Critics VS 2002: Rebuilding From Ash

2002 spent the year in a 9/11 hangover. Through the confusion, notable and amazing works still arose

In the aftermath of a national calamity, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that 2002 was a weird year for music. The public wanted to disavow the trends of the past; those, after all, were empty, shallow and indicative of a culture in the dustbin. We needed meaning now. Hence, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, mook rock and gangsta rap became a commercial spin in the drain.

Yet a new trend never solidified, and there was no rhyme or reason, really, behind what sold and what appealed to the masses. For example, the year ripened with young, female singer-songwriters, but none of them had much to do with one another, in concept or sound. Pink found her inner freak, scuzzed out, sold four million records, scored three pop hits and became a bad-girl icon, complete with drunken public appearances and extreme-sports boyfriend. When Christina Aguilera tried to skeez up her image, however, she was treated like a plain skeez -- no iconography, just a desperate teen-pop waif. Even the cleaner girls found themselves unbundled. Michelle Branch was an acoustic sweety while Avril Lavigne was skater-chick innocence. Yet they likely wouldn't be caught dead fraternizing with one another. And garage rock? The year brought a few good records and some funny performance gags. But while white male critics may have drooled, the last time I checked, the Vines were about eight million records behind Limp Bizkit.

More disconcerting, the year was an urban music cul-de-sac. Skim our lists, and you'll find only one mainstream African-American rapper and few soul artists. A surprise, because a few of us pride ourselves in appreciating hip-hop culture. The Timbaland and Neptunes factories began to stale. The Soulquarians (The Roots, Common and the such) mostly abandoned the notion of hooks, trying to reinvent music but only muddling their songs. DMX and OutKast took the year off, and Jay-Z whiffed badly with his first double album. The Dirty South was too dirty for its own good, and Nelly and Ja Rule took the good name of Tupac Shakur and sold it out to smiling camera faces and thug-lovin' pop hits.

Beck poured on the New Mountain Groan.
Beck poured on the New Mountain Groan.
It ain't pretentious if it's good. Try these at your next house party.
It ain't pretentious if it's good. Try these at your next house party.

It was a much better year for music with, you know, chords and bridges and ambition. As writer Henry Cabot Beck points out, the middle-aged and old, and youngsters with an ear to the rustic, enjoyed a fine year. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel and Solomon Burke all released albums, for chrissakes! The young fringe included Norah Jones, who combined Patsy Cline, Cole Porter and a progressive pop sensibility, and Bright Eyes, an update on Dylan by way of Omaha. Just when the world thought traditional rock was dead, it resurfaced in lovely tones.

Enough pontificating for now. Enjoy our critics' meditation on the pop year that was:

Gilbert Garcia:

1. N.E.R.D., In Search Of . . . (Virgin): There's no getting around the fact that the Neptunes are a mercenary production team, but they're also the most consistently inventive aural alchemists in contemporary R&B. As N.E.R.D., they offer up that most odious of modern hybrids -- hard-rock/hip-hop -- and make it sound fresher and more fun than it has any right to be. Unlike the Limp Bizkit camp, they come to this fusion from the hip-hop side, so they understand limber beats and the charm of a well-placed Moog synthesizer.

2. Eels, Souljacker (DreamWorks): Head Eel Mark Oliver Everett (a.k.a. E) might share his fashion sense with the Unabomber, but he's nowhere near as optimistic. An unrelenting song cycle about degradation from the schoolyard ("Dog Faced Boy") to the bedroom ("That's Not Really Funny"), Souljacker transcends self-pity because its production is darkly comic enough to make you feel the rage behind the despair. At times reminiscent of P.J. Harvey's 1995 masterwork To Bring You My Love in its fuzzed-out, oversaturated sense of doom (Harvey sidekick John Parish co-produced this record), it earns extra points for making "epidural" rhyme with "girl."

3. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): Not as startling a musical progression as 1999's Summer Teeth, but a more focused demonstration of what an intuitive pop master Jeff Tweedy has become. The result is an album that simultaneously feels off-the-cuff and sweated over, with layers of white noise underlining Tweedy's growing sense of dislocation and weariness. He manages to mourn the lost enthusiasm of his youth ("Heavy Metal Drummer") while recognizing that it can be liberating not to give a shit anymore.

4. Ben Kweller, Sha Sha (ATO): North Texas wunderkind rises from the ashes of a failed teen-rock band (Radish) and delivers the most consistently tuneful and likable record of the year.

5. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.): If the concept album was played out even before Styx brought us "Mr. Roboto," credit the Lips for coming up with a concept so absurd it feels like pure inspiration. Like Styx, Wayne Coyne and his bandmates are preoccupied with the perils of a machine-dominated future, but that's where the similarity ends. A psychedelic fable about a heroic Japanese girl taking on malevolent robots, it's like Radiohead for kids: so lush and trippy that you'll forgive the band for stealing the melody for "Fight Test" from Cat Stevens.

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