1. One Beat -- Sleater-Kinney (Kill Rock Stars): For me, Sleater-Kinney's grand achievement was the best record of 2002 as early as July 17th, when I saw them headline a benefit concert for their native Portland's fabulous Rock and Roll Camp for Girls. After 45 minutes of a VH-1: Storytellers-type show featuring career-spanning hits and anecdotes, the band launched into fearsome versions of the ebullient, clear-headed combat rock that makes One Beat local music that acts and feels like a global imperative. Girls ages 8 to 18 ran the sound board and light show, and 14 of the happy campers danced around and behind Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker, and Carrie Brownstein during the encore as I and several sets of rapt parents watched, awestruck, from our theater seats.
2. OOOH! -- The Mekons (Quarterstick): Just when I thought One Beat's best tunes had epitomized 21st-century protest songs, this record came rumbling out of the ground like the drums of death pounding under the prologue of Gangs of New York. The imaginary and real wars that have preoccupied the Mekons for 20-plus years finally hit home September 2001, and though that may be good for artists, it might spell doom for everyone else. These 11 tribal battle hymns capture the imagination of disaster while insisting over and over that ancient hatreds will destroy us all or maybe not. "Better turn all the clocks back/I deserve to be happy" is just one of the hard truths scattered throughout the most frightening album in years.
3. Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings -- The Blasters (Rhino); Send Me a Lullaby, Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair -- The Go-Betweens (Circus/Jetset): These handsome reissues redefined the rock-and-roll canon of the 1980s and shed new light on such sere terms as "pop music" and "roots rock" in the process.
4. The Rough Guide to the Music of Nigeria and Ghana -- Various Artists (World Music Network): I'm still too dumb to distinguish soukous from mbaqanga without a cheat sheet, but this is by far the funkiest Afropop comp I've heard. Thanks to Sir Victor Uwaifo and E.K. Nyame, it's one of the purdiest too.
5. Songs for the Deaf -- Queens of the Stone Age (Interscope): Turn it up.
1. Bootleg bonanza: From Boom Selection_Issue 01 (three MP3-CDs, 432 tracks, 34 hours) to under-the-counter compendiums like The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever to 2 Many DJs' As Heard on Radio Soulwax mixes (Pt. 2 was legally issued by Pias Belgium, with Pt. 1 and Pt. 3 available less legitimately), 2002 was the year of the mash-up. In a year when none of Eminem's singles had backing tracks as good as those surgically attached by Freelance Hairdresser or Jacknife Lee, it's about damn time.
2. Original Pirate Material -- The Streets (Vice/Atlantic): More catchphrases than you can throw a crumpet at, cheap-and-ready beats that retain their freshness dozens of listens in, a sense of humor broader than a season of Benny Hill, and more poignant than a very special episode of EastEnders, this was the best excuse for Anglophilia in ages.
3. Singles galore: As many good albums as 2002 offered, as a whole they weren't a match for the singles. There are at least 40 legit, nonbootleg singles I could have happily put in my top 10, ranging from mainstream juggernauts (Kylie, No Doubt, Pink, the Hives, Clipse, Missy) to the more specialist likes of Shakedown, the Rapture, Royksopp, Sugababes, and DJ/rupture. So, uh, why does the radio still suck?
4. Microhouse madness: The beautiful bastard child of laptop glitch and club-bump kept on giving this year, thanks to mix discs by Triple R, Ellen Allien, and Swayzak, albums by Pantytec and Hakan Lidbo, and Herbert's Secondhand Sounds collection.
5. Classic Afropop avalanche: Reissues of Orchestra Super Mazembe and the Bhundu Boys, not to mention comps like The History of Township Music, The Music in My Head 2, and African Salsa and Rumba, made living in the past sound every bit as inviting as the brave sonic tomorrows detailed above.
1. Original Pirate Material -- The Streets (Vice/Atlantic): In the first verse of the first track of his first album, Britsploitation rapper Mike Skinner -- aka The Streets -- declares he's "45th-generation Roman," then he spends the rest of the album evoking a particularly Western world-weariness. His world contains "nothing but gray concrete and deadbeats." What makes the album so powerful is his uncynical search for something more.
2. One Beat -- Sleater-Kinney (Kill Rock Stars): With many people blindly swallowing the president's war rhetoric, Sleater-Kinney have become the country's new liberal conscience. One Beat's politics are best, though, when mixed with the personal: The album's most haunting image is of Corin Tucker watching the 9/11 coverage with her new baby, both of them half a world away and helpless.
3. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots -- The Flaming Lips (Warner Brothers): Forget the title character and her mechanical nemeses: The vague story line here isn't nearly as important as the songs, which celebrate the wonders of human emotions -- from love and happiness to fear and regret. The emotionally direct "Do You Realize??" is the most devastating pop song about death since "Everybody Hurts."
4. Sea Change -- Beck (DGC): God bless poor Beck. He splits with his longtime girlfriend and then records a breakup album that's equal parts Pink Moon and Hot Buttered Soul. Sea Change marks the first time he's been able to completely shed his various personae and reveal what sounds like his true self.
5. Songs for the Deaf -- Queens of the Stone Age (Interscope): In 2002, the planets aligned as Mark Lanegan and Dave Grohl joined QOTSA mainstays Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri for Songs for the Deaf, easily the coolest album title of the year. It's a lineup they probably can't duplicate, but together they sound like they know there won't be a tomorrow.
1. Suicide Invoice -- The Hot Snakes (Swami): My perfect rock record comes courtesy of the minds that teamed up 10 years back as Drive Like Jehu -- a record that manages to convey a believably tense and troubled air without screaming or yelling about it.
2. Slanted and Enchanted: Live and Redux -- Pavement (Matador): Holds up like a champ -- a triumph, considering this is decade-old indie rock, and it's difficult to think of anything that ages as poorly. Pavement was also borrowing heavily from early Fall and the Swell Maps long before turn-of-the-'80s post-punk was the bankable commodity that it is today.
3. This Night -- Destroyer (Merge): This is music that gives Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) the night sweats and humbles every other contemporary singer-songwriter operating outside the mainstream. Attention, Ryan Adams: Get out your notebook.
4. Each One Teach One -- Oneida (Jagjaguwar): Don't blame laziness or apathy for Oneida's appearance on yet another of my year-end lists. Blame Oneida for putting out a record this brilliant. Oh, and blame other New York spotlight stealers like Interpol and the Liars for repackaging past genres into the underground rock equivalents of boy bands. Conversely, you cannot trace Oneida's sound back to anything concrete. With impeccable taste, they piecemeal the past 40 years of volume-heavy rock and emerge peerless.
5. Live at the Witch Trials + Bonus Tracks -- The Fall (Cog Sinister): For those intoxicated by Joy Division's latest revival via Interpol's popularity or 24 Hour Party People, I offer a literate, rollicking, sarcastic post-punk alternative. Be warned: Though an official label, it's occasionally apparent that Cog Sinister finds it amusing (I'm sure in some quasi-Situationist fashion) to master their reissue catalog straight from the vinyl originals.