The Ties That Bind

Listmaking, especially the year-end variety, lends itself to the careful selection of absolute favorites--picking which albums and singles best articulated a certain idea, emotion, joke or sensation. But 2002, like the past couple of years before it, didn't yield such easy victors; filesharing, cheap technology and the increased intermingling of neatly delineated genres (their name is N.E.R.D., and they are funky) combined to produce a field filled with face-offs, one with better-informed listeners and more ambitious artists. Here, in no particular order, are the ties that made the race worth it.

Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)
Doves, The Last Broadcast (Capitol)

The four hilariously dressed New York City twerps in Interpol made an admirable run at revivifying gloomy English post-punk on their handsome debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, a dense slice of slashing guitars and urban ennui that every hilariously dressed urban hipster heard as the 21st-century reincarnation of Joy Division. Fair enough, but Doves, a trio sprung from the same fertile Manchester scene as JD, got just as close at conjuring that band's queasy warm/cool tension on its sparkling second album, The Last Broadcast--and did it without silly hairdos.

Eminem, The Eminem Show (Interscope)
The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice)

So white men can bump. Eminem and the Streets' Mike Skinner spoke in voices many didn't want to hear, and they did it louder than many thought possible. The moral? You lose yourself, then you find yourself again.

OK Go, OK Go (Capitol)
Andrew W.K., I Get Wet (Island Def Jam)

OK Go's way overproduced power-pop and Andrew W.K.'s way, way overproduced disco-metal resonated in 2002 differently than they would have in 2001: "Get over it," OK Go front man Damian Kulash yowled; "It's time to party," Herr W.K. agreed. With bad news on CNN and guitars as big as a house on CD, giving in occasionally spelled relief.

Zero 7, Simple Things (Palm Pictures)
Röyksopp, Melody A.M. (Astralwerks)

U.K. future-soul outfit Zero 7's Simple Things actually reached American stores in June 2001, but the album really hit it big last year, spreading its easy charm among buttoned-down public-radio types and slicked-up club-hoppers alike. Röyksopp, a cuddly Scandinavian duo from the same small Norwegian town as the Kings of Convenience, offered a similar brand of cumulus-cloud luxury on the dreamy Melody A.M. A different escape from OK/W.K.'s, but just as necessary.

Hem, Rabbit Songs (Bar/None)
Lambchop, Is a Woman (Merge)

For indie rockers with screaming toddlers and a thing for rustic sounds, New York's Hem and Nashville's Lambchop provided the year's best alt-country lullabies--gorgeously drowsy tone poems on sailboats and sleeping dogs. And the casual pleasures in watching them.

Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop)
Hot Hot Heat, Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop)

In 2001 Sub Pop issued Oh, Inverted World, the peculiar Albuquerque pop band the Shins' strange, sweet debut LP, simultaneously ending the venerable Seattle indie's grunge-rock holding pattern and beginning a new life as a dependable source of off-kilter, idiosyncratic guitar music. The Creek Drank the Cradle, bearded Floridian Samuel Beam's impossibly winsome bow as Iron & Wine, and manic Canadian new-wavers Hot Hot Heat's jumpy Make Up the Breakdown kept the winning streak running. HHH's subsequent jump to Warner Bros. stole some resurgent thunder, but the label's 2003 schedule, including a nifty February release from Death Cab for Cutie side project the Postal Service, looks promising.

DJ Shadow, The Private Press (MCA)
Jazzanova, In Between (Ropeadope)

Expansive, evocative aural fabrics woven from tiny sonic threads, The Private Press and In Between went ahead and took sampling to the next level, utilizing spectacular craft as the anti-spectacle: a means to an end.

Missy Elliott, Under Construction (Elektra)
TLC, 3D (Arista)

These hip-hop survivors prized technique, too, applying the cutting edge of crunked-out hip-hop to seriously broken hearts, picking up the pieces of yesterday with today's tools. They worked it, they girl talked, they just kept on going.

Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge)
Clinic, Walking With Thee (Domino)

The Strokes reminded an American mainstream out of touch with scrappy guitar rock just how universal that sound can be--everyone likes hanging out in smoky bars, right? In 2002, though, Austin smartasses Spoon and English eccentrics Clinic reclaimed the minimalist buzz for the micro-niche, riffing on post-grad dissatisfaction, celebrating the tight circle and wondering about the fiction in science fiction. Small stakes, big rewards.

Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (MCA)
Common, Electric Circus (MCA)

What to do between OutKast albums? Get lost in these wildly colored, imaginatively rendered trips through hip-hop psychedelia. Bay Area duo Blackalicious went widescreen on its major-label debut, calling in favors from Gil Scott-Heron and Harry Nilsson, while Common got stone free on Electric Circus with help from Stereolab and Zap Mama. Andre 3000 and Big Boi finally have some company.