Leaders of the Pack

Soundbites salutes the artists who made 2002 a breakout year for Cleveland music.

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Don't you believe 'em: The Vacancies turned out one - of the year's best punk albums. - Walter  Novak
Don't you believe 'em: The Vacancies turned out one of the year's best punk albums.

It's been another banner year for Northeast Ohio music, with some two dozen area artists creating national releases, helping the local scene's profile grow as fast as Axl Rose's caboose. And with some great blues, electronica, and R&B entries in what is traditionally a rock and punk town, the area music ranks are becoming as diverse as they are deep. Read on and see what we mean.

1. The Black Keys, The Big Come Up (Alive): "It's easy to hate the blues," Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach told us last summer. "There's so much bullshit, especially in the mainstream." But at the pace the Black Keys are going, perhaps that will change. After scoring a four-star review in Rolling Stone, a feature in the Village Voice, and plenty of major label interest, the Keys are primed to make some noise. The Big Come Up demonstrates why: Drunk on raging deconstructionist blues, it's an album of whiskey and regret that stings like the sight of a lost lover.

2. Twine, Recorder (Bip Hop): Most Clicks and Cuts fodder offers the thrills of watching hair grow. Not so with Recorder, which is IDM at its most dramatic. Both beautiful and forbidding, this is a masterwork of space, texture, and trauma.

3. Conya Doss, A Poem About Ms. Doss (Nu Mecca): In a year that saw Cleveland R&B shine like the gold plaques that line Avant's walls, Conya Doss added some sparkle of her own with this stellar debut. Equally tender and tough, Doss's honey-dipped soul is the perfect salve for anyone ever wounded by love.

4. Switched, Subject to Change (Immortal/Virgin): We'll admit that we're confused by a lot of things --math, Tara Reid's career -- but how Adema sells records and Switched doesn't is truly beyond us. Loaded with manic, hook-filled hard rock, this disc should have made stars out of Switched. We can only hope that's subject to change.

5. The Party of Helicopters, Space . . . And How Sweet It Was (Troubleman Unlimited): The centerpiece of this two-disc set of old and new material is the aptly titled "The Conquering," a breathtaking 10-minute suite that juxtaposes paranoiac vocals with barbed guitar and spectral synth, burning indie rock a few new synapses.

6. Boulder, Reaped In Half (TeePee): Like a tornado in a trailer park, these party-hard anthems sound like Andrew W.K. getting his legs busted -- you know, to match his nose.

7. Sign-Offs, Sign-Offs (Disaster); the Vacancies, Gutpunch (Smog Veil): On their respective debuts, these bands charge at you like you've you just insulted their mothers. A one-two punch of Cleveland punk, capable of sending rival scenes to the pavement.

8. The GC5, Never Sell the Devil Your Soul (Thick): There's not much to do in Mansfield other than drink beer and ogle your neighbor's Camaro. So the GC5 have spent much of the last two years away from home, out on the road, and it really shows here. A collection of rancorous pub punk spiked with organ and mandolin, Never Sell the Devil is as broad as it is brawny, and it's all as tight as these dudes' clenched fists.

9. Ether Net, More Strange Bruises (Requisite): The strangest thing about this record is that it actually did leave bruises: Ether Net ratcheted up the guitars, enlisted a meat-eating drummer, and turned in a dense, dramatic album that shows frontman Rob Cherry baring both his fangs and his soul.

10. Abdullah, Graveyard Poetry (Meteor City): Those who would lump Abdullah in with the sticky-fingered stoner-rock set are as high as they incorrectly assume this band to be. Sure, there are plenty of big riffs -- as fuzzy as a hesher's short-term memory -- but Abdullah, buoyed by frontman Jeff Shirilla's sterling upper-register delivery, is more about dynamics than dimebags.

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