RIFF REWIND’s best songs of 2002: Johnny Cash, The Roots and staff-sourcing

Eminem, Marshall Mathers

Eminem (or MC Chris in disguise)

Well, it finally happened. After doing 35 of these columns I got to a year where I couldn’t find five songs for the list. There were three locks, and a couple under-appreciated deep cuts in “Smoke & Mirrors” and “Days Go By” (or its fantastic acoustic version) that, if we’re being honest, fit better in the potpourri that is the Honorable Mentions.

What I’m saying is 2002 was the year Joe Strummer and John Entwhistle died and Nickelback and Avril Lavigne debuted. That about sums it up.

Fortunately I write for RIFF, so there’s a whole gaggle of knowledgeable music nerds right there in Slack from whom I can shamelessly steal ideas. For example, that line about Strummer and Entwhistle was from photographer Martin Lacey. (The snarky disdain for Nickelback and Lavigne was me, obviously).

So I took the rare step of soliciting nominations. After ignoring David Gill‘s suggestion of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” I got some good suggestions from Joaquin Cabello, Kyle Kohner and Steve Carlson. They got credit where it’s due, so if you hate it please direct complaints to the appropriate party.

Bruce Springsteen — “My City of Ruins”

When photographer Steve Carlson suggested this one my first instinct was to disqualify it.

I’ve been trying to avoid 9/11 in this column. It’s really, extremely depressing, and once you get me started I’ll go off on a rant about exploiting tragedy to scrap the fourth amendment. Basically, once it comes up nobody’s happy.

Then I listened to the song again, and it’s good. It’s really good. It does a great job of capturing the mood of the time; after all, it debuted in 2001 for a telethon benefiting the victims (though was first released as a studio version in 2002, which is why it makes the list here).

I promise it gets less depressing from here.

Interpol — “Obstacle 1”

I have a confession: I don’t even particularly like Interpol. Not really my scene. But Kyle Kohner, of RIFF’s Los Angeles contingent, is by far my harshest and most consistent critic in our Slack channel. He is not a fan of a majority of my top fives and always the first to point out a few egregious snubs.

When I put the call out for nominations I expected a list from him. Probably a long list! Instead I only got the following message: “This list needs any song off Interpol’s Turn Out The Bright Lights. Angry reacts only if not!”

So, as an olive branch to a hater, I listened to the album and picked my favorite song. Fortunately it was a single so I had a video to include.

Now stop complaining.

Eminem — “Lose Yourself”

Speaking of being a hater, I’m a long-time Eminem hater.

I’m not denying that he’s a technically talented rapper or that the word choice in his lyrics have an impressive cadence and flow. I’m just saying that the actual content of those lyrics sounds like it was stolen from an angry eighth grader’s notebook and that his voice sounds like MC Chris without the charm.

The exception is “Lose Yourself,” which is uncharacteristically great. Mature, personal lyrics that never verge on insufferably whiny, and an overall musicality that many of his singles of the era lacked. So I have to include it, since I should probably include something from Mr. Mathers and there’s not really a Plan B.

Johnny Cash — “Hurt”

After three songs for which I basically apologized, we come to something that’s legitimately a favorite.

I have a loose policy against repeating artists (with some obvious exceptions) and against covers. This song is so objectively incredible that I’m breaking both with no hesitation and no regrets.

He didn’t write it; it’s a Nine Inch Nails song originally, but it’s a Johnny Cash song now. Sung with such profound emotion and released less than a year before his death, it’s a powerful epitaph for himself more than a decade before David Bowie did the same thing with Blackstar. It gives me chills every time I hear it—every single time—and I don’t expect it to ever stop.

The Roots — The Seed 2.0

For a year where I needed help to fill out a top five, the ceiling is high. “Hurt” and “The Seed 2.0” are both among my all-around favorite songs.

There are songs I have trouble writing about because they’re just so good that they speak for themselves. I just want to point at the video and, when it’s done, make a “Right!?” gesture. Because I can’t imagine anyone hearing the song and not loving it.

It’s also an airtight argument against the concept of rigidly defined genres. The Roots don’t have one and look what comes of it! Pure gold! So stop fitting music into boxes and let creativity reign.

Honorable Mentions

Taking Back Sunday — “Great Romances of the 20th Century” (Joaquin Cabello)
Avril Lavigne — “Complicated”
Dirty Vegas — “Days Go By”
New Found Glory — “My Friends Over You” (Joaquin Cabello)
Papa Roach — “She Loves Me Not” (Joaquin Cabello)
Joe Satriani — “Seven String”
Red Hot Chili Peppers — “By the Way”
RJD2 — “Smoke & Mirrors”

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData

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