We list this year's real stinkers, get some critical advice from the folks and look at some scary new downloading laws

Helmet, Size Matters (Interscope)

Helmet frontman Page Hamilton used to growl like Satan with a stubbed toe, over guitars the size of Godzilla's manhood. But on his band's misguided comeback effort, he farts out generic modern rock custom-made for Mountain Dew commercials. Granted, Helmet's massive crunch has always been tempered with touches of harmony, but now, it seems, one of alt-metal's leading figures is taking his cues from that dick in Puddle of Mudd. In one of the album's many Freudian slips, Hamilton even inadvertently acknowledges that he's lost it: "I swear to God I'm wrecking it all," he offers at one point. "I don't remember why we're here," he sings later. Size may matter, Page, but so does a little dignity. -- Jason Bracelin

Annie Owens

Parental Guidance

I'm sitting down with a few glasses of wine and a stack of the year's most popular music. The idea is to see what impression these songs will make on my folks, who are diehard classical-music fans. When I ask them who they think is the year's top-selling artist, they struggle for the answer.

"I would guess Britney Spears," my mother says.

My father scrunches his forehead. "I don't know. Yanni?"

"Yeah!," Usher: My parents bob their heads appreciatively as the music plays. Last year it became clear that one of their biggest struggles is not so much enduring the songs but having something incisive to say about them. To their ears, most of this sounds the same: too loud, hard to understand, even incomprehensible. My father will begin almost every critique with a statement about whether or not the song was pleasant.

"Well, it was pleasant to listen to," says my dad when I turn off the song. I think that to him this is code for "It didn't hurt." He continues, "I would say that it's not something you'd listen to at home. It seems directly related to bopping."

Wait a minute. "Did you just say bopping?" I ask.

"Or dancing." He shrugs. "Whatever."

Our analysis of Usher seems to have come to an end. My mother tells me, "You know, your father and I recently watched ballroom dancing on Channel 13, so we know a lot of new steps. We can 'shake' and 'hesitate.'" And no: I don't know what "shake" or "hesitate" means either.

"Duality," Slipknot: As a teen my older brother subscribed to Circus magazine and owned every Judas Priest cassette ever made. This was just before the Tipper Gore-led PMRC blowup of the early '80s, which suddenly turned every metalhead into a suspected felon. I placed Slipknot in the playlist purely for shock value; part of me has always wondered if they knew what their son was listening to. But rather than being offended, my parents are intrigued. They patiently nod through the crunching guitars. My mother compares the hushed, spoken lyrics and backward tracks to "Revolution 9" on the Beatles' White Album. My father says it reminds him of Jesus Christ Superstar.

"Did you bring any Pantera?" my father asks. He's very curious about Dimebag.

"Redneck Woman," Gretchen Wilson: I've written before about warming to the basic humor and glee of Gretchen Wilson's breakout hit. My parents, however, are not impressed.

"It just seemed like so many other country songs," my father says.

"It didn't do much for me," says Mom.

"Depending on what she looks like, I might like it more," my dad says.

I shoot my mom an exasperated look, expecting her to say something, but she throws up her arms.

"What do you want? He's right."

"So," my dad says, "is she cute?" -- Sarah Hepola

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