Pop music wasn't all ear candy (think boy bands and teen divas) and synthetic aggression (the angry-rock crowd) during the last 12 months, even if it was easy to think so.
Though it often had difficulty making it onto the radio or the sales charts, there was enough challenging and heartfelt music to fill two traditional year-end Top 10 lists.
That's quite a change from 1999, when there was so little character in the pop world that we protested with a Bottom 20 list that featured such flimsy work as Cher's "Believe" and Garth Brooks' (as Chris Gaines) "Lost in Love" and Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of . . . )."
This year's Top 10 list--drawn from singles or album tracks--is dominated by a series of artists, from Eminem and Bob Dylan to D'Angelo and U2, who reflect on the times in ways that are personal and provocative.
In "Stan," the year's most commanding work, Eminem looks at the darkness in his own generation with a surprising sense of responsibility and compassion. In "Things Have Changed," Dylan weighs life's lessons from the perspective of someone whose own generation is running out of time.
Though these records differed greatly in content and style, they all reminded us that pop music can be both joyful and inspiring. (My choices for the year's 10 best albums appear in Sunday Calendar.)
1. Eminem's "Stan" (Aftermath/Interscope). Despite the cartoonish edge of the taunting "The Real Slim Shady" and the madman tone of the homicidal "Kim," this brilliantly constructed narrative is the creative heart of Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" and a big reason why the Detroit rapper was the consensus artist of the year in pop music.
This chilling, R-rated track unfolds with a sense of gripping cinematic detail. A crazed fan writes Eminem a series of letters, pledging his devotion and explaining how he emulates all the self-destructive practices outlined in Eminem's songs. Saddened by what he reads, Eminem writes back, advising the fan to get some counseling and take better care of his loved ones. But the letter is too late.
2. D'Angelo's "Devil's Pie" (Virgin). In the liner notes for his "Voodoo" album, the new king of soul salutes several of his influences, including Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And you can feel a connection to each of those artists at various points in the album. But D'Angelo stakes out his own turf in this remarkable blend of hip-hop and blues. Teaming with Gang Starr's DJ Premier, he looks at sin and salvation with a conviction and depth that will probably cause future generations of musicians to add his name to their list of influences.
3. Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed" (Columbia). "No one in front of me and nothing behind . . . / I used to care, but things have changed," Dylan sings in the opening lines of a song that set the tone so perfectly for the film "Wonder Boys" that it ought to be a shoo-in for best song at the Academy Awards this year.
4. U2's "Peace on Earth" (Interscope). It's the reaffirming "Beautiful Day" and the soul-lifting "Walk On" that are attracting the most attention for the Irish rock band's return-to-form album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." But it's this somber, bittersweet reflection on man's combative nature that is the true link to such earlier U2 classics as "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "One."
5. OutKast's "B.O.B." (LaFace/Arista). The initials stand for "Bombs Over Baghdad," but there's really not much political commentary here--though there is elsewhere in OutKast's striking new "Stankonia" album. The lure here is sonic razzle-dazzle that is as intoxicating as anything hip-hop has produced since Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur teamed up four years ago on "California Love." There is such a collision of sounds that you'd swear legendary "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector was orchestrating the whole thing.
6. Steve Earle's "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)" (E-Squared/Artemis). Here's another look at capital punishment from the singer-songwriter whose "Ellis Unit One" topped Calendar's 1996 list of the year's best singles. Where that song looked at the death penalty through the eyes of a guard, this one takes the viewpoint of the condemned man. Earle doesn't make the inmate into a hero. He simply reminds us that the inmate is a human being.
7. Macy Gray's "I Try" (Epic). Topping off what was a fairy tale year for this delightfully eccentric singer-songwriter, Gray serves up a single that recalls the sensual R&B heat of Al Green in a way that is so stylish and timeless that it could earn her a Grammy for record of the year.