Critics VS 2002: Rebuilding From Ash

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

10. High on Fire, Surrounded by Thieves (Relapse): Sabbath as channeled through East Bay hair farmers whose neurons are so caked with THC that it oozes forth in molasses-slow dollops. And there's a song about a yeti searching the polar caps for a crashed saucer -- 'nuff said.

Christopher O'Connor:

1. Sleater-Kinney, "Sympathy": The most astonishing recorded music I heard all year, it also stands as the finest entry in the post-9/11 catharsis rush. For new mom Corin Tucker, the attacks were a kick in the teeth. "I know I come to you only when I need/I'm not the best believer not the most deserving," she sings over an incendiary blues riff. Tucker, in a gut-wrenching yell, then clutches to her infant son. She and songwriting partner Carrie Brownstein rumble through lyrics about leaping from their skins and tasting the rust of disaster. "I've got this curse in my hands," Brownstein moans. Suddenly, the bridge erupts, and so does Tucker. "I'm so sorry for those who didn't make it/And for the mommies who are left with their heart breaking," she screams. At song's end: "I would beg you on bended knee for him." That about says it all.

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.

2. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch Records): Ignore the avant-garde touches. The celebrated album's real secret is simple -- bandleader Jeff Tweedy anchors his complex songs of love, loss and wistfulness in classic melody after classic melody.

3. The Coral, The Coral (Deltasonic UK): A sensationally weird record that mixes Nuggets-era pop, Merseybeat, reggae, folk, klezmer and all else psychedelic. Yet for all of its obvious influences, it's still sickly unique. You may be hearing lots and lots about these Merseyside kiddies next year when their import album is released in the States.

4. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen): Beck loses the pose, shelves his novelty inclination and hugs his heart on Sea Change, his tear-in-my-beer breakup volume.

5. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.): I love The Soft Bulletin as much as anyone. But I love Yoshimi more. With its sense of desperation (if "Do You Realize??" isn't the poppiest darn sad song about impending death you've ever heard?), rock's first great record about robots is actually darker than its predecessor.

6. Eminem, The Eminem Show (Interscope/Aftermath): The pundits fixate on Em's barbs toward his mom, the white-trash chip on his shoulder, the digs on public figures and the vulgarities. What they fail to contemplate, however, is that this shit is rebel music, built to provoke in a battle for supremacy with words, not meaning, per se; to conquer a beat, to damage your opponent with skills. He's no different from KRS-One, Nas or Jay-Z -- he establishes a persona, creates motifs and finds a cadence, and then uses them to take on the world with rhymes. Biggie beat "motherfuckers like Ike beat Tina," and so does Eminem.

7. Bright Eyes at Nita's Hideaway, Tempe, on October 8: The rambling opus comes alive in concert more than you would ever expect. Conor Oberst, a detached, 22-year-old songwriter from Omaha, Nebraska, who performs as Bright Eyes, scribbles his lyrics freeform, a no-holds-barred mix of heartbreak, nostalgia, politics, friendship and confession. He also prefers the four-track bedroom aesthetic, a sound that made this year's Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground painful to listen to in spots. But in concert, his 14-piece (?!) band, including bassoon, melodia, cello, violin and flute, absolutely bashes out! Oberst is one of the most engaging, sweatily intense front men I've seen in ages.

8. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (Interscope): The world's most sensuous stoner prog-rock band grows stronger with drummer Dave Grohl and Screaming Trees melody master Mark Lanegan. "Song for the Dead," "God Is in the Radio" and "The Sky Is Fallin'" rock unbelievably hard but also stand as some of the year's best songs.

9. Trick Daddy, "Ain't No Santa": At least hip-hop still has Trick Daddy. The ferocious Miami rapper makes the argument he can't help but be a thug more forcefully than Tupac ever did, especially on this brilliant little oddity. He wants to be a part of middle-class American life, but no one will let him. He sounds as loony as ODB calling out Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush and the cops on "Ain't No Santa," but his sense of disenfranchisement is devastating. How would you feel if you had to sell crack on Christmas day to support your mom, 10 brothers and sisters and a rotating cast of "stepdads"?

10. DJ Shadow, The Private Press (MCA) and Various Artists, The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever: Two examples of the same dance-music dynamic. Both albums reinterpret previously recorded sounds of others. Shadow, a grade-A vinyl fetishist and drum sampler, obsesses over texture and nuance in patching together a complex tale of journeys and self-discovery, culminating in the wonderfully New Wave "You Can't Go Home Again." The Best Bootlegs is much less ambitious but just as innovative; it collects Internet mash-ups that steal the melody from one song and then music from another. Who knew splicing Christina Aguilera with the Strokes could be so stunning?

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