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Forget Eminem and Avril Lavigne: In 2002, the major labels were upstaged—and outclassed—by the indies.

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A Different Kind of Soul: Raphael Saadiq resists Stevie Wonder-esque balladeering.  

Like a drug addict who cheats repeated overdoses, the music industry always seems to rally back from oblivion. But with no new force of nature like Kurt Cobain on the horizon, and profits nowhere to be seen, things are starting to look as dark as Middle-Earth.

Music-biz CEOs (and even, God help them, music critics) point to Eminem and “punky” teens like Avril Lavigne as pop-cultural saviors, but the truth is that in 2002, the industry put out such sub-par product that it made Hollywood look like Taliesin. After all, even the blockbuster-addicted, sequel-afflicted movie business will occasionally release a film like Adaptation.

So, where’s our Adaptation? With few exceptions, it won’t be found among the majors, which believe that Christina Aguilera’s see-through pants equal edginess. Even the machinery that yields great pop seems stalled, save flashes of brilliance like Tweet’s “(Oops) Oh My!” or Missy Elliott’s “Work It.” The good news? Major labels are so irrelevant that thriving careers can exist outside their reach. Better still, adventurous listeners can find almost limitless inspiration in commercially overlooked genres like electro, jazz, and indie hip-hop. Living on the margins has never sounded so good.

1. Raphael Saadiq,
Instant Vintage (Universal).
If everything were right in the world, balladeering Stevie Wonder–esque softies (Bilal, Glenn Lewis, Common) would be instantly dismissed in favor of Saadiq’s visionary twenty-first-century soul, which marries the orchestral sound of Gamble & Huff with Prince’s utopianism.
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2. DJ Shadow,
The Private Press (Universal).
DJ Shadow (né Josh Davis) does a lot more than just “dig in the crates” for beats; combing through forgotten electro, ska, and spoken-word records with the sensibility of the most passionate of archivists, he creates gorgeous tapestries. And thanks to his sense of groove, the effect is not at all scholarly but completely soulful.
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3. Jason Moran,
Modernistic (Blue Note).
Jazz modernism the way Miles might have done it, with a cover of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” at its risk-taking core.
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4. Queens of the Stone Age,
Songs for the Deaf (Interscope).
Jack White’s unhinged eccentricity aside, most garage rock sounds thin and feels regressive. All the more so compared to the Queens of the Stone Age, a band that rocks as hard as Nirvana and possesses endearingly dopey riffs to match AC/DC’s.
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5. The Streets,
Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic).
“You know this world is fucked up when the best rapper’s white and the best golfer’s black,” says Charles Barkley. Wanna know what’s even more fucked up, Charles? The lyricist bringing hip-hop back to its late-eighties storytelling heyday is a white lad from Birmingham, England.
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6. Bright Eyes,
Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek).
Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst is pegged as the new Dylan, but his wet-eyed romanticism owes more to vulnerable eighties icons like the Cure and the Smiths. Still, Oberst’s grasp of American music -- country, waltzes, blues, punk, and rock—sounds as virtuosic as the Band’s.
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7. Akufen,
My Way (Force Inc.).
In a better year for electronic music, this would have had the seismic effect of Daft Punk’s Homework. Yet it remains a secret among electronic-music cognoscenti, a shame since its spliced-up sound (dubbed “micro house”) is a divine expression of the cut-and-paste tradition.
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8. Various
2 Many DJ’s, As Heard on Radio Soulwax series (Pias); various artists, Disco Nouveau (Ghostly International); Ellen Allien, Weiss Mix (Bpitch Control).
This is a cheat, but since mix tapes and compilations ruled 2002, I chose three of the best to represent the genre. Mixing everything from Prince to Mötley Crüe, 2 Many DJ’s channels the schizoid sensibility of the Bomb Squad and legendary Detroit radio D.J. the Wizard; Disco Nouveaushowcases the eccentric electro of Detroit’s Ghostly International label; and on Weiss Mix, Berlin D.J. Allien captures the ugly-beautiful spirit of her hometown through glistening techno and rough-and-tumble ghetto-tech.

9. The Parallax Corporation,
Cocodisco (Disko B).
Like an aging sex columnist, electroclash strived for sleaziness in 2002 but ended up just being embarrassing. But the Parallax Corporation, led by a Hague-based production genius named I-F, made electro as sleazy as Soft Cell’s “Seedy Films,” full of post-techno quirks instead of retread eighties samples.

10. Nas,
God’s Son (Columbia).
On this, Nas’s seventh and best album, the Queens rhymer floats over his listless, lazy contemporaries like a butterfly, stings their materialism like a bee, and brings hip-hop back to its street-fighting beginnings.
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Runners-Up: El-P, Fantastic Damage (Def Jux); Sonic Youth, Murray Street (Smells Like); Swayzak, Dirty Dancing (K7); Anti-Pop Consortium, Arrhythmia (Warp); Out Hud, S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. (Kranky); Bruce Springsteen, The Rising (Sony); Murcof, Martes (Leaf); RJD2, Dead Ringer (Def Jux); Aesop Rock, Daylight EP (Def Jux); Missy Elliott, Under Construction (Elektra); Various artists, International Deejay Gigolos V. 5, (Gigolos); LCD Soundsystem, Losing My Edge EP (DFA); ARPANET, Wireless Internet (Record Makers); Richie Hawtin and Sven Väth, The Sound of the Third Season (Mute); Various Artists, This Is Not the 80s (Sony); Various Artists, Rough Trade Rock Shops Electronic 1 (Rough Trade); Various Artists, Das Drehmoment (Genetic Music); Debasser, Fat Girls EP (Novamute); Various Artists, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City the Soundtracks (Epic).


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