
underground resistance – “inspiration”
cosmos – “take me with you”
akufen – “skidoos”
aaliyah – “more than a woman” (masters at work mix)
14. THE STREETS – ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’: Garage’s forward push seems to have very little to do with Mike Skinner (though come to think of it, it was Roll Deep he got to mix this), but points for trying, no? The bit where he spits the title in half-time, ‘Let’s. Push. Things. Forward.’, and you can hear the full stops, still has me grinning with excitement – yessss, Mike, you tell ëem! This tune tells you nothing about why I like The Streets as an act and an album – not much friendly feeling, hardly his best rhymes – but its audacity is totally infectious. I think everyone who loves music feels like this sometimes, this kind of manic jadedness, and ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ confirms Skinner as One Of Us more than any amount of geezer-talk could.
13. JENNIFER LOPEZ – ‘Jenny From The Block’: The Lox version, obviously. J-Lo’s calm, plainly pretty vocals are a real asset here cause the lack of inflection means you don’t really have to concentrate on the words she’s singing. Which are absurd certainly but sound much better if they’re just a hopscotch butterscotch nursery rhyme flowing over your forebrain and leaving no imprint. She’s not even being too dishonest – to have got where she is the original J from the B probably had to be a bratty egomaniac, rocks or no.
You can buy reality anyway, and the backing track is proof – a confected old-skool tribute that’s the best back-in-the-day beat I’ve ever heard, bogus ‘South Bronx!’ shoutouts and all (and that includes Timbaland’s stuff for Missy as well as more obvious revivalists like J5). Just thinking it makes me grin like a fool. It’s a shame there’s such a stigma attached to pop-hop because when it’s done this well it’s a supreme bubblegum rush: hip-hop’s funkiness married to pop’s brazen desire to please.
12 STICKY feat LADY STUSH – ‘Dollar Sign’: The dancehall/garage interface is making for some of Britain’s fiercest music right now, but of course there’s more to the story than guns and gutters and darkening dancefloors. ‘Dollar Sign’ was the tune of the Summer for me, and it might be the most astonishing vocal performance of the year. Sticky keeps the bass in place and gives Lady Stush room to bounce her noisy glee all around the track: her patois-heavy bubbles and squeaks are funny, mysterious, and popping with liveliness and joy.
11 SCOOTER – ‘Ramp! (The Logical Song)’: If you care that it’s a ëSupertramp cover’, you’re missing the point. One of the beautiful things about hardcore was the way memories – of kids TV, of snatches of music, of whatever – became just more things to buzz off. For Scooter ‘The Logical Song’ is just a pretty melody and a blissed-out message, and anyway the whole track is a memory-lane rollercoaster, with thickets of artcore jungle briefly glimpsed, trancey melodies and Josh Wink acid burble breakdowns rushing by and the sacred-flame spirit of the KLF’s ëStadium House’ presiding over all. (‘The K, the L, the F and theology’ as Sheffield Dave seems to say.) Scooter are dance music’s absurdist conscience.
10. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – ‘Beat Connection’: The best joke in ‘Losing My Edge’ is the way it makes you its hipster subject. By knowing about it, obviously, but also by forcing you to utter that most dreaded phrase – ‘Of course, the B-Side is better.’ But it is! You can nod your head to ‘Losing’ but ‘Beat Connection’ is where LCD’s sinewy post-punk links arms with early house and hustles you onto the floor. The groove is dessicated but compulsive: it sounds like an empty disco looks, with the keyboard echoes like forlorn twists of dry ice. Then it leaps into life with an angry dance-you-fuckers chorus – which, like the A-Side, you can take any way you fancy. Me, I think ‘It’s the saddest night out in the USA!’ is a terrific chorus line and not a bad tagline either. The rest is Factory-style metronome punk, nasty and entirely satisfying. (Also, congrats to DFA Records for finally finding backing tracks that sneery snotty yelp-vox sound good on!)
9. ANDREW WK – ‘We Want Fun’: The illness has come on suddenly, as usual. Yesterday I was well, and I woke up a little red around the eyes but otherwise normal. By lunchtime there was a tickle in my throat, by evening an ache, and I write this at dinner time with my nose streaming, my head pulsing and my mouth a furnace. Andrew WK is about all that can brace me, stiffening my spine and putting metal in my limbs. The original of this track was great enough – WK in full giant-puppy mode, noisy and alive and knocking over the furniture. The re-recording makes the original sound like Low. Rick Rubin iterates the intro into a whole new melody line, fills the song with ringing and riffing until the seams pop and then hits escape velocity with a key change as stupidly awesome as painting a smiley face on the moon. WK wants to get wasted; I want to get well; I don’t have to be Lester Bangs to know that the same stuff sometimes does both jobs.
8. THE STREETS – ‘Turn The Page’: The only benefit of being stuck for 3 weeks working on, well, work instead of finishing this was that I got to hear Mark Sinker’s ‘Mike Skinner = Mark E Smith’ theory. Like a lot of the most interesting ideas it rests on a shred of evidence and an inspired connection, the moment in this song where Skinner goes ‘I’m forty-fifth generation Roman’. The first time I heard that I couldn’t quite believe it, and when ‘Turn The Page’ ran with the idea, heading off on a two-millennium flashback, switching from Roman arenas to Essex shopping centres, I was stopped in my tracks. (Literally – I stood in the middle of Wimbledon station, hit rewind and just listened). The song’s been my favourite Streets tune ever since.
In the track’s time-collapsed dreamstate Skinner and Smith are a little bit alike: ‘city poets’ with a keen sense of place, the a knack for dark comedy and a taste for the unusual which in Skinner’s case only really comes out here. (They both know that cheap and corny backings are sometimes the most effective, too – ‘hear the strings rising’ indeed!). Here’s my ideal for the Streets’ second record – a whole album of displaced shaggy dog stories like the one, a Puck Of Pook’s Hill for the post-garage chill.
FT Readers’ CD-Rs Of The Year: Scott Plagenhoef
Manual – “Midnight Is Where The Day Begins”
Sugababes – “Freak Like Me”
Freelance Hellraiser – “Marshall’s Been Snookered”
Out Hud – “Dad, There’s a LIttle Phrase Called Too Much Information”
Akufen – “Deck The House (Herbert Stops Like This Mix)”
Jurgen Paape – “Mit Dir”
Metro Area – “Miura”
MRI – “Tied To The 80s”
The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes (Royksopp’s Memory Lane Mix)”
Ms. Dynamite – “Dy-Na-Mi-Tee”
Amerie – “I Just Died”
Golden Boy feat. Miss Kittin – “Rippin Kittin”
Kylie Minogue – “Come Into My World”
Clipse feat. Sean Paul, Bless and Kardinal Offishall –
“Grindin’ (Selector Remix)”
Missy Elliott feat. Ludacris – “Gossip Folks”
DJ Sammy & Yanou feat. Do – “Heaven”
7. EMINEM – ‘Without Me’: The song talks about controversy, but the beat is more like a re-sprung ‘Dirty Mind’. You might not know it from laughing along to these lyrics, but 2002 was the year Eminem got ambitious. 8 Mile, obviously, but lots of other stuff too. Some of which didn’t work – ‘Haile’s Song’ touches my heart on paper and the back of my throat on CD. But mostly the things he tried were interesting, and often brilliant. He bit hands that fed him; he went rock; he switched grand guignol for grit; he got political – and he went disco. ‘Without Me’ is its own bootleg, some fruity house thumper replacing whatever the backing might have been in that universe where Eminem stayed predictable.
And the more I play it, the more it sounds like his best single so far. Certainly his improvement as a rapper is amazing – ‘My Name Is’ still sounds good but play this or ‘Lose Yourself’ next to it and you hear more fluency, better timing, quicker thinking, even if the jokes are staler (or not there at all). What this year’s Eminem model shows is that sometimes he raps best over the most minimal beats – the inflections, rhymes and tempo-changes that make up his flow work better when he can build up a head of steam over longer verses, not when he rides a more complex rhythm. As a self-producer he knows what he’s doing, in other words.
As one focus group contributor said, this might be the last we see of the court-Jester Eminem. A shame if it is, but what a great way to go out. (Loved the video, too!).
6. MS.DYNAMITE – ‘It Takes More’: One thing I loved about 2002 was that I kept hearing songs which did things I didn’t think I liked much any more, and did them really well. DFA 12’s, which you’ll notice I have lots of time for, are indie ëdone right’ if you like, and here Ms Dynamite does ‘conscious’ R&B and I adore it. One thing that helps is that the British urban pop scene doesn’t have many traditions to speak of, so positive political lyrics aren’t the image-move here they can seem elsewhere, but ‘It Takes More’ would be great wherever it came from. It has a winning strictness stemming from Dynamite’s matter-of-fact rapping but also from the hard, clipped beats. The staccato accordion riff is a beautiful touch, too, lightening the song but not fighting Dynamite’s stark messages, weaving in and out of the beat to land melody-jabs on her presumed opponents.
Sasha Frere-Jones brought up Ms D’s lack of melisma in the Village Voice – well, she doesn’t use it much but she doesn’t avoid it either. What she does is uglify it, dragging the end of lines out to underscore her contempt for all the other R&B culture-norms she’s seeing imported. ‘You’re talking like you’re a gee’; ‘Who gives a damn’; ‘Don’t you know there’s no such thing as superstar’ – the nasty vowel-bends at line’s end here are the sound of her lips curling in disgust. ‘It Takes More’ may sound like Lauryn Hill but at heart it’s a very British record – withering, cynical and unimpressed by success. Which is why I like it, of course.
(A quick note before the top 5: at some point during the writing of this list all of these records were No.1. The ‘fifth-best’ was ranked ‘best’ until half an hour before I started the final entries. In the end I resolved it by a secret Freaky Trigger method, so here we go…)