By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
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.