"Lose Yourself," from 8 Mile
Nothing courts legitimacy like a starring role in a major motion picture, and mainstream pundits fell over themselves putting Eminem's place card at the adults' table thanks to the studied grittiness of director Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile. On disc, though, Em was already actor enough to put across a Jerry Lewis whine of preadolescent sexuality and a predatory flow as the new face of hip-hop. But on "Lose Yourself," the rapper's desperation is finally free of self-pity, and a Rocky-fied five-minute Behind the Music becomes a (sharply self-produced) triumph with a hook to catch the eye of a tiger.
2 Flaming Lips
"Do You Realize" from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Chimes and strings behind him, Wayne Coyne prefaces his serenade with sugar, asking, Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face? Soon, though, he reaches his downer conclusion: Everyone you know someday will die. Well, duh, but with an angelic choir and a consciousness-altering key change in his favor, those words become profound, his advice irrefutable. Instead of saying all of your goodbyes/Let them know you realize that life moves fast/It's hard to make the good things last. So quit listening and call home already. OK, fine; you can wait until it's over.
"You Know You're Right," from Nirvana
Even in death, Kurt Cobain schooled every postgrunge wanna-be on the pop charts this year, delivering a monumental last blast from the casket. Containing every classic Nirvana ingredient (loud-soft dynamics, grinding guitars and Cobain's inimitable yowl), "You Know" proved once and for all that the Washington trio was the most influential act of the '90s. Cobain's one-of-a-kind voice, cracking with misery and loss, still manages to be rock's most effective not-so-secret weapon.
"Cleaning Out My Closet," from The Eminem Show
Lil' Marshall Mathers, still crazy-mad at his mom after all these years, transforms a tantrum into great art. The single's final verse is one for the ages: It's a whirling, accretive, 283-syllable expectoration of piss, bile, humiliation, betrayal, shit, anger and sour grapes. So how can it be that when he hurls that final line -- Well, guess what? I am dead, dead to you as can be -- his eyes aren't the only ones filled with tears?
5 Get Up Kids
"Overdue," from On a Wire
Although the somber strains that imbued On a Wire made for the Get Up Kids' least interesting full-length to date, the album's saving grace was "Overdue." With its earnest acoustic strumming and muted rhythms, the tune provided a gorgeous backdrop for vocalist Matt Pryor's sugar-sprinkled melody and evocative lyrics (Went on a limb for you/Capsized when I turned 22/Did it burn as bad for you?/No bottle serves to soothe my wounds). A three-minute ode to aging and regret, "Overdue" proved that our favorite sour-patch kids haven't lost their sweet side.
"Hot in Herre," from Nellyville
Nelly's sizzling summer single sported a contagious hook that appealed to suburban kids without scaring the shit out of their parents. Buoyed by the Neptunes' twitching, sweat-dripping production, the St. Louis rapper's finest hour found him celebrating the joys of stripping off Vokal tank tops and Gucci collars from a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons. That everyone was invited to Nelly's bash just made it that much more fun.
7 Andrew W.K.
"Party Hard," from I Get Wet
When it's time to party, we will party hard! Thesis stated, a guitar onslaught immediately kicks "Party Hard" into hyperdrive for three life-affirming minutes of beer-soaked shit rock. Declaring We do what we like, and we like what we do with the uncanny conviction of 1,000 Sunset Strip bands, Andrew W.K. crafts an undeniable anthem for the ages.
8 Guy Clark
"Queenie's Song," from The Dark
Queenie's a dog. And Guy Clark is singing her song because she was shot dead by some S.O.B. trying out a new gun received as a Christmas gift. Or so Clark surmises as he comes upon her body under a tree. Typically, this preeminent Texas troubadour turns one encounter with petty human cruelty into a metaphor for life's harsh, unpredictable prospects. New Year's Day in Santa Fe broke mean, and it broke it cold, Clark sings with a grimace, feebly turning up his collar for protection.
9 The Anniversary
"Sweet Marie," from Your Majesty
(Vagrant/Heroes & Villains)
While its fans anticipated more '80s synth-pop bliss, the Anniversary was literally letting its hair down, searching through old records and finding a more comfortable fit. The group's newly aged sound debuted with album-opener "Sweet Marie," a gloriously preserved relic that replaces modulating keyboards with Hammond organs and soars like the Byrds.
10 The Hives
"Hate to Say I Told You So," from Veni Vidi Vicious
Depending on when you grew up, you'll either think these Swedes are mimicking the thunderous American garage rock of the '60s or the sneering British punk of the '70s. But what's this dang song about, anyway? Well, have you ever felt like driving real fast, racing the guitars on the radio because you were pissed or bored or glad all over? Have you ever needed to jump around and scream just because you were sure you'd go absolutely freaking nuts if you didn't? That's what it's about.
11 Warren Zevon
"Genius," from My Ride's Here
California rock's only philosopher king hits his penultimate (the terminally ill Zevon hopes to complete his final album before cancer claims him) grace note with this witty, delicate paean to the cocksure intelligence of Albert Einstein, Mata Hari and Charlie Sheen. Performing it on David Letterman's show in October, Zevon looked frail but at ease. When he turned to conduct the coda for the string quartet behind him, an entire career's irony and archness temporarily vanished in Zevon's careful gestures. Then he staved off poignancy by laying into "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." That's genius.
"Grindin'," from Lord Willin'
As the Neptunes, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo produced tracks for a plethora of artists this year, but they saved their best work for themselves (their groundbreaking debut disc, In Search Of) and for their homeboys in the Clipse. "Grindin'" revives minimalist hip-hop at its best with a hard-driving beat and a grimy hook. Pushat and Malice make the track thump with their raw lyrics and rugged thugged-out attitude.
13 Princess Superstar
"Bad Babysitter," from Is
It's Mrs. Weintraub's own fault. By hiring Princess Superstar's alter ego, the fifteen-year-old cheerleader/self-proclaimed "Bad Babysitter," to watch young Josh, she starts a chain of events that leads to stolen valium, a depleted refrigerator and some XXX-rated action. At least she gets the kid in bed on time -- when Josh defies her orders, she effectively threatens him with both Freddy Krueger and sickle-cell anemia. Finally, she tempts hot Jew Mr. Weintraub during the ride home. A cautionary, albeit danceable, hip-hop tale for parents everywhere, it urges mothers to always hire the unattractive, bookish girl instead.
"We Are All Made of Stars," from 18
The lyrics don't make sense (why are we all made of stars now, again? And why does this make us unstoppable?), but the chorus lunges for outer space, and it's nice enough to bring listeners along for the ride. Moby's great desire to make music for the whole world explains why this song works so well as the soundtrack for both all-night raves and computer commercials.
15 Truth Hurts featuring Rakim
"Addictive," from Truthfully Speaking
Newcomer Truth Hurts (Shari Watson) teams with her mentor Dre, underrated beatmaker DJ Quik and rap god Rakim on the year's most distinctive R&B track. Her sultry vocals seduce, but it's the sampled Far Eastern wailing that grabs listeners' attention. Like most "Addictive" pairings, this mix feels both magical and dangerous.
16 Steve Earle
"Amerika V. 6.0," from Jerusalem
With Stones in his guitar and menace in his breath, Earle delivers his most scathing indictment of American cynicism.
17 Kevin Mahogany
"My World Is Empty Without You," from Pride & Joy
The Supremes made this declaration first, but because their 1965 Motown hit sounded like a bustling city street (all Supremes hits sound like bustling city streets), we could only take Diana Ross' word for it. KC native Kevin Mahogany, on the other hand, sounds like he's singing alone from the same bedroom to which he's retreated for days. The curtains are drawn, he's lying motionless beneath heavy blankets, and he's staring straight ahead at what he might do if this new prescription doesn't work any better than the last.
18 James McMurtry
"Choctaw Bingo," from Saint Mary of the Woods
This song's about that guy everyone knows who lives life so hard and carelessly that he's been in the ER twice for swallowing that beer tab he can't quite remember not to toss back in the can. And it's not just him -- it's his whole clan, getting together for a family reunion in honor of meth-and-moonshine-cooking Uncle Slayton. Filling his song with landmarks like Lake Eufala, 2-A Texas football, steel-core ammo and biker bars next to lingerie stores, McMurtry boogies like a pent-up kid on Friday night.
19 Bruce Springsteen
"Empty Sky," from The Rising
One of the most haunting memories of the days following September 11 remains the temporary silencing of air traffic. It was shocking to look into the blue and see nothing, much as it was devastating to look into the heart of the Manhattan skyline and know there was so much more missing than two tall buildings. Springsteen's "Empty Sky" sentiments are simple, yet remarkably powerful.
20 Missy Elliott
"Work It," from Under Construction
Missy's Under Construction pays tribute to hip-hop's golden era, but unlike underground rap's too-conscious recreationists, she flips the sound with a futuristic vibe. Inspired by Run-DMC's "Peter Piper" and LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells," producer Timbaland tweaks old-school's most explosive beats, then Missy adds her sexually charged freakspeak.
21 Dave Matthews Band
"Bartender," from Busted Stuff and Live at Folsom Field
Downloaders who got their hands on last summer's leaked Lillywhite Sessions (a moment of silence for Napster, please) were blindsided by the pop pithiness of 2001's Everyday. Fortunately, the aptly titled Busted Stuff followed close on its heels. An attempt to wrap up loose ends, Busted Stuff takes nine of Lillywhite's moodiest cuts and gives them the final studio polish they deserve. Matthews' hauntingly cathartic "Bartender," a song so steeped in despondency that every performance transforms into a gut-wrenching affirmation of sobering clarity, remains at the center.
"Keep Fishin'," from Maladroit
Rivers Cuomo might never return to his diary-shredding Pinkerton days -- especially if, as rumored, he's actually working with Limp Bizkit. But as long as he can keep turning out these effortlessly great singles, as bouncy and rocking as they are weird, music fans will happily wait for him to come back down.
"The Life," from Gangster & a Gentleman
During his verses, Styles reinforces the ghettoized version of the American dream: I need the bills that the presidents got they face on/So I can switch my residence -- get a truck and a Lex. Pharoahe Monch's sing-song chorus seals the deal, emphasizing the hope that powers Styles' desperate plea: My life is all I have/My rhymes, my pen, my pad/And I done made it through the struggle, don't judge me/What you say now, won't budge me.
24 Red Hot Chili Peppers
"By the Way," from By The Way
Which is more amazing: that John Frusciante is not only still alive but also a better guitar player than ever, or that Anthony Keidis now has a vocal range? Like the band from which it comes, this song shifts from decadent overload to serenity.
25 DJ Shadow
"Six Days," from Private Press
Though it was later remixed for release as a 12-inch using the Atari 2600 demolition derby "Walkie Talkie" as its backing track (both songs are from Shadow's disappointing Private Press) and adding a tortured rap from Mos Def, the album version of Press' centerpiece cuts deeper. Using as its foundation the entire vocal (think Gilbert O'Sullivan goosed by nuclear dread) from the song "Six Day War" by the little-known Colonel Bagshot, Shadow's narcotized protest song shimmers like a mirage. Frightening, addictive, timely.
26 Ryan Adams
"Jesus (Don't Touch My Baby)," from Demolition
How about: Jesus Christ, I'm sick of Ryan Adams? For someone most people still haven't even heard of, Adams has reached an early apogee of excruciating star tripping. The smirking glamorization of liver abuse, the serial pussyhounding of B-grade celebrities, the onstage tantrums, the grudges, the fistfights, that fucking hair -- how could Adams have gone from justifiable critic's darling to bona-fide meltdown candidate without at least bothering to make a start-to-finish great album? More maddening, though, is his continued ability to retch up the occasional powerhouse, and, goddamn him, this spellbinding souvenir from rock bottom qualifies.
"Heavy Metal Drummer," from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
During its most recent visit to Kansas City, Wilco was preparing to launch into this simple slice of teen-age nostalgia when the laptop responsible for producing the song's driving drum intro and ending electronica malfunctioned. The irony of the moment wasn't lost on the band as it forged ahead sans gimmickry, offering the song's chorus with a wistful wink: I miss the innocence I've known/Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.
28 Eleni Mandell
"I Believe in Spring," from Snakebite
Eleni Mandell's "I Believe in Spring" is an irrepressibly upbeat, old-fashioned swing tune that should be sung with parasol in hand. Its lyrics, however, are deceptively complex. The seductive alto croons a cheerful yet wrathful love song to a gloomy beau, calling him cursed, crooked and twisted while warning him to beware of her gale-force gaiety. Impressively, "I Believe in Spring" functions as both swooning serenade and threat.
29 Andrew W.K.
"Ready to Die," from I Get Wet
The only thing about to meet its demise on this cut is irony, which Andrew W.K. has even less taste for than sobriety. "Ready to Die" is perhaps the loudest beer belch on this guy's debauched debut, which is pretty much just one long, uninterrupted keg stand.
30 Kasey Chambers
"Not Pretty Enough," from Barricades & Brickwalls
At first, this seems a very un-Kasey Chambers ode to insecurity. As she sings Am I not pretty enough?/Is my heart too broken?/Do I cry too much?/Am I too outspoken? it sounds as if she's willing to put any alteration on the table. But this short song is much bigger than that. When she asks one last question -- Why do you see right through me? -- it becomes clear she's singing about why all that artifice doesn't work on him anymore. The real question becomes this: What do I do now that you really know me?
31 Tift Merritt
"Are You Still in Love With Me" from Bramble Rose
Empty promises, good intentions, cooled affection: "Are You Still in Love With Me?" is a taunt, and Merritt might have sung it sneeringly over a rock beat. Instead, she transforms it into a lean, loping lullaby, hesitation and regret trapped but visible under a sheet of icy bravado. She steps on the steel-guitar pedal but gets no acceleration or distance, just an eyeful of that rearview mirror and a head full of second guessing. She's leaving, but she can't bear to recede.
32 Caitlin Cary
"I Ain't Found Nobody Yet," from While You Weren't Looking
The year's best Ryan Adams album was released by Whiskeytown survivor Caitlin Cary, who managed to limit her former bandmate's participation to one track on a first-pressing bonus disc while establishing herself as a country-soul writer and singer of enviable skill. The album proper alternates Jack with Coke, finally mixing the two on this astringent finale (which Cary says Adams helped write), defiance and loneliness on the rocks, served on a napkin with Dusty Springfield's lipstick traces.
33 Dirty Vegas
"Days Go By," from Dirty Vegas
Not quite good enough to cause a spontaneous Mitsubishi purchase but entrancing nonetheless, this slice of prefab house was the year's most sickening -- and most ingratiating -- Cinderella-as-ad-whore story. Perfect for a glossy car commercial thanks mostly to its sheer anonymity, the song -- a stark, throbbing amalgam of dance music's current tics -- works in spite of itself, finding character in a nonchalant vocal that recalls the ennui of vintage Pet Shop Boys. And in the most dispiriting year yet for the already integrity-challenged music-video form, the "Days" clip is a minor masterpiece.
34 Allison Moorer
"Tumbling Down," from Miss Fortune
Listening to this is like watching slow-motion footage of an architectural marvel's demolition: "Tower of Pisa finally tips over -- exclusive footage at ten." Moorer sets up a relationship -- the masterpiece of me and you -- only to spend most of the song taking a gorgeous vocal plunge. Moorer sounds weary, but as the choral background and strings crescendo, tumbling down doesn't seem so bad.
"World of Shit," from Souljacker
As the strikingly beautiful "It's a Motherfucker" proved, the Eels enjoy giving unprintable names to gorgeous songs. In "World of Shit," a suicidal wreck realizes that love can give him the strength to keep living. I will make a pledge/To get down off the ledge, he promises, and the tune's increasingly radiant backdrop and optimistic closing line -- forever we will have our love -- suggest that the worst has passed.
36 Okkervill River
"Listening to Otis Redding ... ," from Don't Fall in Love ...
Like Fiona Apple, Okkervill River can be a bit verbose in its song and album titles. And like Apple, the band crafts such delicately damaged gems that a few wasted words don't matter. Listening to Otis Redding at home during Christmas could be a joyous, soulful experience, but it could also be unbearably grim for a broken man alone with his fractured dreams and ghosts.
"Seventeen," from Light and Magic
They only want you when you're 17/When you're 21, you're no fun. Uttered by a breathy female vocalist, that attention-grabbing line carries "Seventeen" as virtually its only lyric. A warm electronic beat throbs beneath this cryptic commentary. The synthesized pulse undulates in intensity, but the whispered warning never varies, making it eventually seem like a seductive android's ceremonial chant.
38 Kylie Minogue
"Love at First Sight," from Fever
Is this just an elitist move, praising the European version of soulless dance music while despising the American dreck? Not quite: The way consummate pop pro Kylie draws out the word love is beyond perfect. Laugh all you want, hipsters, but if this were a Daft Punk song, you'd think it was absolutely amazing.
39 Jennifer Lopez
"Jenny From the Block," from This Is Me ... Then
Though J-Lo's acting skills are negligible, she deserves an Oscar for her performance on "Jenny From the Block," in which she portrays a 'round-the-way gal who happens to skim movie scripts while chilling in Oprah's green room. A paean to self, "Block" details J-Lo's meteoric rise from fly girl to Park Avenue princess. Featuring an appearance from the Lox that's sure to piss off P-Diddy, "Block" stays true to the diva's formula of urban spice and mall-rocking pop.
"Trees," from We Love Life
As the band uses deep rhythmic strings and a full, multivoiced chorus to create a swirling landscape of decay and delicacy, Jarvis Cocker sings, I carved your name with a heart just up above/Now swollen, distorted, unrecognizable like our love. Even in a song that's seemingly about vegetation, Pulp gets weighed down with lusty pain.
41 Marianne Faithfull
"Wherever I Go," from Kissin' Time
Billy Corgan whinnies his songs like a startled horse, but he can still write a seductive melody -- and Marianne Faithfull can still wring desire and disappointment from just about anything you hand her. Her voice now like burnt toast, Faithfull conveys Corgan's graceful, aching song as neither pledge nor contrition; rather, her delivery is so meditative in its singed ardor that it's hardly verbal. This is not a staring contest you can win.
"The Whole World," from Big Boi and Dre Present ... Outkast
When groups include new songs on their best-of compilations, it's either a psychic stab at hit prediction or, more likely, an attempt to goose sales. Regardless, "The Whole World" holds its own with the duo's smash singles, showcasing a flow only Andre and Big Boi dare attempt and a singsong hook only Outkast could make work.
43 Jaguar Wright
"The What Ifs," from Denials, Delusions and Decisions
Backed by the Roots, perhaps the tightest band in the biz, sista unleashes a voice that booms with authority even as it invites with its warmth. Wright ain't frontin' like all the baby-voiced, dependent-on-studio-trick female vocalists who pollute modern soul. She's tough, gritty and alluring, and here she sets the record straight with her lover, spilling her guts like a postmodern blues singer.
44 Elvis Presley Vs. JXL
"A Little Less Conversation"
A remix of one of Elvis Presley's few worthwhile soundtrack sides from the late-'60s, "A Little Less Conversation" bills itself as a contest between the King and Amsterdam-based DJ JXL. The latter spikes the rhythm track with the obligatory contemporary drum loop, but what's immediately evident on this modern Elvis hit is that Presley's original anticipated the energy and temper of our own times just fine on its own. Final score? Elvis: 50 million new fans; JXL: zero.
45 Christina Aguilera
"Walk Away," from Stripped
It's easy to find Aguilera's latest off-putting; she's been pretty shameless in peddling her posterior to help move discs. Thankfully, though, her voice isn't as threadbare as her bony bum, and here Aguilera delivers a torch song that turns out to be one of the only songs on her oversexed sophomore effort that hints at any real intimacy.
46 Louise Goffin
"Quiet Anaesthesia," from Sometimes a Circle
Louise Goffin's Sometimes a Circle led a fulfilling life, including plenty of travel and romance, but after eleven tracks, it was time to put it to sleep. So on "Quiet Anaesthesia," Carole King's daughter sings a subtle, spooky lullaby, then guest guitarist John Parish plays the sandman, using the album's final instrumental moment to sprinkle sparkling dust. Sweet dreams.
47 Brendan Benson
"Folk Singer," from Lapalco
There's so much catchy power pop out there that a lot of it ends up doubling back on itself to become nondescript and unmemorable in its monochromatic jangle. But Brendan Benson (abetted here by Jason Falkner, veteran of Jellyfish and the Grays and auteur of two brilliant albums of his own) rises above the fray, and this song marks a new peak for Detroit's (White Stripes-championed) brightest pop light.
48 Dillinger Escape Plan with Mike Patton
"Come to Daddy," from Irony Is a Dead Scene
The original version of this song, by Aphex Twin, was like a soundtrack to the waking dreams you start to have after three acid-addled, sleepless nights. The Dillinger Escape Plan's songs offer the aural equivalent of being punched in the face ninety times a minute. And guest singer Mike Patton's mania is too massive to encompass in a blurb. Put it all in a blender, hit shred and you've got a vision of hell that will make Ozzfest fans cry for their mommies.
"My Neck, My Back," from Thug Misses
My neck, my back, lick my pussy and my crack, Khia instructs dispassionately during this tune's startling chorus. Taking nothing for granted, she's extremely explicit about her sexual needs, without adding a material want list to the mix like many of her peers. "Money can't buy me good head" seems to be her mantra: You might have Gs/Fuck that; get on your knees. She doesn't need to command listeners to dance, though -- the bass-loaded beat takes care of that.
50 Phil Collins
"Can't Stop Loving You," from Testify
If it's a bridge you want, Collins builds 'em better than an engineer. The one Collins erects for this cover of Billy Nichols' song, once a minor hit for Leo Sayer -- a singer who makes the former Genesis frontman sound like Johnny Rotten -- is among his canniest sonic structures, its load-bearing multitracked harmonies and swooping drums more than strong enough to support the schmaltz tonnage. Its nagging hook isn't supposed to be subtle, but the steam-driven rhythm track, choo-chooing like the train in the lyrics, actually is.