I Need a Glass of Water
2002 YEAR-END BALLOT1. "Work It," Missy Elliott: The heroic weirdness of this leaves me awestruck, bringing to mind the entry in Stranded for Moldy Goldies: Colonel Jubilation B. Johnston and His Mystic Knights Band and Street Singers Attack the Hits, a record I've never even laid eyes on: "Cut right after the sessions for 'Get Ur Freak On,' when Missy and her pals were still glued to the ceiling." It's hard to know even where to begin trying to unrav- el it, other than to observe that all the backwards looping and oh-yessa-massas ("NO!") and gadunka-dunk-dunks/toing-tanga-tang-tangs share something else with mid-60s Dylan, a supreme confidence that amounts to getting away with anything and everything you care to try. Like all my favourite hip-hop, some of it just confuses me: "If you got a big _______, let me search it"--um, website? In the wake of "Work It," "Get Ur Freak On" sounded somewhat conventional the last couple of times I heard it, and "Get Ur Freak On" is not a conventional record. I love discombobulating kids at my school by throwing out anomalous "Work It" quotes: "Can I go in and get my hat?" "That depends--don't I look like a Halle Berry poster?" 2. "Hot in Herre," Nelly: "Work It" supplanted "Hot in Herre" as my song of the year al- most immediately; Nelly was much slower in edging ahead of Brandy, but at a certain point over the summer, one of those days where, in true melodramatic Greil Marcus fashion, it seemed as if every station you flipped to was playing "Hot in Herre," Nelly took over top spot. That it was the hottest summer I can remember in a long time surely contribut- ed to his ubiquity--if you were to assemble some data, I bet you could track a clear cor- relation between airplay and fluctuations in temperature. I'll get to work on that right away--in any event, once I began to fall under the sway of "Hot in Herre"'s spare, almost ambient jitteriness, some great lines came into focus: "Me and the rest of my heathens" always kills me (concurrent with a Bowie album named Heathen, no less--there's probably a Nelly and Ziggy duet in the works already), and Neptune/Sassoon/restroom is the kind of rhyme that, if I sat down and tried to write myself a poem tomorrow, would just never occur to me. 3. "What About Us," Brandy: I was amazed to find out this was Brandy after having heard it a few times--the Shanice-like girl who put out those innocuous ballads a few years ago? "What About Us" makes for a much more striking transformation to me than anything involving Kylie Minogue, LeAnn Rimes, or Adam Sandler. I could listen to "whataboutall- about" on loop for 30 or 40 minutes. 4. "Sugar," Imperial Teen: "Work It" notwithstanding, the most pleasure I got from music this year was catching up with all three Imperial Teen albums. When they get it right, they're an even better Yo La Tengo than Yo La Tengo (whom I recently saw alphabetized in an Indigo as "Tengo, Yo La," which is obviously Yo-Yo Ma's fault). And, allowing for the fact that I've taken a crash course, they seem to get it right more and more often every time out: twice on Seasick ("You're One"--still maybe their best song, though very dif- ferent from where they're at six years later--and "Pig Latin"), almost half the time on What Is Not to Love ("Lipstick," "Crucible," and the great "Seven"/"Hooray"/"Beauty" finale), and just about everywhere on this year's On. I checked and there doesn't seem to be an actual single from On ("Ivanka," one of the two or three songs I don't care for, came out four years ago), so I'll narrow it down to "Sugar," "Millions & Man," "Captain," "Undone," and "My Spy," and give the nod to "Sugar" because I always felt that "sugar, sugar" would make a good pop-song lyric and now someone has finally put that to the test. Besides their inexhaustible inventiveness when it comes to reconfig- uring the same perfect melody again and again, I think the two things that characterize Imperial Teen are 1) strategic delay (the way the drums tend not to kick in until 30 seconds into their best songs, and also how each album doesn't start peaking until the third or fourth song) and 2) a sixth sense for idiom: "catch me while you can," "can I have a show of hands," "the only game in town," "partners in crime," "we like the cars that go boom," ordinary little everyday phrases they rejuvenate in context. I'm voting for "Sugar," but the best line they've ever written comes in "Undone": "Put your ear up to the radio/You know more than you think you know." I have my own interpretation of what that means, but it's such a beautifully allusive thought, better just to leave it there to linger. 5. "Fell in Love With a Girl," White Stripes: I'm late on this one, too, but I can't imagine feeling its impact any more viscerally than hearing it for the first time clear out of the blue on Toronto's creaky old modern-rock station, CFNY, one day. "What was that? CFNY's historical roots go back to Ultravox--there's no way that's Ultravox..." I'm sure I'm not the first person to say this, but it bears repeating: "I said it once before but it bears repeating" is incomparably fine punk-rock erudition. 6. "When the Last Time," Clipse: Most of the hip-hop I hear that's preoccupied with scar- ing me barely even registers anymore, but these guys really do sound as heedless and as criminal as they set out to. They've got 5, 10, 15 girls jammed into their limo, every- one's all liquored and drugged up, and even though the girls are ready and willing, the nasal vocal and sinister blips make it sound like gang-rape anyway. In the middle of all the chaos, two lovers' eyes meet: "Her head's spinnin' and my head's spinnin'/Mine from juice-and-ginnin', hers from neck-and-chinnin'." 7. "Happy," Ashanti: Reminiscent of Mary J. Blige's "Be Happy" from a few years ago, with every line a fragmentary rumination that trails off into the deep calm of the music. On the evidence of "Happy" alone (though whatever else I've heard of Ashanti's has sounded OK too), I'd love to know how those protesters of the Soul Train Awards came to the con- clusion that Ashanti was somehow insufficiently soulful to win anything. Are 3rd Bass back in business or something? 8. "The Samurai in Autumn," Pet Shop Boys: Not the single (I like "Home and Dry," too), but really, when the last time you heard it like this? 1990, I guess--Behaviour's very autumnal too, and that side of the Pet Shop Boys has been there since the beginning. I also like two or three songs on the Beck album, and almost put "All in Your Mind" on my list. This will happen to you too, Eminem: one day your "moment" will have passed (the quotations because the true value of such alleged moments is highly overrated), and you'll emerge on the other side with a wistful and pretty set of songs that serves to assure your remaining audience that everything's OK, you're still around and still mak- ing music. 9. "My Place," Tweet: I believe Tweet's one of the girls riding around with Clipse--the opening lines of "My Place" find her in love and spinning around like a merry-go-round, and on "Oops! (Oh My)," her clothes keep falling off of their own volition. She's just like the Shirelles, in other words, except for the part about the clothes falling off. 10. "Without Me," Eminem: "It feels so empty without me"--I've been trying and trying my hardest to remember what the world was like without Eminem, back to the early months of 2002, and I'm sorry, it's just not possible anymore...All I do is make fun of or complain about Eminem, but this is the third time I've voted for him, so obviously he gets to me (and just as obviously, I have some new jokes and complaints). Unless I missed something, the self-proclaimed King of Controversy was AWOL during the months after Sept. 11, so I don't know if putting Osama bin Laden in a video at a safe remove quite ranks with John Lennon or Sinead O'Connor in the annals of pop-star heresy. Which is fine, I get a charge out of "Without Me"'s Pied Piper-like invitation to "follow me" anyway, the little his- tory lesson about Elvis and black music is ingenious, and "Fuck you, Debbie" is a great way to reintroduce yourself and shift your lead single into overdrive. Even the wildly misplaced attack on Moby is hilarious--I don't have strong feelings about Moby one way or the other, but I do know that middle-school kids, who make up a sizeable part of Eminem's core audience, have never even heard of Moby! He may as well have gone after Klaus Voormann or Edgar Froese. The story's been kind of gruesome since "Without Me," though. "Cleanin' Out My Closet" was just awful, and "Lose Yourself" is a synthesis of at least three different kinds of bad ideas: the Eagles on the travails of stardom, Destiny's Child on surviving, too many to name on the importance of believing in your- self. If it had something going for it in the vocal or the music it could maybe get a pass on such banality, but it has nothing--it's a leadfooted white elephant as oversized as Frank Howard. So at the precise moment when Eminem seems clunkier and less vital than ever, he's half the world's number-one concern. He's the Madonna of "Justify My Love" and Sex all over again.