This year, instead of asking a selection of our esteemed critics to submit their top ten albums, we decided to open things up a bit. As anyone who's ever tried to compile such a list knows, it's an exercise in frustration, and not just because it's become increasingly impossible, even for us lucky bastards on the promotional gravy train, to hear more than a tiny fraction of each year's releases. Some genius once observed that 90 percent of everything is crap, which is certainly true, but the more crap that's out there, the greater the chances that noncrap will flourish. Thank technology for the glut: Every poor dumbfuck with a computer can make a CD, and, unfortunately, most do. A lot of worthwhile stuff gets lost in the fecal deluge, which is a pity, but short of trying to shame people who make bad CDs and encouraging the talented few who don't, there's not much that a lowly critic can do.
On the other hand, the global surfeit of CDs is, on the scale of things worth complaining about, pretty close to the bottom. Fact is, there's really no good way to bitch about an embarrassment of riches, and this year, as in every other year in recent memory, there's more great music than anyone can possibly find the time to hear. And that's just the tip of the iceberg: The worst thing about the customary top-ten-albums list is that it doesn't leave room for all the many other incredible music experiences that don't fit on a 70-minute CD (or maybe they do, except they're surrounded by 65 minutes of crap). Sometimes these aural epiphanies come in the form of live shows, computer downloads, television appearances and books. Herewith, a sampling of our staff's fave raves from the year that was.
RENÉ SPENCER SALLER
Best CDs to play while ruminating on the idiocies of the Bush administration: The sole consolation of another Republican regime was supposed to be better music. Had it not been for Reagan, we might not have gotten so much great punk rock in the '80s -- or so the logic goes. Unfortunately, not much evidence exists to suggest that the days of indie insularity and mainstream apathy are coming to an end. Eminem might rail against Cheney, but it's hard to pay attention when he's also dissing Moby, Chris Kirkpatrick and his own mommy. But we'll take our subversive comfort where we can find it. One Beat, Sleater-Kinney's sixth CD, is a spiky, furious post-punk masterpiece that confronts the horror of 9/11 and its even more horrifying aftermath with guts, smarts and passion. Corin Tucker's plangent wailing has never sounded more soulful, and Carrie Brownstein's "Combat Rock" is everything the twenty-year-old Clash album wanted to be but wasn't. Less ferocious but no less impassioned is the Mekons' Oooh! (Out of Our Heads), an alternately tender and raucous romp through Western civilization. On its highlight, the exquisitely sad "Hate Is the New Love," exhausted angel Sally Timms sings, "'Cause there's no peace/On this terrible shore/Every day is a battle/How we still love the war."
Best gigantic leap forward: The Roots' Phrenology just came out this month, but all it takes is a couple of listens to convince anyone who's ever given a shit about hip-hop that this mother's the real deal. Like all the best artists in any genre, the Roots have become a category unto themselves. From Bad Brains-esque hardcore to slippery soul, from trippy hip-hop to free-jazz/funk/skronk freak-outs, Phrenology is the Roots' Revolver.
Best sex songs: On Missy Elliott's "Work It," producer-genius Timbaland augments his stuttering stumblebum beats with a goddamn elephant's roar while Missy raps frontward and backward, spitting rhymes that are just barely on the right side of stupid -- and therein lies their brilliance. Elliott's protégée Tweet dropped another equally great Timbaland joint, "Oops (Oh, My), a sly and deliciously dirty paean to female masturbation. And Kid 606's lunatic remix of electroslut Peaches' coochie anthem "Fuck the Pain Away" deserved to be a huge radio hit -- and maybe it was, in Berlin or someplace kinda civilized.
Best songs on otherwise crappy albums: On "Walk Away," Christina Aguilera might be channeling Ann Peebles: It hardly seems possible that this silicone cyborg can sing with such corrosive ardor, such heartbreaking delicacy, but she can and does, albeit not nearly often enough. On "Addictive," St. Louis expat Truth Hurts wends her lazy alto around a sample of an Indian girl singing (courtesy of producer DJ Quik) while rap legend Rakim dishes out the thug love. No one got clearance for the sample, unfortunately, so everybody's getting sued.
Best music read: Camden Joy's Lost Joy was a revelation, proof that the advertocracy (to borrow Joy's term) hasn't completely ruined rock criticism (not yet, anyway.) Lyrical, brave and fiercely idiosyncratic, Joy's essays read like prose poems or fever-dreams or sermons from some crazy-genius fanboy who can't stand the thought that someone might go through life without recognizing the genius of Souled American. Haven't heard of Souled American? Doesn't matter. Joy never preaches to the choir: The 37 (!) essays he wrote about the obscure Chicago indie-rock outfit were originally published as posters, which he plastered all over New York City at his own expense.
Also: James Carr, You Got My Mind Messed Up (reissue with bonus tracks); VA, The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever; Fog: Fog; Kristian Hoffman, &; Destroyer, Here Comes the Night.
Most sublime examination of sound: Fennesz, Field Recordings 1995-2000. Christian Fennesz has eardrums the size of hubcaps, apparently. He hears things we cannot, and on this, a collection of extant recordings, he examines echoed hiss; structured, ethereal clangs; and skewed electronic beats (most tiny and buried deep in the mix) and discovers a rich, textured quarry of melody diamonds, ambient and pretty but never soft or precious.
Most sinister voice in rap, 2002: Petey Pablo. He's already rap's John Lee Hooker. Give him a decade, and he'll be growlin' like Howlin' Wolf. He's dirty, sexy and fucking deep.
Best conjuring of Sun Ra's spirit: Yo La Tengo unfurls an urgent cover of the Sun Ra chant "Nuclear War" ("Talking 'bout" -- pause -- "nuclear war"). The "Nuclear War" EP has four different takes. On one, the three Tengos bang on drums and clang out rhythms while singer Ira Kaplan sings about nuclear war's being "a motherfucker, don't you know." Other versions feature a children's chorus, drummer Susie Ibarra and trumpeter Roy Campbell.
Best live performance of 2002: Beth Orton at the Pageant. Instead of the expected nice, tidy electronic folk show, Beth Orton kicked it with a five-piece band, and every remarkable hook resonated deep within the Pageant's bowels. Then, halfway through the show, Orton did something amazing: She actually clawed at her chest, squeezed her fist through her ribcage and yanked her pumper out. Blood flying everywhere, she tossed it straight up and caught it in her mouth like a piece of popcorn, all the while murmuring over and over into the mic, "It's true, what they say about you, it's true."
Best "Yes, he's all that": Eminem, The Eminem Show. Yes, he's all that.
Best surprise movement: Using cheap-ass synthesizers and beatboxes and a heavy 130-bpm vibe, the bands on NYC's DFA label, the LCD Soundsystem, the Juan Maclean and the Rapture make funky rock-beat house stuff -- party music -- that recalls "I Love a Man in a Uniform"-era Gang of Four, disco and Larry Levan's proto-house. The best twelve-inch of the year, the LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge," came from nowhere, a funny, self-referential rhythmic tantrum, like a goddamn funky Fall song. DFA also released a different kind of epiphany: Black Dice's Beaches and Canyons, a guitar/electronics ambient improv jam that actually travels somewhere new and distant.
Best sorrow-drowner: Beck, Sea Change. Beck ditches the grin and reaches for the gin.
Best competition: Timbaland versus the Neptunes. It was the best year for singles in a decade, thanks to two producers. Timbaland kicked out Missy's Under Construction, featuring "Work It," a single more freaky and funky than even last year's "Get Ur Freak On"; Ms. Jade's joyous "Ching Ching"; Petey Pablo's "I Told Y'all"; and Tweet's "Ooops (Oh My)." The Neptunes countered with Nelly's stupid, genius "Hot in Herre," the Clipse's "Grindin'" and N.E.R.D.'s "Lapdance."
Best undercurrent: The hip-hop underground is finally putting its beats where its rhymes are -- and getting weirder. On three winners this year -- Fantastic Damage by El-P, Anti-Pop Consortium's Arrhythmia and Dalek's From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots -- rhythms fly everywhere, all angular and crazy and hard.
Also: Brad Mehldau, Largo; the Roots, Phrenology; the Future Bible Heroes, Eternal Youth; Nightmares on Wax, Mind Elevation; Thomas Fehlmann, "Streets of Blah"; Li'l Jon and the East Side Boyz, "I Don't Give a Fuck."
Best heartbreak: Billy Joe Shaver singing "Star of My Heart" at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, December 16. Midway through Shaver's set, the band receded and the old songwriter strummed a tiny guitar, closed his eyes and sang: "Don't waste your precious thoughts on me and my tired old dreams. Your soul is bursting at the seams, you are finally free...." The audience numbered 50 astonished faces. "God bless you, Eddie," he whispered to his dead son at the end.
Best new artist: Bob Dylan. American artists must remake themselves; in the end most fail. What's left for Dylan? What strand of the genome hasn't he bent and broken? This year, on the tour that never ends, the old dude paid homage to contemporaries: Neil Young, Van Morrison, Warren Zevon. He wasn't singing covers but repossessing songs that wouldn't exist without him. For the first time in decades, he played piano onstage, at times stabbing the keys like Cecil Taylor, at times touching them like a virgin. As if that wasn't enough, the release of The Rolling Thunder Revue bootlegs made for the most important album of the year.
Best album you missed: Hazeldine's Double Back. When the finest record from the sexiest band in Americana skirts the radar of No Depression, you know some publicist needs walking papers. Isolated from the seething trends of alt-everything, the Albuquerque-based trio of Shawn Barton, Tonya Lamm and honorary New Mexican (and Nadine bassist) Anne Tkach set their hearts on sumptuous melodies, sisterly harmonies and songs that cut to the emotional quick and remain there longer than you thought possible.
Best country album: Tie, Ray Price's Time and Justin Trevino's Scene of the Crying. In his 50th year of recording, Ray Price released a dream album, but no one noticed. Impeccable songs, a swinging band, and the frayed and fulsome voice of a master: Price has made countrypolitan for a new age. Meanwhile, fellow Texan Justin Trevino proves himself country's Stevie Wonder. Blind and boundlessly talented, Trevino produces, engineers and plays everything but the honky-tonk sink. Forget the guest vocals by Wanda Jackson: There's no better hard-country singer today than Justin Trevino.
Best download: www.flaminglips.com. On their beautiful and exhaustive Web site, the Okie freak-rockers gave away one of the best albums of 2002. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wanted to be, proves that Wayne Coyne and cohorts can look backward, forward, inside or outside and still see further into the future than any rock band on the planet. Even when blowing bubblegum soul or Umma Gumma, the Lips turn high-concept psychedelia into sunny-day singalongs. "As the dawn began to break -- I had to surrender/The universe will have its way -- too powerful to master." The evil robots of the 21st century -- tuneless electronica, mook metal and smooth jazz -- don't stand a chance.
Best rock & roll parenting moment: Halfway through the Goddess in the Doorway promotional documentary that Mick Jagger's record label finagled onto ABC, one of Jagger's older daughters (somewhere in her late twenties) asked him to not bring anyone younger than her to an upcoming party. Mick's catcher's-mitt-like face creaked into his patented aging-Lothario smirk, and it was evident he was thinking about sweet young ass and not his daughter's sense of decorum. Creepy and surreal, just as you always knew rock & roll family life would be.
Best "Fuck you, we quit": Botch, reigning heavyweight assassins of the math-metal kingdom, decide it is a far better thing to douse themselves in napalm and crawl into the microwave than to outlive their prime. The result is An Anthology of Dead Ends, which is the sort of incandescent high note that shatters windows and renders their peers' forthcoming albums obsolete before they even record them.
Best archaeological find: Table of the Elements' deluxe reissue of Tony Conrad and Faust's Outside the Dream Syndicate. This hypnotic, macrotonal-drone document is further proof that there was an invisible, or at least well-hidden, culture of musicians and artists who worked parallel to the craptastic world of early-'70s rock but somehow remained 30 years ahead of then and now. Table of the Elements is doing music fans the world over a great service by continually reclaiming important work by seminal, if fringe, artists from the cobwebbed corners of unknown attics. Their Tony Conrad/Faust document edges out their John Cale three-disc set only because Conrad's work is written about more than heard. This album gives truth where there had only been hearsay.
Best "We'll tell you when you've had enough": The Conformists' RFT-sponsored Music Fest appearance was yet another shining moment in their constellation of RFT-sponsored Music Fest performances. After lurching and thrusting their way through their best material, scaring the county kids on the floor and driving the majority of the Elvis Room audience to seek higher ground and less challenging fare (wimps), the Conformists destroyed themselves and what remained of the audience with a brilliant version of "Welcome, Rainbows." The triumphant fourth passage of their (at the time) best song emerged shining and delicate from the wreckage of the band and continued unabated, even when their time was up and the emcee took the microphone and thanked them, then summoned the next band to play. The Conformists played on not out of rock-star attitude (they have none) or the malicious nature they are (falsely) accused of having: They kept playing because they were too far gone to let it end before it was over. Their drive to name what can't be named is what makes them the best in everything but this city's ongoing high-school popularity contest.
Best guilty pleasure: Andrew W.K.'s I Get Wet is a strange, hilarious paradox: Only rock critics, a notoriously nerdy, wussy bunch, seem to have warmed to its dumb, overcaffeinated rush. With its big-hair industrial guitar riffs and intricately moronic lyrics ("When your life is at an end, then it's time to kill again"), Wet is headbanging at its purest, most elemental and ignorantly blissful, a welcome breath of fresh air from the maudlin Puddle of Creeds polluting the airwaves. Too bad that it's too unsophisticated for the snooty American public.
Best concerts: Any year in which both Sigur Rós and Elvis Costello casually grace the Pageant is nothing to dismiss. Even with an abundance of marquee-name highlights, you'd still have been a fool to miss the Baysayboos and DeVotchKa at the Way Out Club, where both highly unconventional brass-driven bands shone in their unique, eccentric ways. Longwave, on the other hand, played a feedback-loaded noise-pop set at the Rocket Bar that made an impeccable case to begin the shoegazer-nostalgia revival. And in June, the Galaxy played host to a fierce, tight and catchy set from Superdrag that put them well above Supergrass and just shy of Superchunk in the power-pop standings.
Best Pulp album: Scott Walker himself may have produced Pulp's latest, We Love Life, but Davey Ray Moor's kitchen-sink arrangements on Cousteau's Sirena evoke Walker's influence far better. What's more, Liam McKahey is now a sexier, more expressive vocalist than Jarvis Cocker. The album may skip from the dusky jazz of "Salome" to the chamber-pop of "Talking to Myself," but the common thread is that Sirena is just looking to make any sound that will get somebody naked.
Best Jekyll/Hyde act: Is he an antisuburban splatter-punk or Bob Dylan for Dave Eggers fans? Whether the Desaparecidos' Read Music/Speak Spanish or Bright Eyes' Lifted ... is superior is a matter of debate, but neither of Conor Oberst's two releases sounds like a side project. Rather, they're equal time for his heart and brain, both given equal eloquence and musical depth.
Best post-punk album: It was a good year to sound like the late '70s, as albums by the Liars, Radio 4 and Interpol proved. But Clinic's Walking With Thee held closer to the rule-busting ideals of Wire and the Gang of Four than their sonic templates and ended up a mad, beautiful mess of Krautrock beats, garage-rock Farfisa organ and sharp, angular punk. In a year swamped with new music, it was the most exciting, alive game in town.
Best twelve hours of music: Dazzling in melodic scope, rhythmic invention and lyrical depth, Elvis Costello's When I Was Cruel was easily the year's finest new album. Though many critics reacted as if it was an unexpected return to form, Costello was merely capping an unprecedented 25-year run of high quality. As one wag put it at the end of Costello's exhilarating appearance at the Pageant in October, "He's got a helluva catalog." Costello played half the new album and a generous grab bag of material from throughout his career, treating each song as if a new spark of divine inspiration compelled him to perform it. Costello still remembers the inspiration for most of his songs, and he's sharing them in the liner notes to the latest round of older albums being reissued. Six records -- This Year's Model, Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom, Blood and Chocolate, Mighty Like a Rose and Brutal Youth -- reappeared in stores, newly remastered and doubled up with entire CDs of often previously unreleased demos, B-sides, and live cuts. Completing the half-day spent with Elvis, Cruel Smile, an album of odds and sods meant to be the companion to When I Was Cruel, was one more reason to be cheerful.
Best genrefication: Some bands proved masterful at obeying rigid rules of form and style: the Forty-Fives' Fight Dirty was the best '60s garage rock, the Sights Got What We Wanted the best '60s British pop/rock, the Soundtrack of Our Lives' Behind the Music the best '60s psychedelic rock. But two of the most exciting albums of the year played with the concept of genre as if it were a game of musical Twister. The Roots made hip-hop as we know only one ingredient of Phrenology and then threw in soul, jazz, hardcore punk, trip-hop and any other danceable style. Depending on whether anyone is capable of following in their constantly moving footsteps, they may have reinvented their genre. Meanwhile, Shania Twain decided people should be allowed to be a little bit country and a little bit pop & roll, so she released the exact same nineteen songs on each of the two CDs of her new album, Up! One disc has fiddles and banjos, the other keyboards and loud guitars. Both are tributes to producer/husband Mutt Lange's appreciation for ABBA and Def Leppard.
Best things the radio kept on playing over and over: Eminem was inescapable, with the catchy "Without Me" and the darkly magnificent "Lose Yourself," though "I Think My Dad's Gone Crazy" was his most original cut this year. Nelly did his best to get everybody's clothes off with "Hot in Herre," whereas Missy Elliott took nudity as a starting point for her romping "Work It." The most unforgettable song of the year, though, didn't get nearly enough radio exposure. It was "Words" by England's Doves, a flamboyant uplifting tangle of guitars playing arpeggios in sonic overdrive.
Best live rock shows in St. Louis (in alphabetical order): The Agenda, Rocket Bar. With its high-octane rocka-rolla from Athens, Georgia, the Agenda flailed about the Rocket Bar's tiny stage with a righteous fury. Sounding a bit like the rawest aspects of early Mudhoney crossed with current garage faves the Vinehivestripes, the band embodies all that's right about fuzz pedals.
The Electric, various venues. In only a year or so of playing shows, the Electric have gone from being a bunch of freaks to being a bunch of freaks who may just be the best rock band in St. Louis. Overdriven Cramps-style spastic slop has never sounded so right on.
Flaming Lips, the Pageant. Oklahoma's Flaming Lips send a clear message to skewed pop geniuses everywhere: Keep being as weird and ambitious as you want, and the world (or at least the part of it that loves skewed pop geniuses) will eventually beat a path to your door.
Grand Ulena, the Ranch (Columbia, Missouri, which, of course, is not in St. Louis, but it's the closest place they played in 2002). Grand Ulena's album, due out early 2003, is a masterpiece of precision and proficiency, both startling and troubling. Live, the band is pure joy. Those (many) who hate them are probably trying too hard to get them. That's missing the point. Grand Ulena works hard so you don't have to.
Kaito, Rocket Bar. With new-wavy Brit-punk tunes, a coolly detached frontwoman and a guitarist who didn't play a standard chord all night and used a toy ray-gun for a pick, Kaito out Elasticaed Elastica, playing their hearts out to an empty room.
Little Grizzly, Frederick's Music Lounge. Little Grizzly, from Denton, Texas, play anthemic country-tinged indie rock with a wide-eyed intensity that belies their low key offstage demeanor. And the New Order cover for an encore was pretty cool, too.
Octopus Project, Lemmon's Basement Bar. The Austin-based all-instrumental band Octopus Project's first time through town last spring was a wonderful surprise, as band members switched instruments midtune and musical instrument and song alike seemed on the verge of falling apart at any moment. Hail punktronica!
Dolly Parton, the Pageant. Of course it was kinda corny, but Dolly's fans wouldn't have had it any other way. Backed by a crack bluegrass band, Ms. Parton put on a fantastic show that clearly demonstrated a love for her music and her fans that couldn't have been faked.
SkareKrauRadio, various venues. SkareKrauRadio delivers primal stomp-rock with a stage show that looks like a kindergarten-Christmas-pageant version of Gwar. There's nothing else in St. Louis like it (which may be a good thing).
Sunset Beach, Way Out Club. Dirty and sloppy and punk-rock in all the right ways, Tulsa's Sunset Beach blew through town on a never-ending tour in a barely working van and impressed the hell out of everyone who saw them. They looked like squatters, but they rocked like the Replacements circa Hootenanny.