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.

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Songs of the Year—2001

Growing old and I want to go home
Growing old and I don’t want to know
–Nick Drake

Songs of the Year: “Black-Eyed Dog,” Nick Drake, “Life During Wartime,” The Talking Heads
Runners-Up: “Hash Pipe,” Weezer; “Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake
Honorable Mention: “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, Rufus Wainwright, “Smooth Criminal” Alien Ant Farm

In the year that for interesting debuts we had Gorillaz (Gorillaz) and Weezer finally returned with the Green Album, Rufus Wainwright almost made it to cool with Poses while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes delivered what would prove to be memorable albums. Unfortunately, in 2001 Britney Spears and ‘NSync still ruled the world. And they were cruel masters.

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Songs of the Year—2000 How I learned to stop worrying and love Hip-Hop

Songs of the Year: “Yellow” Coldplay; “The Next Episode” Dr. Dre

Runners-Up: “Get Off”, The Dandy Warhols; “The Real Slim Shady” Eminem

Honorable Mentions: “Boyz N’ the Hood”, Dynamite Hack

The year with big releases by Radiohead and Greenday as well as by tertiary punk bands like Blink-182,  Sum 41 and Good Charlotte saw the charts dominated by acts from the 1980s (U2, Bon Jovi and Madonna) even as other bands released exciting albums ( Bright Eyes’ Fever and Mirrors, The White Stripes’ De Stijl, Coldplay’s Parachute, The Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving, WyClef’s mediocre Ecleftic, The Dandy Warhols’ Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia and Outkast’s Stankonia).

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Songs of the Year—1999

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?
–The Talking Heads

Songs of the Year: “Either Way”, Guster; “Psycho Killer”, The Talking Heads

Runners-up: “Steal my Sunshine”, Len

Honorable Mentions: “Thank You” Dido

At the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly, Conan O’Brien attempted to outlaw all soundings of Prince’s “1999” for 12 short months. 1999 was the year of the Y2K panic. It was the year that boy bands were triumphant and when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ruled the world. Back then, Carson Daly was on MTV and American Idol was still three years away.

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Songs of the Year—1998 The Next Big Thing

Songs of the Year: “Give Me Daughters”, Jonathan FireEater; “Underground”, Ben Folds Five

Runners up: “Torn”, Natalie Imbruglia; “St. Louise is Listening”, Soul Coughing

Honorable Mentions: “Doo Wop”, Lauryn Hill; “The Rockerfeller Skank,” Fatboy Slim

1998 was the year that alt-rock died. I swear it. Later, it was reincarnated as “Indie”, but the death throes had started the year before. Pearl Jam and 311 (!) released live albums; Green Day went soft with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and Matchbox 20 acquired yet more fans. It was soon to be Jay-Z’s world and I was merely living in it.

In the year that Alanis finally thanked India, when Shaniah Twain was kept from conquering the world by Celine Dion and Cher and while we all started to endure an overwhelming onslaught of boybands and young R&B performers (Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Brandy and Monica), I started to stop listening to the radio.

No Lisa Loeb, for sure

What a terrible year for music—one that anticipated worse years to come. The top three singles? Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, Cher’s “Believe”, and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”. Napster couldn’t be deployed soon enough. Radio was dying or dead. I was in the dishroom, or behind a bar, or carrying trays of lobsters to tables begging for the radio to be turned off.

When I wasn’t playing bad cover songs or trying terribly hard to put together a band that sounded like Guster, I was probably in a classroom or a dishroom. In abandoning the radio, the Rhythm Guitarist and I entered a seemingly endless search for the next big thing. If we were still playing cassettes, we would have worn out Guster’s Goldfly and Soul Coughing’s Irresistible Bliss. But we weren’t. We had CDs. If you’re careful, they play forever.

The year was short on big things. What was I listening to? I loved the Ben Folds Five live album Naked Baby Photos, was slightly disappointed in Soul Coughing’s last album El Oso, Cake’s immensely disappointing Prolonging the Magic, and the wildly successful and only sometimes cloying You’ve Come a Long Way Baby by Fat Boy Slim. I wasn’t cool enough to know about Bright Eyes’ Letting Off the Happiness (which I wouldn’t hear for four years).

I was cool enough to have the short release Tremble Under Boom Lights by the soon-to-implode Jonathan FireEater. The nearly incomprehensible lyrics on the lead track “Give Me Daughters” detracted nothing from the distanced B3 organ, the throaty and deep voice of the vocalist, and the gritty dirt of the recording. The song structure is loose, but repetitive enough to be memorable.

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Songs of the Year—1997

Go ahead you can laugh all you want
I got my philosophy
Keeps my feet on the ground
And I trust it like the ground
That’s why my philosophy
Keeps me walking when I’m falling down
–Ben Folds Five

Songs of the Year: “Super Bon Bon,” Soul Coughing; “Bury Me,” Guster

Runners-up: “Philosophy”, Ben Folds Five; “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” Cake

Honorable Mentions: “Firestarter,” The Prodigy; “Tubthumper”, Chumbawumba; “Hypnotize,” Notorious B. I. G.

In 1997, I went to college. I had the grandest of opportunities to re-invent myself. In life, rare are the occasions when you can literally trade in your old mask for a new one. So, I changed my clothes (a little); I broke up with a girl over Limp Bizkit and I went off to conquer the world.

Or something like that.

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Songs of the Year 1996

She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
–The Wallflowers

Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers

Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins

Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies;  “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre

1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”

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Songs of the Year—1995

Must’ve been mid-afternoon
I could tell by how far the child’s shadow stretched out and
he walked with a purpose
in his sneakers, down the street
he had, many questions
like children often do

Songs of the Year: “Hell”, Squirrel Nut Zippers; “Counting Blue Cars”, Dishwalla

Runners-up: “Friends of P”, The Rentals; “Lump”, Presidents of the United States of America

Honorable Mentions: “Good”, Better than Ezra; “You Oughta Know” Alanis Morrissette

Not every year is dominated by songs that came out in that year; in the same way, the memory of a year will rarely be dictated by the songs you would like to have listened to or even the albums you actually bought. 1995 was still the year of Alanis (before she felt the need to thank India); none of us cared that she didn’t seem to understand irony or why one hand was in her pocket.

(Best suggestions from my friends at the time: (1) she’s hiding a roach; (2) sex toy in her hand; (3) she has an old woman’s hand and if it sees the light of day she’ll suddenly become an octogenarian; (4) she doesn’t have a hand!)

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Songs of the Year—1994 Geek Rock Comes out

You say I only hear what I want to.
You say I talk so all the time so.
And I thought what I felt was simple,
and I thought that I don’t belong,
and now that I am leaving,
now I know that I did something wrong ’cause I missed you.
-Lisa Loeb

Songs of the Year: “Stay” Lisa Loeb; “I Should Be Allowed to Think,” They might Be Giants
Runners-up: “Better Man”, Pearl Jam; “Animal”, Nine Inch Nails
Honorable Mention: “21st Century Digital Boy”, Bad Religion; “All Apologies”, Nirvana

1994 was the year that, for however brief a moment, cardigan sweaters were cool. Thick-rimmed glasses were no longer tokens of an embarrassing limitation but rather a sign of honor from a glorious Geekdom. Green Day were geeky punks. Weezer sang a song about 12 sided die.

1994 saw the release of albums that surprised and stuck around. I still remember the furious onslaught of the The Lead Singer as he tried to persuade me to love Green Day’s Dookie by enumerating everyone he knew (who was cool) who liked it. He should have known that this was the wrong tack to take with me. Contrarian I was.

The list of great albums that came out in 1994 is long, but a few highlights include: Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral, Weezer’s Blue Album, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, Stranger than Fiction, Bad Religion, Definitely Maybe, Oasis, Ready to Die, Notorious B. I.G., Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing. Tracks from these CDs would dominate the world for the next few years. But not me. Not yet.

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Songs of the Year – 1993

Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

Songs of the Year: “Creep”, Radiohead; “No Rain ”, Blind Melon

Runners-Up: “Cannonball”, The Breeders; “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, Pixies (DQ’d for year)
Honorable Mention: “Nothin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog

While 1993 was a year when I definitely started thinking more deeply about music and about why I liked what I liked, it was also a year when I started to display my most common (and annoying) characteristics: contrarianism and, for lack of a better term, obscuricism.

So, it is easy for me to list the major artists from this year that I didn’t get into. I ignored The Smashing Pumpkins; I was dismissive of middle of the road alt-rock bands like Gin Blossoms, Candlebox, and the Counting Crows. I got on the tailend of bands like James. I didn’t care a bit for Nirvana’s In Utero. I bought Pearl Jam’s Vs. the day it came out but only listened to it a few times. Strangely enough, bands like The Crash Test Dummies caught my attention.

Now while music history shows look back to this period with unmeasured bliss, we shouldn’t forget how much crap there still was: “Insane in the Membrane” by Cypress Hill was a top hit; Bon Jovi somehow got away with “Bed of Roses”; and we all had to wonder what Meatloaf wouldn’t do for love. Nevertheless, in comparison to earlier years, there was some great music on the radio.

I tried to stay true to the music I had learned to love the year before. But, betrayed by U2’s almost unconscionable Zooropa, I went back in time to bands I had missed out on when I was too busy loving NKOTB and M. C. Hammer. 1993 is when I bought and consumed Doolittle and Surfer Rosa. I immediately fell in love with the Breeders’ Cannonball. But the two songs that best encapsulate 1993 for me  are “No Rain” by Blind Melon and Radiohead’s “Creep”.

I first heard these songs while riding home in a friend’s minivan from theater practice. My best friend—the previously mentioned Lead Singer—and I were immediately floored. I can think of the road we were on, the yellow color of a dusty dusk, and the smell of the river approaching.  We demanded more. We surfed the radio for hours. We called into to various stations. We waited and were consumed.

Now, my native cynicism should have braced me against the commercial push behind these artists; I should have rebelled against their constant play on MTV; my contrary nature should have rejected songs that were so unequivocally embraced, but I seem to have been defenseless against these tracks. I cannot think of a time when two songs that were so different simultaneously gripped my attention so forcibly.

Where “No Rain” is bright, brassy, and optimistic, “Creep” is self-deprecating, dark and unclear. One is hard to sing; the other is easy to imitate but hard to sing truly. One invites harmonizing; but the other invites a ghoulish singalong. The video of the former was playful and memorable; the latter was of a simple performance (although I can still see Tom Yorke’s scowl from the video). Whatever the reason, I bought both albums after hearing the singles once. And, most surprisingly, both albums turned out to be really good.

(Pablo Honey is a phenomenal alt-rock album; “Been Thinkin’ About You” is Radiohead’s best (and only?) love song; I have not really liked a Radiohead album since (I know, heresy). Blind Melon is one of the better hard rock albums of the 1990’s; “Change” is one of the best rock songs of the decade. I don’t know why it was never released as a single).

Best Radiohead album (of the year)

While the sonic field and feeling of these songs are different, the schizophrenia of my love is best illustrated through the lyrics. Where Shannon Hoon croons “I just want someone to say to me  / I’ll always be there when you wake” he evokes the simple and optimistic dream that I think most of us share at some level. The dancing electric lead over the acoustic rhythm leaves you to believe that this is far from too much to ask. But Yorke’s self-deprecating “When you were here before / couldn’t look you in the eye” speaks to the lie of Blind Melon’s promise.

These two songs, along with being musical complements, exhibit complementary sentiments. They are each one half of the one reality that is and was the state of being in an uncertain place, of being uncomfortable, of being in-between. In 1993, there were moments when it was bright, when I was, in some figurative way, dancing in a field and hopeful that someday I wouldn’t be alone. But there were also nights when I was sure I wasn’t good enough, or just not fucking special. Radiohead may have been satirizing such sentiments. Blind Melon may not have believed what they were singing. But I did. Sometimes.

Now, brother: I know you must remember something of this year. I read the entire Dune series while listening to these two albums, over and over and over and….

Scourges of the year: Ace of Base’s “The Sign” tortured me. Billy Joel’s ‘River of Dreams” proved he still didn’t know what decade it was and Michael Bolton was still releasing singles. I also used to torture my siblings by singing the 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up” using my best Axl Rose voice.