In a deceptively strong year for music, truly revolutionary releases simmered underneath the mainstream's radar.

Scratch the Surface 

In a deceptively strong year for music, truly revolutionary releases simmered underneath the mainstream's radar.

By many counts, it was a grim year for music. The law of diminishing returns produced inferior versions of the already lame boy bands and rap/metal crews that ruled the charts last year, and these polished pop products and corporate-packaged harbingers of rebellion again dominated MTV and the radio airwaves. Critically acclaimed acts, such as U2 and Outkast, enjoyed brief successful spurts, and even avant-garde artistes Radiohead scored one chart-topping week with sales of roughly 200,000. (Memo to census takers: Approximately 200,000 music critics are currently employed.) But for the most part, popular music offered nothing but Teen People cover models who crooned antiseptic renderings of ingratiatingly catchy tunes penned by assembly-line songwriters, or "edgy" rock-hop thugs who confused overstated nihilism and hollow contempt -- with which they compete for time on TRL -- with social commentary.

Yet it was an exciting year because substantial evidence surfaced to suggest that mainstream approval might no longer matter. Listeners started tuning out commercial radio's vapid drivel and turning on Internet radio or using Napster to become their own DJs. Cost-efficient Internet marketing made it increasingly plausible for independent record labels located in the heartland to thrive. In response, droves of talented groups stayed near home instead of pursuing major-label dreams on the coasts. Kansas City's Shiner and Season to Risk signed to the Colorado-based Owned and Operated, while Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys released an outstanding CD on Chicago's Bloodshot.

Meanwhile, backlash against the bling-bling camp and insipid crossover country revitalized independent hip-hop and traditional country, respectively, as these subgenres produced some of the year's most vital releases. And although Rolling Stone chose to focus on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, such artists as Björk, PJ Harvey, Shelby Lynne, Bratmobile, and Lee Ann Womack offered excellent albums that proved that the magazine's decision to eschew its annual token Women in Rock issue did not stem from a lack of deserving subjects.

With a little digging -- a few hours of Web browsing here, an hour or two spent with Spin or CMJ there -- music fans could easily access a wider spectrum of music than popular radio, even in its prime, has ever offered. Given the sheer expanse of worthy records, I found crafting a year-end Top 10 list quite difficult. (I eventually deemed the task impossible and decided on a Casey Kasem-style Top 40.) But an overabundance of great music is the best type of dilemma, and barring a complete corporate takeover of the Internet (not bloody likely; as Chuck D says, trying to control downloads is like trying to stop the rain), this pleasant problem promises to increase in volume over the coming years. In the meantime, our writers have sorted through this year's already massive output to compile lists, appearing on the pages that follow, of 2000's best albums, singles, videos, and concerts.

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