Thursday, May 13, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2002


Two uncontested albums of the year in a row! I guess this is just to prepare me for the coming years, in which the decision will be a lot more difficult.

My favorite album from 2002 is Brainwashed by George Harrison. 

In 1987, Harrison released Cloud Nine, his final solo album of original material released during his lifetime. 1988, during a video shoot for one of the album singles, he began working on "Any Road." Other than initial song ideas, Harrison didn't begin work on a new album for a number of years. He was occupied with The Travelling Wilburys, The Beatles Anthology and legal disputes with Denis O'Brien, his former manager and business partner in Handmade Films, Harrison's film production company. I imagine he was also somewhat busy with his family, an opportunity he was afforded much later in his life than most are. 

Of course, Harrison seems to have been one of those souls for whom music is an unavoidable part of their genetic makeup. So in 1999, Harrison announced the name of his upcoming album, Portrait of a Leg End, and preformed three songs intended for the album, including "Pisces Fish" and "Brainwashed," both of which made it onto Brainwashed

Harrison battled with lung cancer in 1997 and seemingly won, but at some point, it came back. The Harrison family were also attacked in their home in 1999, after which point, Harrison focused on the album, communicating many ideas to his son, Dhani. In 2001, Harrison underwent surgery and radiotherapy for the cancer, which had spread to his brain. Harrison realized that he was dying, and pushed forward on the album's songs, communicating with both his son Dhani and producer and friend Jeff Lynne on the details and plans for the album. 

After his passing on November 29th, 2001, the younger Harrison and Lynne took some time off from the project before diving back in, adding the instruments George had requested. They were even able to use Harrison's original schedule and session bookings to complete the album. Jim Keltner added percussion as he had on so many other Harrison albums. 

The resulting album was nothing short of a masterpiece, a milestone against which any posthumous album could be measured. Brainwashed hit #18 on the U.S. albums charts. "Marwa Blues" won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Many albums that are released posthumously were either recorded with no knowledge that the release would come out after the artist's death, or as a cash grab by the record company that rushes out incomplete material. There are a couple of exceptions, one of which being Blackstar by David Bowie, but mostly, posthumous albums are nothing of any more significance than the material they released during their lives. Sure, "Time in a Bottle" by Jim Croce was a poignant posthumous single, but that wasn't even a coincidence. It was out prior to his death and the record company just thought it would sell well after his untimely death. The point I'm getting to is that Harrison recorded this album with his impending doom fully in the front of his mind. And the project was completed lovingly, by people who cared about Harrison and the integrity of his music, making the end product beautiful and heartbreaking. 

"Any Road" kicks off the album with some of Harrison's instructions, along with an upbeat song reflecting on paths you can take in life. The lyrics on the whole album are poignant and beautiful, but "Any Road" is a strong offering to kick off the album, paraphrasing a conversation between Alice and The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. The lyrics also offer up such lines as "But oh Lord we've got to fight//With the thoughts in the head with the dark and the light."

Harrison had a strong belief that track 7 should be the most important song on the album, even after the advent of the CD made it less important that the very beginning of the second half hook the listener in. Thus, Dhani Harrison ensured that his favorite track, "Stuck Inside a Cloud" was track 7. "Stuck Inside a Cloud" is a song in which Harrison accepts his impending fate with dignity. 

There's one cover on the album, a peppy version of a song made famous in 1931 by Cab Calloway, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Harrison preforms the song on ukulele, and instrument he was very fond of in his later years 

The album tracks range from philosophical thoughts of a man facing death, appreciation for the beauty in the world, and warnings about the future of the planet and society (as in the title track "Brainwashed"). Harrison's songwriting and guitar work are on point for Brainwashed. Lynne's production is perfect. Since Harrison knew this would be his final album, he obviously knew he was creating his final works, but it's still amazing that it all came together so perfectly.

2002 Summer vacation. I am pictured with my
"cloth bag," a bag I was secretly storing all
kinds of supplies in in case of any emergency.
I remember the day George Harrison died. I was in the fifth grade and heard only that "a Beatle" had died. As soon as I could after school, I asked my mom if she'd heard, with the fear that it would be her favorite, Paul McCartney. She said yes, and told me it was George Harrison, a fact I accepted with some relief.

It wasn't until a stomach virus took me out of school for a full week during my freshman year of high school that I did my Beatles deep dive. The Beatles had always been a part of my life, but I never really listened to full albums before. During my virus, I had plenty of time to listen to music, to watch interviews, etc. I felt a strong connection to Harrison for the first time in my life and began to listen to his solo work. The connection I felt to his songwriting was a spiritual revelation as well as a creative one. Of course, those who knew me at the time could probably point out that I also thought he was cute, which is true, but that was never the only pull.

Brainwashed is probably my second favorite Harrison album, in part because of how sad it can be to listen to. Although, if you really listen, Harrison didn't seem to be frightened or upset by death, so much as accepting of it. There are also just back-to-back excellent songs of varying topics. I loved the concern he showed in "Brainwashed" for a world he was leaving. I love the slice-of-life that "Pisces Fish" is, his playful condemnation of the Catholic church in "P2 Vatican Blues." There's a mournful ballad in "Never Get Over You" (don't even ask because you know it ended up on a fanmix), "Rocking Chair in Hawaii" is blues-drenched. "Rising Sun" wraps many of the album concepts together, and is in my top three songs on the album.

The guitar parts are almost all singable, which is how my close family and acquaintances identify a Harrison song if they're not sure. Of course, not only did "Marwa Blues" win a Grammy, but it really is a fantastic instrumental. It doesn't have a human voice, but the guitar is the singer. 

When David Bowie passed away only a week after releasing his final album, I rushed to hear it, expecting the kind of insight found on Brainwashed. I'm sure some people found that, but for me there is only one album that perfectly sums up a lust for life juxtaposed with an acceptance of death. I don't want to be that guy that says "listen to this album, it will change your life!" but like...listen to this album.

Let's check out how that leaderboard is coming along!

Join me tomorrow to find out my favorite album released in 2003.

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