I spent my train ride to the office this morning listening to the Icelandic electronica quartet Múm, and thinking about your point that all music that matters is regional, and pondering your very to-the-point question about which records really meant something to me this year, and I came to the conclusion—"Make Locally, Release Globally." OK, not a bumper sticker yet, but a good many of this year's releases that stayed in heavy rotation in my Walkman were recordings from overseas suffused with a sense of place as deep and strong as Jack White's MC5/Bob Seger/Stooges-inspired Motor City rock-blues. These recordings afforded me a new glimpse of beauty or truth—which is what I (still) listen to records for, day in and day out. But they also put the lie to the idea, reflexively espoused on both the left and right, that pop-music's globalization is simply a matter of Us giving Them the Britney they want (right) or don't (left). It's more complicated—and wonderful, and promising—than that.
Take Múm's Finally We Are No One. I've been enchanted with its magical ambiance and childlike songs since the album's release last spring. Finally was recorded, I'm told, in a lighthouse in the remote northern reaches of Iceland—and, in a sense, could have been recorded nowhere else. There's nothing naive or "primitive" about the record—it's full of digital clicks and with-it analog-synthesizer hums, and it's clear the members of Múm have listened to a lot of Boards of Canada and other underground electronic music. But their lullaby melodies are the half-remembered, transmuted stuff of Icelandic folklore, and their use of cellos and "serious music" compositional elements speaks to the exalted place classical music, in general, and Modernist music, specifically, have in the life of contemporary Icelandic culture. (The twin sisters who make up half of Múm were both studying at the conservatory in Reykjavik when I met them in Iceland two years ago. One of them recently left the group to pursue her cello studies.) In the same way, Sigur Rós—whose new album (), is one of my favorites of 2002, too—is in conversation not only with Pink Floyd, whose place in Icelandic culture seems second only to the Norse Sagas, but also with ...well, the Norse Sagas. Which is to say these Icelandic music makers have a way of being here (rooted) and there (cosmopolitan) that strikes me as where almost all worthwhile pop these days is coming from, and maybe always has come from.
There were also a number of terrific albums this year out of Africa. I sense a certain fatigue with African music among my friends and in our music culture at large, which is too bad—2002 has been a revelation, at least to me. Moffou is the best album Salif Keita has made since the late '80s: buoyant Afropop and Malian acoustic ballads that will break your heart. And I'd never really listened to the sweetly intoxicating Afro-Latin guitar grooves of Orchestra Baobab. What a joy to hear not only Pirates Choice, a 1982 album re-released by Nonesuch, but also the band's new Specialist in All Styles. Orchestra Baobab's music is just about the most seductive example I know of what musicologists are calling "reverse diffusion"—the blessedly unpredictable way a work of art from one culture ventures abroad and makes its way into another culture, the product of which then blows back to the first culture, transforming its art, and on and on. So much for unidirectional globalization.
Finally, let me move closer to home, though not that close—to Birmingham, England, where housing projects and kids on the dole form the backdrop to Original Pirate Material, the debut album from the Streets, which is what 22-year-old U.K. garage producer MC Mike Skinner calls himself. Skinner has soaked up American rap and all the latest international dance beats, but he's as much a poet of place as Springsteen is. His voice is at once punky and cheeky, like Mick Jones on those Clash songs. Skinner's beats are pop anthemic, laced with strings and synth swells. And his rhymes and flow are deadpan and uncanny—think Eminem-meets-Philip-Larkin. More to the point, his lyrics are unwaveringly site-specific—the take-out joints and council estates where Birmingham's white, lower-middle-class, urban, unemployed youth ("geezers" in the local parlance) pass their days, bored and stoned and futureless. You said you don't like lists, but let me play one-person music mag for just a moment and pronounce Original Pirate Material the Debut Album of the Year. (Wow, that felt good.)
And the records that meant most to you? Is there a new artist or two who got to you? Or any old friends who delivered the goods once again?