A few freak success stories caused pop-chart earthquakes without provoking industry aftershocks: Norah Jones moved millions, but she didn't pull jazz back into the mainstream with her. Rap didn't sell much, either, relative to the recent past, and strangely, people started holding Eminem, one of the only lyricists to remain marketable, accountable. Hip-hop culture's been stolen, ranted the alarmists, and now only white MCs will get paid. Another, more valid way to look at the issue is this: Eminem made some of the best songs of his career -- emotionally complex, poetically precise novellas with backbeats -- while rap as a whole could barely manage ten decent albums. When Ja Rule, who is to wordsmithing what his cinematic costar Steven Seagal is to acting, becomes ubiquitous on urban radio, that's the problem. When Linkin Park does more to assist burgeoning hip-hop talent (by letting a crew of cut chemists and freestylers tag their platinum-selling disc on a remix compilation) than labels such as Def Jam, that's what's wrong with the game.
Rap's biggest enemy in 2002, other than the grim SoundScan tidings, was professional idiot Bill O'Reilly, who successfully pressured Pepsi to drop Ludacris as a pitch person. O'Reilly labeled the harmless entertainer a "thug," based on sexually explicit passages in his songs, which is akin to calling Jim Carrey a thug because he gets a blow job in Ace Ventura. Later, O'Reilly ripped several high schools for letting Jay-Z appear as an honorary principal. Instead of applauding the star for spreading a positive first-person message in his community, O'Reilly again relied on literal interpretations of song lyrics in declaring Jigga unfit to speak to children. Unfortunately, few rappers joined forces to attack O'Reilly on wax, instead wasting time on meaningless feuds (Jay-Z vs. Nas, Nelly vs. KRS-One, Eminem vs. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog).
Pepsi also recently dumped Britney Spears, apparently without O'Reilly's prompting. Her career at a crossroads, Spears must either step up her writing skills ("Dear Diary" won't do now that Pink paints vivid family portraits) or hibernate until the next cyclical twist pushes fluff back to the forefront. Meanwhile, Christina Aguilera, having learned nothing from Mariah Carey's cautionary tale, followed the Glitter girl's lead by stripping down to near-nothing at every public appearance. Her strategy misfired: Randy guys watched her "Dirrty" video many times, but they didn't buy the disc.
With pop flopping and Limp Bizkit still seeking a new guitarist, commercial radio got better in spite of itself. Queens of the Stone Age, Flaming Lips and Jurassic 5 moved into heavy rotation, and even the soft spots (Vines, Avril Lavigne) weren't completely rotten. (The airwaves might be the only place where being a rich, white male means nothing: Peter Gabriel, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Elvis Costello put out great albums without earning a single spin on most major stations.) Tech N9ne bypassed and bucked the system with his "Fuck the Industry" commercials; if it works, independent-music ad campaigns might be one of next year's hot topics.
But 2003 won't be the year anything breaks, nor will it be the year any problems get fixed. Like 2002, it'll probably produce about ten great-to-excellent albums in every major category, a handful of sensational singles (our list of 2002's fifty best songs appears in next week's issue) and a few wild cards (party on, Andrew W.K.) to keep things interesting. That won't be enough to pull the recording industry out of its slump, but it should keep music fans satisfied.
-- Andrew Miller
Following the indulgent, Day-Glo rubber soul of Midnite Vultures, Beck's Sea Change is everything fans of the mellower Mutations hoped it would be: an unpretentious, acoustic-minded album with shy electric guitars, gravely vocals, and desolate strings and bells. Drenched in pain and brilliance, Sea Change ranks with such sad masterworks as the Cure's Disintegration and Lou Reed's Berlin.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
It's been more than just a rough year and a half for Wilco. After losing two founding members over creative differences, being dropped by its label and weathering a bidding war that brought it back under the AOL/Time Warner umbrella, Wilco finally delivered its long-awaited masterpiece. Chalk it up as a win for the good guys: It's a sonically stunning portrait of loss and renewal by a Wilco that's left behind all vestiges of alt-country in its bid to restore pop to Beatlesque majesty.
3 .. And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
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If Slayer took ecstasy, if Sonic Youth's members didn't think kicking ass was beneath them, if My Bloody Valentine actually spilled blood all over the place, well, the results might sound like ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. This Texas quartet cranks drugged-out shoe-gaze guitars until they squeal beautiful death threats.
4 Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
The Flaming Lips hasn't lost its masterful ability to mix the absurd with the sincere -- frontman Wayne Coyne can make a puppet lip-synch his lyrics and still leave audiences deeply moved. Even when musing on mortality, the band creates a candy-colored magic that's highly stylized and entirely its own.
Kill The Moonlight
This just in: The next big thing will be alt-R&B, and Spoon is one of the best at making us rehear the soul. Like the first run through alt-R&B, the whole thing sounds a lot like the British Invasion. On "Stay Don't Go," for instance, spastic gasps and minimal electric guitar rips produce the sexiest sounds since Roger Daltrey's bare-chested prime.
The Eminem Show
A couple of years ago, Eminem had parents and politicians frothing and slamming his homophobia while wholly ignoring the appeal of his best work: His deceptively simple beats and sense of humor; the class-inspired raps on his first album; the deconstructions of identity on his second; the black-and-white world those topics allow him to smear. Now, instead of public enemy No. 1, he's a superstar. Still, whether he's taunting "White America," proclaiming himself no friend of Bush or letting his daughter declare him nuts, the appeal of Em's show remains the same: The undeniable fucked-up humanity of it all.
7 Elvis Costello
When I Was Cruel
It was a great (and expensive) year to be an Elvis Costello fan. Rhino's sterling (if too liberally remixed) reissue project marched on with Armed Forces and several other essential titles. October saw the arrival of a generous platter of recent B-sides that included a stunning version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." And, oh yeah, Costello released his most dynamic hour of new music in a decade, When I Was Cruel. Even its lesser songs crackle thanks to renewed voltage in Costello's singing and his career-best guitar playing. But really, when wasn't he cruel?
In Search Of ...
Is it good or bad that the Neptunes are so talented they can make educated music fans love Justin Timberlake? Fortunately, the production duo took time off from giving soul to the soulless to work with people who have real talent: themselves. In Search Of ... rocks the strip club and delivers Marvin Gaye-worthy hymns for today's junkies with equal grace.
So-called underground hip-hop acts are known mostly for their raps, which typically preach positivity instead of materialism. Blackalicious is no exception, but you could easily listen to Blazing Arrow half a dozen times before most of the pair's words even register -- thanks to the year's most breath-catching soundscapes. "Sky Is Falling," for instance, bounces through a musical world that's bizarre and disturbing but welcoming and very cool, as if A Tribe Called Quest had crashed a 21st-century recording studio in Munchkinland. Looks like whoever didn't get out of the way in time was wearing Fubu and drinking Courvoisier.
A Rush of Blood to the Head
There's every reason in the world not to like Coldplay, starting with its Gwyneth Paltrow-dating singer, Chris Martin, and ending somewhere around the superficial similarity between Martin's voice and Dave Matthews'. But the reason to like Coldplay is big enough to forgive such misdemeanors: its songs. The atmospheric guitar rock on Rush breaks no new ground, but the album's elegant melodies and decisive playing improve on the band's strong debut and pay off its IOU to Radiohead.
11 Norah Jones
Come Away With Me
Listening to Norah Jones' soulful songs frequently involves tears -- messy sobs that creep up on you even if you're washing dishes or reading the paper or performing some other task that's generally an effective shield from emotion. A few bars into "Seven Years," for example, or even "Cold Cold Heart" (which shouldn't work that way anymore), and splash.
12 Mike Ireland
Once again, Ireland cuts the year's Best Country Album You Haven't Heard. Like his 1998 debut, Try Again is an all-around critic's favorite, voted No. 2 for the year by the alternative No Depression Radio Show and No. 4 by the very unalternative Country Music magazine. No wonder; this local boy makes good music. Radio-ready anthems that turn out to be not so anthemic; sweet doo-wop-inflected odes to depression; Charlie Rich covers that rock and tremble beneath violent strings and distressed drum loops -- throughout, Ireland's expansive tenor pleads for one more chance and for the strength to make good on it.
13 Queens of the Stone Age
Songs for the Deaf
Buoyed by a slew of guest musicians, enough pills to stock every pharmacy in greater KC and a backdrop of the California desert (where much of the album was conceived), Deaf is kinda like the Burning Man bacchanalia set to wax. Singer/guitarist Josh Homme radiates cool with his detached, seductive delivery; bassist Nick Oliveri supplies the teeth-gnashing with his punk shrieks; and Dave Grohl hits the drums like a linebacker. Tune in, turn on, drop dead.
Walking With Thee
In the year of the garage-rock revival, Clinic takes that form's basic structure and substitutes stark, hypnotic methodology for dirty teen-age rebellion. Walking With Thee sucks the heat out of a room, moving from precise drones to rave-ups on which primitive instruments howl as if attacked.
15 Black Heart Procession
Amore Del Tropico
(Touch and Go)
San Diego's Black Heart Procession has always seemed misplaced, its morose chamber music recalling Edgar Allan Poe's Baltimore more than sunny California. But on Amore Del Tropico, the group finally embraces the sun, with radiant rhythms and steamy, sensual melodies thawing its compositions' frostbitten cores.
16 Sigur Rós
Glaciers creep along in near silence until a giant shard of ice plummets thunderously into the sea. Sigur Rós condenses such chilly cycles into songs on ( ), on which stretches of stark quietude melt into massive crescendos accented by eerie bowed-guitar sounds. The music manages these weighty emotional swells without a single comprehensible lyric, because Jón Thór Birgisson, whose voice sounds more female than male and even then hardly human, sings only in a made-up language called Hopelandic.
17 Nappy Roots
Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz
The joy of Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz is the Nappy Roots' willingness to make Kentucky a real, relevant rap locale, complex in ways that even Bill Monroe never tried to tackle. For every overalls reference, there's a mile-deep Detroit groove; for every "Love Theme from The Godfather" mandolin melody, there's a button-accordion riff and a shout out to green beans. The album celebrates country folk the way they really are -- for an audience that demands urban viscera, no less.
18 Peter Gabriel
Up opens with a soft, subtle synthesizer, then a haunting scream tangles with an industrial-strength riff, pouncing with the unforeseen ferocity of a jaguar attack on a city street. Gabriel still breaks new ground, but not with a sledgehammer -- this time, his tool is a grave digger's shovel. The instant of impact startles as earthy melodies shift violently, but soon the rhythmic upheaval becomes mesmerizing.
19 Cee-Lo Green
Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections
I am not one of these thug rapper guys, Cee-Lo Green declares on his solo debut. It's by proclaiming his difference that this member of the rap crew Goodie Mob discovers himself and takes wing. Green stakes out his place in a long line of rock and soul eccentrics -- everyone from Louis Jordan and Little Richard to George Clinton and Prince -- but he's his own person: funny and funky and freaky, contradictory and weird. Cool, too, how he's most distinctive when, on the hurtling guitar-rock anthem "Live (Right Now)" and the power-rap ballad "Young Man," he's encouraging us to fly.
20 Chuck Prophet
No Other Lover
Chuck Prophet fans quietly guard his "best kept secret" status, but his latest effort might blow his cover. From the incessantly sinister sounding "Storm Across the Sea" to the radio-friendly pop/rock hues of "Summertime Thing," Prophet drenches his lyrics with liberal doses of sly humor, all sung in his cigarette-riddled baritone.
(Kill Rock Stars)
After dropping the middling, appropriately titled All Hands on the Bad One in 2000, Sleater-Kinney reclaims its place as punk's most poised and poignant provocateur. Few bands really tapped into the trauma and uncertainty of a post-9/11 world with much force, either going overboard trying to make a statement (Bruce!) or avoiding the issue altogether. Not so with these gals, whose breathless One Beat is a complex, candid call to arms.
22 David Bowie
After David Bowie's embarrassingly irrelevant 1999 album Hours, Heathen refreshingly recalls the artist's pensive German period and better employs the electronic-music sensibility he explored on 1997's Earthling. Highlights such as "Slip Away" -- with its graceful melodrama and maudlin vocals -- recall Bowie's strongest '70s material. At the same time, the still-astounding Bowie gives the album a modern, cohesive sound that proves he's still capable of evolving.
23 Bright Eyes
Conor Oberst would be the most unbearably pretentious coffee-house acoustic-guitar guy of all time if he didn't have the talent to back up every damn move he makes. His lyrics read like short stories, and by sheer force of sincerity and will, his songs attempt to revive the souls of those who feel dead inside. Saying Bright Eyes is an emo band is like calling Nirvana a grunge band or Led Zeppelin a metal band -- technically true but tragically off-point.
24 Hot Hot Heat
Make Up on the Breakdown
Using only standard rock instrumentation, Hot Hot Heat proves it's still possible to create danceable tracks without imported beats and other artificial flavoring. Its bass lines boil and burble, its drums skitter and shake, its erratic riffs pulse in neon-yellow and hot-pink flashes and its singer's yowls express enthusiasm, not angst.
25 Greg Brown
Milk of the Moon
Greg Brown is excited by the laughter of women, by a good cup of coffee, by a moon that always changes and by a love of telling stories. With a little bit of blues, a few relaxed guitar licks and a big mess of mystery, Brown makes his milk of the moon tangible, wonderful stuff. We could all use a dollop or two.
26 Beth Orton
Rejecting the trip-folk that slowed down her previous albums, Beth Orton splits the difference on Daybreaker, which serves her densest, most sweeping songs with a side of dry cactus courtesy of -- you guessed it -- the ubiquitous Ryan Adams. Orton shorns Adams' sobbing "This One's Gonna Bruise" of everything but numb shock and drains his shot glass with a country ballad of her own, "Carmella." Regardless of arrangement, few current artists have mastered romantic resignation better than Orton, but she's still stronger speaking in future tense, and the electronically catalyzed "Paris Train" and "Thinking About Tomorrow" radiate sensuality.
When We Leave ...
NNHM takes elements of intelligent dance music -- programmed percussion, sampled loops, ebb-and-flow coherence -- and uses them to make grandiose orchestral pop sound intimate. Its agile riffs dart in and out of synthesized smokescreens, then elephantine drum thumps clear the air for golden-voiced vocals. When We Leave's tracks never seem to really start or finish; instead, traces from each help form the fabric for an endless sonic tapestry.
28 David Gray
A New Day at Midnight
After three undernoticed albums, David Gray's White Ladder and its "Babylon" catapulted the singer into the middle atmosphere of popular-but-credible artists. Gray could have made White Ladder II: The Extension and ensured his continued ascent. Instead, he shelved twenty songs written after "Babylon" hit, thinking them too similar, and he fell to earth after his father died. Loss hovers over even Midnight's upbeat tracks -- not that there are many -- and permeates its best songs. The somberness is made magnetic by Gray's voice, a gentle bark that shepherds his songs to the brink of uplift.
Turn On the Bright Lights
Interpol broke so fast that CMJ New Music Monthly featured the band in its "On the Verge" section just about the time the band had generated enough buzz to be worthy of the magazine's cover. Turn On the Bright Lights entranced ears with its darkly urban moodiness, emitting a depressive yet danceable vibe. Highlight track "Say Hello to the Angels" fuses frenetic drums and electrified rhythms with hopeless vocals for a weighty tension that makes Interpol uniquely captivating.
30 Imperial Teen
In Aladdin, when the genie gets released from the bottle, he crams centuries of thwarted exuberance into every second of freedom. Grown-ups feeling stunted by their responsibilities could identify with this outburst; kids just enjoyed the goofy guy talking funny, even if they couldn't catch his mile-a-minute references. Similarly, On appeals to listeners of all ages on different levels. A kiddie-pop album aimed at adults, it enchants with its go-go beats and happy-faced harmonies.
31 Tom Waits
Alice, the stronger of two masterful albums Waits released in 2002, references Lewis Carroll's obsession with a now-infamous young girl named Alice. Songs such as "We're All Mad Here" reference Carroll in title and spirit, but Alice isn't all a playful wonderland, as demonstrated by "Table Top Joe," which sounds like a variation on Delta blues delivered by a drunken Frenchman. Combining smoky saxophones, weary strings and eerie freight-train sound effects, the album is a miasma of lush, acid-tinged balladry and schizophrenic melodies.
32 Rhett Miller
On The Instigator, brightly colored country-tinged sing-alongs almost conceal Rhett Miller's poignant pain. Rather than standing high on a podium of rollicking volume, as he does in Old 97s, Miller places his stories front and center, pouring out his heart while pouring another glass.
33 Tom Petty
The Last DJ
Like the beard he models on The Last DJ's back cover, Tom Petty's lyrics have always consisted of coarse, prickly bristles -- yet he avoids alienating listeners by holding their hands with his conversational voice. Petty's comforting delivery works overtime on this barbed effort, which skewers the recording industry. He blasts the payola-plagued airwaves and yawns at arena-rock shows, unafraid of being barred from both. Hey, hey, hey, he was born a rebel.
34 Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys
Your Favorite Fool
Rex Hobart used to cry the tears of a clown, jerking the last drops with a wink as he told his tragicomic tales. His latest sob stories, however, inspire honest, earnest emotion. Whereas his earlier work put sugar on the rim of stiff shots, Your Favorite Fool serves it straight. His local fans know the Kansas City native isn't the sad-sack character he plays on disc, but listeners without access to his good-time hang-outs might not be so sure anymore.
(Def Jam South)
Rap remains a singles-driven medium, but this former Geto Boy has created a masterful, focused album about redemption and caution. He's still a gruff-voiced gangster, but he uses most of his mic time to educate and enlighten, warning about the pitfalls of street life.
Your Love Means Everything
Perhaps the most mismarketed major-label release of the year, Your Love Means Everything -- starring guest shots from Michael Stipe, Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and Coldplay's Chris Martin -- should have been alt-rock's Supernatural. And star power isn't its only asset -- Your Love moves from chilly orchestral electronica to chaotic hip-hop clamor, with keyboardist and programmer David Kosten, the central character, giving each song a distinctly personal sense of atmospheric melancholy.
37 Super Furry Animals
Rings Around the World
Suffering from neither Radiohead envy nor delusions of Oasis grandeur, this Welsh outfit negotiated the steeplechase of UK hype and made it to these shores with its mystery and sense of humor intact. Rings isn't the group's first album, and it's arguably not its best, but 2002 yielded few discs as varied in style or broad in scope. Yet Rings doesn't play like pastiche or some eager-to-please audition for the big time. Ambient gloom and wall-of-pop sunshine (and plenty in between) cleave equally to the band's unified, lush imagination.
38 Andrew W.K.
I Get Wet
Is this a joke? Is this the real deal? It's impossible to tell, but somehow an album of big, dumb rock songs has never felt so refreshingly great and sounded so fantastic turned up LOUD. Rarely has such a one-dimensional embrace of excess felt so genuine.
39 Steve Earle
Jerusalem is notable not so much for "John Walker's Blues" but for asking "What the hell's the matter with America?" at a time when the question seems illegal. He doesn't just consider an American Taliban -- he tackles Mexican drug mules, conflict in Israel and what the world might be like if Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive. That's the kind of story I like, Earle sings, the kind that makes you think. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that's what some of us still like, too.
40 Bruce Springsteen
"In the wake of 9/11" has been twisted into a convenient catchphrase for a horror that remains truly indescribable, but Bruce Springsteen finds just the right words to give that day an honest, everyman perspective. The Rising offers a heartfelt and soulful prayer for a battered national psyche. Though the fad of flag-waving has crept into Springsteen's act before, it's his unwavering faith in the American dream that sold it as genuine. This time around, there's no need to justify such gestures as he shows that pain -- and healing -- are on everyone's mind.
41 Various Artists
Red Hot + Riot
For West Africans, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was James Brown, Miles Davis and Bob Marley all in one. Authorities in his native Nigeria recognized his new Afrobeat politicism as a threat, arresting him more than 200 times before AIDS took him down in 1997. The gift of this tribute, the umpteenth in the Red Hot series benefiting AIDS education, is having Fela's band members join forces with those they influenced: Dead Prez works with Talib Kweli, and Fela's son Femi meshes with Macy Gray. Fela's not gone -- he's among us in a new way.
42 Casket Lottery
Survival Is for Cowards
On its third full-length effort, KC's Casket Lottery combines its penchant for Marshall-stack power-blasting with hooks galore. Tracks such as "Code Red" and "What I Built Last Night" offer a full range of the Lottery's services -- stuttering tempos, Raggedy Ann guitars and wandering bass lines, juxtaposed with Nate Ellis' two-tiered throat, which leaps effortlessly from murmur to caterwaul in the space of seconds.
Musiq was simply born knowing all the angles. On everything from deep funky grooves to songs built for seductive moments, he's smooth and natural enough to know that all he needs to do is ride the music, without any overindulgent vocal nuances.
44 Hot Snakes
Hot Snakes revisits its genre's glory days, an odd transitional period between the street punk of 1977 and the beginning of new wave, when indie rock was fresh and boundless, rarely delivered on a major label, and about fighting against something rather than buying into it.
45 Isaac Freeman and the Bluebloods
Isaac Freeman isn't just the heavenly bass singer for gospel quartet the Fairfield Four, though that alone would make Beautiful Stars worthwhile. His voice is deep but also wise, and his range, from a rich baritone to cabinet-rattling lows, shapes every note into a soul-saving salve. The Nashville-based Bluebloods (with Independence native Mike Henderson) slyly lift every song with rousing secular blues, from standards such as "Jesus Is on the Mainline" to advice like "Don't Drive Your Children Away." The whole thing is just, well, heavenly.
46 Chris Thomas King
Dirty South Hip Hop Blues
(21st Century Blues)
The year's best argument that tradition is about embracing change (not resisting it) while remaining connected to (not limited by) the past, Chris King's version of the blues helps ensure that the music survives (check his label) rather than rots in the retirement homes along Chicago's Rush Street and Memphis' Beale. King's blues incorporates poetry-slam rhymes, new-jack soul, chitlin'-circuit house-wreckers and slow-grind entreaties, killing-floors and drive-bys, slide guitars and drum loops, "John the Revelator" and "Gin & Juice." It's not Charley Patton's blues, and it's not Muddy Waters'. But it still ain't nuthin' but a good man feelin' bad.
Koufax's 2000 debut disc seemed pleasant enough, but its follow-up opens with a lean snarl. Punchier and surlier than any band dealing in new-wave piano deserves to be, Koufax now mixes its sunny dispositions with staccato daggers. Watch out -- the geeks have grown into angry young men.
48 Linda Thompson
Fashionably Late answers one of music's longest-running (seventeen years) "Whatever happened to ... ?" questions. It turns out Linda Thompson, even in retirement, was writing songs with country songwriter Betsy Cook. It also turns out that harmony vocals were the least of what she contributed to the classic Richard and Linda Thompson albums. Here (along with guitar from her ex on one song) she plays and sings with son Teddy; together, they're the best mother-son team since Rufus Wainwright (also heard here) and Kate McGarrigle.
Today Is the Day
If 2002 really started the garage-rock revival, the members of the Gadjits were early arrivals. But instead of mingling awkwardly while they waited for sound-alike squads to arrive, the brothers Phillips began pinning tails and spinning bottles. When the music world finally made its fashionably late appearance, the Gadjits already had an album to hand out as a party favor. They might not have arrived with the cool crowd, but the Gadjits will laugh last -- RCA recently invited the group to the big dance on the strength of this sweat-stained soul and roll record.
God Loves Ugly
Last year Atmosphere made its name with Lucy Ford, a near-concept-album about MC Slug's failed relationship with the titular character. On God Loves Ugly, Slug tells Lucy to fuck off, but only because he still loves her. It's not all doom and gloom, though. Slug manages to score a groupie -- right before he and his admirer die in a car wreck.
51 Neko Case
It would be enough for Neko Case merely to have the voice she does, a rugged, natural instrument capable of sinful insistence and eerie calm but, despite considerable power, incapable of overstatement. She also writes, though, and this time her originals outshine even a terrifying, juke-joint-in-purgatory reading of the Sarah Vaughan classic "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)." And she produces, perfecting on Blacklisted a vintage, haunted-roadhouse sound. But on an album that wears its hair in a flirty Aquanet beehive, Case sings like she's got nothing on but bedhead and bad intentions, like there's no such thing as enough.
As one-third of the late Company Flow, the producer behind Cannibal Ox and the head of trailblazing label Def Jux, El-P didn't have to make another record to solidify his standing in the conscious-rap movement. But he didn't make just another album -- he released the underground hip-hop disc of the year. El-P waxes political, then grabs furious tracks from an anarchic future. There's a war going on between El-P's lyrics and his grooves.
Slanted and Enchanted
Pavement probably won't ever get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but if there's ever a museum dedicated to indie sounds, the group will have its own wing. Slanted and Enchanted, its first LP release, sounds a little better remastered, but it remains every bit as urgent and raw as it was a decade ago. Repackaged as a double album with more than thirty extra tracks and a book detailing the band's history, it's a reminder of a time when indie rock was a dazzling, unsaturated market of unlimited possibilities.
54 Mooney Suzuki
In what's been dubbed the year of the garage revival, Brooklyn's Mooney Suzuki put out the most blue-collar album of them all. Recorded for tiny Gammon Records, Electric Sweat is a shameless fusion of punk and soul that goes from pure emotion to rebellious rage before you can say MC5.
Static Delusions and Stone-Still Days
Does it really matter where a group comes from anymore? There was a time when a grunge band had to travel to Seattle to be taken seriously. But all you need to make it as a garage act these days, regardless of locale, are some sweat-stained suits and spirited two-minute rhymes. With deceptively simple lyrics behind a snarling veneer, Seattle's Catheters also boasts a pulsating rhythm section that would make the band's grunge godfathers proud.
56 Sonic Youth
Few things are more boring than when Sonic Youth forgets it's an anti-rock experimental collective trying to be a rock band. But few thing are better than when it remembers. The group never stopped searching for weird sounds and weirder tone changes, but it's been a while since those sounds came linked to such pretty melodies and drunken rhythms.
The Last Broadcast
The Last Broadcast functions as a prog-rock digest, embracing the genre's adventurous melodic structures and technical excellence while eliminating its obtuse tangents and lyrical Druids and wood nymphs. On "M62 Song," the group condenses King Crimson's baroque epic "Moonchild" into a slim, haunting love song, with acoustic guitar sprinkled over a mysterious mix of wind and wolf howls. Waiting for a love that never comes, Jimi Goodwin sings, his voice shrinking with each repetition. This is what it sounds like when Doves cries.
58 Pearl Jam
True to form, Riot Act was oceanic, with Pearl Jam molding grandiose crescendos into cinematic climaxes. Eddie Vedder's much-imitated baritone has never sounded better, though his lyrics remain somewhat obtuse. Fortunately, there's no pussyfooting on "Bushleager," a spoken-word supercharger that takes aim at a certain Texan who was born on third, thinks he got a triple.
59 Tom Waits
During a recent talk-show appearance, Tom Waits said he often chaperones field trips for his offspring. To his dismay, not a soul recognized him during a student outing to the music store. But when they visited a city dump, he was spotted immediately. If Tom Waits were your dad, chances are your lullabies and subsequent reveries would sound something like the strange yet sincere Blood Money, on which the junkyard dog barks over scratchy, marimba-littered pop melodies.
60 Tech N9ne
At eighty minutes (not including seven bonus cuts), Absolute Power has more tracks than Sid Vicious' forearm, but Tech N9ne is smart enough to vary his approach. The pun-packed kickoff single "Slacker" quickly became this season's ubiquitous trunk bumper, but Tech explores his serious side on numbers such as "Constantly Dirty." "Gunz Will Bust" creeps like a cat burglar, and "Imma Tell" offers a platform for Tech's verbal gymnastics. Appearances from D-12, Yung Gunz and Tech's longtime posse, the 57th Street Rogue Dog Villians, keep listeners on their toes without overselling the guest list.
61 Lonesome Bob
"Lonesome" Bob Chaney's perseverance is reflected in his album titles -- he's gone from Things Fall Apart five years ago to 2002's Things Change . That's no minimal shift. On this album, dedicated to the memory of his son Zach, Lonesome Bob sings of the lonely, hopelessly addicted people usually left for dead. The real beauty is that he makes us care.
62 James McMurtry
Saint Mary of the Woods
After his first album, James McMurtry was so naturally sardonic that his music seemed destined to become inaudible; it's as if he were determined to say everything his Lonesome Dove-penning father Larry ever wrote, using .001 percent of the words. With this one, he finally pulls it off, opening lustily with Dave Alvin's "Dry River" and spiraling westward from there, charting a steady progression of losers finding a way to survive. With "Gulf Road," one of the best here, McMurtry captures the sound of a man walking away, and by God, we can hear it.
63 Ruben Blades
One of the most surprising responses to 9/11, this veteran's latest addresses global conflict with an ear for what we all have in common. You can taste Blades' Celtic, Arabic and Afro-Cuban influences on Mundo, which amazes with its simplicity and eloquence.
64 Alejandro Escovedo
By the Hand of the Father
It's not the way the album finds the complement of its music in spoken word that makes it stand out, and it's not the way punk recklessness cuts into folkie reverence. It's the difficulty and significance of the task that gathered this rich array of Mexican-American musicians around Escovedo's vision -- the feat of imagination necessary to discover that tale most crucial to the child, the one buried in a family's silence.
65 Foo Fighters
One by One
Of all the people involved in Nirvanamania, who would have guessed that ten years later the drummer would be the only one still making relevant music, much less getting better? In between working with Queens of the Stone Age and getting us our unreleased Nirvana, Dave Grohl matched sweetly strange melodies with tales of love hard won and harder kept.
After Weezer's megasuccessful "green" album, Rivers Cuomo and company put down the hash pipe on Maladroit and rock like it still means something. The bifocal shoegazing of "Death and Destruction" delighted the horn-rimmed-glasses set, but it was tracks such as "Fall Together" and "Possibilities" that truly let loose the band's inner Van Halen.
67 Radar Brothers
And the Surrounding Mountains
The Radar Brothers start with simple elements (a subtle voice and an acoustic guitar), but by adding a few orchestral flourishes and a touch of twang, they create the year's best "going for a drive" album. Heartrending, artfully obscure and refreshingly melodic, And the Surrounding Mountains feels like a modern spaghetti-western score.
68 Raphael Saadiq
As a member of the early-'90s trio Tony, Toni, Tone, soul disciple Raphael Saadiq sang lead on most of the group's hits and sparked constant rumors of a solo shot. But except for a few soundtrack cuts, Saadiq never stepped out on his own until this year. The uniquely groove-heavy Instant Vintage, on which Saadiq alternates between bursting with childlike glee and bemoaning his fractured soul, was well worth the wait.
If Portishead preferred camp horror flicks to spy films, it might craft its string arrangements to convey fright and gloom instead of suspense and intrigue. Its vocals, already fragile and vulnerable, would quiver a bit more, empathizing with the helpless heroines. It would sing about morbidly fascinating sites, such as orphanages, state fairs, rat-infested Bolivia and the "murky, mystery place" Thimble Island. Symphonic swells would swallow its gothic guitars, and demurely demonic possession would lurk beneath its angelic vocals. It would be Rasputina, the only band ever to fit this profile.
In Their Darkened Shrines
Math rock (n): A style of guitar-based rock music characterized by unorthodox time signatures, jarring transitions and drumming that resembles an unending solo. SEE History metal (n), which is stylistically similar, despite the quickening of the pace and the addition of guttural vocals. However, math rock isn't usually about mathematics. (Exc. Tool "Parabola") History metal delves deep into ancient Egypt, unearthing legends and myths with an archaeological zeal comparable to the dig that opens its cinematic equivalent, The Exorcist. Only one known practitioner: Nile.
71 Jenny Toomey
An urban cousin to Neko Case's Blacklisted, Jenny Toomey's Tempting glistens like wet pavement and flickers like an old streetlight. The songs, all by musician and writer Franklin Bruno, belie their author's academic pedigree while subverting their singer's flatly serious style. The result is both musically diverse and playful, with Toomey gliding easily between invitations to infidelity and regrets sent. Rhumbas and saloon laments are among the expertly tailored styles she tries on in a night that starts at the Tropicana and ends in an alley.
72 Jason Moran
When he covered Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," Tech N9ne gave the early hip-hop classic new vitality, making it feel current. Jason Moran's piano cover of the tune, which focuses on its spooky central melody, makes it sound futuristic again. Moran does the same for jazz throughout Modernistic . Whether crafting a tune that would sound at home on a western saloon's "pianee" or conducting a chorus of thumping urban beats, Moran uses his classical skills to push post-bop boundaries.
It's easy to hate Korn for what the band has wrought: a sea of nü-metal doppelgangers whose IQs are bested by their waist size. But the lush, expansive Untouchables is further proof that Korn has left rap-rock for dead, letting hacks like Crazy Town pound the nails into the coffin. Yeah, the sick, silly video for second single "Thoughtless" makes us want to join its puking protagonist, and this album has bombed commercially, but the equally broken and beatific Untouchables nevertheless raises the bar so high for this stuff that Fred Durst couldn't reach it if he were standing on Aaron Lewis' shoulders.
74 Mac Lethal
Men Are from Mars
No MC -- local or otherwise -- spit more brain-bending rhymes in 2002 than Mac Lethal. Get a mermaid naked, get loose/Fuck champagne, we drinkin' vaginal juice , he declares on "Mermaid Pornography," just one example of his uniquely churlish way with words. Rather than attempting to pass himself off as a thug, Mac eschews Cristal and passes the time chugging bottles of Windex and getting his prostate milked. Then, just when it appears he'll never return to earth, Mac drops "Midnight in Manhattan," a heartfelt response to 9/11.
75 Various Artists
Caught in the Webb
This year saw a glut of country tribute albums, and though they all had their moments, Caught in the Webb is easily the best of the bunch. This effort reintroduces honky-tonk songwriter Webb Pierce's lesser-known numbers and also lets lesser-known singers -- Mandy Barnett, Matt King, Gail Davies -- shine. With the Jordanaires singing backup, Caught does what a good tribute should, sending fans scrambling to fill holes in their collection they never knew they had.
76 Ed Harcourt
Here Be Monsters
With his debut album, Ed Harcourt surfaces as another singer-songwriter, alongside Rufus Wainwright and Pete Yorn, in contention to become the next Jeff Buckley. Harcourt has a gift for hypnotic arrangements that blend trumpets, strings and piano, even if his lyrics don't effuse pain the way a good balladeer should -- presumably because the 24-year-old doesn't have enough experience.
Finally We Are No One
Despite hailing from a cold climate, the Icelandic quartet Múm makes cozy IDM -- intelligent dance music -- that veers away from the frostiness of electronica pioneers Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. Múm blends digitally programmed clicks, bleeps and pops with old-fashioned cello, accordion and glockenspiel for a result that exudes playfulness and warmth. Childlike vocals from twin sisters Gyda and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir -- who sound like long-lost cousins of helium-voiced Cranes chanteuse Alison Shaw -- lend the delicate melodies an aura of innocence that makes the music even more irresistible.
78 Doug Martsch
Now You Know
Having shrugged off the not-so-coveted indie-rock guitar-god crown he inherited from Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis (who is still lingering on the same solo he started on May 19, 1998), Doug Martsch now has the opportunity to showcase the songwriting skills he's honed over the past ten years as Built to Spill's guitarist. On this solo record, he sets aside distortion, delay and booming drums, stripping down to bare-bones acoustic guitar as he takes cues from '60s folk, Southern gospel and foot-stomping Mississippi blues. This is as spiritual as an Idaho boy can get.
The Colored Section
Donnie traveled to the river where black music flows deep, scooped a handful of mud from the bed and molded it into a soulful album drenched with consciousness, congas, harmonicas and organs. His natural style recalls the golden years of soul, when it was all about being black and proud.
80 Napalm Death
Order of the Leech
Napalm Death frontman Barney Greenway is notorious for once shitting in a box and sending it to the band's former label in protest of the way his group was being treated. Napalm Death fans could probably relate to ND's old bosses at Earache Records -- the group's mid-'90s efforts were in need of a good flushing. But since then, Napalm has rebounded and delivered what is arguably its finest offering -- a relentless, impossibly savage deluge of blast beats and epithets that sees this band cutting the crap for good.
81 Solomon Burke
Don't Give Up on Me
Solomon Burke's comeback is less heated and declamatory than his Atlantic sides from the '60s. Thanks to Joe Henry's production (and to the songs, some of which were written especially for the project by such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe), it's a cleaner, more studied affair, too. But so what? There's no stopping the King of Rock and Soul when he gets to testifying, especially when he's illuminating a vision of heaven on earth like Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "None of Us Are Free (If One of Us Is Chained)."
82 Kasey Chambers
Barricades & Brickwalls
Forget about a sophomore slump -- Chambers makes a quantum leap from her powerful debut, The Captain . Chambers' bold, bald honesty, from the determination of the title track to the vulnerability of "I Still Pray," makes it clear that she's for real. To top it off, in the grand style of Iris DeMent's "Wasteland of the Free," there's a great bonus track with this chorus: If you aren't pissed off at the world, you're just not paying attention. Chambers isn't too outspoken -- she's just right.
83 Badly Drawn Boy
About a Boy
Damon Gough put out the best album this year by someone who won't remove his watch cap. And 35 years after Mike Nichols recycled Simon and Garfunkel's songs for The Graduate, proving that a movie with a song score needn't be a musical or take place on a beach, Gough's alter ego, Badly Drawn Boy, offers a new pop-soundtrack benchmark. Gough's songs here (and on his often beguiling late-2002 album Have You Fed the Fish ) convey whimsy and melancholy with hooks and instrumental passages that have a cinematic depth of feeling and the intimacy of an old 10-inch Sylvania.
Eels frontman E has quietly become one of the best songwriters going these days, making album after album of beautiful, sad and funny songs. This time he rocks a little harder than usual, sounding somewhat like PJ Harvey, whose guitarist, Jon Parish, assisted with this album. On the disc's second-best song, the Eels employ big-band-from-hell bombast as the narrator rebuffs his girlfriend for mocking his small penis; on its best, the band shifts into symphonic mode, addressing the inadequacy of words to express new love.
85 Kid 606
The Action Packed Mentalist ...
Like the best punk rock acts, Kid 606 plays simple songs and allows his listeners (at least those with laptops and editing programs) to think they could easily do the same. But Kid 606, like the punks, throws napalm on everything he sees with an anarchic spirit no one else could ever replicate. Gleefully switching gears from modem noise to synth-funk to (out of nowhere) Missy Elliot and Kylie Minogue remixes, Kid makes music that's even funnier than the song titles ("MP3 Killed the CD Star," "This Is Not My Statement").
86 Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails' minimalist compositions offer no respite from its dense, cacophonous paint-peelers. The pace slows, the screams cease, but without the industrial sound and fury, all that's left to notice is the tortured, defeated tone -- and the surprising song quality. Still, featuring bleak remakes of classic laments plus some new, devastating downers, is the album Bright Eyes might make after being confined to a dank dungeon for a decade.
87 Red Hot Chili Peppers
By the Way
The Red Hot Chili Peppers officially grew up in 2002. Having helped father the rock-rap revolution (the Peps were mixing these genres long before Run DMC and Aerosmith walked this way), the SoCal quartet finally retreated into slow rock once and for all. But rather than turning into boring old farts, the Peps became interesting -- funky monks with something to say, musically and lyrically.
It's rare to find a Beatles-influenced group that could fit seamlessly on a '60s playlist. Informed by punk, power-pop and psychedelic sounds, today's throwback outfits sound more modern than they know. Perhaps Israel's Rockfour hasn't experienced this diverse range of distractions -- as a result, its songs, all multilayered harmonies and blue-sky cheer, sound completely pure.
89 Mary Timony
Initially, it all seems very silly: song titles such as "Dryad and the Mule," a Renaissance Festival-ready alter-ego ("Ms. Charming Melodee"), a wild-whiskered cat mask on the album cover. But helium-voiced guitar goddess Mary Timony, working without irony as a net, pulls it off. Over a piano melody so fluid and steady it seems as if falling raindrops are pressing the keys, Timony can sell lines such as I sing the alphabet of regret and Where's the Peacock? Does he want me, with his fifty eyes, so haunting? Because she doesn't break character, Timony can break hearts.
90 Various Artists
The Only Blip Hop Album You Will Ever Need, Volume 1
With its self-consciously ludicrous title, satirically studious liner notes and abstract content, this compilation might seem unapproachably hip. After a few listens, the pretense passes, but the music remains luxurious art anyone can afford.
91 Marianne Faithfull
On paper, Kissin' Time seems a bit antiseptic, as if Faithfull decided to make her own remix tape to prove she's still with it. But it's not that simple. The presence of Beck, Billy Corgan and other young men notwithstanding, Kissin' Time is the sound of a grand old woman of rock regaling the world with tales of her conquests, kiss-offs and other bawdy behavior. Her first conquest has always been herself, and once that's clear, as far as Faithfull is concerned, the world can kiss her ass.
92 Burnt by the Sun
Soundtrack to the Personal Revolution
Sunburns are painful to the touch, aesthetically unappealing and itchy in their aftermath. On the other hand, being scorched by the sun's surface -- actually coming into contact with its matter-melting rays -- would produce incomprehensible agony for a microsecond, but then it would all be over. Burnt by the Sun prolongs this intensity without producing the pain. The riffs rage, and the rhythms revolt, but the songs' tight construction preserves a certain calm. Listening to this Soundtrack is like donning a flame-retardant suit, strolling into a burning building and watching from its core as it's reduced to cinder.
We Love Life
Whereas most of Pulp's discography oozes sex, smoke and sin, We Love Life sprouts from nature. At first, that's tough to swallow, given that lead singer and prototypical English rocker Jarvis Cocker doesn't look or sound like he's been among nature a day in his life. But Pulp's latest album pairs organic acoustic guitars and tambourines with Cocker's swivel-hipped irreverence, creating a disco-granola vibe laced with plenty of vintage Pulp melodrama.
Blueprint 2: The Blessing & the Curse
An album that lives up to its name, this off-kilter set is almost as out of control as Hova's ego, which rivals Fat Joe's midsection as the biggest thing in rap. Still, radio clunkers aside, Blueprint 2 manages to get some real bangers out of Hova's never-ending persecution complex, though by now, Jay's rage is becoming routine -- as is much of his lyrical content. Aw fuck, there he go again, Jigga rhymes at one point. Talkin 'bout hoes and dough again/Can't hold it in/I'm surprised I got so much dough to spend. He's not the only one.
Another in a long line of Scandinavian artists to release outstanding albums this year, the Norwegian duo Royksopp hooks listeners with its down-tempo dance music and shimmery, ethereal pop. "So Easy," which features chantlike vocals and swirling sound effects, calls to mind a sequined synchronized swimming routine; meanwhile, the standout single "Poor Leno" turned Röyksopp -- along with Moby and Dirty Vegas -- into one of the year's most ubiquitous electronica outfits.
96 Kylie Minogue
Don't give in to the understandable impulse to dismiss Fever as just another record by the girl who covered "The Locomotion" in 1988. Rather, "Give In" to the siren Kylie, who commands so irresistibly. Kylie's hooks work instantly, via transcendentally sensual Eurodisco. One hundred percent ballad-free, Fever is inconsequential yet completely essential.
97 Poison the Well
Tear From the Red
Poison the Well proves the potential of emo bands that funnel their angst into action rather than self-pity. Emotionally spent but refreshingly whine-free, gruffly melodic without pandering hooks, Tear From the Red proves that sensitive hardcore need not be sissified.
98 Rilo Kiley
The Execution of All Things
The second album from Los Angeles band Rilo Kiley is a hit-or-miss affair, but when it hits, it hits hard, with twangy, tough-edged pop balladry that's more sincere than Liz Phair and more upbeat than Ida. Singer Jenny Lewis' voice is most often described as sweet or sunny -- perhaps because she's a former child star (Troop Beverly Hills, anyone?). But her ability to shift between heated shouts and desperate whispers lends her voice a weighty quality -- particularly on the marvelous "With Arms Outstretched."
99 The Streets
Original Pirate Material
On the surface, it's so British. Underneath, it's so twentysomething universal. Mike Skinner's accent and slang take some getting used to, but ultimately Original Pirate Material, like so many of the best rap records, is still just one guy's observations on the world around him.
Not an album for listeners whose employers are fond of mandatory drug testing, this stoned-to-the-bone badass effort tops everything Cathedral has done since 1993's crushing Ethereal Mirror. Sure, frontman Lee Dorrian's bellicose bark isn't what it used to be, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. With Dorrian easing up a bit, the woolly-mammoth guitars come to the fore, making The VIIth Coming an album of towering riff-rock as hot as this band's bongs.