Not much space to work with, so let's make it quick: 2002 was a year short on major albums, major artists, and major developments (though I think the two records that top the list below would be worthy of their placement in any year) but one littered with minor cultural eruptions, good albums, and great singles. It was a year in which the most ubiquitous musical elements were mainstream media outlets salivating over Springsteen's comeback, Nelly's Jedi-mind-trick rewrite of the tired frat-boy taunt "Show me your tits," and the president of the United States of White America, aka Eminem, having his best year yet with his least compelling album. But it was also a year in which the best hip hop that didn't emanate from Virginia Beach was made by white people not named Eminem.
It was, as Short Cuts contributor Michaelangelo Matos attests, a year of microtrends: a great flood of Afropop reissues culminating in the rebirth of Senegalese masters Orchestra Baobab; a deluge of "rock is back" hype, media-created to the extent that it was driven by national magazines sick of pretending to like Linkin Park and Creed in order to sell copies but still with a higher artistic success rate (save the woeful Vines) than any other mainstream rock eruption in recent memory; a revolution of self-appointed remixers who took what the music industry gave them, improved on it in the form of illegal "blends" or "mash-ups," and sent their creations out into the world.
More than anything, 2002 demonstrated that the great democratic impulse of popular music now manifests itself more in terms of pluralism than consensus. In other words, 2002 was a bad year for those who get all their music from commercial radio and MTV but a great year for browsers, searchers, dilettantes, and diehards.
Below is a partial list of the best albums and singles this critic heard in 2002. If space permitted, I could list twice as many albums without exhausting my "A-list." And since there's no room to comment on records not on my lists, suffice it to say if you can't find (overly) celebrated records from Beck, Bruce Springsteen (a near-miss, actually), Solomon Burke, Coldplay, N.E.R.D., the Roots, or the Flaming Lips anywhere below, it isn't because I didn't hear them.
Top 40 Albums:
1. One Beat -- Sleater-Kinney (Kill Rock Stars): In 2002, the era's greatest rock-and-roll band released the best record of their lives, and far too few took proper notice. But that's okay, because One Beat is also the record on which Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss stopped worrying about their place in the pop-culture landscape and instead took on topics both bigger and smaller than all the metarock that had come before. In between the meditation on the mysteries of change that opens this album and the frightened prayer for a newborn son that closes it are songs about love energizing ("Oh!," which earns its exclamation point) and enervating, a hymn to their hometown, and uplifting anthems of dissent. And yet, they could be singing in Swahili and this would still be my favorite record of the year, because the greatest thrill of all is the way these three women dramatize community and interdependence, the way Tucker and Brownstein's voices and guitars come together and fall apart, and the way Weiss' drums push everything skyward.
2. Original Pirate Material -- The Streets (Vice/Atlantic): It's fitting that, after Eminem, the artist that British MC Mike "The Streets" Skinner has been most compared with is Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh, because the shockingly assured debut album from this 23-year-old one-man-band is pop music of tangible literary value. Original Pirate Material is a breathlessly detailed ethnography of British flat-rat culture, but its greatness lies not just in how observant Skinner's reports are but also how modest and good-hearted, how the guy-talk of "Don't Mug Yourself" is matched by the romantic regret of "It's Too Late," how the menacing nightlife vision of "Geezers Need Excitement" and substance abuse of "Too Much Brandy" are balanced against the wistful nostalgia of the rave remembrance "Weak Become Heroes."
3. The History of Township Music -- Various Artists (Wrasse import): Pair this four-decade-spanning compilation with 1986's classic The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, which picks up where History leaves off, and you'd have a fairly definitive overview of one of the planet's great modern music cultures. Listen to the middle third of this album, from Solven Whistlers' 1958 penny-whistle standard "Something New in Africa" to the fully formed mbaqanga of the Mahotella Queens' 1968 "Mama Thula," and the history lesson dissolves as exalted groove after exalted groove unfurls.
4. Specialist in All Styles --Orchestra Baobab (Nonesuch): The year's most shamelessly beautiful record is a reunion album from this great Senegalese pop band of the '70s and '80s that has been accurately but insufficiently described as an Afropop Buena Vista Social Club. Co-produced by countryman and onetime spotlight-usurper Youssou N'Dour, this dispatch from the other end of the Afro-Cuban continuum is more commanding and more supple, led by guitarist extraordinaire Barthelemy Attisso and saxman Issa Cissokho.
5. Hip Hop You Haven't Heard/Dying in Stereo --Northern State (Northern State Records): Three liberal-arts-schooled white girls who drop old-school hip hop infused with mad optimism and never once forget who they are. As they rap on "Rewind," the best track on the four-song Hip Hop You Haven't Heard and the only one not included on the full-length Dying in Stereo: "Beastie Boys always on vacation/Run-DMC lost the motivation/ODB is always on probation/Northern State is here, thank sweet salvation!"
6. The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever --Various Artists (no label): The infamous bootleg collection of Internet-swapped bootleg mash-ups is a bizarro-universe K-Tel collection, where the Stones and Fatboy Slim jam together, Xtina Aguilera fronts the Strokes, the Clash is the world's greatest disco band, and Destiny's Child and Nirvana collaborate on an anthem for the ages.
7. OOOH! -- The Mekons (Quarterstick): This was the post-9/11 record that no one wanted to hear, brought to us by a musical collective that's sounded like a band of ragtag war survivors for more than 20 years now. Their finest album since the first Bush administration, OOOH! is caustic, weary, foreboding, defiant, cynical, frightened and frightening, unsettled and unsettling -- but it finds its greatest expression with the faint glimmer of hope peeking out from the dual meaning of "Hate is the New Love"'s climactic lyric: "Every day is a battle/How we still love the war."
8. Read Music, Speak Spanish -- Desaparecidos (Saddle Creek): I prefer Conor "Bright Eyes" Oberst's punk side project because I'd rather hear him yowl about suburban sprawl and grotesque consumerism than about his teen angst bullshit and because his band carves tunes from horrible noise like nothing since Zen Arcade. He may be shooting fish in a barrel, but they deserve to be shot. And if there was a more terribly moving musical moment in 2002 than when Oberst's "Man and Wife" narrator croons, "But if you want to make a run for it, my love, I'd cover you" --thus positing the greatest act of love as the willingness to end a relationship and assume all accrued debt -- I didn't hear it.
9. Downhome Sophisticate -- Corey Harris (Rounder): Blues schmooze. Harris' best record yet is a roots-music opus that knows no boundaries --pan-African-diaspora pop in which acoustic Delta music is but a mere launching point. Lyrically, a collection of sketches. Musically, a tour de force.
10. Under Construction -- Missy Elliott (Elektra): The Queen of Pop returns to form with her finest album since her 1997 debut. So consistently pleasurable and effortlessly ground-breaking that its musical sixth sense bulldozes over its not inconsiderable content problems.
11. Veni Vidi Vicious --The Hives (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph): Exactly 28 minutes of Kinks-meet-Stooges blare that is not only every bit as good as its press but also (well-meaning-but-awkward Jerry Butler cover aside) about a hundred times better than most anything else in its little corner of the world. This record doesn't rock; it detonates.
12. Lord Willin' --Clipse (Star Track/Arista): The Neptunes' era-defining space-age-funk production meets its match in the form of two Virginia Beach siblings with a world view -- a corrupt, borderline pathological world view but a world view nonetheless. Finally, gangstaploitation as the exhilarating pulp fiction that so many others were supposed to be.
13. Kill the Moonlight --Spoon (Merge): I loved this indie-rock underdog months before I ever attended to lyrics that outline just enough of a small-stakes lifestyle to give the music focus. And the music: Driven by percussion (drums, keyboards, piano, and tambourine), chalk-dry guitars, and the calculated catch in lead singer Britt Daniel's voice, it's the rare indie-rock record that swings. Except it doesn't sound like indie rock or alt rock or garage rock. It sounds like rock-and-roll. And not quite like anything else out there.
14. Paullelujah! --MC Paul Barman (Coup d'Etat): Hip hop morphs into dorm-room Dr. Seuss as the (self-professed) Jew dork rhymes: "People repping clones accused me of using rap as a stepping stone/I thought about this crap when I was schlepping home/Is it 'cause I go for the laugh?/Because I'm not from the ave?/Because I target the fans that you wish you didn't have?"
15. Giants of East Africa -- Orchestra Super Mazembe (Earthworks): Eleven slabs of vintage (1977-1986), epic East African guitar paradise.
Honorable Mention (in order of preference): Handcream for a Generation -- Cornershop (Beggar's Banquet); Tallahassee --The Mountain Goats (4AD); Wish You Were Here: Love Songs for NYC -- Various Artists (Village Voice); Best of Boom Selector Vol. 2 -- Various Artists (no label); The Private Press -- DJ Shadow (MCA); On -- Imperial Teen (Merge); The Eminem Show -- Eminem (Interscope); Murray Street -- Sonic Youth (DGC); God Loves Ugly -- Atmosphere (Fat Beats); Romantica -- Luna (Jetset); I'm Sorry That Sometimes I'm Mean -- Kimya Dawson (Rough Trade); Split Series Volume III -- Rancid/NOFX (BYO); Jerusalem -- Steve Earle (Artemis); Mondo Soukous -- Various Artists (Mondo Melodia); The Shed Sessions -- Bhundu Boys (Sadza); Lifted or the Story is in the Soil -- Bright Eyes (Saddle Creek); Star Kitty's Revenge -- Joi (Universal); The Reputation -- The Reputation (Initial); Transplants -- Transplants (Hellcat); I Phantom -- Mr. Lif (Definitive Jux); Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- Wilco (Nonesuch); Walking With Thee -- Clinic (Domino); Dead Ringer -- RJD2 (Definitive Jux); Don't Worry About Me -- Joey Ramone (Sanctuary); Minesweeper Suite -- DJ/rupture (Tigerbeat6).
Top 10 Singles:
1. "Smells Like Booty" -- Freelance Hellraiser: Beyoncé and Co. shake their jelly all over Kurt's historic riff in the ultimate Frankenstein's monster of a mash-up.
2. "The Night I Fell in Love" -- Pet Shop Boys: The Eminem record of the year. A modern-day "Maggie May" about a high school boy who gets backstage at a concert and ends up spending an intimate evening with the most meanest MC, who "couldn't have been a much nicer bloke." Has to be heard to be believed.
3. "Hate To Say I Told You So" -- The Hives: Erupting this year from any club, disco, lounge, house basement or block party, car stereo, stoop, or any other social gathering, the opening guitar noise of this alt-rock insta-classic sounded almost as definitive and every bit as essential as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" did a decade ago.
4. "Underneath It All" -- No Doubt: No Doubt makes mediocre albums but they're a great singles band, and this is their best yet: in which new-wave addicts' vision of Kingston skank plus a Madonna fan's attempt at vintage-soul vocals equals the year's most swoon-worthy love song.
5. "Young Boy" -- Clipse: Their spare, percussive "Grindin'" got more pub and play, but far better was this swaggering anthem, where the Neptunes' (best ever?) drums-and-horns backing track serves a portrait-of-the-artists-as-young-criminals narrative of cinematic scope and grit.
6. "Don't Let Me Get Me" -- Pink: Retreat from the teen-pop wars as coming-out party as anthem of self-loathing: "L.A. told me/'You'll be a pop star/All you'll have to change is/Everything that you are.'"
7. "Love at First Sight" -- Kylie Minogue: Disco lives!
8. "Work It" -- Missy Elliott: The ultimate expression of Missy and Timbaland's kitchen-sink aesthetic, where hooks pop like machine-gun fire and DJ scratches, electro beats, elephant roars, turntable crackle, backward vocals, and soft-porn onomatopoeia serve as ammo.
9. "On My Block" -- Scarface: His block is your block is every ghetto every city is the genesis of all hip hop -- and I'm a born sucker for the marriage of wistful piano loops and hip-hop beats.
10. "Long Time Gone" -- Dixie Chicks: O Brother, not another roots-kitsch authenticity lament. No, an overdue reckoning with reality; the sound of "country music" breaking free. Now let's move on.