Why put on airs? These lists, whittled down from hundreds of titles, are no attempt to essay the so-called State of Rock 2002 or some>"/>
Why put on airs? These lists, whittled down from hundreds of titles, are no attempt to essay the so-called State of Rock 2002 or some other such critical hooey (if you really want to see us put on our pseudo-intellectual pointy-headed caps, feel free to ask for our forthcoming "Pazz & Jop Poll" comments). It's nothing more than a sampling—our personal DJ mix-cum-box sets.
State of Rock-wise, however, it must be said that we're all bone-weary of mainstream radio's version of things, but the bulk of college-radio's indie staples are just as formulaic and lame.
Same goes for all the sad-sack populist hipsters who constantly weigh in on what's wrong with the music biz—you know, the folks who counter the R.I.A.A.'s whining about piracy and CD burning with their own tiresome mantras about high CD prices and shitty tunes. Wake up, you putzes: for every overpriced $19.98 piece-of-crap CD released this year, there were probably 20 great discs—not all of them indies, either—that came in under the 12-buck mark. Sure, you may have to drag your lazy ass away from your Xbox long enough to do some online hunting. You might even have to put down that latte for a few minutes and—gasp!--drive across town to paw through a record store's bins. Imagine that! Kids these days, they want everything handed to them. You remember that line from The Big Chill (yes, that is a frightening reference) about getting older and going out into the world? It applies to being a music lover, too: Nobody every said it was gonna be easy. But the good tunes are out there.
All of which makes us think back to an old episode of I.R.S.' Cutting Edge, the groundbreaking MTV show from the '80s, in which they were profiling R.E.M. At one point, Peter Buck is discussing some of the great underground music of the day, and he turns to look directly at the camera and says: "It's your duty as Americans to go out and find this stuff." Truer words were never spoken. Thanks, Pete.
1. PAUL WESTERBERG
No real surprise here. The former Mats mainman puts his kid to bed, grabs a guitar, and heads to the basement, emerging with a pair of albums that perfectly reconcile the twin poles of his personality. From the sublime Stereo to the ridiculous—but always enjoyable—Mono, alt-rock's apostle Paul sets about reminding all the Johnny Rzeznik-come-latelys and wannabe Westerbergs (Ryan Adams, Pete Yorn, etc.) out there that he doesn't need replacing just yet.
2. CHUCK PROPHET
No Other Love
With the release of 2000's The Hurting Business, journeyman roots rocker Chuck Prophet reimagined himself as a postmodern-blue-eyed-soul-songsmith-cum-collagist—Tony Joe White meets Kool Keith, if you will. Crafting a sonic bridge between Stax/Volt and the Ultramagnetic MCs, Prophet's new aesthetic found him engaged in adventurous exercises of cut and paste—like marrying the acoustic guitar hook from "Ode to Billie Joe" and the woozy melody of Nilsson's "Coconut" to an mesmeric bed of beats—creating something wholly original in the process. That pattern continues on Prophet's latest, No Other Love—a disc that challenges the senses with a rush of imagistic lyrics and an equally evocative swirl of sound that takes more than a single listen to discern, let alone digest. From jagged Elmore Leonard-inspired narratives to lush romantic stirrings to boogie-folk deconstructions, the album is a clamorous, joyous kitchen-sink record of the first order.
3. GUIDED BY VOICES
Universal Truths and Cycles
After a much-maligned stint in the major label fold, GBV returns to the welcoming arms of mid-'90s indie imprint Matador Records. Less a creative "comeback" than a calculated return to form, Universal Truths and Cycles reaps the sonic lessons of recent studio forays—hi-fi sound, finely honed arrangements, string section interludes. Yet GBV leader Bob Pollard seems intent on ripping from his back pages as well. Listen closely and you can hear echoes of past glories—snatches of everything from '87's embryonic Devil Between My Toes to '95's high-water mark Alien Lanes—crop up in fleeting moments all over UTAC. As such, the new album is a sagacious document that somehow manages to distill the whole of Pollard's vast musical universe—yielding the expected melodic finery without sacrificing any of the beautifully besotted bluster that has made GBV such a compelling live outfit.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
If the decade's most analyzed LP had come out as originally scheduled in 2001, it would've undoubtedly laid claim to the title of Album of the Year. As it is, Wilco's avant-pop opus drops a few spots on my list, chiefly because the record's heavily labored mix—completed by sound supremo Jim O'Rourke—doesn't hold up particularly well. (As a forthcoming Wilco EP—featuring alternate versions of several Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracks—indicates, there are probably several equally good, if not better, versions of the record in the vaults.) In future years it's likely most of us will be reaching for our copies of Summerteeth or Being There rather than YHF. Still, whatever form they appear in, it's impossible to deny the majesty and eerie pre-9/11 prescience of standouts like "War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags."
Kill The Moonlight
Austin's Spoon follow up the insouciant soul of 2001's Girls Can Tell with a bristling, breezy song cycle—full of stripped-down subtlety, echoey figures and lots of empty space. Imagine Colin Newman and Randy Newman locked in a room together trying to write the most literate bubblegum album ever, and you pretty much capture the beguiling melodies, arch wordplay, and terse rhythms contained here. Bonus points to the band for slagging the White Stripes and propping Har Mar in album opener "Small Stakes."
6. NEKO CASE
After the triumph of Furnace Room Lullaby and the—literally—homespun covers collection Canadian Amp, ex-Seattleite Case adjourned to the desert of Tucson, Ariz., borrowing the studio, services, and widescreen vision of the Calexico/Giant Sand contingent for her third solo disc. The result? An album that plays like the soundtrack to a group therapy session featuring Patsy Cline, Nick Cave, and David Lynch. From the gripping tumble of images that open the album to the ethereal concerns at its heart, through to the lonely radio static that closes the record, Blacklisted is a meticulous merger of mood and movement—a concept piece of sorts, unified by Case's descent into the depths of her own scarred soul and psyche.
7. BRENDAN BENSON
Six years after he delivered one of the '90s' famously overlooked power-pop platters, Detroit tunesmith Brendan Benson's long-delayed sophomore effort proves the kind of disc that will forever occupy a physical and spiritual space between your Badfinger and Big Star discs. Myriad Me-Decade influences (Nilsson, Raspberries, Todd Rundgren) carry the album along, but Lapalco is neither a pale imitation nor the predictable paint-by-numbers rendering of so many pop revivalists; the album illustrates the crucial difference between regurgitating your influences and actually digesting them. Even when he brazenly lifts from others—the Cars keyboards of "You're Quiet," the Mamas and the Papas chorals of "Metarie"—Benson weaves those snatches of sound into his own scheme with such elegant aplomb you almost forget the source.
8. TOMMY KEENE
The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down
As always, the release of a Tommy Keene CD is a celebration of the pop song as carefully crafted and dutifully refined art form. This time out, however, Keene throws more than a few curveballs to his dedicated acolytes: the horn-fed swagger of "The Man Without a Soul"; the Springsteen sax solo on "The World Where I Still Live"; the 17-minute Who-style concept piece "The Final Hour." But it's with a seemingly simple-sounding nugget like "All Your Love Will Stay" that Keene proves his unfailing ability to turn three minutes of candy floss into nourishment for the soul.
9. JIM DICKINSON
Free Beer Tomorrow
Winning the award for most belated follow-up of all time, legendary Memphian player and producer Jim Dickinson releases his second solo platter 30 years after his much revered but hard-to-find Dixie Fried (also given a much welcome domestic rerelease this year) first bowed. As on his debut, Dickinson applies his wildcat growl to a clutch of obscure tunes, in the process blurring the lines between blues, country, jazz, and rock 'n' roll. Free Beer once again confirms Dickinson's status as the living, breathing embodiment of Cosmic American Music.
(Kill Rock Stars)
A year after Time magazine crowned them "America's Best Rock Band," Sleater-Kinney live up to the often unrelenting hype with the sonically and politically charged One Beat. By turns a dissident manifesto, protest album, polemic, and sweet '60s soul kiss, it's a record finally worthy of the breathless praise heaped on them lo these many years.
KURT B. REIGHLEY
Think The Slits meet Massive Attack. U.K. hip-hop producer Trevor Jackson set out to make an album full of "nerdy guys and powerful women," and did just that with this nonstop post-punky reggae party, featuring guests including indie pop legends Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera) and Edwyn Collins (the Orange Juice) in the former corner, and Kathleen Hanna (Le Tigre) in the latter.
2. NEKO CASE
Lord knows what she was going on about half the time, with all that talk about bees and velvet and "Deep Red Bells," but you didn't need a translator to understand that the third full-length from Seattle expatriate Case was the alt-country upstart's finest, most affecting offering yet. Colleagues like Kelly Hogan, Calexico, and steel-guitar whiz Jon Rauhouse pitched in, but for the first time, this was unquestionably The Neko Case Show (she penned 10 of 13 songs unassisted), and her riveting performances were imbued with keen sensitivity and confident poise.
3. PRECIOUS BRYANT
Fool Me Good
The best blues record in recent memory didn't feature any flashy producers or A-list guest stars. In fact, there were no guests at all. Recorded live, with no overdubs, Fool Me Good was just the sound of a 59-year-old rural Georgia woman and her guitar, captivating even the most jaded ears with her unadorned renditions of "When the Saints Go Marching In," Blind Willie McTell's "Broke and Ain't Got A Dime," and her equally sublime originals.
4. KYLIE MINOGUE
Yeah, yeah, I'm sure Sonic Youth made a record that was far more important, but would it kill you to have some fun for a change? The disc that finally made this international star a bona fide contender on U.S. shores boasted the most tenacious hook of the year ("Can't Get You Out of My Head") plus 11 equally stunning slices of candy-floss disco. Plus it was a nice surprise to hear such sexy sentiments sung by somebody a little older than the baby sitter for a change.
Martin Rev lays down electronic riffs that are unnerving, yet oddly dance-floor friendly, offset by Alan Vega's haunted, neo-rockabilly warbling, for a series of post-9/11 vignettes that are just as compelling, in their own fashion, as Springsteen's anthemic The Rising. Hopefully, as an added bonus, the fifth studio offering from these underground synth-pop pioneers will convince 90 percent of the players in so-called "electroclash" movement to just shut up, sell their Roland keyboards, and go back to working at the second-hand clothing boutique like fate intended.
Two words I never wanted to see together: Beck naked. But Mr. Hansen's eighth full-length made me feel differently . . . just by making me feel, for once. Dropping the forced, "Look Ma, I'm dancing" funk of 1999's Midnight Vultures, Sea Change proved unexpectedly sympathetic, full of stripped-down songs that bristled with vulnerability and seasoned with a modicum of artiness—string sections, quietly aching vocals—eerily reminiscent of David Sylvian.
Original Broadway Cast Recording
It's got Marc Shaiman of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut infamy, flawlessly parodying every '60s pop genre possible—from Motown and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, to Elvis' schlocky movie ballads—plus Harvey Fierstein dancing in a housedress and a women-in-prison production number. What more do you want in a show? If musical comedy as an art form has any hope of pulling out of the tailspin Disney and Elton John have sent it into, Broadway needs a lot more lyrics like "the rats on the street/all dance round my feet."
Turn Out the Bright Lights
A lot of folks dug how much these guys sounded like Joy Division. But less commonly acknowledged was how much they recalled Kitchens of Distinction, an oft-overlooked '90s U.K. indie trio who shared Interpol's knack for melodramatic vocals, swirling guitars, and propulsive bass lines. Alas, the Kitchens have long since disbanded, and the best of their back catalog is out of print, which made the stellar, multifaceted debut from this New York quartet even more welcome.
9. FELIX DA HOUSECAT
Kittenz & Thee Glitz
If you're gonna step back in time, do it in pointy-toed ankle boots, proclaimed the pop breakthrough from underground house stalwart Felix Stallings, which liberally borrowed from short-lived Reagan-era icons like Vanity 6 and Visage. Listening to "Silver Screen Shower Scene" today, it's fun to remember there was once a time, less than 12 months ago, when Swiss guest vocalist Miss Kittin wasn't so hopelessly overexposed and her sexy deadpan still contained a glimmer of wit.
The mostly instrumental full-length debut from this Columbus, Ohio, underground hip-hop DJ-producer is chock full of visceral thrills, as grim and gritty as anything by David Holmes. Unlike the vast majority of by-the-numbers samples-plus-beats dreck clogging up the trip-hop bins, this disc actually manages to take conceits as creatively exhausted as a collage of monster movie samples ("The Horror") and still serve up results that are still fresh and captivating.
It's all right there in the title of the year: the invincible ebb and flow of monster distortion slowly turning Cookie Monster hard core into a breathtaking impressionist gallery show. Not only a gorgeous, intense, uncompromising triumph of instrumental weight, but—believe it or not—a totally soothing bedtime album.
An Anthology of Dead Ends EP
I can't stress the value of this band—or the tragedy of their split—enough. The members regard this posthumous collection as just OK, but you get gold: three astonishingly inventive blasts of math chaos, a beautiful, measured solo meditation from the bassist and absolute bedlam for the finale. Salute.
3. THE MARS VOLTA
(Gold Standard Laboratories)
While the other three-fifths of At the Drive-In in play respectable post-punk—and open for garbage like Disturbed and Sum 41—Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez are recording the followup to this jaw-dropping clusterfuck of a teaser. Three jazzy, visceral barnburners pirouette off into barely controlled chaos. Must have more.
So the singer of obscure Richmond, Va., shoegazer troupe Engine Down has a sister who digs opera and rocks up Portishead with skyscraper-collapsing synth and toms. Check out "Gunner" on headphones, listen to Maura Davis cry, "I can see him . . . see my killer" and watch your sinuses split wide open.
5. TODAY IS THE DAY
Sadness Will Prevail
The hidden track on the first disc: overlapping loops of psycho architect Steve Austin roaring "I want you dead!" It's one of the creepiest constructs ever from a band that specializes in raw, burning red, bleeding, scabrous, primary color emotion. A masterpiece of the macabre from a vital noise-core veteran.
Nobody Can Take What Everybody Owns
If emo-core equals well-read, soulful, young white men layering wrought, intensely personal narratives over driven hard rock action, well, I dig it. Waxwing's the closest thing to that on this list, and Rocky Votolato has perhaps the best male voice in town: raspy, ragged, and flat-out real.
The Eminem Show
Self-important, inane, ignorant, and written with incomparable urgency and truth. Eminem exposes his myriad flaws without anesthetic, and better than any detractor would or has. I don't care about your political, musical, or ethical affiliations; anyone who wants to learn how to tell a story with command should study this.
8. KID 606
The Action Packed Mentallist Brings You the Fucking Jams
I know it's no longer cutting-edge to blend multiple radio hits into some outlandish, bump 'n' grind mega-mix, but Kid 606 is operating way beyond that. He basically violates D12, Radiohead, Jay Z, Bikini Kill, and Missy Elliott singles, modulating their very essence into something deeply corrupt yet still danceable.
9. LOCAL H
Here Comes the Zoo
This criminally underrated Illinois power duo is buddies with Queens of the Stone Age and Burning Brides, and warrants props for keeping it Back in Black real. Guitar mack Scott Lucas isn't kidding when he warns, "Keep your girlfriend away from me." He can only be trusted with bad-ass power chords.
10. KYLIE MINOGUE
Best smut since Lords of Acid's Voodoo U. I feel dirty, sick, and desperate listening to this. Less fun without the videos' androgynous robo-dancers and Kylie's white-hot, thirtysomething, potentially artificial ass. Hot Snakes should probably be in this slot, but I've listened to this three times as much. Sue me.
CREDIBILITY-OBLITERATING GUILTY PLEASURES: Our Lady Peace, Gravity,(Sony): Upon their publicist's request, I actually submitted personal notes about this record, which bemoaned the band's "new pop leanings." Please throw me off the Space Needle. Gravity Kills, Superstarved (Sanctuary): If you thought Orgy's cover of "Blue Monday" was heresy, try GK's stab at "Personal Jesus." I adore both. Korn, Untouchables, (Sony): I'm still holding out hope that these n-metal trendsetters will reclaim the brutal, moving glory of their first album. Lobotomies have that effect. Linkin Park, Reanimated, (Warner Bros.): By employing foxy ex-Sneaker Pimps siren Kelli Dayton on this cash cow, these geniuses (more on this, um, someday) cinched my loyalty for life. Fieldy's Dreams, Rock N' Roll Gangsta, (Sony): Korn's bassist raps about pot and bitches. Funnier than David Cross' intentional comedy record.
Last year's best list was a piece of pie to write. This year's feels more like stale quiche. It's not that weren't plenty of good records, there just weren't very many great records; we missed the heavens opening up and the angels singing and the birds rejoicing, etc. that we so took for granted in 2001. This time, we listened, we enjoyed, but we were not taken away, Calgon. So instead of pushing it to meet the artificial limits of top 10-dom, we're giving you seven or eight records we liked—some of them a lot—in random order.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Not quite the lush masterpiece that was 1999's Soft Bulletin, but still good enough to make this year's list, and then some. Wayne Coyne remains Willy Wonka in a sonic wonderland, and even as the band holds fast to its nutball status, they've grown up—whether or not they choose to perform in furry bear suits while tossing out handfuls of confetti and doing the how-hot-is-my-butt dance, the melodies still resonate, and so do the lyrics. Opening track "Fight Test"'s "I thought I was smart, I thought I was right/I thought it better not to fight . . . for to lose I could accept/but to surrender I just wept" reveals the kind of melancholy beauty that even the Lips' best efforts at dada kookiness can't obscure.
Oh, they grow those gawkishly cute, guitar-picking girls in Olympia like they grow weed in Humboldt, but Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn's 2002 release was something else: Stunningly cinematic low-country anthems ("Cold Cold Water"), fervent torch songs ("The Garden"), and full-on Land of the Loops-style synth-stompers ("Recommendation"), all anchored by her sweet, pensive vocals. Even the dips into standard twee territory are still better than 90 percent of her contemporaries' drippy efforts. Whoever funded this Committee, A+ to them.
Turn on the Bright Lights
Man, did we try to resist this. Even if frontman Paul Banks did practically wear his influences—Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Joy Division, and Joy Division—stapled to his forehead, we couldn't help ourselves. And even when we hated the lyrics ("The subway is a porno"? okie spenokie, Paul), the dark melodies still carried us away. Damn.
What with all these two-step days and electroclash nights, DJ Shadow's hip-hop heavy pastiche beats are just a little too '97 to garner the kind of press they once did. But that doesn't mean his long-awaited followup to Endtroducing . . . (1998's Preemptive Strike was oldies repackaged) isn't excellent; it is. The haunting keyboard tides of "Giving Up the Ghost" answers End's classic "Midnight in a Perfect World" six years on, but Shadow's not afraid to move on through '70s psychedelia (the crazed Rush vocals on "Six Days") or '80s pop and lock ("Monosylabic" and "Mashin on the Motorway"), either. Call us old-fashioned, but we like it.
Lifted, Or the Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
We include this with a caveat: It makes our list as a really, really great EP. Unfortunately, it's actually got 13 tracks, but if Connor Oberst had kept it down to seven, we would call it straight-up genius. Nebraska's boy wonder brings out our inner angry, confused, hopeful 15-year-old like nobody else; on Lifted he also finds a whole new world of dense multitracking and lush instrumentation, and it's gorgeous. Extra gold star for tracks two through five alone.
FELIX DA HOUSECAT
Kittenz & Thee Glitz
The end of 2002 has us saying, if retro is a dirty word, than "electroclash" is the poo on the bottom of a dirty shoe; everything about it that felt fresh and exciting in 2001 somehow devolved into some sad cocaine-and-pleather Williamsburg fashion freak show. But! Felix and his Glitz bizitch Miss Kittin—who also released her own album with the Hacker—are the oh-so-happy exception: Intelligent camp with a wicked sense of humor and ass-grabbing synth lines. "Madame Hollywood" and "Frank Sinatra?" Perfect.
The Eminem Show
While we are still straining mightily to enjoy the Roots, the Jurassic 5, or any of that other "good for us" hip-hop, we just keep coming back to Mr. Marshall Mathers. His weird amalgamation of Kafka, Jerry Springer, and Al Capone still gets under our skin every time; there might not be an angrier artist in America, but there aren't too many who are more talented either. So put that in your pipe, Bill O'Reilly.
HER SPACE HOLIDAY
OK, fine, this came out at the end of 2001. But it's been sending us off to dreamland all through 2002, and we love every part of it. Marc Bianchi's music is like warm milk and honey for the soul, and we'll bet the sweet, stuttery psychedelia of tracks like "Lydia" and "Ringing in My Ears" will still do it for us in 2009.
When you're not sure if you're crazy or a genius, a lost cause or a pretty geek. When pop doesn't break enough windows for you, when punk breaks too many. When rock 'n' roll seems stupid and hopelessly weak. When drumbeats are like data codes, when guitars sing like robots, when bass lines are porn stars. When you predict the future and it comes true. When you're a formula, when you're a freak. When you find yourself inside a piece of 180 gram vinyl, when you're partially dismantled but also complete. When you dream of the division of joy, when you dance to the bombs in your brain, when the only thing that makes you feel normal are the PiLs you take—this is the record playing in the background. This is the endless loop.
Useless & Modern
(Moo La La)
Right now in the tape deck of my 1981 Mercury Lynx, a cassette version of the 1993 Rhino released DIY: Teenage Kicks, UK Pop (1976-79) waits for me. If "Down the Street," by Sacramento's FM Knives, were to elude the laws of time and physics and slip in somewhere between Nick Lowe and the Undertones on said cassette, chances are I'd never leave my car. Absolutely the best Buzzcockian pop song you've never heard, "Down the Street" is 3 minutes and 38 seconds of starting over and never, ever looking back. What's more, "Down the Street" is not an anomaly. Unlike a lot of albums these days, Useless & Modern is not just a single with some stupid padding around it; all 13 songs rule. All of 'em—they all rule. You'll have a hard time tracking this thing down, but hard work pays off, or at least it will here.
This is the shit the devil plays at his discoteque. Saturday night fever, indeed. By turns blisteringly monotonous and incongruently unsettling, Dread is the anti-easy listening electronic experiment that your inner sinner longs for. Feed it often, at high volumes. Not for the faint of heart, pop fans, o