2002: The Recap

By shane

2002... The Year of Plastic.

What the hell has happened to music?

When I was in high school and college, I was perpetually bitching about music. If I'd have had foresight, I woulda kept my mouth shut.

In those days, the Top 40 chart was filled with the FIRST wave of boybands - New Edition, New Kids on the Block, Color Me Badd (and let me digress on this one for a second - did you guys read the article that hit the AP wire a few weeks back? Do you all remember Color Me Badd? There was the George Michael one, the Italian one, the Kenny G one, and the black one, right? Well, apparantly the black dude in Color Me Badd recently underwent a real life EXORCISM because he was possessed by demons. Totally true. Well, the exorcism was true, I can't speak for the demons... but think about it, that WOULD explain "I Wanna Sex U Up".) Anyways (told you I was digressing)...

The Top 40 charts of MY era were full of either boybands or hair metal. And, of course, I meandered around with my Smiths records quietly cursing everyone else on the planet.

And I thought commercial music couldn't get worse.

I was really, really, really, really wrong.

2002 was the year of plastic. Cheap, manufactured schlock filled our radio dials 24-7 this year. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that music would sink LOWER than the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears in 2002, but it continues to mire itself into a deeper and deeper bog of crap-osity.

And here's the worst part.

For me, pop music has always been divided into 3 tiers:

(1) Good music. Stuff we all like. Coz we rule and have good taste.

(2) "Cool" music. The stuff that MTV tells us we need to like in order to be cool, relevant, and trendy.

(3) Suck-ass music. Music that we don't really care whether or not it sucks, because we're so far above it that it's off our radar. From Celine Dion to Phil Collins to the Backstreet Boys. Music that pretty much everybody that reads this column can universally agree, "Hey, this sucks."

Suck-ass music has always been plastic. That's why we really don't care that the Backstreet Boys lip-sync at live performances or whatever - they're EXPECTED to, because they're plastic, and everyone knows it.

The PROBLEM is that this plague of plasticity has now consumed most of the second tier, and even thrown itself headfirst at the first tier - which you should consider the Fortress of Solitude and protect at ALL costs.

This sounds confusing. Let me give you some examples.


How do I hate thee, let me count the ways. What a great marketing tool Avril Levigne is. She DEFINES the answer of how to market a teen queen without the Britney backlash. "Ooh, she's a real artist, she writes her own songs." Let's face facts, folks. Just because someone's an artist doesn't mean they make GOOD art. And this chick makes suck-ass music. BUT she's hiding in the "cool" category right now, thanks to magazines and critics hailing her as a Woman In Rock (tm). Get this straight, missy: Joan Jett could eat you for lunch and shit you out by dinner. Two records later, you will be NO ONE.


  Is there a worse band in the world? I'd rather listen to Warrant than Creed. At least Warrant was straight-forward about it - they lured female fans with their flowing locks and songs about doing it. Creed lure the same female fans, but do it with their "sensitivity" and "righteousness." Never mind Scott Stapp's weird police blotter and their watered-down alterna-schlock music. This band sucks ass like few before them. And yet they still manage to sneak into the "cool" music tier from single to single. Make them stop. Please. I'll pay money.

CRIMINAL #3 - (and this is where I start making enemies) - THE VINES.

  Craig Nicholls. Somebody needs to spank this kid, honestly. "The Most Exciting Band in the World," said NME a few months back. Errr, no. It's almost as if somebody sat and had a thought, "Okay, who were the biggest money-making bands of the past decade? Nirvana and Oasis. Okay, we need to be the perfect cross between those two. Hey, kid, you can scream like Cobain, right? Okay, great. Now do it just a touch more Beatles-y... The Beatles, kid, they were a band from the 60's... oh, never mind, just do it a touch more Oasis-y, you gotta know who THEY are, right? Okay, cool, you're signed." "I WANNA GET FREEEEE, I WANNA GET FREEEEE!" Free from what? Curfew? Having to eat brussel sprouts? This band is sooooooo plastic in their efforts, yet there are some who say they don't suck ass... and there are even some who say they're better than "cool," that they're actually GOOD. Listen, keep this band out of MY upper eschelon - there's no room at the inn.

CRIMINAL #4 - (and this is where feathers are gonna fly) - THE STREETS.

  Mike Skinner claims that "no sales pitch, no media hype" was responsible for his ascendency... and he's right. What DID make "Original Pirate Material" soar to the forefront of critical acclaim was a plastic combination of things that are in no way either (a) original, (b) pirate, or (c) from the streets. The whole album is little more than atonal vain posturing over horribly produced, played out 2-step beats. Just because the kid is rapping with a British accent does NOT make it good, folks. Mike Skinner is about as hooked up to the streets as LL Cool J. His samples are patchily looped, his vocal presence is negligible, if not downright annoying, and his prosaic rhymes are wholly unoriginal. "This one's fat like your mother." Damn, he's sure from the streets, alrighty. And cringe-worthy puns like that are set up all over the record - it's labored, it's corny, and even when he DOES have something to occasionally say, he says it in the same even-handed tone as the joke tracks. Not a memorable lick of anything on this record. Yet it's FIRMLY entrenched in the upper eschelon category of "good" music. And if this is good music, then I'll be first in line to chop down my aerial, thanks.

Plastic to the left of me, plastic to the right of me. It's a full throttle assault. So it remains to us to wade through the debris and find music that really matters. Or, should I say, it remains to ME to wade through the debris and tell you my picks for the best albums of 2002...


#20 - GUITAR - Sunkissed

Okay, so within this plastic haze of music, I can take solace in a few titles that, though redundant and cookie-cutter, made me smile a lot this year. And Guitar is one of those albums. If you're a fan of My Bloody Valentine, you need to go buy this record. You'll either worship it or want to fly to France and kick the guy's ass behind this record. Because "Sunkissed" is a carbon-copy of "Loveless"-era MBV, just not quite as exciting. But you still get the same sonics: seemingly hundreds of guitars fed through seemingly thousands of effect pedals, waves of sound that immediately make you breathe slower and think clearer, and the same faint breathy vocals that Belinda trademarked over a decade ago. It's genius, but only because My Bloody Valentine were genius. But in the wake of any new material from Kevin Shields, I'll gladly take this album as a fond reminder to the simpler years.

#19 - VIOLET INDIANA - Casino

Okay, I'm in a big dilemma on this one. Because I've found myself biased towards Violet Indiana, but NOT in a good way. I love the Cocteau Twins. Frankly, I think the Cocteaus have been far more inspirational to the sorts of music I care about than Nirvana or even The Beatles ever were. Violet Indiana is the new project from Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins - a man who I firmly felt to be the coolest guy on the planet. Until this year. This is something I've kept from nearly everyone who knows me until now, because it's mildly embarassing and there's no way I can tell this story without coming across as a jaded journalist. Earlier this year, I contacted Guthrie to get an interview for our site. He consented, and I posed several questions to him via e-mail, with topics ranging from his early days in the Cocteaus to his current work, "Casino." A day later, I got his reply. Which was pretty much 25 very curt answers and a paragraph ripping me to shreds. Apparantly the Cocteau wounds were still a bit raw for Guthrie, as he told me at the end of the interview, "Too many Cocteau questions, not enough Violet Indiana questions" and then proceeded to ignore my many follow-up e-mails trying to clarify some of his answers. I've met and interviewed a lot of proper musicians, and NEVER had I encountered a reaction even remotely like this at an interview. His answers were so short, unenlightening, and ill-willed ("Based on this question, I'm going to assume you've never actually bothered to listen to the new album") that we decided to scrap the entire interview. And not just cause he ripped on me, I'm cool with that, he just had NOTHING interesting to say on anything I asked him. And I swear to you, I didn't want to hold a grudge over this debacle, and I didn't want it to influence my musical taste or opinion of the guy's music, but truth be told, I havent put a Cocteau or Violet Indiana disc on to this day. So I don't really know what to say here. The Violet Indiana album is great. It sounds like a more organic, minimalized Cocteau Twins, but replacing Liz Frasier with a new singer who's kind of your generic torch singer type (it's actually Siobhan from Mono.) And one of these days, I'll grow up and listen to it again.

#18 - TATU - 200 KMH in the Wrong Lane

Okay, must tread lightly here... don't wanna upset the indie masses. If we've established the truth that we're living in a plastic world, occasionally we're going to need to embrace the plasticity and find a niche we like. TATU is one of those niches. Pre-fab pop, yes. Horribly contrived, yes. A giant marketing gimmick, yes. Loads of fun? Yes. And, if you told me right now that I had the ability to fly anywhere in the world and congratulate any one person on any one thing about 2002, I'd go straight to England and shake the hand of Trevor Horn, who produced the debut (and let's face it, likely the ONLY) TATU album. For those that don't know much about this band, they're the world's greatest marketing ploy... EVER. And I'll explain why. TATU are two teenage girls from Russia, both cute as buttons. And they sing catchy songs. And, oh yeah, they make out with each other in their videos. A lot. It's the IDEAL marketing tool, a publicist's wet dream. Here's how all the pieces fall together: (1) They're teenage girls. (2) They're inhumanly cute. (3) They're Russian. (4) They kiss each other in their videos. In the rain, mind you. (5) The music is poppy, but edgy along the lines of Curve/Garbage. This ensures that their appeal will cross between mainstream radio (Garbage) and the indie sect (Curve). (6) The lyrics to every song on the album tell of the emotional difficulties of teenage lesbianism... but are VERY careful never to outright say "Hey, we're teenage lesbians." Barring the kissing videos, people would hear only coyly-worded love songs... ensuring commercial radio play. (7) The girls also side-step the issue in interviews at all costs, thus creating the "are-they-or-aren't-they?" curiosity. "We just like to kiss each other," they say in broken English on the CD-ROM bonus material. (7) They do a Smiths cover, which is always a good thing as far as I'm concerned - and it's "How Soon Is Now," so you can take the "I go about things the wrong way/I am human and I need to be loved/Just like ev'rybody else does" line and apply it to (6) above. (8) The tunes are serious enough to find a fanbase from lesbians and college kids everywhere, poppy enough for high school kids to get into it, and the girls are cute enough for every jocko guy with a boner for 2 teenage lesbians to go buy it. Trevor Horn has made a career out of making QUALITY plastic music - exceptional pop tunes ALWAYS with a gimmick (The Buggles, The Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Seal,) and he's done it again. The guy's crafted a perfectly catchy album that won't leave my CD player while at the same time working within the system to get music fans of ALL breeds to go, "What the..." He is a plastic GOD. Either that or I'm pulling at strings to convince you I like this album for any reason other than I like to see two hot Russian girlies pawing each other.

#17 - JOHN SQUIRE - Time Changes Everything

Man, I'm gonna take SUCH heat for this column. I can see it now. "You're an idiot" will be one of the first 5 comments, mark my words. Let's get one thing straight: John Squire can't sing. Really, really, really can't sing. But... jeez... you HAVE to give a guy credit for trying, and "Time Changes Everything" could be the ballsiest record I've heard all year. Doing something like this takes guts, because even Squire had to know people were either gonna LOVE or HATE his weird Bowie-meets-Nick-Cave-as-produced-by-Kevin-Shields vocal affectations on this record. This is a coming-of-age album like no other. It's one thing to be a successful musician who takes up singing when you start your solo career. It's another thing altogether to purposely try to turn your less-than-stellar singing ability into some sort of EXTRA SPOOKY WEIRD art statement. It takes you aback EVERY time you put it on. But after awhile, you begin to realize... this is actually pretty good. Solid tunes - it's "The Second Coming" without all those mad overzealous Jimmy Page moments. It's the Seahorses without the crap folk aspect. At its heart, it's an organic record pulsing with life - a confident beast of an album that took the entire universe off-guard. And believe it or not, I like it enough to put it in my Top 20.

#16 - OASIS - Heathen Chemistry

I swear I'm not being difficult just to be difficult. There's a guy on our mailing list who gets under my skin a lot because he's got a perpetual habit of defending reeeally crappy pop albums and then acting flabbergasted when people argue with him - it's an obvious ploy for attention and a pretty see-through act of rebellion, and the schtick gets kinda old from time to time. That's NOT what I'm trying to do here. It's just that I'm really in love with a lot of albums this year that most people have spent paragraphs this month proclaiming to be some of the worst records they've ever heard. Get over the Oasis backlash. Even the backlash is getting old now. "Heathen Chemistry" is a top-notch Oasis album - quite possibly their best since "Definitely Maybe." It's a band that absolutely, positively refuses to give up, even though the press and half their fanbase has deserted them. And it's a shame, because half the tunes on this album deserve to be vaulted to "Wonderwall" proportions. Ignore the singles for a second. Let's forget about the Oasis-by-numbers hedonism of "Hindu Times." Let's forget about "Stop Crying Your Heart Out," which is only overlooked as one of Oasis' best uplifting ballads because Oasis have written so damn many great uplifting ballads. Look at the absolutely FANTASTIC album tracks hiding out on this puppy. "She is Love" is quite possibly the catchiest acoustic tune Noel's ever written. "Little By Little" starts as a Floyd clone before flying into quite possibly the most epic chorus Noel's ever written. "(Probably) All in the Mind" is Oasis at their most psychedelic, bolstered by Andy's droning bassline. And then there's "Better Man," which is "Second Coming"-era Stone Roses Brit-blues at its finest. THEN go back and add those singles. And it makes for a fantastic comeback, if people would just stop slagging the band and actually LISTEN to the album for once.

#15 - ORWELL - Following Days

Awww... bless the French. No matter what happens to the state of modern music, there's always some French band, slinging away timeless orchestral pop, keeping the "Pet Sounds" flame burning for generations to come. This year's winner is most certainly the previously unknown Orwell, who come into the picture with a debut record so polite you want to place the disc in your player gingerly so as not to bruise the fragile music inside. Is it anything new? Nope. Just lovely 60's & 70's copycat analogue pop, with a sincerity so genuine you can't help but smile. Imagine the Cardigans first couple of albums done properly. Dreamy yet perfectly refined, you could almost imagine the band running in fear if they ever saw a distortion pedal somewhere in the distance. You strangely feel the urge to drink tea out of something very, very plastic.

#14 - EMINEM - The Eminem Show

Ah, yes, the album where Eminem grew up. That's the line that the press took on it, at least. In a way, I'll buy that. The over-the-top juvenilia of the last couple records was gone. The stuff that's offensive just to be offensive? Gone. And what we had left with was a far more skillful Marshall Mathers. Yes, his flows are still pretty funny in an 8th grade stifled-giggle sort of way, but with "The Eminem Show" came a voice more capable of unbridled rage, fury, and emotion than Kurt Cobain or Johnny Rotten combined. I never thought I'd see the day when I could actually relate to Eminem, but I remember the first time I listened to this record - I was in my car, and I'd keep resetting the CD and playing tracks over and over because I was in sheer disbelief of the level-headed emotion pouring out of my speakers. At the end of the day, whether you love Eminem or want to throw him off a cliff (as I suspect most of the people reading this site do,) you HAVE to admit that the kid has talent. Mysogynist, homophobe... whatever, I don't care - the kid can rhyme. And hey, let's put it this way: I worked for three years at a record store that sold 90% hip-hop... and Eminem's pretty damn tame on the mysogynistic homophobic tip compared to most of the underground shit from Texas that the kiddies used to gobble up week after week. Eminem's taking the heat because he's successful... and because he's white. And he knows it. And it fuels the fire. Many artists in his predicament would have folded this year. Third albums, ESPECIALLY in the world of rap, usually find an artist depleted of creativity and ready to pass the torch. And I THOUGHT that was the case when I heard "Without Me," easily the weakest cut on the record and an obvious throwback to the earlier guaranteed-profit sound of the last record, right down to boring attacks on N'Sync (again) and poor ol' Moby (really, couldn't you have picked an actual MOVING target?) But every Top 40 artist in want of profit has a tendency to put out a crap money-making first single, and I'll ignore "Without Me" when you look at it buried between 60 other minutes of near-genius on the disc. I think we're gonna see a lot more longetivity out of Eminem than most of the other stuff you hear on the radio, and I'll guarantee that his music WILL define this era.

#13 - ELEKIBASS - California
Elekibass Site

Sometimes, if you mold it just right, even plastic can be beautiful. Elekibass are a Japanese indiepop band that sound like the Muppets on ecstacy trying to cover the Beatles. Unintelligibly. And you can't help but love it. Because it's the most enthusiastically poptastic release of the year. I saw Elekibass play one of their first American gigs ever, opening for Of Montreal at Schuba's in Chicago. By now, you all should know that I champion Of Montreal as the harbringers of a new age in perfect music. And that night, Elekibass blew them off the stage. This band waltz out and launch into a 30-minute long lollipop orgasm on stage. It's hard to describe. Imagine the most silly, basic, infectious pop songs you've ever heard, performed by a band jumping up and down, wearing the most joyous "Wow, we're actually playing in America" grins you've ever seen, pulling out cameras and taking pictures from the stage, getting the crowd to sing along to Japanese lyrics... I have NEVER in all my days witnessed a crowd become entirely captivated by an unknown opening band - by the end of their set, the entire crowd and the band were jumping around in unison. It was, quite frankly, cuter than a box of kittens. And the debut Elekibass album captures the vibe PERFECTLY. You don't know what's going on. Their English is so choppy that even the English language songs sound Japanese. All you know is that somewhere, inside your stereo, there's a carnival going on, and you are henceforth required to pogo up and down in your living room without a care in the world. The kitschy culture-shock cuteness of Elekibass can be perfectly summed up by a visit to the band's website, where among the fantastic gems, you can read their English description of a Japanese festival they recently played: "It is over five hours in Long. Going in and out is also free. Niceness whose drunk drink of fatigue is absent. If a belly decreases, a meal is also niceness. It is also niceness to see only a band that it likes. Let us go by a comfortable feeling that is a precious summer vacation." Imagine that as a band.

#12 - ELECTRIC SOFT PARADE - Holes in the Wall

Finally a band comes along that's weaned on MY generation of music. Yes, kids, the 60's and 70's were wonderful places with wonderful music. But I'm so sick of hearing about how so-and-so sounds like the Faces or sounds like the Kinks or sounds like T.Rex (only funny 'cause I'm gonna be making a T. Rex comparison later in this column.) Those bands are all fine and dandy - but I want a band that wears shoegazing and Britpop on its sleeve. And along comes the Electric Soft Parade, who waltz in with an understated album that reeks of everything I loved about British music in the first place, sounding like everyone from Teenage Fanclub to the Boo Radleys to Ride to the Stone Roses to The Verve. And I'm all for it. This could be the debut record of the year. It's honest, it's sure-footed, and it's a comforting cradle of sound in a year that's been dominated by less-than-comforting garage rock.

#11 - DOVES - The Last Broadcast

Man, what a fantastic band. And the odds were against them from moment one. First, they started out as little more than a techno novelty act (Sub Sub.) Then, when they re-emerged as Doves, I immediately thought, "Oooer, lookit the electronica boys trying to capitalize off indie." It wasn't until I heard the first lick of "Lost Souls" that I actually took the band seriously. And it was one triumphant fucking record, taking the Radiohead school of art-rock and blending it perfectly with the then-ostracized neo-shoegazing sound of dreampop. I wondered what would happen when the band reconvened to put out the sophomore release that would become "The Last Broadcast." Would they go in a more arty direction? Or a more simple direction? Or a more mature direction? Turns out they did all three. "Last Broadcast" isn't powered by the layered waves of guitar of "Lost Souls," but rather powered by the band's astounding songwriting instead. And what we get in the end is a gorgeous soundscape that's rife with eclectic turnabouts while still remaining somehow intrinsically Doves all the way. Jimi suddenly seems far more compelling a case study when his lyrics and homespun voice shine out over the guitars and not under them. Not to say that the sonics aren't there, either - I defy anyone to find me a more spine-tingling moment in 2002 than when the chorus first breaks in "There Goes the Fear" and it suddenly sounds as if someone snuck in about five additional speakers into your room and hit the "on" button. Brilliant in scope.

#10 - SIGUR ROS - ( )






#9 - SUNSHINE FIX - Age of the Sun

The Olivia Tremor Control were one hell of a band, and now that they've apparantly split (though no "official" word has been made,) it's starting to become clear exactly what roles the band members played in OTC. Will Cullen-Hart was apparantly the arty one. His post-Olivias efforts as the Circulatory System has shown a work enormous in vision but lacking in tunes. His counterpart in OTC, The Bill Doss, is apparantly the guy with the hooks. TBD's new project, The Sunshine Fix, is the exact opposite of Circulatory System: High on tunes, a bit low on substance. And basically what we get is nothing less than THE pop album of the year. It's Brian Wilson without the baggage. A paeon to sun, fun, and a bit of mysticism here and there, all backed by the perpetually smily-faced psychedelic noodlings that can only come from the Elephant 6 gang. And it's truly refreshing. Not wanting to shortchange Cullen-Hart's work, which I also love, but it's nice to hear the Sunshine Fix apply their knack at Beach Boys-styled harmony vocals and innocent melodies without the burden of heavy-handed concept albums and tracks that sound like the worst nacho-induced nightmares of Tommy Chong -- that mix worked to varying degrees of satisfaction with the Olivias, but with his new project, The Bill Doss finally gets to poke his head of the Cubist Castle and take a gander at the sun.

#8 - FLAMING LIPS - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

The Flaming Lips, meanwhile, have been staring at outer space for quite some time now. How this album works is truly beyond me. I can't even justify it in print. It just.. DOES. It initally sounds hokey as hell - an album that begins with a concept suite about a young girl saving the world from evil pink robots and ends with tracks about time travel and coping with death. But it WORKS. And it works in the kind of special way that only people really tuned into the artistic side of music would understand. If I were to take this record and play it for my mom, she'd start laughing. Because on the outset, yes, it's a bad Japanese cartoon set to music - but if you really take a gander, what the Lips have created is nothing less than the best inspirational album of the year. It's not just about a girl fighting some robots - it's about overcoming... it's about triumph. The first half of the album solidifies the emotional highs of struggle and victory. It's "The Little Engine That Could," but with a tune that you can sing in the shower. The rest of the record hits some pretty heavy moments - "It's Summertime" was written to the family of a Japanese fan of the band who died unexpectedly. The couplet of that track followed by the first single, "Do You Realize," teaches us in only the way the Wayne Coyne can, how precarious life is, and how life should be embraced rather than death be lamented. It's sad yet majestic and loving, and strangely inspiring in tone. The rest of the record focuses on the joy of discovery, the complexities of the universe, and the exultant feeling of self-awakening. With hand puppets. And fake blood. And a gong. We all expect nothing less from the Flaming Lips.

#7 - BADLY DRAWN BOY - Have You Fed the Fish?

So it wasn't a fluke. Damon Gough follows up his astonishing debut record with not one but TWO albums in 2002 - first the stellar soundtrack to "About a Boy," and then this, the proper second album. And "proper" is the key word here, as Gough tries his damnedest to take his otherworldly skills at writing quirky lyrics and jaunting melodies and deliver them straight into the hands of the mainstream - complete with over-the-top production that seems simultaneously unsuited yet oddly perfect for the tracks on this record. See, I used to crave shiny production to music when I was in high school (think: Sting). It wasn't until late in my college years that I finally started understanding and appreciating the more emotional complexities of raw, under-produced music. Then Britpop came along and spit-shined everything back up. Then everything went acoustic and earthy again (isn't it weird how all musical trends are cyclical?) During this "earthy" period, BDB came along with his debut album, full of songwriting that WANTED to be shiny but instead kept the record grounded in simple orchestration and execution - that's what made it so quirky and charming and instantly likeable. Damon Gough was like your artsy friend who always showed up at parties with an acoustic guitar strapped to his shoulder but who turned out to be as gifted at songwriting as some of the posters on your wall. So why shouldn't that friend have a chance at hitting the big time?? That's exactly what "Have You Fed the Fish?" is all about - taking the great songwriting and bolstering it up with some mainstream production. And yeah, it sounds odd at points - mostly because it's hard to imagine this little wool-cap wearing weirdo immersed in strings and brass sections and, well, professional musicians. But what you need to is put this record in perspective - don't compare it in your head to his first album, compare it instead to Elton-Fucking-John, because THAT'S what he's trying to pull off - a full throttle mainstream record suitable for you OR your mum. Yeah, it's wobbly at points, but it still proves that Damon Gough has the balls to take his songwriting to the next level, and for the most part, it works. God bless him for trying.

#6 - ESKIMOS - Something Must Be Transmitted Somehow

So when it was getting time to figure out this year-end list, I did a trick I do every December - I pull out all the CD's I picked up in 2002, find the ones I neglected the most, and throw them all into my 50-disc CD changer in the bedroom. Then I hit "random play" and go to sleep every night for a month listening to all the stuff I should've been listening to the whole year. One night, about the second or third night I was spinning the 2002 collection, I was almost asleep when a track came on that actually made me sit up in bed. "Wow," I thought to myself, "this cut is fucking great." But what WAS it? I sure couldn't place it from the vantage point of my remote control. I took the player off random play and let it play the whole album out. And I stayed up for the whole thing, digging on what was coming out of the speakers - here was an album that was rock and roll without resorting to the New Rock Revolution trademark sound of 2002. An album that seemed equal parts Sonic Youth, T. Rex, Nilsson, and even Pink Floyd. A record by a band that didn't seem to pay attention to music magazines or watch MTV. A record with strange, lo-fi production that actually played into the music almost as much as the music itself - the vocals are detached and floating one song, next track they're up front in the mix like the singer was in the bedroom with me. Not only could I NOT identify the band, I couldn't even guess where they were from - this music was completely devoid of genre-tagging influence. So loose it's hard to put in words what it even sounds like. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I lept up, turned on the light, and frittered with my CD changer until I found the record: and it turned out be this, The Eskimos. A self-produced Athens, GA band (not related to the Elephant 6 clan whatsoever) that was sent to our website for review, and I completely ignored the thing and shelved it without giving it a chance. I apologize now to all concerned, because I almost overlooked one of the most incredible records I've ever heard. Mark my words: someday you'll know this band a lot more than I did a couple weeks ago.

#5 - VERMONT - Calling Albany

The ultimate sleeper album of 2002. I hate emo records and all the faux posturing that goes into them. So when I first heard about a side project from the members of The Promise Ring, I immediately filed it under the "who really gives a rat's arse" pile. But when I actually got round to listening to the Vermont record, I was hooked within 2 songs. This is the raw, acoustic, honest side of emo - a few guys getting together to lay down some fantastic tunes far too subdued and beautiful to create as The Promise Ring. What you initially take as incidental background music quickly draws you in with simple melodies and lyrics that continue to make me grin, 12 months after its release. It's what you've wanted Buffalo Tom to sound like all these years. Genius without pretense.

#4 - 2 MANY DJ'S (aka Soulwax) - As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2

If you can't win over plastic music, why not embrace it, tweak it, and manipulate it into something FAR better? The boys of Soulwax were, to me, THE defining artists of 2002. And this helter-skelter mix disc does more for the art of sampling than DJ Shadow could even begin to accomplish. Where a sampling artist like Shadow excels is taking some bass line or some groove from some obscure, dust-covered record that no mortal on Earth has heard in 20 years - and then converting that sample into an entirely new tune that barely even sounds sampled. Soulwax don't muck about with obscure tracks - they go through your own CD collection, find stuff you were listening to 5 years ago, and throw 'em into a digital blender. Not many people in the general public give a toss about the DJ Shadows of the world - but I've yet to find somebody who doesn't at least muster a grin when they hear Skee-lo thrown against The Breeders. It's the art of MIS-matching, and nobody does it better than Soulwax. This is, hands down, THE ultimate party record of the year, if not possibly EVER.

#3 - THE POLYPHONIC SPREE - The Beginning Stages of The Polyphonic Spree

The most uplifting, optimistic record of the year comes from a fellow who we never thought we'd hear optimism from again. When Tripping Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren died of a drug overdose in 1999, it spelled the end of the Daisy's long strange trip through the annals of psychedelic pop. To hear the band at the time was to hear the voices of the hopeless and gutted. But instead of an unhappy ending, it was the Daisy's demise that spawned the unworldly Polyphonic Spree. Created by Daisy frontman Tim Delaughter (and featuring all other surviving members of Tripping Daisy,) the Spree is the sound of recovery, of hope, and of over-the-top resounding triumph. It's the Flaming Lips as covered by the cast of "Godspell." A full on symphonic explosion with no fewer than 24 members, it's a miracle that the Spree can capture the essence of their live presence on record - but they do. And when the 20-member choir converge on the chorus, "Just follow the day and reach for the sun," it's the first authentic hair-raising moment of 2002.

#2 - OF MONTREAL - Aldhil's Arboretum

The buzz in 2002 on Athen's, GA's greatest pop band was that Of Montreal's fifth proper studio album would be a return to more elemental, grounded music. Errr... nope. While it's true that the band toned back the character studies, dream sequences, and long-winded concept records that tend to be their trademark, what we get with "Aldhil's" is more of what Of Montreal do best: three minute pop gems with more hooks than the legal limit in many regions. Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes has always had the innate ability to craft a legendary pop song about anything from Volkswagons to gauze to water (no, REALLY, he can. Trust me.) But Barnes has always been at his best when he attacks more realistic subject matter, and that's why the new album is one of their best. "Aldhil's" finds the always exuberant Barnes at his old pop tricks - but instead of hearing about fairies and invisible trees, we instead hear about Larry, the band's alcoholic neighbor in the Georgia countryside, bugging them to buy him beer. We learn about Jennifer Louise, the distant cousin who Barnes wouldn't mind hearing from every once in a while. And the record's first track, "Doing Nothing," is about, um, doing nothing. And singing about it. It's refreshingly genuine, it's pop magic, and Of Montreal are my favorite band hands down.

#1 - TURNERJOY - Transplant

So the best album of the year comes from a no-name band from Chicago that none of you have heard of. And I swear to you, I'm not picking Turnerjoy because I want to be the artsy, elitist type that must pick the most obscure band on the planet in a vain attempt to stick my tongue out at the masses and go, "See, I'm cooler than you." I swear that's not the case. Because "Transplant" is a record that ascends all that petty bullshit. Instead, it's a record of passion, of struggle, and of celebration. Celebration that a band, with NO label, NO money, and NO attempts at mega-stardom, can create an album on a scope of Flaming Lips-esque grandeur... on their own (well, and with more than a little help from producer Keith Cleversley (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Spiritualized, etc.)) And their only means of distributing the album are at gigs and via their website (www.turnerjoy.com). With "Transplant," Turnerjoy have proven they have the capability to run with the big boys -- it's just that no one knows it yet. "Transplant" has just as much musical depth as the Radioheads or Sigur Ros' of the world... but the thing that makes Turnerjoy excel is their knack at simply writing a good hook. Radiohead's made a career of making interesting music by twiddling knobs, programming drum machines, and making quite lovely "swish swish" noises that certainly, on some scale, must have some vague symbolic statement on the pointlessness of society. Sigur Ros make bizarre noises so passionately that you don't care that you don't understand the lyrics - they make tunes that could bring you to tears, but for all you know, the song could be about taking a passionate crap on the toilet. Turnerjoy are blessed with the sensibility to take that same passion, that same exuberance for experimental art, and humanize it, which is something I fear Radiohead have taken great strides NOT to do. The songs on "Transplant" aren't just layered guitars and symbolic beeps. Instead, Turnerjoy give us melody... give us passion in the form of catchy tunes that get stuck in your head for days on end. Simple, emotional choruses that creep into your head when you're walking around - "Everyone knows, everyone knows the backslide." And THAT'S precisely what's missing from the upper eschelon of "good" music lately. When was the last time you sang along to something off "Kid A"? When was the last time a Spiritualized chorus made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? WHY must these bands simply try to out-weird one another in the name of art, while the actual tunesmanship of their craft inevitably suffers? Don't get me wrong - I love Spiritualized, I love Radiohead, I love Sigur Ros. But there's a BIG difference between classic noise and a classic SONG. If there's one thing that the Year of Plastic has taught us, it's that a catchy tune can go a reeeally long way, even if there's nothing underneath it to support it (see: Timberlake, Justin.) Turnerjoy have the catchy tunes AND the musicality to support it. I've already posted stories on this band - I've done all I can to get you to listen to them. All I can tell you is that Turnerjoy are my solace from The Year of Plastic, and if you really, honestly care about music as ART, you should check 'em out.