Songs of the Year—2002

Songs of the Year: “The Only Answer,” Mike Doughty; “Get off,” The Dandy Warhols
Runners Up: “Don’t Know Why”, Norah Jones;  “Goodbye to You,” Michelle Branch
Honorable Mentions: “Clocks,” Coldplay; “Fell in Love With a Girl,” The White Stripes

After the doldrums of 2001, I actually tried to like some new music in 2002. My Elliott Smith obsession got serious; I tried to like Badly Drawn Boy. Some albums were released that I would learn to love much later (by Spoon and Tegan and Sara especially). I never did get very deeply into Badly Drawn Boy. I remember standing on an elevated platform, waiting to change subway lines, listening to a track for the second time and then just unplugging my headphones. I couldn’t connect.

While some of the top music of the year wasn’t terrible (Coldplay’s Rush of Blood to the Head wasn’t bad) the horrors of 2001 lingered (John Mayer; J. Lo; Britney spears). There were too many bad albums by good bands (Maladroit by Weezer, among others) while others released compilation albums (They Might Be Giants) or live albums (Ben Folds) to occupy my time.

I found myself overwhelmed by the options in music; the near cacophony made it impossible to make any sense, to detect any trends, to locate one’s place in a fragmented world. Between Eminem, Avril Lavigne and Maroon 5, where was there room to think? This was the beginning of the end of the internet revolution. It was no longer just about excitement and about newness. In 2002, new technologies were beginning to change the connections between things.

It was Bono who confirmed my total alienation when he broke my heart by playing at the half-time of the Superbowl (didn’t he used to be against American excess and political imperialism? What would the Bono of Boy and Live at Red Rocks think of his future self opening his jacket to reveal American Flag.) This was also the first year I was excited to watch the Super Bowl. Something strange had changed.

So, alienated, I continued to obsess over and fetishize that with which I was already comfortable. In 2002 music had three contexts for me. I listened to The Dirty Three if I was writing; I listened to anything on the subway (1-2 hours a day); I listened only to music that was wholly engaging at the gym. I had managed to pack on some pounds, so I spent a fair amount of 2002 on a stairmaster or cross-trainer. (And 2003. And 2004).

This was still before the iPod. I chose those particular machines because they could accommodate a CD player without the threat of me jerking my head and sending it bouncing on the floor. I had to choose CDs I could listen to more than once rather than bring multiple CDs. (Ever had to change CDs while sweating and moving? I am not so dexterous). The two CDs that dominated my year: Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia by the Dandy Warhols and Smofe and Smang, Mike Doughty’s live album.

While I think that other albums are more interesting and challenging, the Dandy Warhols’ Thirteen Tales is an amusing, well-produced and well written rock album. Its listenability quotient is very high. Few of the songs stick out and age well, but the track “Get Off” is especially good. Its music is memorable, its beat is good, and its message is honest, if not depressing. Who doesn’t just want to get off?

(Some of the other songs on the album, as we have aged together, seem juvenile and a bit annoying now. But then, I loved the whole thing. I think I recall giving it to my brother as a present. I also remember sitting the Turk down and trying to explain to him the glories of “Get Off”. But, he of Aphex Twin, Tool and Rush taste was far from impressed. I was undeterred.)

On the subway and in the gym I was also obsessed with Mike Doughty’s live album. It is funny; his rendition of Soul Coughing songs proves that the band’s talent didn’t reside in its sound make-up alone. His stories are wonderful. Shit, I may have listened to it a 100 times in half the year between commutes and exercise. I still can’t hear a reference to MTV cribs without thinking of Doughty’s bucket of shoes in his foyer. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Tough. Listen to the album (only 2500 copies were made).

The heart and soul of the album, and all of Doughty’s solo work, is in the song “The Only Answer” (which was released earlier on Skittish). The song is a sweet, folk and pop influenced, post-love song. On Smofe and Smang it is just Doughty and his guitar; and both sound great.

What makes the song work, apart from the narrative that guides you into the central meaning, is the simple directness of its core conceit as expressed through a simple inversion. In the chorus, Doughty sings “you were the only answer / my plans spun all around you / five years in the wrong I am assured / my name to you is just another word.”  To him, she was everything; to her, he is barely something any more.

It is in this contrast between what the singer and his beloved feel that I found a poignant reflection of the world around me—one where the person I am (or you are) feels so strongly and so certainly only to be undone by the realization that the object of such obsession is indifferent. This is an articulation of alienation, of loneliness, of disconnection. This is an admission that for so long, we have been out of touch with what is going on outside our heads.

A really good album

A really good album

And that was me. In 2002. Stuck inside my head; either rocking out to the Dandy Warhols on the stairmaster or getting maudlin with Mike Doughty on the subway. What a wreck. But, Brother, it was certainly a step forward from ironing with the “Black Eyed Dog”…right?

A Final Side Note: I have given an Honorable Mention to Michelle Branch’s “Goodbye to You” not because it particularly touched me at the time but because it appears in the episode “Tabula Rasa” from the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Branch performs the song in Sunnydale’s oft destroyed club, The Bronze, as a background piece for some emotional wrangling. It works perfectly, even better than The Sundays’ cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” in the episode “The Prom” from season 3.

Yes, this confession exposes some of my deepest and darkest geekiness, but what makes me connect both of these episodes is that the use of the music perfectly echoes the tone of the narrative and elicits from the audience (or at least from me) a response that mimics that of the characters. Even upon third or fourth viewing, I get misty eyed when these two songs play.

And another aside: how are we supposed to believe that a demon infested town with one high school and one club can attract so many top acts?

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