Critics VS 2002: Rebuilding From Ash

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

Serene Dominic:

1. Eminem, The Eminem Show (Interscope): File under "Fear of a Black and White Planet." Never in rock/pop/rap's half-century has an artist tapped into White America's fear with their children's preoccupation with black music and rubbed it in their faces with as much rancorous glee as Eminem does on this album's opener, "White America." But then his aside at the end of it ("Hahaha! I'm just playin' America, you know I love you") doesn't feel right, like Don Rickles singing "I'm a Nice Guy" after spewing racial insults for an hour. Could it be that after coming for little Eric and Erica, Marshall's really going after their parents? Well, all parents have to do is listen to "Cleaning Out My Closet" to glean that it wasn't rap music at all but bad parenting that made Eminem such a public pariah. This is compelling, scary music.

2. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.): While it's not the absolute masterpiece The Soft Bulletin was (and gems like the we're-all-gonna-die-sometime anthem "Do You Realize??" seem like they were conceived after the same near-fatal spider bite), this is still a brilliant album, one where good triumphs over evil only after evil goes soft.

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.

3. Paul Westerberg, Mono/Stereo (Vagrant): Finally, the former Replacement figured out that direct-to-tape writing eliminated all the fussing and cognizant craftsmanship that made such Dianne Warren wanna-be songs as "Runaway Wind" a Paul possibility. Put Stereo and Mono (recorded under his alias Grandpaboy) in the CD shuffle mode and you've got his best work since Don't Tell a Soul.

4. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): This is to Wilco what Kid A was to Radiohead -- a chance to deconstruct and reassemble into jagged new shards. But Wilco emerged from the workshop with actual songs. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett may have irrevocably split as a result of this album's rocky road to releasedom, but it's not an album documenting any interband discord. Here, the band is trying its hardest to be expressive and experimental, attempting music you've never heard before, not even on the head-spinning eclectic Summer Teeth.

5. Beck, Sea Change (Interscope): Or See Change? We've secretly replaced the falsetto flavor, dance party aroma and humor crystals of Midnight Vultures with New Mountain Groan Beck and wondered what critics would think. And they loved it, lauding this as his best album, as close to real Beck as we can expect to get without watching MTV Cribs. Like Nick Drake's remains shot into space or Gordon Lightfoot on ecstasy, Beck effects the most startling album-to-album transformation since Michael Jackson's nose.

6. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (issued by V2): White Blood Cells made people see red and white, and pissed off bassists, but ultimately (thanks to its lower list price) got people into record stores buying new music. Why Jack and Meg? Because here's a band that by design isn't fully formed yet delivers everything you could want -- crazed blues and tango ("I Think I Smell a Rat"), yee-haw country ("Hotel Yorba"), stripped-down glitter rock ("Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"), McCartney folk ("We're Going to Be Friends") and three-chord rock ("Fell in Love With a Girl") -- all on two instruments.

7. The Hives, Veni Vidi Vicious (Burning Heart/Epitaph): Part two of 2002's White-Shoes-and-Leather-Belt Invasion. These Swedes have been around almost 10 years, so they're not above dorking it up on MTV to get attention. Simply put, this album kicks ass harder and faster than any under-30-minute album since the Ramones left home.

8. Elvis Costello, When I Was Cruel (Island/Def Jam): There may be too much available Costello music with annotated liner notes by the man himself for him to ever be the exhilarating mystery he was when he started out, but this album goes considerable distance in erasing the bad memory of such stilted Elvis experimental pop albums as All This Useless Beauty, Spike and Mighty Like a Rose.

9. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Last DJ (Warner Bros.): Many have complained that Petty's too old and too rich to be complaining about bad radio, VIP sections at arena shows, high ticket prices, rampant hit parade whoredom and evil record execs, but somebody's got to do it. And it sure as shit ain't gonna be Shakira! We may not need another concept album about the bad ol' music business, but this album is neither as convoluted as Radio KAOS or as insular as Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round. That radio stations took "The Last DJ" off playlists isn't as startling as learning that there were actually playlists that had 55-year-old Petty on them!

10. Weezer, Maladroit (Interscope Records): Don't believe these guys are the best good-time band since the Lovin' Spoonful? There's even a song about goddamned fishing here!

Jonathan Bond:

This was a year of innovative and dirty music. Lo-fi bands with few members making loads of noise, as well as little masterpieces from groups that continue to prove themselves in new and beautiful ways. It was also a year of insipid pap. But rather than spilling bile on the page and risking getting some on your pretty little hands, I will just speak to the good.

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