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Don't Call It a Comeback 

Critics say 2002 was the year that rock returned. But did it ever really go anywhere?

Four years ago, Marilyn Manson declared in song that rock was dead. Three years before that, Lenny Kravitz did the same. During the preceding decade, the sentiment was voiced a thousand times over, by punks and popsters alike. It's a common complaint, one that apparently was remedied this year, when most media pundits annointed 2002 the year rock was reborn.

Don't believe the hype. Sure, rock may have faded from the mainstream in the late '90s, as teen pop and hip-hop assumed chart dominance. But this hardly hurt the form. Far from it, in fact; it was in a thriving independent scene that bands like the White Stripes and the Hives -- two of 2002's hottest breakout acts -- developed their sound and began to cultivate an audience. So what if the past year has seen a bevy of "the" bands -- the Strokes, the Vines -- bring the garage to the mall? In two years, the Hives have sold fewer than half as many records as Shania Twain's latest did -- in its first week of release. The point is that music fans are always going to have to do a little digging to find the diamonds in the dungheap. This doesn't mean that rock -- or any other genre temporarily out of the public eye -- is bankrupt; just that sometimes good music falls outside the spotlight. Take a look at some of our favorite records of 2002, and see what we mean.

Jason Bracelin

1. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope): Not since Thom Yorke punished his Pentium has artifice sounded so affecting.

2. . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes (Interscope): Unabashedly pretentious art rock that uses your nuts for a speedbag.

3. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge): A new bag of pot is the way to Britt Daniel's heart. This is the way to ours.

4. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (Interscope): An album that does for Miracle Ear what breast implants once did for Pamela Anderson.

5. Korn, Untouchables (Epic/Immortal): So what if Jonathan Davis's pants size bests his IQ? Perhaps only Pantera has had a more profound impact on modern metal in the last decade than this bunch. Go ahead, longhairs, get fucking hostile -- it's the truth.

6. The Catheters, Static Delusions and Stone-Still Days (Sub Pop): As hard on the ears as their namesake is on the plumbing.

7. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol): The first record from these effeminate Brits that doesn't have to sit down to pee.

8. Nile, In Their Darkened Shrines (Relapse): Full-on mummy metal that's like Raiders of the Lost Ark with Marshall stacks.

9. Down, II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow (Elektra): The only thing missing from this reefer-rock masterwork is the number for Domino's.

10. David Cross, Shut Up You Fucking Baby (Sub Pop): Yeah, it's a comedy CD. Got a problem with that? See the title.

Michael Gallucci

1. Elvis Costello, When I Was Cruel (Island): Nostalgic in tone (the lyrics and music give a nod to his Angry Young Man past), primeval all around.

2. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): The backstory is great drama. The music is even greater drama. Surreal, haunting, and challenging -- unconventional tunes for unconventional times.

3. Bruce Springsteen, The Rising (Columbia): September 11-centric without being patriotic, The Rising is about loss, coping, faith, and healing. Though overlong by at least three songs, it's Springsteen's most human work.

4. Solomon Burke, Don't Give Up on Me (Fat Possum): The R&B vet covers and channels Tom Waits, Elvis C., and Dylan to make the best album of his life.

5. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol): Moody Brits get anthemic on their second album, swirling, twirling, and writing Big Songs about Big Issues (like love and stuff).

6. Cee-Lo, Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections (Arista): The Goodie Mob founder makes a record that's part OutKast, part Otis, and all funk.

7. Cassandra Wilson, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note): Wilson's jazzy take on Delta blues is warm, rustic, and just a little bit melancholy.

8. Eminem, The Eminem Show (Aftermath): In which Slim cleans out his closet, says hello to Hollywood, and generally causes the same old commotion. Funny, scary, potent.

9. Moby, 18 (V2): Not just a rePlay, but an extension of that groundbreaking disc, with scratchy old soul records replacing scratchy old blues records.

10. Starsailor, Love Is Here (Capitol): The overwrought, megasensitive U.K. quartet sings stuff like "I need to be alone while I suffer." We forgive. The music and voice elevate Britpop from its emotional wasteland.

Dave Segal

1. Akufen, My Way (Force Inc.): Montreal "microsampler" Marc Leclair rewrites the tech-house blueprint, fast-forwarding dance music into a surreal new chapter.

2. Alias, The Other Side of the Looking Glass (Anticon); Boom Bip, Seed to Sun (Lex); Themselves, The No Music (Anticon): Hip-hop goes to grad school, gets moody and oblique, fills your head with rad abstract verse while still making it bob.

3. Black Dice, Beaches & Canyons (DFA): More a force of nature than a band, these New Yorkers use raw analog electronics and rock's usual arsenal to concoct music that's both terrifyingly abrasive and serenely beautiful.

4. Blevin Blectum, Talon Slalom (Deluxe): Oakland-via-Oberlin College lass fellates your funny bone and blows your mind with demented laptop pop and acid-trip experimentation.

5. Boards of Canada, Geogaddi (Warp): An even darker, druggier delving into downtempo IDM from the Scottish duo who've inspired roughly 121 imitators since 1998's Music Has the Right to Children.

6. Frank Bretschneider & Taylor Deupree, Balance (Mille Plateaux): Forget the disappointing Clicks & Cuts 3 -- you need Balance for the year's brainiest bytes of minimal electronic music.

7. Electrelane, Rock It to the Moon (Mr. Lady): Four Englishwomen burn rubber down the Autobahn with fiery Farfisa organ runs and pedal-to-the-metal guitars.

8. The Liars, They Threw Us All In a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Mute): Sure, "rock is back," and it's wearing its angular, raucous Gang of Fourisms on its tattered sleeve. That's entertainment!

9. Super_Collider, Raw Digits (Rise Robots Rise): The strangest way to get your groove on, ever: R&B and funk from Hell's ninth circle -- but sexy!

10. Susumu Yokota, The Boy and the Tree (Leaf): Philip Glass and Radiohead dig Yokota's deeply spiritual odyssey into gamelan and trance-inducing minimalism; you should, too.

Franklin Soults

1. Mekons, OOOH! (Quarterstick): At a time when the world's longstanding sociopolitical fissures are widening, Britain's grizzled alt-country anarchists head through the fire holding hands, accompanied by the ghost of the Band playing "Across the Great Divide" with futile fury.

2. Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars): Our greatest rock band's most idiosyncratic yet widest-reaching album, inspired by the joy of a single new life and the unexpected horror of some 3,000 lost ones.

3. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge): Finally living up to the legacy of its former role model, Wire, this Austin outfit dissects underground rock's age-old insularity with wit and vim.

4. Sonic Youth, Murray Street (DGC): The celebrated guitar-rock antiheroes return to the simple days before Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star wiser and maybe wearier, which befits the cause -- the second installment of a cultural history of New York.

5. Lo Fidelity Allstars, Don't Be Afraid of Love (Columbia): After the commercial failure of Fatboy Slim's Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, the invisibility of this equally joyful and magnanimous dance album was no surprise. But it still stung.

6. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice): Where most talented rappers claimed tiny pieces of turf this year (or reached for all of "White Amerika"), the Streets described a discreet, doleful subculture -- England's white underclass -- then dignified it with some haunting club beats.

7. Various Artists, The Bottle Let Me Down (Bloodshot): Death as a fact of life, sex as a lightly veiled promise, humor as humor -- these trad and rad kids' songs are genuinely fun for the whole family, like Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk crossed with Monsters Inc.

8. Imperial Teen, On (Merge): No longer hyped as America's great gay rock band, these biz casualties are now "living on the border just to stay alive" -- and rocking all the harder for it.

9. Black Keys, The Big Come Up (Alive): Underground rock's new minimalism comes home to roost. Two Akron boys dive into traditional country blues as if they're taking a leap of faith. Somehow, Leslie West and John Lennon break their fall.

10. Cee-Lo, Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections (Arista): This Southern dandy claims no turf in his quirky and catchy raps; he just wanders through a hip-hop dreamscape, laying down pearls of wisdom like casual jokes -- which is why they're wise.

Carlo Wolff

1. Solomon Burke, Don't Give Up on Me (Anti/Fat Possum): For the persistence, poetry, and depth.

2. Prick, The Wreckard; Lucky Pierre, Lucky Pierre (Internet only): For the persistence, anger, and daring.

3. Tom Waits, Alice/Blood Money (Anti/Epitaph): Two of a perfect pair, with greater weight on Blood Money.

4. Badly Drawn Boy, Have You Fed the Fish? (Artistdirect): Improbable, eccentric pop that melds the unpredictability of a Van Dyke Parks with the acute observation of a Ray Davies.

5. The Eels, Souljacker (Dreamworks): Trailer-trash narratives with furry disco beats. Count on the Eels to make a heart of darkness go down easy -- like a valentine from Wes Craven.

6. Corey Harris, Downhome Sophisticate (Rounder): The blues as revelation from a master of mojo, not just technique.

7. . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes (Interscope): These Texas kids play like a hurricane -- like a baby U2, meaner and sans the sentiment.

8. Ralph Stanley, Ralph Stanley (Columbia-DMZ): Grand Ole Opry legend Stanley sings and plays banjo to ring wondrous changes on tradition.

9. Brad Mehldau, Largo (Warner Bros.): Pianist Mehldau pushes the jazz envelope with Radiohead, Jobim, the Beatles, and his own unique originals.

10. The Donnas, Spend the Night (Atlantic): Metal lives, wanton and sexy. Plenty of 'tude, nothing nü.

Rob Harvilla

1. RJD2, Dead Ringer (Def Jux): Sell back Moby and DJ Shadow's respective turkeys and lay your hands on the sample-fueled, instrumental hip-hop record of the modern era. So beautiful, it's just terrifying.

2. Pedro the Lion, Control (Jade Tree): A thousand nü-metal idiots couldn't craft a two-song suite as brutally visceral as "Magazine" and "Rehearsal." And it's Christian-themed indie rock, for Christ's sake.

3. Elbow, Asleep in the Back (V2): Please-kick-me-in-the-taco Brit wankery. End a romantic mix tape with "Newborn," and you're guaranteed at least a backrub.

4. Something Corporate, Leaving Through the Window (MCA): Lame punk anthems about lame girls propped up by lame gimmicky piano. I absolutely love it.

5. Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (MCA): The Gift of Gab raps faster than you think, over beats funkier than you deserve.

6. . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Source Tags and Codes (Interscope): Yeah, they're self-important goons ("Lookit, Ma! I be trashin' the stage!"). But any rock album so intense that you unknowingly punch your Mitsubishi up to 80 mph and score a speeding ticket deserves special mention.

7. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf (Interscope): If you could have sex the way Josh Homme plays guitar, you'd make Hugh Hefner look like Strom Thurmond.

8. Sigur Rós, ( ) (RCA): Beautiful Icelandic prog rock, as majestic as it is totally dorky. Single-handedly makes it OK to like Rush again.

9. N.E.R.D., In Search Of . . . (Virgin): If only for "Tape You," the best song about convincing your girlfriend to have sex with another woman while you videotape it to be released in at least 20 years.

10. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge): Ain't nothin' cuter than beatboxin' indie rock nerds.

Phil Freeman

1. Wire, "Read & Burn 01" and "02" (Pink Flag): Two EPs of pure rock power, 2002 style. Pink Flag on ProTools.

2. Liars, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Mute): Shit-hot; propulsive, and convulsive. The real new sound of New York.

3. Napalm Death, Order of the Leech (Spitfire): A comeback and a half. Totally ferocious; might be the band's best ever.

4. Café Tacuba, "Vale Callampa" EP (MCA): Four cover tunes that make most folks' originals seem pointless. These guys are the Radiohead of Latin rock.

5. Stone Sour, Stone Sour (Roadrunner): Corey Taylor is the next great rock vocalist.

6. Theory of Ruin, Counterculture Nosebleed (Escape Artist): Didn't realize how much I missed Fudge Tunnel's Alex Newport till he came back with this, showing the world what Shellac will sound like if Steve Albini's balls ever drop.

7. Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope (Relapse): The Paul's Boutique of grindcore. They'll never top it, and I hope they don't try.

8. Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., Electric Heavyland (Alien8): If fellow Japanese guitar destroyers Boris hadn't already used the title Amplifier Worship, it could have been applied here.

9. Yakuza, Way of the Dead (Century Media): They're mixing jazz and thrash, and if it doesn't work all the time, who else is even trying?

10. Orthrelm, 2nd 18/04 Norildivoth Crallos-Lomrixth Urthiln (Three One G): If Derek Bailey were crossed with Yngwie Malmsteen, the result would be Orthrelm's Mick Barr. What he does, most would never think to attempt.

Steve Boughton

1. The Casket Lottery, Survival Is for Cowards (Second Nature): The Lottery combines longing, regret, and "confessional lyrics" with the surging riffs and stop 'n' go fury that have been missing from emo for too long.

2. Hot Water Music, Caution (Epitaph): The founding fathers of Gainesville's post-hardcore scene have finally worked cohesive melodies and outstanding vocal harmonies back into their road-weary sound, for their finest album in years.

3. Glassjaw, Worship and Tribute (Warner Bros.): This sophomore effort takes Glassjaw one step closer to an impending masterpiece. Daryl Palumbo's songwriting talent and stunning vocal range bridge gaps between pop and pummeling hardcore with ease.

4. RJD2, Dead Ringer (Def Jux): Columbus's hottest producer fuses hip-hop with blues, funk, and soul. Look out, DJ Shadow. RJ's passing on your left.

5. Speedy J, Loudboxer (Mute): A fine return to form for this member of techno's second wave. Beats, bass, and tones shift in and out with fractal complexity, scouring out brainpans like Brillo pads turned loose on last night's dirty dishes.

6. Nuspirit Helsinki, Nuspirit Helsinki (Guidance): While the world kept watch on Germany's Jazzanova, this Finnish collective slipped a classic in under the radar. The group writes with the patience and maturity of Bill Evans, elevating the broken beat/nu-jazz genre beyond anyone's expectations.

7. The Roots, Phrenology (MCA): Philly's favorites create a Baskin-Robbins of hip-hop flavors that dishes out tasty scoops of neo-soul, funk, and true-school style, then throws a Clash-flavored cherry on top.

8. Hot Rod Circuit, Sorry About Tomorrow (Heroes & Villains/Vagrant): With pop-punk hooks as catchy as these, there's no need for these emo up-and-comers to apologize.

9. High Contrast, True Colours (Breakbeat Science): A timeless drum 'n' bass album that combines the warm organic tones and vocals of early New York garage and Chicago house with the speedy breaks and soothing bass lines of U.K. jungle.

10. Minus the Bear, Highly Refined Pirates (Suicide Squeeze): Not even the uninspired lyrics can detract from how hard this Seattle-based indie supergroup rocks. Intricate guitar tapping yields to euphoric riffing that would've done Cap'n Jazz proud.

Maya Singer

1. Super Furry Animals, Rings Around the World (Beggar's Banquet/XL): Geopolitics, apocalyptic Christianity, Monica Lewinsky, and more. The Furries are the only band in the world that can put the sounds of death metal, Abbey Road-era Beatles, and Burt Bacharach into one song. Oh, and it's as beautiful as it is crazy.

2. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): Everyone's favorite David-and-Goliath music-industry parable merits the hype: Jeff Tweedy's tweaked Americana just gets bigger and better and stranger.

3. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador): Welcome back to late-'70s Manchester: stabbing bass lines, Byronic frontman, grim dystopic moping all around; schadenfreude's sexy again.

4. Mountain Goats, Tallahassee (4AD): This one could sneak right by you: a countrified tale of drunken, desperate lovers that occasionally rises to levels of elegiac rapture.

5. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge): The tightest straight-up rock album in years. Period.

6. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.): Oklahoma's native sons take the hero's journey -- begun on The Soft Bulletin -- into outer space, with hip-hop beats driving the dream-pop rocket this time around.

7. Bright Eyes, Lifted . . . (Saddle Creek): An album so ambitious, it would be embarrassing without the horns and marching bands swirling around Conor Oberst's crackerjack songs.

8. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope): Mutations indeed: Mr. Irony takes it all seriously for once and comes up with a mystical, romantic masterpiece.

9. DJ Shadow, The Private Press (MCA) Cut 'n' paste DJing's intellectual grandee returns, a little less serious this time around, and a little smoother, too.

10. Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek): Poignant pop-rock that gives a little more with each spin.

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