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The best albums of 2002

Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars). Since they emerged from the ashes of the riot grrrl movement, in 1995, Sleater-Kinney have done nothing but build on the foundation of impassioned punkish songwriting and sinewy guitar interplay they introduced on their homonymous debut. No distractions. No trendy excursions. Just good old solid rock and roll with soul and fire. That might not be front-page news, but its been at the top of my pile of CDs all year.

Jets to Brazil, Perfecting Loneliness (Jade Tree). A little more piano and acoustic guitar, and maybe a little less of the punk that Jets to Brazil brought with them from Jawbreaker. But there’s no lack of passion in frontman Blake Schwarzenbach’s confessional songwriting, or in his heart-on-my-tattered-sleeve delivery.

The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (V2). Yeah, White Blood Cells came out on Sympathy for the Record Industry in 2001. But the combined impact of this Zeppelin-loving boy/girl Detroit duo and the cooler-than-thou NYC outfit the Strokes (whose RCA debut, Is This It, also came out in 2001) was enough to convince even a cynical bastard like me that American rawk and roll still had some commercial life left in it in 2002. And the White Stripes were really little more than a rumor before V2 reissued White Blood Cells this year.

Jimmy Eat World (DreamWorks). So damn earnest that you’ll feel bad about something you just did every time you spin your way through this Arizona band’s second major-label album. But Jimmy Eat World also offer vicarious absolution as singer/guitarist Jim Adkins basks in the Ivory soap–clean melodies and scrubbing-bubble guitars that his bandmates so thoughtfully deliver throughout this emoer-than-thou CD.

Wilco, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel (Nonesuch). The folks at Reprise hated the album so much, they refused to release it, and singer Jeff Tweedy allowed a documentary film crew to shoot him puking during difficult recording sessions that ended with the firing of long-time Wilco member Jay Bennett. Just two reasons Yankee Foxtrot Hotel is the most hard-won musical triumph of 2002. Not that you’d know it from the breezy melodies and gritty guitars that wind their way around Tweedy’s world-weary, self-effacing delivery. In any case, a big thanks goes to Tweedy for simply walking out of the twangy corner alterna-country had painted itself into, even if he got his shoes a little messy in the process.

The Donnas, Spend the Night (Atlantic). They’re not all that hot, and there’s not a lick on Spend the Night you haven’t heard on some pop-metal song before. But I wouldn’t kick Donna A, B, C, or D outta bed, though apparently they prefer the back seat.

Tori Amos, Scarlet’s Walk (Epic). Still can’t figure out what the concept behind this concept album is. And Amos is the only pop star other than Moby whose penchant for taking herself too seriously as an artiste doesn’t totally get on my nerves. But those heavenly soaring melodies that come so naturally to her are too irresistible to ignore. And that voice . . . well, does it really matter what she’s singing about?

Coldplay, A Rush of Blood To the Head (Capitol). This British foursome had to do just one thing on their follow-up to Parachutes: quietly move out from beneath the shadow of Radiohead without eschewing all those wonderful Radiohead overtones that made their first album such a pleasant respite from modern rock’s overload of testosterone. They succeeded simply by claiming those Radiohead overtones as their own. It’s Coldplay’s music now — until the next band of British boys come along to claim it as their own, or Radiohead decide to start making Radiohead records again.

Ryan Adams, Demolition (Lost Highway). He’s only half as good as he ought to be, but that’s still twice as good as most of the other singer-songwriter bores who overpopulate the alterna-country universe. And if this collection of odds and sods from several aborted solo albums is better than any of the proper albums he’s released, that’s because Adams is at his best when he forgets to take himself too seriously as Americana’s next best thing and just plays his rock and roll.

Sonic Youth, Murray Street (DGC/Interscope). Nobody gets points for merely surviving, but after they had all their specially tuned guitars ripped off, Lee Ranaldo had us thinking that Sonic Youth would never be able to play again. So Murray Street is, I guess, a triumph of sorts in that Thurston, Kim, Lee, and that drummer guy still sound like Sonic Youth and not Rage Against the Machine or something (that would be Audioslave). An unassumingly great album from a band who sort of specialize in that.

Best singles

Peaches, " Fuck the Pain Away. "

Moby, " We Are All Made of Stars. "

Christina Aguilera, " Dirrty. "

Avril Lavigne, " Sk8ter Boy. "

Kelly Osbourne, " Papa Don’t Preach. "

Best reissues

The Replacements, Let It Be (Restless), along with the rest of the band’s Twin/Tone catalogue.

X, Wild Gift (Rhino), along with the four other albums the original line-up recorded in the 1980s

Lou Reed, Live Take No Prisoners (BMG).

Pavement, Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe and Reduxe (Matador)

David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: 30th Anniversary Two-CD Edition (EMI).

Comeback of the year: Jimmy Eat World

Their 1999 major-label debut, Clarity (Capitol), didn’t just stiff — it suggested that emocore had little or no commercial life in it because, after touring incessantly behind their 1996 indie debut, this young Arizona foursome were emo’s ambassadors to the real adult world of big-budget recordings. Instead of breaking up, they recorded a new album on their own dime, and — voilà! — DreamWorks stepped in to give them a second chance with a homonymous album that’s now helped pave the way for an emo invasion of modern rock. A storybook ending.

Letdown of the year: Nirvana

After all the talk of unreleased recordings, comprehensive box sets, unedited journals, and a very ugly legal battle between Courtney and the surviving members of the band, what we got was a greatest-hits album with one new song and a book of Kurt’s silly scribblings, including lists of his favorite bands and vague ideas for videos? Does anybody else feel cheated?

Pleasant surprise of the year: Eyes Adrift

After a decade of trying to cash in on the grunge trend and losing his brother to a nasty drug addiction, Curt Kirkwood was left with a revamped version of his Meat Puppets that was a sad shadow of their former selves. Meanwhile, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic released a godawful album by a band whose name I won’t even mention. But fate brought these two refugees from the drug wars of the ’90s together as Eyes Adrift to record a homonymous album for spinART that lives up to the legacy of those great Meat Puppets albums of the ’80s that Kurt Cobain loved so much. There’s poetic justice in there somewhere.

Overrated artist of the year: The Vines

They’ve got one song. And it sounds like a sloppy cross between a Nirvana outtake and a Lyres nugget. Jeff Conolly should sue just to keep these Aussies from making another album, because the rest of Highly Evolved (Capitol) is barely evolved.

Tolerable trend of the year: The Swedish invasion

It’s not the first year that Scandinavia delivered some of the finest rock in the world, but with the Soundtrack of Our Lives, Sahara Hotnights, the Hives, and Division of Laura Lee all releasing great albums in 2002, Sweden’s time has clearly come.

Best new band: Sparta

The premature demise of At the Drive-In may have been a mighty blow to true believers in the redemptive power of rock, but the emergence from the ruins of a new group named Sparta was just cause for a collective sigh of relief. Less avant and more guarded around the edges, and given more to mellow moments of introspection (followed, of course, by explosive salvos of overdriven guitars, rumbling bass, and hammering drums), Wiretap Scars (DreamWorks) gave Sparta their own identity. But the core passion that made At the Drive-In worth caring about so much has come through the ordeal intact.

The 10 best discs you might have missed

Enon, High Society (Touch and Go). Brainiac guitarist John Schmersal and a couple of guys from Skeleton Key join forces with a Japanese girl singer to make skewed guitar pop with the occasional electronic excursion; the result sets the new standard for indie rock.

The Bangs, Call and Response (Kill Rock Stars). Not as sophisticated as Sleater-Kinney, but sometimes you just want your grrrl punk to be as loud, fast, and to the point as this five-song EP.

Parker and Lily, Hello Halo (Orange). Melancholy mood music for rainy Sunday afternoons doesn’t get much better than this.

Cinerama, Torino (Manifesto). More Wedding Present pop from the prolific and lovelorn David Gedge.

MC Paul Barman, Paullelujah (Coup d’État). A white Jewish suburban rapper who hip-hops like a young Bob Dylan with two turntables and a microphone he bought with his bar mitzvah money. The anti-Eminem.

Polara, Jetpack Blues (Susstones). Holed up in the home studio his long-lost major-label deal bought him in Minneapolis, Ed Ackerman is fast becoming our answer to that dude from My Bloody Valentine — only Ackerman actually puts out CDs.

Jason Lowenstein, At Sixes and Sevens (Sub Pop). The other dude who wrote songs in Sebadoh is still writing and playing all the instruments quite competently on this, his first solo album.

Ivy, Guestroom (Minty Fresh). Even though you know that French-born singer Dominque Durand is married to guitarist Andy Chase, it’s still hard to resist her deadpan delivery of the Cure’s " Let’s Go to Bed " on this eclectic album of covers by everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to Steely Dan.

Girls Against Boys, You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See (Jade Tree). Dropped by DreamWorks and left to their own devices, GVSB are back to making pomo pop with hooks instead of just attitude.

Hand of Doom, Live in Los Angeles (Idaho). If you’d lived through Hole the way Melissa Auf Der Maur did, you’d also want to let off some steam in a Black Sabbath tribute band. They do it better than Dio.

Issue Date: December 26, 2002 - January 2, 2003
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