Now Hear This 

Our esteemed critics pick the top albums of 2002.

1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco (Nonesuch). A friend of mine in Ohio just sent me a 26-track disc of demos, unreleased songs, early versions and songs that ended up on Jay Bennett and Ed Burch's The Palace 4 a.m. (Part 1), (which would find a place here if I had space for 20), and I swear it's better than the released version in most cases. After Jim O'Rourke got a hold of it, it became a bit more distant. Still, at the time it came out, maybe a little distance is what we all needed.

2. Read Music/Speak Spanish, Desaparecidos (Saddle Creek). Part I, in which barely legal Conor Oberst, who is smarter than you were at his age, and is backed by loud, churning guitars that sound comfortable to a lot of us, rails against everything standing in the way of the American dream promised to him: urban sprawl, clothes that are too expensive (available exclusively at a mall that sickens him), and a mortgage with an ugly balloon payment ever-looming. Oh, and it completely frickin' rocks, too.

3. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Flaming Lips (Warner Bros.). As a dyed in the wool non-sci-fi geek, I was initially turned off by the subject matter--y'know, all that futuristic robot crap--but I couldn't shake the melodies, or the very sound of it. The bass made my tiny speakers rumble. And I like that sort of thing.

4. You Can Feel Me, Har Mar Superstar (Record Collection). A laptop parody of overblown modern R&B clichés by a pasty Ron Jeremy lookalike from St. Paul, or the no-more-overblown-than-Jay-Z sexed-up party joint of the year? If it wasn't both, you wouldn't be reading this right now.

5. Kill the Moonlight, Spoon (Merge). Their most "difficult" album was the one that finally snared me. A fine bunch of pomo Beatles demos that never happened, trust me and listen to it a half-dozen times before you sell it back.

6. In Search of..., N*E*R*D (Virgin). The most consistently interesting producers in hip-pop, responsible for just about every KRQ guilty pleasure of yours in the last two years--the Neptunes, duh!--do it for themselves. Oddly, the canned-beat European version is funkier than the guitar-centric U.S. one. Even so, you'll find the version available at your local record store bridges rock and rap in a most organic and enjoyable fashion.

7. Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes (Saddle Creek). Part II, in which Conor Oberst (who by the time of this album's release has been called the "new Dylan" more often than Springsteen, Waits, and Forbert combined) not only continues to scavenge his emotional wreckage for your listening "pleasure" but slings it against a canvas of full-on orchestral arrangements that'll make your heart bleed in the best way: cathartically and redemptively.

8. Sha Sha, Ben Kweller (ATO). "Maxed out like a credit card" at the moist age of 20, Kweller has concocted an album Rivers Cuomo should be jealous of, without the oversized specs and fake beard. Guitar pop so good it almost makes up for the last Apples in Stereo record. Plus, every song ends exactly when it should. Last we heard he was still dating Clare Danes. Happy loving couples, line up here.

9. The Headphone Masterpiece, Cody Chesnutt (Ready Set Go). Lo-fi is back, this time shellacked on a double disc set of pseudo neo-soul by a Jesus-loving, blunt-rolling, soul-drenched pussy hound who plays the game in the name of procreation, yo. The child that nature wouldn't let Stevie Wonder and Ted Hawkins have, Chesnutt is everything Lenny Kravitz wishes he could be, at a fraction of the budget.

10. Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe, Pavement (Matador). I've never put a reissue on one of these lists before--always considered it a bit of a cop-out, but this one made me do it. Three times the stuff on the original release, the best album of the '90s is given the royal, remastered, fully expanded treatment it deserves. Everything that exists from the golden, Gary Young years, and then some, this double CD set still sounds as fresh as anything on this list.

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