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Norah Jones’ songs, singing and playing effortlessly integrate touches of country, soul, blues, gospel and jazz into a style she clearly owns, even at her young age. It’s as if she’s managed to transport herself and her listeners to some intimate martini lounge in Dreamland. Beguiling.
IN-HOUSE WOULD-BE ROCKCRITS’ CORNER, YEAR-END EDITION
Scoppa, Glickman and Trakin Take a Break From Rewriting Press Releases to Rhapsodize About Some of the Records That Came in the Mail This Year
Disclaimer: The principals reserve the right to endlessly alter the copy below, quite possibly changing their minds altogether in some cases. Keep checking this space for revisions...or better yet, get a life.

ROY TRAKIN
TEN THE HARD WAY

Sure, it was another year of depression in the music industry, but you wouldn’t know it from the music. There was interesting stuff all over the place in different genres, from neo-garage-rock to classic singer-songwriters, from prog-hop to art-rock, and everything in between. And while albums are decreasingly viable as a listening format, they’re still the best way to judge artistic invention. So here goes:

1. Eminem, The Eminem Show (Aftermath/Interscope): Where he goes from here is anybody’s guess, as the world’s best rapper now has to cope with mainstream Hollywood success. Whatever else you say about the guy, his lyrical flow remains unmatched, his social criticism doesn’t exclude himself and he had the two top songs of the year in “Without Me” and “Lose Yourself.”

2. Bright Eyes, Lifted... (Saddle Creek): Conor Oberst isn’t just the next Dylan; even more importantly he’s the next Alex Chilton or Paul Westerberg, as well.

3. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen): A song cycle about loss and resurrection that, like all indelible melodies, insinuates itself into your very being.

4. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (Interscope): An oasis in the heavy metal desert, this heady stoner rock revived an exhausted genre, as did ...Trail of the Dead and, on the punk tip, Andrew WK.

5. Pink, M!ssundaztood (Arista): The female performer of the year, she provided the most unorthodox distaff pop-music role model since Patti Smith.

6. Joey Ramone, Don’t Worry About Me (Sanctuary): A warm farewell from the great beyond that matched George Harrison’s equally luminous Brainwashed as the most touching posthumous release of the year.

7. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (WB): Wayne Coyne’s joie de rock is a beacon of light in an otherwise dark corporate landscape.

8. Suicide, American Supreme (Mute): Contains the single most harrowing post-9/11 song of the year in “Dachau Disney Disco.”

9. Red Hot Chili Peppers, By the Way (WB): No record captured the allure and the angst of the City of Angels better.

10. Bruce Springsteen, The Rising (Columbia): A lotta fans were disappointed, but the record was a noble attempt by a heritage artist to deal with the big issues in a selfless way, and the bottom line is, I didn’t play another record more this year.

RUNNERS-UP
The Hives, Elvis Costello, Doves, Northern State, The Streets, Coldplay, Jurassic 5, Johnny Cash, The Breeders, MC Paul Barman

SONGS
Moby, “We Are All Made of Stars”
Nickelback, “How You Remind Me”
Avril Lavigne, “Complicated”
Pink, “Let Me Be Me”
Sheryl Crow, "Soak Up the Sun"
X-ecutioners, “It’s Going Down”
Nirvana, “You Know You’re Right”
Wilco, "Heavy Metal Drummer"
Badly Drawn Boy, "Something to Talk About"
Andrew WK, "It's Time to Party"

SIMON GLICKMAN

Solomon Burke, Don’t Give Up on Me (Fat Possum): One of the greatest soul singers is at the top of his game in his sixties. Songs by Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Dan Penn and other huge talents sound like instant classics in his capable hands.

Badly Drawn Boy, Have You Fed the Fish? (ArtistDirect): U.K. troubadour Damon Gough released not one but two superb discs in 2002, but this symphonic pop gem edges out the intermittently brilliant About a Boy soundtrack. Some of the best songcraft you’re likely to find anywhere—wry, honest, witty and melodically impeccable.

The Joel Plaskett Emergency, Down at the Khyber (Brobdingnagian): Despite an ungainly name, an obscure indie label and a supremely eclectic style, this Nova Scotian rocker and his trio turned out one of the most satisfying rock records of the year. Recalling the sounds of early Rundgren, Led Zep, Big Star, XTC and the Meat Puppets, among others, Plaskett nonetheless emerges as a true original—and his live show is a knockout.

Aimee Mann, Lost in Space (Superego): Some critics knocked her for simply making “another Aimee Mann record”—as though that weren’t about the most welcome thing to arrive in any year. For trenchant lyrics and indelible tunes, she’s tough to beat.

The Negro Problem, Welcome Black (Smile): L.A. prankster Stew and his crew serve up another combo platter of sparkling soul-pop, Zappa-meets-Bacharach social criticism and just plain weirdness. Highlight: the sweetly grooving “The Teardrop Explodes.”

Beck, Sea Change (Geffen): When I first heard Beck’s new direction, I dismissed it as mope music for cough-syrup junkies. Needless to say, I’ve come around—most of the songs are deeply sad, but they’re deep, for sure. “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Golden Age” are ravishingly beautiful.

OK Go, OK Go (Capitol): Though their PoMo single “Get Over It” was a smart-alecky delight, this band of pop-rocking youngsters proved to be a lot more sophisticated than they first appeared. Witness the Jellyfish-esque “What to Do,” with its rich harmonies and refrain of “mediocre people do exceptional things all the time.”

MysteryPop, MysteryPop (Spanish Kitchen Music): So sue me.

Cody ChesnuTT, The Headphone Masterpiece (Ready! Set! Go!): These tracks have been making the industry rounds for quite a while, but their appearance at retail is an occasion for celebrating. Blessed with a supple soulman’s voice and insanely versatile chops, Cody whips up pimp-a-delic funk, raw-edged rock and ethereal pop with ease. Standouts include the instant classic “Serve This Royalty,” the frisky “Look Good in Leather,” audacious rocker “The Seed” (re-worked on the new album by The Roots) and AOR gem “Six Seconds.”

Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (Blue Note): What more can be said about this jazz-pop thrush's breakout disc? Add to its many musical virtues the fact that this is truly an album, and the spell it weaves doesn’t let up from start to finish. And she makes a Hank Williams song (“Cold, Cold Heart”) her own—no mean feat.

BUD SCOPPA
ALBUMS

1. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen): From reading the reviews, you might conclude that Beck’s latest effort is as challenging as Kid A in terms of its unrelieved lugubriousness. Bunk. What I hear when I play Sea Change is mesmerizing beauty, the combined result of Beck’s melodies and language, some wonderfully sympathetic performances by his supporting cast and the unabashedly lush string charts provided by dad David Campbell, all of it woven elegantly together by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. This record may not be “commercial” in the conventional sense, but it is in fact loaded with the precisely the sort of melodic and thematic resolutions that pop traditionalists refer to as “hooks.” And, as one who venerates Gram Parsons, Big Star, Nick Drake and such epic Rolling Stones ballads as “Moonlight Mile” and “Winter,” Sea Change is just what the doctor ordered. 

1. (tie) Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Nettwerk/Capitol): On its second album, the classy English quartet limits itself to standard noisemaking devices—guitars, bass, drums, piano, organ and strings—while constructing sturdy, straightforward song structures. It’s what the band manages to do with these familiar elements that makes Coldplay—and this album—special. Chris Martin & Co. know how to play the spaces as well as the notes, and they drape their structures with lovely touches, like violins seconding unconventional guitar chordings, McCartneyesque burbling bass accents, ever-intensifying tempos and, of course, Martin’s cognac-toned, empathy-inducing singing. Throughout Rush, dense clusters of sound alternate with seemingly vast open spaces, a motif that is variously explosive (“Politik” the title song), propulsive (“Clocks,” “Daylight”) and soul-stirring (“The Scientist,” “Amsterdam”). I strongly suspect that people will be listening to this modern-day classic two or three decades from now.

3. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): The spooked narrative and claustrophobic music of Wilco’s fourth album tell us that something is broken, or about to break—a psyche, a relationship, a belief system, a heart or two. At first, the album’s roiling torment forms a barrier to conventional appreciation, but over time it leads the listener toward openings in its gnarly, rusted-out surface, revealing a bleak but breathtaking subterranean beauty. At its lacerated core are Jeff Tweedy’s fallen angel’s voice, graceful melodies and withering candor. Once you get inside, you can’t help but believe this guy, to feel what he’s feeling. Easy listening it ain’t, but music this adventurous and arresting doesn’t grow on fake plastic trees.

4. Maroon 5, Songs About Jane (Octone): On this unexpected delight, the former L.A. teenage combo Kara’s Flowers morphs into a booty-shaking blue-eyed soul band featuring the tastiest rhythm guitar since the heyday of the Average White Band. Singer Adam Levine sounds alternately like the Terence Trent Darby of “Wishing Well” and Stevie Wonder circa Talking Book, believe it or not. The debut album, which is positively awash in instant classics—like “This Love,” “Must Get Out,” “Harder to Breathe,” “Sunday Morning,” “Sweetest Goodbye” and “The Sun” (see compilation below), and that’s off the top of my head—is one of 2002’s best under-the-radar albums, along with…

5. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge): Paralleling the filmmaker’s command in the title, the fourth album from the Austin-based revisionist-pop band (c.f., Sloan, Blur) removes the sweetening from the song form, reducing it to its rhythmic essence in a conceptual tour de force that’s also delightfully listenable. Opening track “Small Stakes” contains nothing but click track, electric piano and tambourine under Britt Daniel’s vocal, until trash-can drums enter in its final seconds, setting up a framework of almost binary minimalism in which every sound counts and the drama derives not from a payoff but rather from the constant threat of a payoff. These guys have a remarkably sophisticated sense of time, tone and economy. It’s as if they’d uncovered the DNA of “Lady Madonna” and “Hey Bulldog” and cloned them. The band uses pianos like Ben Folds, playing them like tuned drums. Vocally, Daniel sounds disarmingly like the young George Harrison at times, and the Beatles touches are pervasive, bringing warmth to this exercise in cool. Especially irresistible are “The Way We Get By,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” “Something to Look Forward To” and “Stay Don’t Go,” in which the basic groove is maintained by a looped exhalation.

6. Doves The Last Broadcast (Capitol): The second album from the ambitious Manchester trio has a dual nature, offering thematic coherence and soaring, richly ornamented aural architecture on the one hand, and a nonstop rollout of seductive melodies and extra-base hooks on the other. . In the former regard, the LP comes off as a concept album in the grand tradition, one that seems to trace the aftermath of devastation and anguish, offering solace (“There Goes the Fear”) and the hope of continuity (“N.Y.”). From a purely musical standpoint, meanwhile, Jimi Goodwin and the Williams brothers exhibit a command of songcraft seemingly inspired by the McCartney side of the Beatles—specifically, the Paul of “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be”—in which deceptively simple but remarkably sturdy melodic patterns serve as the backbones of Big Statements. This fully realized album demonstrates that the art of classic album making is alive and well in the MP3 era.

7. Neil Finn One All (Nettwerk): Happily, the second solo album by the former leader of Crowded House displays the agitated romanticism and revved-up musicality of Finn’s beloved former group. Key contributors include returning Crowded House mainstays Tchad Blake (production) and Mitchell Froom (keyboards), along with onetime Prince stalwart Wendy Melvoin (bass, drums), who co-wrote four songs, including the crystalline “Last to Know” and the metaphysical rave-up “Secret God.” One All is an upgraded version of One Nil (released last year in the U.K. and Down Under): The contemplative “Lullaby Requiem” and “Human Kindness” replace two so-so tracks, and a deft resequencing, which showcases the previously buried beauty “Driving Me Mad,” gives the album an elegant flow.

8. Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (Blue Note): Wherein a 21-year-old with an ageless voice purrs her way through a pot luck of vintage covers and jazzy originals written by her accompanists and somehow strikes a chord with the reawakened adult audience. As with the similarly jazz-inflected John Mayer, Jones’ early momentum came purely from word of mouth, with those who discovered her getting an extra perk: the validation of their own taste and discernment. The key to her low-keyed seductiveness is a husky alto reminiscent of the young Carole King circa Tapestry and the eternally cool Peggy Lee. Jones’ songs, singing and playing effortlessly integrate touches of country, soul, blues, gospel and jazz into a style she clearly owns, even at her young age. It’s as if she’s managed to transport herself and her listeners to some intimate martini lounge in Dreamland. Beguiling.

9. Jay Bennett & Edward Burch The Palace at 4am (Part 1) (Undertow): After seeing him put his foot in his mouth so interminably—and terminally—during the central scene of the Wilco documentary feature I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, it’s easy to forget what a talented guy Jay Bennett is. While that band’s 1996 magnum opus Being There remains the most vivid example of Bennett’s talents, this post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outing is a hoot, and it certainly deserves more kudos than the critics have given it. The LP is an explosion of ear candy, starting with the impossibly dense “Puzzle Heart,” in which Bennett’s smoky baritone meshes with new partner Burch’s sweet tenor amid Tijuana brass and Badfinger-like dual slide guitars. At nearly 70 minutes, the LP’s as broad as it is deep—apparently, Bennett had a lot to get off his chest—but catharsis never sounded any more appealing than it does on this delightfully excessive record.

10. Various, I Am Sam (V2): This ambitious soundtrack project—which doubles as the first truly high-profile tackling of the Beatles songbook—amounts to a quest for a rock-era interpretive milieu. A gratifying number of these efforts bear fruit, especially the ones that hew to the original structures (interestingly enough), from bare-bones (Sarah McLachlan's pristine “Blackbird,” Paul Westerberg’s haunted “Nowhere Man”) to filled-out (the Wallflowers' rousing “I'm Looking Through You,” The Vines’ sizzling "I'm Only Sleeping"). The record’s most stunning moment is also its most succinct: Ben Folds’ 1-minute-40-second mini-epic “Golden Slumbers.”

THE 2001 ALBUM WITH THE BIGGEST IMPACT IN 2002
John Mayer, Room for Squares (Aware/Columbia): This kid’s got the whole package: eloquent songs, an expressive voice, rarefied guitar chops, cover-boy looks and personality to burn. Mayer’s stardom is based on substance; in an age of ephemera, he’s a legitimate career artist.

GOT LIVE IF YOU WANT IT
John Mayer & Norah Jones:
There’s no doubt in my mind that Paul McCartney’s generous opening of his remarkable songbook, in league with a terrific young band, provided the year’s most electrifying in-concert experience. But in terms of looking hopefully ahead rasther than fondly backward, the Big Moment came in April, when 24-year-old John Mayer and 22-year-old Norah Jones shared a bill for two sold-out nights at L.A.’s House of Blues. The show seemed very much like a coming-out party for the musical torchbearers of the next generation, and the reverence for the past that both Jones and Mayer exhibited allowed us geezers to feel like we were invited guests as well. The way these two are connecting, I’m reassured that the future of music is in extremely capable hands.

A SUBJECTIVE SOUNDTRACK TO 2002
The Way We Get By
1. Coldplay, “Clocks”:
Bookended by “The Scientist,” and “Daylight,” this propulsive track is at the center of a thrilling 15-minute sequence on Rush that revels in the resonance and versatility of good old-fashioned acoustic piano, which here provides an insistent counterpoint to the unforced emotiveness of Chris Martin’s singing.
2. Spoon, “The Way We Get By”: The piano—pounded by one Eggo Johansen—also plays a foreground role on this wonderfully spare and rhythmic track, which sounds like some lost treasure from the Rubber Soul sessions.
3. The Soundtrack of Our Lives, ”Sister Surround”: On the second track of their U.S. debut on Universal, these Swedes have come up with the best Rolling Stones riff since the Dandy Warhols’ 2000 rouser, “Bohemian Like You.” I defy you to hold still when this baby comes on.
4. Maroon 5, “The Sun”: One of the biggest challenges in concocting this compilation was deciding which Maroon 5 cut to go with. Sinuous and utterly soulful, “The Sun” is just one of, by my count, seven potential hits on the band’s debut elpee.
5. John Mayer, “3x5”: I had to return to this uptempo gem, which is buried on the second half of 2001’s Room for Squares, after witnessing Mayer and band’s captivating performance of it during their Troubadour set in early December. The chorus hook just keeps on going, and going, and going. 
6. Wilco, “Kamera”: Along with the nostalgic “Heavy Metal Drummer, it’s the most straightforward song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but it comes with an anxious undercurrent: “No it’s not o.k.”
7. Beck, “The Golden Age”: This positively mystic evocation of the Stones at their most torn and frayed (see “No Expectations”) also echoes their cosmic L.A. cousins, the Flying Burrito Brothers.
8. Foo Fighters, “Times Like These”: Another way-cool riff drives a track that sounds like turbocharged folk-rock.
9. Coldplay, “Daylight”: I love the propulsive piano, burbling bass riff and spatial atmosphere of this aptly named song.
10. Norah Jones, “Turn Me On”: As an interpretive singer, Jones deserves props for transforming this ballad by country iconoclast John D. Loudermilk into a sultry, and quintessentially female, love song.
11. Doves, “There Goes the Fear”: This seven-minute epic transitions gracefully from Tears to Fears to tribal, but the insistent beat on the 16ths is pure U2.
12. Phil Roy, “Melt”: The arrangement and performance on this track from the This little-known singer/songwriter’s Issues + Options (Ear Pictures) make for a parade of drop-dead transitions in tone and intensity, from Leonard Cohen through Coldplay, before the melody opens up into a gorgeous hook. Impressive popcraft.
13. Taxiride, “This Time”:
The most dramatic track on the young Aussie band’s delightful second album, with Beach Boys flavorings setting off the grandeur of the payoff. I can’t believe they still don’t have a U.S. deal. They’re my favorite domestically unsigned act, along with Matthew Sweet, another artist I have a history with.
14. Sam Phillips, “Maybe Next Week”: A 20-second cue from the soundtrack to TV series The Gilmore Girls that feels more complete than a lot of radio hits.
15. Mackenzie BC, “The Great Escape”: I count myself fortunate to have a burned a hard-to-come-by advance copy of the self-titled Epic debut from Canadian one-man band James Renald, cuz it won’t be coming out until 2003. But if you’re a smart-pop fan, remember the name of the band, because this record brilliantly revisits 1970s California pop in all its melody-rich, closely harmonized glory. On this one, there are even two hooks in the chorus.
16. Spoon, “Something to Look Forward To”: If there’s a 2002 recording in which every note, and every space, is essential, it’s Kill the Moonlight—and this cut, which weighs in at a svelte 2:15, crystallizes the concept.
17. The Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize?”: A startling juxtaposition of melodic beauty and thematic candor: “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?”
18. Beck, “Round the Bend”: Lush and hushed, with a shimmering string arrangement from Beck’s dad, David Campbell. See, we’re building toward a big finish here.
19. Coldplay, “The Scientist”: Chris Martin seems to have no problem revealing his appreciation for Paul McCartney on this piano ballad/anthem whose gradual build from spare to symphonic resembles that of“Let It Be.” So restrained, but what a finish.
20. George Harrison, “Marwa Blues”: It doesn’t get any more bittersweet than this extraordinary instrumental, which is built around a positively metaphysical slide guitar line from the Quiet Beatle. Whoa.

TEN GOOD REASONS TO MAKE A VOL. 2
Cornershop, “Lessons Learned From Rocky 1 to Rocky 3”: Imagine Jesus of Cool-era Nick Lowe fronting Bachman-Turner Overdrive. At his best, Tjinder Singh is nothing short of sublime. Like the man says, motion the 11.
Moby, “We Are All Made of Stars”:
On this self-sung slice of mystic pizza, the Eno acolyte is unequivocally Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy
Neil Finn, “Driving Me Mad”: A lovely, exotic song describing a duel with desire, revisiting the treacherous terrain of the Crowded House classic “Into Temptation.”
The Hives, “Hate to Say I Told You So”: Does for the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” what Van Halen did for “You Really Got Me.”
 Rhett Miller, “Come Around”: It’s hard to choose between this midtempo gem with its big melodic hook and Miller’s wry “This Is What I Do.”
Aimee Mann, “This Is How It Goes”: In which the Mistress of Melodic Melancholy unexpectedly channels Karen Carpenter in the chorus, and it turns out to make all kinds of sense.
Jay Bennett & Edward Burch, “C.T.M.”:
This springy rocker wonderfully evokes Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers circa 1978.
Tom Waits, “Alice”: The return of midcentury West Coast cool, with a vocal as gravel-free as anything he’s done since he was on Asylum back in the day.
Ryan Adams, “Dear Chicago”: In which the terminally romantic Ryan tortures himself with vividly recalled details of a special weekend that can never be relived.
James Taylor, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: I mean, come on—if this doesn’t turn you into a sentimental fool, nothin’ will. God bless America.

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