Beck poured on the New Mountain Groan.
Beck poured on the New Mountain Groan.

Critics VS 2002: Rebuilding From Ash

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.


Top 10

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.

6. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge): If last year's stellar Girls Can Tell suggested a latent affection for the Zombies, then Kill the Moonlight is the post-punk Kinks record that Ray Davies himself could never make. Britt Daniel is not only the best singer in rock at the moment -- sandpaper gritty, tuneful and acerbic, all at once -- but he also has a rare knack for building hooks from the most minimal material.

7. Anna Waronker, Anna (Five Foot Two): California pop royalty by birth (daughter of producer/record exec Lenny Waronker) and marriage (wife of Redd Kross bassist Steve McDonald, and sister-in-law to Go-Go Charlotte Caffey), Waronker has seen the full scope of the L.A. pop dream, and she wants the whole shebang: the literacy and sophistication of her dad's pal Randy Newman (is it a coincidence her solo debut begins, like Newman's, with a song called "Love Story"?) and the rock abandon of Redd Kross. And when she tauntingly sings "Baby I'm your perfect 10," she makes you believe it.

8. MC Paul Barman, Paullelujah! (Coup d'Etat): It's tempting to think of this hip-hop novelty as a cross between the early Beastie Boys and the lighter side of Eminem. But the young Beasties were wild, unrepentant slobs, and even in his most cartoonish moments, Eminem clings to a certain street-toughness. By comparison with either, Barman is all horn-rimmed, Ivy League geekdom, cerebral enough to quote Winston Churchill and juvenile enough to claim himself as a "Cock Mobster." In Barman's world of fantasy sex, a line like "I would jizz early in Liz Hurley" actually qualifies as seduction.

9. Bob Dylan, Live 1975 (Columbia/Legacy): No period of Dylan's career has been more poorly served than his mid-'70s Rolling Thunder Revue. Live 1975 finally delivers the goods, with Dylan bringing a welcome, grown-up huskiness to classics like "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" and a reggae/country "It Ain't Me Babe."

10. Beck, Sea Change (DGC): This mopey collection of lost-love ballads was inevitably overrated by critics who have a hard-on for confessional songwriter fare. From where I'm sitting, the campy falsettos and funky beats of Midnite Vultures were just as revealing -- and a lot more fun -- than this collection. But even if Beck makes a better Morris Day than Nick Drake, Sea Change proves that he's better at wimpine.

Darren Keast:

1. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Locked On/Vice): The tsunami of hype on which English riffraff Mike Skinner rode into America -- billing him as Britain's first great MC -- mostly overlooked his most glaring quality: This guy's a wanker. Original Pirate Material has some juicy two-step beats and a few haunting images woven into the lyrics, but this is some silly shit (whether Skinner realizes it or not).

2. DJ Shadow, The Private Press (MCA): Who knew that after driving past 110th Street into Harlem and then through late-'60s acid-freaking London, one would arrive at Mill Valley, California, home of DJ Shadow? The Private Press is like a secret history of hipster, collector-culture obscuria packaged as a heat 'n' serve box lunch. Save the two decades going to record fairs -- the Nuggets compilation and David Axelrod sound better when combined through Shadow's mixer, anyway.

3. DJ /Rupture, Minesweeper Suite (Tigerbeat6): Just when people are finally sick of DJs, a few emerge who are actually worth something. Based on the same ideas of recontextualization and kitsch that Kid606 and DJ Spooky dabble in but executed far more entertainingly, this is a can't-believe-no-one's-done-it-before mix of smoothed-over lowbrow fare (Sade, Aaliyah) and The Wire-approved noisetronica (Cex, DJ Scud).

4. Andrew W.K., I Get Wet (Mercury): An unapologetic one-trick pony, Andrew W.K. gave the arena-size overindulgence of cock rock one last spin so that we can finally (hopefully) lay it to rest forever.

5. Various Artists, This Is Tech-Pop (Ministry of Sound): Most of the electroclash stuff isn't even as good as those '80s kitschmeisters Berlin, but the handful of gems (most of which are collected here) make for really great fuck tunes. Fischerspooner's "Emerge" was the club track of the year.

6. The Sea and Cake, One Bedroom (Thrill Jockey): Xanax in aural form. All the least challenging bits of jazz, Krautrock and post-rock synthesized into something with enough kick so you don't feel like one of those neo-lounge weenies for liking it.

7. Atmosphere, God Loves Ugly (Fat Beats): Indy hip-hop, mired in its reactionary attachment to bland boom-bap production, seems destined to progress only by exploring more intimate lyrical material. God Loves Ugly is the best recent example of this tension -- unimpeded by the fairly boring beats, rapper Slug is able to push the art forward by dealing with the subjects that we expect mostly from rock songwriters: love, regret, boredom and nostalgia.

8. Manitoba, Start Breaking My Heart (Domino): Boards of Canada should have made this record -- lots of pretty melodic washes and intricate drum-machine jitters, almost totally pretension-free.

9. Brooks, You, Me & Us (Mantis): You, Me & Us blends many of the best qualities from across the electronic music spectrum into one very slick aesthetic. There are sultry house-style vocals, complex sonic textures from IDM, the starkness of techno, and the choicest disco breaks extracted from 25 years of gay dance tracks. And yet the songwriting's really strong.

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.

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?

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.

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.

1. The Kills, Black Rooster (Dim Mak): VV and Hotel. VV -- she of America and big smoldering voice, drenched with sweat, sex and a knowing quality that belies her 23 years. Hotel -- he of England and bedhead, VU guitar and attitude. The Black Rooster EP, the only material this phlogiston duo has released in its baby career, rocked my ass off from the first listen. A mere 18 minutes of music, Black Rooster smokes from the first second of the first track, with dirty, sexy, fuzzy guitar noise and naughty vocals. While painfully short, it speaks formidably about this forceful duo and what they might do in the future.

2. Danielson Famile, Fetch the Compass Kids (Secretly Canadian): The Danielson Famile consists of real family members and a couple of friends, led by the musical and spiritual vision of Daniel Smith. Smith, the Danielson in the band's name, guides his holy brood through a delirious combination of styles. Imagine if Daniel Johnston were in the Pixies and they played back porch gospels, featuring helium vocals singing praise to God. These people have seen the mandala and they want to spread the joy. Fetch is a Steve Albini-produced wonder -- great harmonies, strange off-balance arrangements, percussive bells, honest spiritual content and a great deal of raw happiness.

3. Local act that went out with a whimper and not a bang: Less Pain Forever: This amazing duo changed its name from Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product to Less Pain Forever, became a tribute to themselves featuring original members, bought a huge RV, painted it black and took off in search of fame and fortune in locales unknown.

They ended up living in Wal-Mart parking lots, playing some triumphant shows in New York and other parts East and came back a year later, slightly burnt. Christopher Pomerenke created the one-man band Lovers of Guts while James Karnes was on the East Coast. Upon Karnes' return, the fire was gone, the psychic chemistry was missing a few notes, and the band quietly dissolved.

4. Gogogo Airheart, Exitheuxa (GSL): A successful fusion of '80s sounds and punky, smart art rock that is electrifying, experimental and mysterious. You may feel like laughing at the unusual musical marriages happening, but by the second time through, it will be love. Michaela Vermillion's elastic high-register voice summons Pornography-era Robert Smith, pre-fame Tom Bailey circa A Product of . . . and Jack White's thin take on Robert Plant. Catchy, scary, spaced-out music with a steel backbone rhythm section and a warbling lead singer.

5. Best Comeback: Morrissey: I am biting my tongue here, but he was impressive at Celebrity Theatre. Grown paunchy men with bald spots clambered onstage and braved the security guards to touch his cardigan. The singer was witty and seemingly happy, making jokes and witticisms naturally. Highlight of his resurgence: Craig Kilborn's inexplicable campaign to get Moz on his show, pleading night after night for Morrissey, only to get him on and ask him banal questions.

6. Daniel Johnston and Harvey Sid Fisher at 15th Street Tavern in Denver, March 9: A celestial event. Harvey Sid of Astrology Songs cable-access fame and Daniel Johnston of the wounded psyche and genius songwriting. Harvey Sid and pickup band earnestly sang such lyrics as "Talk about the Taurus, talk about the Bully Bull Bull" to a confused but enthused audience. DJ played guitar, which he should not have, stared at a music stand containing his lyrics as if catatonic, sang some songs, muttered some third-grade jokes and broke my heart.

7. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.): Not as good as The Soft Bulletin, but what is? The Lips continue their examination of real life in the fun-house mirror, with a lilting, melted pop backdrop. A quiet meditation of disparate concepts macro- and microcosmic. Mortality, good vs. evil, karate and pink robots are filtered through Wayne Coyne's distorted everyman.

8. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): The album perfectly continues Wilco's defection from Americana. All over the place stylistically, it is a recording that seems to have a storm of sounds around it -- an uneasy beauty like the sound between stations. Though musical to its core, it touches on discord at all the right moments.

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Yeah Yeah Yeahs: I know this EP technically came out in late 2001, so put down your pen. A noisy arty trio that got grouped with the garage revival, they make a shitload of horny noise. Karen O's sexual vibe is everywhere, backed by guitar and drums. They're another a band with a lot of potential and only two EPs under their belt, with a full-length supposedly due early this year.

10. The Black Heart Procession, Amore Del Tropico (Touch & Go): A continuation of the Black Heart Procession's examination of love and loss and the dark underbelly of life. Amore still features beautiful theatrical weepers based around piano, guitar and Pall Jenkins' brooding vocals, but the album is less spare than past BHP recordings. The lyrics are fragments of a story line, shrouded in mystery and with just enough imagery to tingle the spine. On Amore we are shown, chapter by chapter, a pulp novel, a murder mystery, the narrator backed by rich hypnotic music.

Henry Cabot Beck:

Right off the top: It was the year of the geezers, with reissues, reunions, tributes, collections and some reemergences. There are a couple of dynasties-in-the-making, furthered by Hank Williams III and Femi Kuti, son of Fela, but mostly the geezers take the point, at least from my dashboard POV.

1. And no living American monument had a better year than Johnny Cash. There's a fine collection of essays, Ring of Fire, a brand-new CD, American IV, his fourth collection of originals and covers (Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"), a spectacular armload of old and improved reissues, and two top-of-the-line all-star tribute collections, all of which made the Man in Black a Cash crop.

2. Solomon Burke has achieved redwood status as well. Burke, who taught the Stones some soul-rock lessons back in the early '60s, brought forth a new collection, Don't Give Up on Me, full of original tunes by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits. A clean, well-lighted disc, with terrific E-Z instrumentation, the album is beautifully produced and smart, like Burke himself.

3. Speaking of Waits, Tom Waits' Fassbinder-on-acid double-CD release, Alice and Blood Money, either fills a void or creates one -- with Waits, it's sometimes hard to tell. And even though some of the unreleased material was a little dated in places, those in need of a musical through-the-looking-glass horror show combined with large doses of menacing oompah, a parade of Francis Bacon grotesqueries and some achingly beautiful ballads will find it all here.

4. Sicily's 20-member, twentysomething Banda Ionica has plenty of oompah, and their second disc, Matri Mia (Dunya Records, available as an import), includes funeral marches, traditional tunes and originals done up in true Euro-eclectic fashion. This one grows more charming the more time you give it, once you accept its innate eccentricities.

5. Tito Puente: The Complete RCA Recordings, Vol. 1 & 2, each containing six CDs, include arguably some of the best material the king of Afro-Cubano-Bop ever recorded. Cut during the '50s and '60s, these discs are loaded with great Latin music -- jazzy, swinging, smart and wild, most of it recorded for audiences who couldn't get enough mambo and cha-cha at the time, though there are also great standards here, and some fairly far-out exotica. RCA might have done a better job of putting these collections together, but the music stands on its own, and both volumes are equally wonderful.

6. Hank Williams III, Lovesick, Broke & Driftin': A lot of great country music trickled out of Americana this year, besides Cash -- Alan Jackson, Dixie Chicks, Merle, Dale Watson, the Webb Pierce tribute disc Caught in the Webb, Laura Cantrell's sophomore effort When the Roses Bloom Again, Jim Lauderdale's two releases, Elizabeth Cook's Hey Y'All, the Flatlanders reunion record, to name a small handful. So it's hard to pick one or two that stood out. Having said that, Hank No. 3's album is a stunner. This guy has tapped the family vein in an uncanny fashion, and there's a bit of whiskey, gravel dust, mud and sour coffee in every track.

7. Red Hot & Riot is a tribute to Nigeria's late, great Fela Kuti and the latest in a series of spectacular collaborations made for the Red Hot AIDS-awareness organization. Kuti, who mixed western funk, soul jazz and African music, was a political figure and pop star, and this collection brings his son, Femi, and other African musicians together with a number of American jazz artists and hip-hoppers, including progressive faves Blackalicious.

8. The soundtrack to Arliss Howard's film Big Bad Love meshes a handy sampling of Fat Possum blues artists such as Asie Payton, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford and others, with some interesting new tracks by brilliant Television guitarist and producer Tom Verlaine, including a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet.

9. Charlie Christian didn't just invent electric jazz guitar, he remains one of the genre's all-time great players, even though he died at 25 in 1942. What is surprising is how progressive Christian's thinking was, throwing bop notes and notions all over the place at a time when bebop was still a baby. It also didn't hurt that Christian was embraced so warmly by Benny Goodman and his group, who really swing here. The four-CD boxed set is a nifty exploration.

10. The Blasters got their due this year with Testament, a two-CD collection of their Warner material on Rhino, and Trouble Bound, a live recording from their recent reunion tour on Hightone. Maybe the Blasters are the sole band that marks the difference between alt-country and Americana. Maybe not. Whatever the case, the Alvin brothers were more than the sum of their trials, tribulations and talents, and they moved around inside American musical idioms like no one else.

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