The musical landscape in 2002 cannot be written about without considering the effects of 9/11 and their immediate aftermath. The lingering shock of those tragic events influenced both artists and listeners, changing the artistic environment of the country as surely (if less importantly) as it did the political landscape. It would be overly simplistic (and inaccurate) to say that every album released in 2002 dealt directly with the events of September 11th, yet it is impossible to view theses releases even ten years later without contemplating the effects of the terrorist attacks on the American psyche.
Some artists dealt with the fear and anxiety of the post-9/11 state directly. Most of the more direct tracks released in the months immediately following the tragedy were, predictably, not very good (fortunately, since Paul McCartney, Alan Jackson, and Toby Keith were kind enough to release their singles in 2001, they need not be addressed here). However, many albums released the following year addressed facets of the attacks and the subsequent social and political climate of the country in thoughtful and moving ways.
Notably, many of the songs on Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising were written as a direct response to the events of September 11th. Indeed, a possibly apocryphal story has it that Springsteen was inspired to write the album when a stranger rolled down his car window days after the attack and said “we need you now.” Regardless of the veracity of that anecdote, the sentiment proved to be true for many as The Rising became Springsteen’s highest charting album of new material since 1987.
But while The Bruce was sifting through the physical and emotional wreckage of the country and finding inspiration, others were raging. The ladies of Sleater Kinney saw the state of the country after 9/11 – a second Gulf War, the Patriot Act, the stifling of dissent- and dared to ask (loudly) “where is the skepticism? Where is the protest song? Since when is skepticism un-American?” Through 12 blistering tracks, Sleater Kinney railed against what they saw as the country’s toxic state of affairs, and, not coincidentally, turning out one of the strongest records in their catalog.
However, if the album charts are to be believed, what most Americans wanted from their music in 2002 was not politics but escapism. The top-10 selling albums of the year included efforts from Pink, Nelly, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain, Avril Lavigne, The Dixie Chicks, and two from Eminem. These albums may touch on 9/11 (cough - Alan Jackson - cough) but they largely eschewed politics in favor of hooks and catchy beats.
Away from the top of the charts, 2002 saw one of the best slates of indie rock releases of the decade. The clubs were still thumping with actual beats as the indie kids shuffled along to the vestiges of the short lived dance punk revival as represented by the overt energy of Hot Hot Heat (Make Up the Breakdown) and the frenetic noise of Liars (They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top). Spoon unleashed Kill the Moonlight on a grateful nation, inspiring a decade’s worth of imitators and dooming themselves to a career of being criticized for making excellent albums that “just sound like Spoon albums” (not such a bad fate really). The Flaming Lips followed the career defining The Soft Bulletin with a weird little album about robots gaining sentience, the girl who fights them, and cheerfully realizing that everyone you know is going to die. Interpol reminded us all that aping Joy Division isn’t such a bad thing if it leads to tracks like “Obstacle 1” and “NYC” or an album as good as Turn on the Bright Lights.
In addition, two of the biggest indie acts of the decade were just getting their start. Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their fantastic, critically acclaimed self-titled EP, instantly elevating them to “it band” status and making Karen O a household name (on the Lower East Side). On the other end of the popularity spectrum, TV On the Radio independently burned several copies of their first set of demos, titled OK Calculator, and left them lying around in cafes and bars throughout the city. While the tracks were certainly unpolished, the DIY CDs garnered the band a fair amount of buzz in the community and helped make the release of their 2003 EP, Young Liars, more of an event.
Hip Hop artists were also churning out classic albums. Most notably (non-Eminem division), Jay-Z followed the success of The Blueprint with two discs of braggadocio titled, appropriately, The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. Mike Skinner (ne The Streets) showed us all some Original Pirate Material and treated the world to his acerbic wit, earworm beats, and unique flow. Oh, and The Roots put out the best and most ambitious album of their career in Phrenology, the milestone follow up to 1999’s critically acclaimed Things Fall Apart.
While correlation certainly does not equal causation, it is indisputable that the shadow of 9/11 hovered over everything that happened in 2002 and that many of the albums produced that year left an indelible mark on the musical landscape and influenced the next decade of artists to come. But the effects were not always direct or easily seen and, in many cases, these effects might exist only in the mind of the individual observer (or confirmation bias addled reviewer).
With that in mind, it is perhaps appropriate that the best album of the year, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, has been frequently cited as a 9/11 record when the famously troubled recording was actually finished prior to the attacks. With lyrics like “tall buildings shake/voices escape/singing sad sad songs” and “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags” the confusion is understandable. Indeed, this misperception speaks to the power and universal appeal of the album. Like all great albums, it is a work that speaks differently to each individual each time they hear it. It just happens to have been released at a time when everyone was thinking about the same thing, which lends it a persistent, haunting resonance even a decade later with full knowledge of the album’s provenance.