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Pop Music | Robert Hilburn's Midyear Best

A Highlight Reel of the First Half

The year's strongest offerings thus far include some personal three-peats

June 30, 2002

The Lakers aren't the only ones with a three-peat. Eminem has scored his third blockbuster in a row with "The Eminem Show," which is at the forefront of the midyear list of the most commanding albums so far in 2002.

Not only has "The Eminem Show" sold more than 3 million copies in a month, but it also confirms the Detroit rapper's place among the most compelling artists of the modern pop era. He is on such a roll, in fact, that the chief debate over "The Eminem Show" is how it measures against "The Marshall Mathers LP," the 2000 collection that was nominated for a Grammy for album of the year.

"The Marshall Mathers LP" and "The Eminem Show" are both superior works filled with bratty insistence, witty wordplay, ugly fury and painful self-examination. Ranking them is as difficult as proclaiming a victor in the Shaq-era Lakers against the Magic-era Lakers speculation, or putting Nirvana's "Nevermind" up against the band's "In Utero."

In the new collection, Eminem reintroduces us to several of the characters, including his mother and his daughter, from "Mathers" and its predecessor, "The Slim Shady LP," but the stories have progressed. In some ways, this is the final installment in a trilogy. Eminem remains offensive at times and silly at others, but that's part of his rebellious rap persona. More important, he is more personal and revealing.

For all the negativity surrounding Eminem's music and image, there is an underlying message of inspiration--the idea that someone can rise above his circumstances. It makes perfect sense that one of the album's most powerful moments is built around a sample of a vintage rock 'n' roll anthem: Aerosmith's "Dream On."


Here, alphabetically, are the other standout albums from what was a particularly productive six months in pop music--so good, in fact, that the traditional midyear top 10 list has been expanded to a top 12. The White Stripes' "White Blood Cells," which has been finally getting radio airplay this year, would make it an even stronger list, but the 2001 collection was on my year-end top 10 list in December. The 12 albums reflect a common independence and craft.

... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's "Source Tags & Codes" (Interscope). Even more than At the Drive-In, the influential, defunct group from the same high-energy Texas club scene, this quintet mixes arty, punk and timeless rock sensibilities in compelling, sometimes apocalyptic songs that convey both a symphonic grace and a pure visceral charge.

Badly Drawn Boy's "About a Boy" (ARTISTdirect/XL). The sweet and sensitive folk-pop tunes were written for the film based on Nick Hornby's novel about commitment and love, but they stand nicely on their own. These tunes are compact but never slight, sentimental but never mushy. Think of the Englishman as Elliott Smith with a bit more energy and optimism.

Kasey Chambers' "Barricades & Brickwalls" (Warner Bros.). While mainstream Nashville remains in an alarming creative slump, this voice from Australia offers a road map on how to regain a soulful direction. In "Not Pretty Enough," she even chides radio stations for their one-dimensional playlists.

Desaparecidos' "Read Music/Speak Spanish" (Saddle Creek). Every rock generation needs a voice against the soul-destroying nature of social conformity, and this generation has at least two candidates in Grandaddy's Jason Lytle and Desaparecidos' Conor Oberst. Musically, Lytle takes a much more withdrawn, even Zen-like look at it all, while Oberst lashes out with punk-like sensibilities that feel fresh and smart.

DJ Shadow's "The Private Press" (MCA). Like Moby, DJ Shadow is an electronica artist who rises above the anonymous tendencies of the genre to make music that has a strong, riveting human component. Rather than Moby's increasing embrace of traditional pop-rock elements, Shadow (Josh Davis) sticks to turntables and other tools of the electronica trade. Yet he is as obsessed with ideas as with sounds, and he creates a world as distinctive and haunting as anyone working in pop today.

The Hives' "Veni Vidi Vicious" (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph). This sensational quintet from Sweden, with its liberating mix of garage-rock fury and disarming pop charm, would be welcome in any era, but the Hives are especially enchanting now because the mainstream rock scene is so humorless. Think early Rolling Stones. Think Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. Think the Ramones. Now, get the album.

Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me" (Blue Note). Although the tone is much softer and the vocals more restrained, there is a seductive, soulful honesty about this young Texan's debut that is reminiscent of Shelby Lynne's striking "I Am Shelby Lynne" album. Whether interpreting a country classic (Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart") or introducing songs by her bandmates, she is an alluring and convincing new pop voice.

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