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(Still) The Only Survey That Matters ...

Paul Westerberg, Prince & Minnesota Twins
by Mark Anderson

xcept for the frigid winters, humid summers and wall-to-wall mosquitoes, Minnesota is an ideal place to live. And without the fire and brimstone, hell is a day at the beach.

Born in the '50s: Paul Westerberg and Prince have been heavy hitters more than half their lives. ["Minnesota Twins," by Mary Bergherr]

But facts are facts, and we Northwest transplants tend to enjoy the Land of 10,000 Lakes from afar.

That was particularly true last spring, when a pair of born-in-the-'50s Minnesotans, Paul Westerberg and Prince, rolled into sleepy little Portland.

In April, Westerberg stumbled through a disastrous record-shop show, then redeemed himself by dropping off Stereo Mono, a homemade double disc – finally, something for Replacements lovers to behold. A week later, five incomparable hours with Prince kept us out past three on a Wednesday morning.

Those two main events clearly topped a music-filled 2002 for tripewriter, a year where great songs seemed to outnumber worthy albums by 20 or 30 to one.

If that ratio seems a little worse than usual, it's no longer a problem in this golden age of download. Just dump what you don't like and move on – no $17.99 per overpriced dud. In fact, while it's easy to name a hundred songs or more with some degree of greatness from 2002, there seemed to be no truly great albums.

But there were some very good ones.

Favorite albums, 2002

Stacey Kent

1) Stacey Kent / In Love Again In a year without true greatness, Stacey Kent's In Love Again tops this list. Kent, from the school of less-is-more, takes understated singing, the Richard Rogers songbook and a small jazz combo and combines it with ample space for nuance – standards as they were meant to be, a formula for the ages. But only true talent can pull it off because, fast or slow, there's nowhere to hide and everything must be near to perfect. "Shall We Dance," "Bali Ha'i" and the breathy sax intro to "It Never Entered My Mind" are among an album full of highlights.

Paul Westerberg

2) Paul Westerberg / Stereo Mono Seeming the ever-on-the-edge and reluctant superstar, Paul Westerberg tightropes all the talent with a fraction of the typical dementia. Here he doubles our pleasure with a pair of discs sure to satisfy all but the crankiest of Replacements fans. It'd also be sure to win some new notice if only the radio would play along: the rock songs rock; the ballads, witty and wise, rip out your heart. The singing is expressive and the playing (including a few special guests, but mostly just Paul at play in his South Minneapolis basement) is perfect in that boozy, sloppy way by which legend is rarely achieved.

1 Giant Leap

3) 1 Giant Leap / 1 Giant Leap For an album to rank among the favorites, a main criterion is: Will I still be playing the thing in a year or two? Most often, the answer is a clear and simple no. But 1 Giant Leap, the byproduct of deft mixmasters (Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman), well-placed singers (Michael Franti, Michael Stipe, Grant Lee Phillips, Neneh Cherry, Baaba Maal, Eddi Reader) and a musical trip around the globe (literally and figuratively – Catto and Bridgeman traveled far and wide to gather intercontinental rhythm tracks), stands a fine chance of passing the year-or-two-from-now test. In video, too.


4) Spoon / Kill The Moonlight Rollicking and snappy, Spoon's latest flurry is typified by piano-based song structures and quirky, hard-driving rhythms. But this outfit out of Austin, Tex., doesn't forget the guitars, dance beats, tambourines and cool singing, either. Kill the Moonlight, a refreshingly upbeat tangent to most anyone's norm, also contains a handful of great songs: "All the Pretty Girls Go to the City," "Stay Don't Go," "That's the Way We Get By" and "Back to the Life" alone are worth the while. Still, and although there's not a bad track throughout, a handful does not a great album make.


5) (tie) Clinic / Walking With Thee and Interpol / Turn on the Bright Lights Fans of the dark and the moody shouldn't miss these two hypnotic, addictive discs. The droning vocals, the modish instrumentation, the tension-laden arrangements, the pulsating bass – it all adds up to, well, something we've all heard before. But I've never been one to get hung up on the ridiculous "derivative" versus "innovative" debate. At this late date it's pretty much all derivative, friends. I say it either moves me, or it doesn't. That's a far more valid acid test, and you can read all those "sounds like so-and-so" comparisons elsewhere. Interpol is a New York band that may never approach these same heights again, but they've reinvented the wheel for 2002. And Clinic, a Liverpool brood, has made an expansive disc that is sometimes thrilling. Sure, neither album is perfect, both ultimately suffer from a certain self-contained sameness and they're probably not for everyone. Which album is?

Favorite songs, 2002

The Reindeer Section

1) "Strike Me Down," The Reindeer Section Who can explain why a song catches the ear and won't let go? These things aren't meant to be explained, and "Strike Me Down," a lilting tune from a Scottish virtual supergroup, found my ear last summer and lives there still. The downtrodden, melancholy lyric set against a perfect mid-tempo melody is bliss, as is the voice of electronica singer Jenny Reeve. Son of Evil Reindeer is the second disc in two years from the Reindeer Section, an ambitious offshoot project of Gary Lightbody. Both are worth a serious listen, but on this one the song is the thing.

Shannon McNally

2) "Down and Dirty," Shannon McNally Here's another case of great song on a good album. It's sad enough that Shannon McNally's pleasingly quirky debut, Jukebox Sparrows, got lost in the 2002 lady-singer shuffle. But the fact that "Down and Dirty" went largely unheard is almost a musical tragedy. McNally wraps her husky voice around a self-penned song that deals with an unappreciative lover in frank and gritty fashion. Prediction: album and song will both be revived after this promising talent has future success.

Tommy Womack

3) "The Replacements," Tommy Womack Story-songs usually blow, but "The Replacements," a loving tribute to that legendary ne'er-do-well rock outfit from lil' ol' Minnesota, starts out sharp, stays on message and never gets tired through 8-1/2 minutes worth of loping, animated biography: "... they weren't afraid of anything or anybody / like skinny little dogs in a cage / they'd get drunker than you've gotten in your entire life / have another drink on top of that one / and walk right out onto the stage ..." Well done, Tommy Womack (word has it that Womack's album and live show are worth catching, too).

Patty Griffin

4) "Chief," Patty Griffin After the likability of Flaming Red, Griffin's previous disc, last year's 1,000 Kisses might be a slight fallback. But considering the 2002 alternatives, it still ranks among the better releases. "Chief," the tale of a Native American war vet obsessively walking the streets of a small town, is vintage Griffin – especially when the chorus cuts to a key-changing bridge that elevates the song into the neighborhood of heaven. If you're not familiar with Griffin, try her first two discs, then come back for this one. Better still, catch her live act. She's a brilliant songwriter and uniquely emotive singer. Either way, she's one to watch.

Sophie Ellis Bextor

5) "Murder on the Dancefloor," Sophie Ellis Bextor Disco music, at the risk of a gag-worthy pun, always gets a bad rap. But the irrepressible genre, much like rap music, serves its purpose, always has, always will. To this day, nothing fills a dancehall with excitement like a well-placed Bee Gees, Michael Jackson or Eminem romp. In that great tradition, Bextor's "Murder on the Dancefloor" fits the bill for 2002. "Gonna burn this goddam house right down," she croons all around the irresistible guitar lick. The album, a 2001 U.K. release, is reportedly a dud. But, while the song somehow reached No. 5 in Canada this summer, it seems to have missed the discos upon U.S. release. Not that I follow these trends too closely ...

Meanwhile, things are still cold in Minnesota, where it's often said that there are but two seasons – winter and road construction. Well, last year they added a baseball season to remember when, thanks to a checker-coated former used car salesman who runs the sport like a checker-coated used car salesman, the scrappy local heroes went from near extinction to a few games away from a very unlikely trip to the World Series.

Besides, what other place can claim a Prince and a Paul Westerberg, much less a Bob Dylan and an ex-Gov. Ventura, among its ranks? It's all enough to fill any expatriate with pride.

And so now a year has passed since I explained a long-standing ritual of sharing favorites with friends and friends of friends every March and referring to it as The Only Survey That Matters.

Mainly, though, the only survey that really matters is the survey of self. To each his own. All any of us can do is report what we find – and there's just so darn much out there that we need all the help we can get.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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