It was a year of revelations and mixed blessings. The teen-pop bubble didn’t so much burst as deflate: the Britney Machine went on hiatus, Christina got down and dirrty, Justin abandoned JC and those other three. But the new revolution is still pint-sized. A spark of optimism for the future flickered with Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, and, of course, Britney-dressed-up-as-a-punk Avril Lavigne. It was also a year for looking back. Nü-metal gave way to garage rock (Hype of the Year: any band whose name starts with “The”) and vintage rockers (Elvis Costello, the Boss). Mitsubishi spawned more hits than radio (Dirty Vegas, Telepopmusik) while American Idol made cookie-cutter insta-stars out of Texan Kelly Clarkson and Sideshow Bob look-alike Justin Guarini. Divine intervention has thus far prevented “The Ketchup Song” and Nick Carter from U.S. success, and the diva comeback trail has been surprisingly elegant (Celine Dion, Mariah Carey). Most Embarassing Diva Moment (tie): Jacko dangling his babe over his hotel balcony and anything out of Whitney’s mouth. Remember kids, crack is cheap. Now on to the good stuff…
1. N.E.R.D., In Search Of…
After pop excursions with ’NSync and Britney Spears, the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) needed to do something drastic. Perhaps that’s why they yanked their 2001 album in the 11th hour and massively reconstructed it with a live rock band. Released under the acronym N.E.R.D. (No one Ever Really Dies), the album, which was once filled with signature synth beats and accompanied by a bling-bling stripper-filled video for the single “Lapdance,” evolved into a rocked-out rap-rock hybrid that puts the current horde of rap-metal posers to shame. The album, In Search Of… (in this case, the search is for love, happiness, smiling and “that bitch with the big ass”), is a culmination of the Neptunes’s broad influences—from soul to rock and everything in between. Kudos to a production team that, rather than predictably stick to their radio-ready formulas, has dared to push the envelope straight out of hip-hop’s comfort zone.
2. The Chemical Brothers, Come with Us
Whether it’s the irreverent, mad genius of the title track, the bristling, post-disco of “Star Guitar” or the off-kilter psychedelic folk of “The State We’re In,” the Chemical Brothers’s fourth studio release beckons seductively, “come with us….” The metrophonic “Hoops” is at once earthy and otherworldly, mixing electro beats with acoustic guitar scales and hypnotic vocal passages. It’s these kinds of juxtapositions (sequencers and brass together at last on the brilliant “Pioneer Skies”!) that make the Chemical Brothers more than just beat-technicians. It’s also what makes Come with Us the duo’s best album since 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole. Yes, that’s a computer-generated outer-space you’re floating through.
3. Tanya Donelly, Beautysleep
With her second solo effort, Beautysleep, Tanya Donelly found herself smack-dab in the middle of a musical uprising not unlike the kind she helped spearhead over a decade ago. With a hand (or two) in the creation and success of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and the Grammy-nominated Belly, Donelly has a resume and pedigree (the Muses’s Kristen Hersh is her step-sister) lengthy enough to make her a household name. And she is, but just barely. “Good music was popular by mistake,” she says of the alt-rock boom. “Then the crap took over again.” It may be a bit premature for a revolution the size of Nirvana, but the bewitching Beautysleep could mark the return of something, anything other than ordinary. But that’s not to say Beautysleep isn’t brimming with pop hooks. While the album might not “rock,” Donelly’s lyrics are more grounded than ever and she soars clouds above “the crap” that has taken over.
4. Eminem, The Eminem Show
With his latest effort, The Eminem Show, hip-hop’s notorious white hope peels back some of the bullshit façade and reveals a little bit of the real Marshall Mathers. To make matters even more puzzling, the album displays a—dare I say it?—more “mature” Eminem. Eminem Show finds its star hyper-aware of the state of hip-hop (and the world) and even more conscious of his place in it: “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/To do black music so selfishly/And use it to make myself wealthy,” he quips on “Without Me.” While there’s nothing as subversive as “Stan” or “Kim” this time around, the album finds Eminem at his button-pushing best—even if it does seem like he’s pushing the buttons just because he can.