1 Gomez – Shot Shot
2 The Music – Take The Long Road And Walk It
3 The Flaming Lips – Fight Test
4 Saint Etienne – Mario’s Café
5 Doves – There Goes The Fear
6 Coldplay – Daylight
7 The Delgados – The Light Before We Land
8 Clinic – The Equaliser
9 Half Man Half Biscuit – The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is A Light Of An Oncoming Train)
10 The Hives – Untutored Youth
11 The Radar Brothers – You And The Father
12 The Chemical Brothers – Star Guitar
13 Primal Scream – Skull X
14 Idlewild – American English
15 The Notwist – One With The Freaks
16 The Polyphonic Spree – Hanging Around The Day (part 2)
17 Oasis – Songbird
18 Badly Drawn Boy – A Minor Incident
19 New Order – Here To Stay
20 Wire – Germ Ship
1 Sigur Ros – Untitled 1
2 The Streets – Turn The Page
3 Curve – Want More Need Less
4 Clinic – Welcome
5 The Dandy Warhols – Solid
6 The Notwist – Pick Up The Phone
7 The Aphrodisiacs – This Is A Campaign
8 Interpol – Hands Away
9 Coldplay – Clocks
10 Alfie – A Word In Your Ear
11 Primal Scream – Some Velvet Morning
12 Saint Etienne – Shower Scene
13 Badly Drawn Boy – You Were Right
14 Doves – Pounding
15 The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??
16 The Polyphonic Spree – Soldier Girl
17 The Chemical Brothers – The Test
18 Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around
‘And songs are never quite the answer / Just a soundtrack to a life / That is over all too soon’
And so, finally, after a few months blogging my way through the early soundtracks and apologising profusely for some of the dud selections, I get to the good stuff.
2002 – my best year at uni, after taking a little while to settle into it. The year I didn’t spend my summer working at camp, but instead biding my time until getting stuck into the internship that I’d earned myself in Massachusetts and living over in America as a proper, 9-to-5 adult with a proper job rather than a teenager who hadn’t let go. It was all very exciting, and aside from the last couple of months of the year (more on which, no doubt, in the next blog), it was the best year of my life up to that point.
It’s pretty easy to draw a correlation between the best years of my life and my favourite soundtracks (see also the blogs for 2010 and 2012, when I get round to writing them). But 2002’s soundtrack stands out for me because I changed three things about the way I put it together: 1) No concessions to anyone else – friends or otherwise – in my choices, to make it more personal to me; 2) allow a couple of ‘wildcards’ from any year, so not everything had to be from the previous 12 months; 3) Put together the soundtrack in December, rather than January as I had done before then, so that I could give it away as a Christmas present to friends. The other effect of that last point was that my soundtrack would become part of the year’s experience in itself – I listened to it to death as I took a road trip from Worcester, Massachusetts to Charlotte, North Carolina that Christmas. On top of that, the music was pretty damn good. No ‘Drops Of Jupiter’-style whoppers here – songs which weren’t quite as good, sure, but nothing that you could describe as filler.
We get off to a flyer. Previously, every single one of my soundtracks had opened with the slow-building epic, each six minutes or more. This time round, we’ve got Gomez bashing out their feel-good comeback single ‘Shot Shot’ in a mere 2:24. With that out of the way, we then have my final-ever NME recommendation, The Music, with their first single ‘Take The Long Road And Walk It’. I would see them support another NME buzz band, The Vines, in Providence, Rhode Island that year. I walked out halfway through the Vines’ set and vowed never to buy the NME again – but I still have a soft spot for The Music’s passable impression of an indie-dance Led Zeppelin.
Talking of passable impressions, the Flaming Lips did a pretty blatant rewrite of ‘Father And Son’ by Cat Stevens, but I still bloody love ‘Fight Test’ even if the now Yusuf Islam is taking his rightful cut of the royalties from ‘Fight Test’. Then we have the first of our aforementioned wildcards. Saint Etienne released ‘Mario’s Cafe’, in 1992 as part of the So Tough album, though I discovered it when it was put on one of their many singles compilations. Saint Etienne, along with perhaps The Clash, are the quintessential London band, with their songs seemingly designed to be listened to while pacing the capital’s streets, and I fell in love with ‘Mario’s Cafe’ not in Kentish Town where the cafe in question is located, but in bustling Covent Garden. I think from that moment on, I knew I wanted to live in London for at least part of my life (though I’d have to wait a few years).
Then we get to a song that is still one of my favourites of all time. The first I was aware of ‘There Goes The Fear’ by Doves was when I read a press release that they’d be releasing the song as a single for a day before deleting it (an interesting marketing tactic previously used by the Manic Street Preachers). As a big fan of their previous album I was hugely excited for its release, but hearing it for the first time on Radio 1 was a revelation. Even tuning in halfway through its seven minutes, it seemed to have absolutely everything I could possibly want in a single song – a technicolour melody, clattering rhythms all over the place, lyrics about not looking back when leaving town. Though I’d eventually find different all-time favourite songs, I can’t think of any better travelling songs, nor songs that mine pop’s holy grail – the balance between happy and sad – so effectively. It also has a fantastic accompanying video that captures its vibe perfectly. If you could extrapolate your last.fm play count through an entire lifespan, this would probably be top of my play count by some distance.
My best musical discovery of 2002 wasn’t an artist or a song though, but a DJ. I should have got into John Peel‘s radio shows much earlier than I did, but when I eventually found out that he played a lot of The Fall, I thought I’d stick around next to the wireless after Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session finished. And to listen to Peel was to open a whole new world – dub followed by death metal followed by a scratchy old 78 followed by happy hardcore followed by Welsh-language hip hop… all put together by a 62-year-old DJ with a penchant for playing records at the wrong speed. It’s much-remarked upon but Peel’s true quality as a DJ was his ability to make you feel like you were the only person listening to his show. And he might play 90 minutes of utter rubbish in any given show, but it would be all worth it for the three or four nuggets of solid gold that would be tucked away in there.
And several of those nuggets appear here. The Delgados’ ‘The Light Before We Land’ is the first of them, their covers session for Peel (two of the songs which would appear on later soundtracks) triggering a dedicated fandom of the band in me. I’ve also got Peel to thank for Clinic’s clattering, claustrophobic ‘The Equaliser’, the Radar Brothers’ sun-kissed strum ‘You And The Father’ and the Notwist’s ‘One With The Freaks’. And of course, I’d have never heard of bands like New Order, the Chemical Brothers and Primal Scream had it not been for Peel’s championing of their early singles on the radio.
The Chemical Brothers song here, ‘Star Guitar’, is a real treat – a perfect halfway point between the dreamier aspects of My Bloody Valentine and the electronic precision of Kraftwerk, so effectively documented in its innovative video, a piece of Michel Gondry-at-his-peak genius that anyone who’s spent any amount of time listening to music while staring out of train windows can appreciate. Idlewild’s ‘American English’ catered to my enduring taste for a bit of widescreen Scottish indie-rock, while the Hives’ ‘Untutored Youth’ was the successor to the White Stripes’ ‘Hotel Yorba’ as the de facto anthem of my university digs. Its presence here, along with the 24-strong Polyphonic Spree’s ‘Soldier Girl’, timestamps this soundtrack as effectively as anything. The two biggest (read ‘commercially successful’) bands here were experiencing opposite trajectories – Coldplay’s mega-selling A Rush Of Blood To The Head launching them into U2 territory, while Oasis were beginning to resemble a busted flush. Their songs are the weakest on the disc, ‘Daylight’ picked because it reminded me of driving to the US Open tennis in New York, ‘Songbird’ from a coach trip to France to visit my dad and stepmum.
‘Songbird’ is followed by the simplest song here – just Damon Gough, an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, nonchalantly knocking out ‘A Minor Incident’. I’ve never seen the film it soundtracks, About A Boy, before, and assumed the song to be about saying goodbye to an ex-girlfriend or something like that. It turns out, having done a bit of research, that the song is actually the contents of a suicide note from a mother to his son, which has messed with my head a little bit. But even without the aid of context, in its position towards the end of its parent soundtrack album (and I guess disc 1 of this soundtrack too), it’s a beautifully touching thing.
Towards the very end, we have a song from another film soundtrack, this time New Order’s ‘Here To Stay’ from 24 Hour Party People, a film at least in part about New Order themselves. And finally we have post-punk veterans Wire and ‘Germ Ship’, a song that seems to nick the riff from the Fall’s ‘Idiot Joy Showland’ – probably the reason I like it so much. Only Wire would consider a song that originally lasts 1:51 worthy of a ‘radio edit’ but here you get the whole lot.
And the hits just keep on coming on disc 2. Listening back to this now, I’m reminded why 2002 was one of my favourite soundtracks. I put this compilation together, at least on paper, in an actual science lab – in the offices of my internship employers, as a way of killing time while I tried to install operating systems on the lab PCs. I used to say to people that that explained why this soundtrack was so perfect.
Disc 2 kicks off with a couple of tracks that sounded radical at the time, though their style would become a feature of much of the popular music scene of the 2000s. Sigur Ros’ ( ) album – call it ‘Brackets’ or ‘Parentheses’ if you must – was a constant presence in my life as the Massachusetts winter closed in. Those bleak, glacial-paced tracks seemed to perfectly fit those nights where the temperature dropped to -14C. All eight tracks on ( ) were untitled, and sung in a ‘made-up language’ called Hopelandic (little more than a series of placeholder sounds in the absence of real lyrics). I don’t know quite why I picked ‘Untitled 1’ as opposed to ‘Untitled 3‘ – I definitely remember preferring the latter at the time, as I do now – but I’m sure I had my reasons, and it does at least give me the chance to post ‘Untitled 1”s awesomely bleak post-apocalyptic video. Meanwhile, documentary makers in need of a soundtrack were paying attention – much more on that in a future blog.
That’s followed with the one and only appearance of The Streets on one of my soundtracks, and it’s the very first song of his very first album. ‘Turn The Page’ captures Mike Skinner at his intense best. Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free were enormously influential albums, though Skinner’s quality control faded badly after that.
As opposed to the reaching-their-peak Sigur Ros and The Streets, by 2002 Curve were a band on the downward, er, curve, with wrangles over the release of their album. ‘Want More Need Less’ is a pretty good death rattle though, and in a year where I seemed to make as many enemies as friends, this was my play-it-loud-in-the-car ‘fuck you’ song.
After Clinic’s ‘Welcome’ and a wildcard from 2000, the Dandy Warhols’ ‘Solid’ (picked because it was a favourite from my first trip to America that year), we’re into a suite of three songs which have a couple of things in common – that I discovered them all via John Peel’s show, and all of them have a fair amount of melancholy thrown in. German band The Notwist’s album Neon Golden is a great album in a year absolutely rammed with them. The Aphrodisiacs are a tiny band from Motherwell that received little attention from anywhere except from Peel. Their Peel session was outstanding, and I contacted the band directly for a CD-R of their demos – and their best song, ‘This Is A Campaign’, appears here. Interpol never beat their debut album Turn On The Bright Lights, and its finest track ‘Hands Away’ exudes a certain bleakness that could have only originated from a New York band recording directly after 9/11 (indeed, Radio 5 Live used this track as a backing for their promos for their one-year anniversary coverage of the attacks, and the choice seemed very apt indeed).
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t hear Coldplay’s ‘Clocks’ first on the Peel show – instead I heard this while working for Sports Interactive, testing Championship Manager 4. The song is ubiquitous now, but I remember being startled when I heard it for the first time, thinking it was brilliant and being completely surprised it had been done by those student bedwetters who had done ‘Yellow’. I couldn’t wait for its parent album to come out and it did start a bit of fandom for a band that given the rest of my music tastes, you’d probably expect me to hate.
Following on from there, we get a detour into the breezy pastoral folk of Alfie before Primal Scream’s cover of Lee Hazlewood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’, with the unlikely figure of supermodel Kate Moss taking the Nancy Sinatra role. It’s not as good as I remember it, and maybe it marks the start of the Scream team’s sharp decline – after eight tracks on my first six soundtracks, they would not appear again as they returned to forgettable bar-room rock with their next release. Mind, you should never quite write them off, as last month’s More Light album is really quite good and could provide the 2013 soundtrack with one or two highlights.
I was in a very big Saint Etienne phase in 2002, and while disc 1 got one of their old hits, disc 2 got a track from their current release. Finisterre was a return to their poppy best after a couple albums in the margins, and I could have picked any one of a number of tracks (particularly the outstanding ‘Action‘) but I went with the urbane sheen of ‘Shower Scene’. It’s followed by arguably the pinnacle of Damon Gough’s career with ‘You Were Right’. Though the album it came from is patchy, ‘You Were Right’ struck the perfect balance between the shambolic, homespun honesty of his Hour Of Bewilderbeast era with the glossier production values he’d later employ. It was rightly rewarded with the only UK top 10 hit of his career – a career that he probably should have stopped about then, at the top. Another band at the top of their game were Doves, who followed the outstanding single ‘There Goes The Fear’ with a single I was already sold on before hearing it, when I heard it described by the band as ‘New Order meets Northern Soul meets the White Stripes’. Thank God that ‘Pounding’ didn’t disappoint, and neither did the album it was plucked from, The Last Broadcast – one of my all-time favourite LPs.
We begin to drift towards the end of the CD with perhaps the most well-known songs of a couple of American indie bands. First, the Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realise??’ (always two question marks). As the current Lips drift into the darkest, most skeletal music of their career, you almost forget just how pop they were for a while – so pop that this song was awarded the title of state song of Oklahoma for a number of years. ‘Soldier Girl’ announced the Polyphonic Spree to the world. I remember calling this ‘a cheapo Spiritualized’ at the time. I have no idea why. It sounds nothing like Spiritualized.
It does, however, set things up very nicely for the big finish, the Chemical Brothers’ collaboration with Richard Ashcroft, ‘The Test’, a swirling, psychedelic, big-beat assault which is by several country miles the best thing that Ashcroft has put his name to since the Verve broke up. It asks the question ‘did I pass the acid test?’, which is a nice way to conclude the compilation after the Flaming Lips set ‘the test’ at the beginning of disc 1 (a coincidence I only spotted after I’d put the thing together).
We’re not quite done – the grand old man of country, Johnny Cash, rounds things off with one of the last compositions of his life, ‘The Man Comes Around’. His Nine Inch Nails cover ‘Hurt’, and its poignant video, are far better known from the era, but given that his death would follow less than a year later, this lyrical confrontation with the Grim Reaper seems all the more touching (and much imitated).
And so rounds off one of the very best soundtracks, although there wouldn’t be a bad one from here on in. Things would change in my life soon enough – my American adventure would turn sour, with everything that could go wrong pretty much going wrong, and just a couple of months into 2003 I’d find myself starting again, yet again. But I’d be back working in America soon enough – in a little pocket of western New Jersey called Blairstown.
Those months spent working at Camp Mason would inspire a compilation of their own and that’ll be the subject of my next blog. So all in all, a bit of a sea change from the music of 2001 – and I’d say to all intents and purposes, my music tastes as they are today effectively began right here. It’s been a bit of a thrill to listen to it back again.