The Top Albums of 2002: II

1. Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious (MCA). Seamless funk grooves, positive messages, inventive rhymes, incredibly smooth flow--all that plus terrific guest stars such as Gil Scott-Heron, Zack de la Rocha, Ben Harper, Dilated Peoples, Cut Chemist, Money Mark and Jaguar Wright. This underrated hip-hop duo, consisting of Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, drops the best album of the year.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More with Feeling, soundtrack (Mutant Enemy/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp./Rounder). Buffy creator Joss Whedon spent four months composing the lyrics and music for this turning-point musical episode from the 2001-2002 season of the popular TV series. Some of the year's catchiest songcraft lurks in Whedon's knock-offs of glam, goth-metal, Sarah MacLachlan, folk, Sondheim and Webber. No, really.

3. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Columbia). Could we have trusted anyone but our rocker laureate--who kept a low profile in the late 1990s--with the task of creating a soundtrack to this country's healing? (Maybe the artist at No. 8, below, could've pulled it off.) Reunited with the legendary E Street Band, the Boss delivers a heartfelt salute to American hope.

4. The Willies, Bill Frisell (Nonesuch). Not since Chet Atkins and Danny Gatton has a guitarist so easily straddled the realms of jazz and country as does Frisell, who teams up with bassist Keith Lowe and multi-instrumentalist Danny Barnes (Bad Livers) on this gently elegant collection of down-home covers and originals.

5. Audioslave, Audioslave (Epic/Interscope). Three parts Rage Against the Machine and one part Soundgarden (vocalist Chris Cornell) join for an explosive celebration of old-fashioned testosterone rawk that'll blow the screen doors off your shack. Cornell's sexy howl has rarely sounded better. Melodies, too!

6. The Big Time, Robin Holcomb (Nonesuch). The fifth disc by this graceful singer-songwriter and pianist is a knotty meeting of avant-garde jazz, gospel, blues and rural American folk styles. Supporting her are keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, his funk-jazz ensemble Zony Mash, guitarist Bill Frisell (see No. 4, above), violinist Eyvind Kang and folk-singing legends Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

7. Largo, Brad Mehldau (Warner Bros.). Abetted by producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple), the maverick jazz pianist drizzles pop-rock atmosphere aplenty over Bill Evans-style melancholia--without sacrificing jazz credibility--on his ninth album as a leader. From drum 'n' bass rhythms to interpretations of the Beatles and Radiohead, it challenges the ears.

8. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E-Squared/Artemis). Life always feels a little better when Earle releases a new album. Having transcended a hard life of excesses, failed romance and jail time, this singer-songwriter turns hope, cynicism, fear and post-modern ambivalence into artful rock, psychedelic pop and country. The controversial "John Walker's Blues" may get all the attention, but the album is packed with wisdom and questioning.

9. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco (Nonesuch). As a pop songwriter and melodic risk-taker, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy just keeps improving, whether he's indulging in folksy Americana, jangle pop or avant-garde distortion. Reprise Records, the group's former label, won a bit of industry infamy for refusing to release this amazing album because it was deemed too uncommercial.

10. ( ), Sigur Rós (Fat Cat/Pias/MCA). Don't even try to pronounce the title--yes, that's a pair of parentheses--of the sophomore effort by this enigmatic Icelandic band, and there's nothing to be gained from attempting to decipher the non-verbal vocals of singer Jón Pór Birgisson. Heck, the group doesn't even name their songs. But you couldn't find more hauntingly beautiful soundscapes in 2002.