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These are albums favored by, in the present case, extremely neurotic middle-aged white men. Of course, they also appeal to a much broader audience, but if you’re wondering where this year’s crop of top hip-hop is in this particular picture, there’s
your answer.
ON RECORDS: SIX FOR YOUR HOLIDAY CD CHANGER
Some of the Year's Best Records Sound Even Better After a Few Eggnogs
by Lenny Beer & Jon O'Hara

’Tis the season—and that season needs a soundtrack. Accordingly, we’re recommending six of 2002’s best albums to consider for holiday listening. The holidays usually allow us more time for unfettered, agenda-free listening than other parts of the year, and we, your humble HITS losers, make these suggestions to our reader in the spirit of the season—we’re talking music for your car CD changer, while driving through your local winter wonderland; for quiet reflection in front of a Yule log; or for just inspiring all-around good cheer. After this year, everyone could use some of that.

Admittedly, this short list is highly biased and adult-leaning. But consider the source: These are albums favored by, in the present case, extremely neurotic middle-aged white men. Of course, they also appeal to a much broader audience, but if you’re wondering where this year’s crop of top hip-hop is in this particular picture—from the positivity of The Roots and Speech to the huge talents of top-sellers Eminem, Nelly, Jay-Z and Missy Elliott or the underground simmer of the J. Davis Trio—there’s your answer. Frankly, we’re not fit to judge it on its merits.

Speaking of which, these choices have nothing to do with commercial success, though some of them have done remarkably well this year. It’s the extraordinary quality of the music that’s the hook here. And before you call for the hook, here they are, in no particular order:

Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (Blue Note): As expected, this strikingly refined debut (thank you, Arif Mardin) has become a sleeper hit. But regardless of the public’s embrace, Jones’ unique approach is a winner: She’s neither jazz nor country, but it’s the decided jazz and country influences informing every nuance that make her record so special. And her supple, sultry voice is transporting—even if your heart isn’t drenched in wine. Listen again, listen often. Her spell continues to grow.

Solomon Burke, Don’t Give Up on Me (Fat Possum): The 66-year-old King of Rock & Soul is back. This has been called the R&B album of the year, and who could argue? It’s real soul music made by a real master, and written by a host of star admirers, including Van Morrison, producer Joe Henry, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. The title track’s a study in elegant vocal emotion, and damn, does it feel nice.

James Taylor, October Road (Columbia): This is his second album post-Don Grolnick and his first since ’97’s Grammy-winning Hourglass. Taylor is reunited with venerable producer Russ Titelman (In the Pocket), and the Martha’s Vineyard master of mellow acquits himself nobly on an album that gets warmer and catchier with multiple listens. As late-career reflections go, this is the stuff: the warm, familiar voice, gentle acoustic guitar and beautifully spare arrangements. Don’t miss his “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

George Harrison, Brainwashed (Dark Horse/Capitol): The Quiet Beatle is gone, but we are the fortunate recipients of his final gift to his fans: a serene document of his preparation for, and acceptance of, his passing from this world. Absent the grave circumstances, George’s inimitable ethos, plus the efforts of son Dhani, Jeff Lynne and Jim Keltner, would still add up to a joyously grooving meditation. History’s first (and most) enlightened rock star brings possibly his finest guitar work to this farewell effort.

Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol): A giant step beyond debut Parachutes, this hugely atmospheric, hypnotically melodic undertaking is a wonderful sonic companion—either in your solitude or with a friend or two. While outwardly melancholy at times (as with the sublime, evocative “The Scientist” or the more tense “Politik”), this album’s beautiful reverence for the tune is ultimately nothing but reassuring, and that’s a good thing. Open your eyes—and your ears.

The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (V2): Garage nouveau’s minimalist duo makes a joyful noise using a wide variety of vintage American musical ideas, but through it all there’s no mistaking it’s still Detroit Rock City—as anyone who saw them do “Fell in Love with a Girl” on the MTV awards will attest. Of this year’s albums from “The” bands, including The Strokes, The Vines and The Hives, this one stuck with us the most. If you’re nice to V2, they might let you hear some of the impressive new one before the year’s up.

Wildcard: We’ve picked the above six to fill up your changer, but we also believe one should always keep a Louis Armstrong record in rotation. So if any of the above don’t do it for you, put on some Satchmo—The Hot Fives & Sevens on Columbia/ Legacy, for example. Nothing beats hearing the greatest pioneering jazz improviser rip it up while leading his first small groups. And you don’t have to be Ken Burns to appreciate that.

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