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2002 top albums

May 14, 2012

Best albums of the year
Herald & Review (Decatur, IL) – Friday, February 7, 2003
Author: Tim Cain
Betters late than never

Normally, stories containing a writer’s selections for the best music releases of a year come at the end of the year. This list is normally delayed a lit to give me time to get through Christmas gifts and yearend purchases.

Sometimes, it’s a struggle to find 10 albums to put on the list. This time, releases had to be whittled to keep it to 20. Was 2002 a great year for music? Probably not. But it was very good, and very consistent.

Except for Pink.

1. The Vines, ‘Highly Evolved’

A fascinating combination of Nirvana and The Kinks, with a great sense of melody (“Mary Jane” is a hit in an alternate universe) and a great sense of anger (you may not understand what he’s screaming about on “Get Free,” but it’s difficult to avoid being infected by the song).

Much better on record than they are live. A performance in Urbana’s Foellinger Auditorium was one of the most dismal in history, prompting the observation, “You guys think you’re bored? You ought to be sitting in the audience watching yourself.”

The album is good enough to rise above that.

2. Aimee Mann, ‘Lost In Space’

Mann is one of the great pop music performers on the planet right now, a flawless lyricist with a wonderful sense of melody. The only area where “Lost in Space” suffers in comparison with her earlier work (which includes “I’m With Stupid,” my 1996 album of the year, and “Bachelor No. 2,” third on my 2000 list) is the tunes aren’t quite as upbeat. All that means is it takes more time for their beauty to wash over you.

3. Eels, ‘Souljacker’

This rocking effort divided fans of the band, alienating those who prefer leader E when he writes his fragile, pretty love (and death) songs. To me, this sounds like Beck-meets-T. Rex, which isn’t a bad thing. “Souljacker” is one of those albums that sounds like something you’ve heard before, yet with an original twist.

4. NERD, ‘In Search Of …’

You may not know the name, but you know their work if you’ve listened to the radio this century. As The Neptunes, they’ve produced Jay-Z, Mystikal, Backstreet Boys, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Usher, ‘NSync, Britney Spears and Nelly. While fans of those artists will find plenty to like here, the band often turns down the beats and turns up the rhythm guitars and leans more on some of its unexpected influences: America, Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. The unanticipated hybrid results in an amazing album . “Provider” should be required listening.

5. Drive By Truckers, ‘Southern Rock Opera’

OK, here’s the deal. It’s a two-CD set, and it’s a song cycle if not an opera of sorts. The first disc is about growing up in the South and includes a couple of songs where Pat

terson Hood talks – not “raps” but TALKS – over the backing track. The second disc is about Lynyrd Skynyrd. (One of the last songs on the second disc is titled “Shut Up and Get On the Plane,” and the chorus of the song adds what part of the anatomy is supposed to get on the plane.) Just explaining what it’s all about feels ridiculous, but it works. If the 1970s Southern bands were your thing, these guys update the sound while retaining the soul of the originals. And those spoken-word songs? They’re a couple of the most striking things in the set.

6. Oasis, ‘Heathen Chemistry’

After two brilliant albums (“Definitely Maybe” and “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory”) at the start of their career, Oasis fell out of favor with the hipsters as their personal issues became a bigger concern than their music. While they never deserved that “next Beatles” tag they had for a while, Oasis was always a good rock band, and this is a good rock album .

7. Oohs, ‘Saturday Morning Dream’

Wings, Queen, Electric Light Orchestra – are these guys stuck in 1976? Well, if they are, there are worse places and ways to be stuck. “Saturday Morning Dream” is probably the most accessible album on the list, the one with the songs that would be most at home on all formats of radio. The only curse suffered by this Springfield-based quartet? They were born 20 years too late.

8. Nelly, ‘Nellyville’

Nelly was blasted by some critics for essentially repeating the “Country Grammar” formula. But it again sold millions of CDs, and not without merit. As opposed to many of his hip-hop cousins, Nelly relies on melody as much as beat. “Hot In Herre” was the best song of the summer.

9. Steve Earle, ‘Jerusalem’

As close to a protest album as this roots rocker will probably ever release, Earle angered some with “John Walker’s Blues,” a semi-empathetic song about the American Taliban member. But that’s not even the best song on the disc. That honor goes to “Ashes to Ashes,” which kicks things off with a growl and a screaming guitar, and that’s closely followed by the title track, which hopes for a peaceful world.

10. Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’

The angle that many of these songs were written in response to Sept. 11 is nice, but if the music doesn’t deliver, all you’ve got is this year’s Live Aid – good intentions, something fun to be a part of, but nothing you go back to. And while my ears close when he starts grunting about “Mary’s Place,” the simple fact is this is stylistically the most varied album Springsteen has ever done, and it’s his best since “Tunnel of Love,” the album that anticipated the personal tragedy of the end of his first marriage. As basic as it is, “Empty Sky” is a gorgeous Sept. 11 tribute song.

11. Avril Lavigne, ‘Let Go’

OK, so she owes so much to Pink and Alanis Morissette and Jewel that maybe she should be paying them royalties. The humorous part is her effort outshines all of their most recent attempts. Maybe it’s the relief of hearing a teenager singing over something besides computerized dance beats.

12. Soft Boys, ‘Nextdoorland’

It’s a really good Soft Boys album , which is saying a lot, given that it could have been a disaster. In 1980, Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberley Rew (later of Katrina and the Waves) and friends recorded “Underwater Moonlight,” one of the greatest and most influential albums ever made. (R.E.M. worshipped Hitchcock and The Soft Boys, and The Replacements drew on the band’s work). Twenty-one years after its breakup, The Soft Boys reunited and recorded more irresistible melodies, dual guitar attacks and unexpected harmonies. It’s no “Underwater Moonlight,” but it better than Pink.

13. Marina V, ‘Something of My Own’

The title track by itself is so frighteningly entrancing, the rest of the disc could be blank and still make this list. Fortunately, there’s much more, including some whimsy mixed in with the ballads, and the Russian-language version of the title song. The Illinois College graduate, now based in Los Angeles, continues to grow as a songwriter. She’s overdue for her break.

14. Spock’s Beard, ‘Snow’

One of the most ambitious progressive rock albums in years, this double-disc set tells the story of a teen-turned-rock messiah. Fans of early Rush, early Yes and Dream Theatre will gobble this up as the quintet shows off plenty of chops and since-departed lead singer Neal Morse stretches his vocal cords. The band has been building toward this since its 1994 debut, and it’s a fitting swan song to their first incarnation.

15. ‘Tenacious D’

If it’s not the funniest rock record ever made, it’s close. Jack Black barely controls his trademark mania – this album is like an hour’s worth of his entrance scene in “High Fidelity.” Kyle Gass provides some tasty guitar licks. If you’re not listening to the words, it’s a solid album . But if you’re not listening to the words, you’re missing much of the fun.

16. Foo Fighters, ‘One by One’

Foo Fighters may be the most consistent act in music right now. Every 18 months or so, they release a melodic, driving hard rock album , with hardly a clunker in earshot. This may be their best since their 1995 debut. Frontman Dave Grohl may have been the hardest working man in rock this year (with the exception of The Neptunes) – he also drummed on the Queens of the Stone Age’s album . Hard-to-believe factoid: Foo Fighters have now been a national recording act for a longer time than Grohl’s previous band, Nirvana, was.

17. Dixie Chicks, ‘Home’

They returned to their bluegrass roots, a gutty move that could potentially have alienated the millions of fans they made with their last two albums . They throw out a Stevie Nicks cover (“Landslide”) as a bone for the pop fans, but the fiddles and tight harmonies make this more of a mainstream bluegrass album . And with the exception of The Oohs, theirs may be the tightest harmonies of any band on this list.

18. George Harrison, ‘Brainwashed’

He battled throat cancer through the late 1990s, was almost stabbed to death by a deranged house intruder in 1999 and in 2001 was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.

Despite all that, warmth and humor and ukuleles shine through on this disc, which kept making its way back into my player. Would this album make my list if it were by anyone but a former Beatle? Probably not. But it’s impossible to listen to this without grinning. The man clearly found peace with himself and the world in his final years.

19. Elvis Costello, ‘When I Was Cruel’

It’s been more than 10 years since Elvis Costello’s name was attached to an album this good. The unfortunate thing is many of the fans who might have been interested in this now may have jumped off the Costello bandwagon years ago. He’s less consumed with anger, guilt and revenge now, and he doesn’t spit out the lyrics the way he did 25 years ago. Now, it’s a sinister, spooky, creepy sound, one fitting for evenings.

20. Sheryl Crow, ‘Come On Come On’

Sheryl Crow just puts out good albums . She’ll go in and out of favor, but her songwriting ability (if not her lyrics) seems destined to remain consistent. If this is downgraded at all, it’s because with the exception of “Soak Up the Sun” and “Steve McQueen,” it’s not as memorable as previous efforts and is a little too caught up in feeling good to be consequential.

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