11. Sparta Wiretap Scars (Dreamworks) – From the ashes of the most promising band of the last 10 years – At the Drive In – rises Sparta. The disgruntled rhythm section quickly moved on after the group announced their “hiatus” in March of 2001. For the most part, the mind-blowing aggression of the former band has been toned down to a mellower, more melodic sound. But former guitarist, now vocalist/guitarist Jim Ward’s gravelly growl keeps the edge intact. With super-taut energy and unique songwriting, they show that the guys in the shadow of the limelight have plenty to offer too. It’s not the same as the original, but it’s way better than most of the heavy rock out there.
12. Ours Precious (Dreamworks) – On their second album, Jimmy Gnecco and company have found their own identity. You couldn’t help but feel that their debut was second-rate Jeff Buckley and Radiohead, particularly with Gnecco’s wails sounding so hauntingly similar. But they’ve blasted into a rawer, heavier
direction with a handful of both rockin’ and gorgeous gems. Now Radiohead should borrow a lot from them.
13. Queens of the Stone Age Songs for the Deaf (Interscope) –
With their anti-commercial-radio concept album, Queens of the Stone Age touch a nerve with all real rock fans. One listen to their stoner blues rock, and you’ll long for the time when the gods of the 60s and 70s dominated the airwaves. Even though they were the “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” (and into the fall), this is hopefully just the tip of the iceberg for them. The lead single “No One Knows” is
undoubtedly amazing. After that, though, there are few standouts, just a steady flow of good ones.
14. R. Kelly and Jay-Z The Best of Both Worlds (Jive/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) – This is 2002’s forgotten album. With the high-profile status of both artists in their respective genres, R. Kelly (r&b) and Jay-Z (hip hop), this had the potential to be one of the year’s top-selling albums – especially since it has an
abundance of radio-ready hits. But those singles never made it to radio or video outlets, because the R. Kelly sex scandal broke six weeks before the release date. All promotional efforts were withdrawn, and the all-star collaboration was swept aside as a taboo subject. In light of Kelly’s troubles, the sexual boasting and pleading does feel extra dirty. But the excellent production and smooth interplay between crooning and rhyming makes this a trailblazing effort. It’s a macho pimpfest that’s consistent and fun.
15. India.Arie Voyage to India (Universal) – Acoustic Soul, India.Arie’s debut album title, is still the most accurate way to describe the music of her follow-up. Glossy, digital r&b rhythms are balanced by organic guitar melodies, and the resulting sound is relatively uncharted musical territory. Her themes of honesty, communication, love and temperance may feel a bit sappy to some, but the richness of the delivery is captivating. After Jill Scott, she has solidified her spot
as the strongest and most unique voice of neo-soul.
16. South From Here On In (Kinetic) – The multi-instrumentalists of South take their electronic/dance backgrounds and make elegant, mood rock. Though
bands like The Verve, Radiohead, Coldplay and Doves have covered similar ground, they carve out their own niche. More gentle than their dark and dreary contemporaries, they grab you with one memorable melody after the next. Despite the effortless feeling of the music, though, this is still a challenging listen. Staying true to their dance roots, they regularly delve into lengthy instrumental breaks. Stick with it, though, the rewards are plentiful.
17. Jean Grae Attack of the Attacking Things (Third Earth) – With Lauryn Hill sitting things out in the rap game for the last 4 years, she’s left room for a new socially conscious, feminist voice to emerge. That strong, and more foul-mouthed, voice belongs to Jean Grae. Though a veteran of the hip hop underground as a member of the short-lived group Natural Resource and as a
collaborator with artists like Masta Ace, Mr. Len and Herbaliser, this is her coming out party. Her lyrical dexterity is phenomenal as she advocates empowerment of the underprivileged. The only drawback to her gritty style is the overriding somber tone and lack of hooks. Attack of the Attacking Things is rarely a fun listen, it’s a
thought-provoking one. Jean Grae has tremendous promise, hopefully there is much more to come.
18. Granfaloon Bus Exploded View (Future Farmer) – A thread of hopelessness runs throughout Exploded View. Tales of drinking to get drunk, drunk driving, loss due to drinking and general pain and despair are told in a variety of country-tinged ways. A few songs rock happily, but most take on a more pensive, mid-to-slow tempo as pedal steel and slide guitar gently whine, wail and moan. Regardless of the delivery, each song offers compelling lyrics,
arrangements and melodies. Wilco fans take note: Granfaloon Bus released the better alternative country album this year.
19. Desaparecidos Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek) –
As if Conor Oberst didn’t have enough ways to get out his frustrations with Bright Eyes, his other band Desaparecidos gives him a more aggressive forum to vent. Driven by angry guitars and furious vocals, he shudders and howls about American materialism and consumerism, marriage, money and society. For those who find Bright Eyes a little daunting, this quick-hitting group of snappy blasts delivers immediately. The only drawback is that it’s so short. At 31 minutes total, it leaves you wanting more.
20. Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch) – The creative dispute over this album led to Jeff Tweedy buying back the studio tapes and leaving Reprise Records. If it’s true the label thought there was a lack of commercial singles on the album, they must have slept through obvious hits like roots rocker “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” playful pop ditty “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and one of the year’s
best songs, the Eagles-esque “Jesus Etc.” They could have easily marketed those to mass audiences and made plenty of money off of their investment. Whoops! But, if their real problem was confusion by the experimental, electronic direction the band took, then they’ve got a hell of a point. Random noise bursts and avant-garde sound collages are forced into their mix of pain-soaked meditations and jangly head-bobbers. Artists like Beck and Radiohead were able
to take a similar approach and spin it into gold, but here it just muddles Tweedy’s excellent songwriting. The strength of the songs usually shines through, but the unnecessary excesses often make it challenging.