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The real Slim Shady stands up

Eminem dominated the music scene in 2002 with three different, urgent singles -- the best tracks of the year.

January 01, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Eminem was right when he boasted, in the hit single "Without Me," that pop music would have felt empty this year without him.

It's a sign of Eminem's dominance of the scene that he holds the first three places on our New Year's Day countdown of the most compelling singles of 2002.

In the hits "Without Me," "Cleaning Out My Closet" and "Lose Yourself," the gifted, volatile rapper touches on three of pop's strongest strains.

If you are looking for pure entertainment, nothing was catchier than the bratty, sing-song boasting of Eminem's alter ego, Slim Shady, in "Without Me."

For something more stark and serious, "Cleaning Out My Closet" conveyed the anguish of childhood despair with the primal urgency of Kurt Cobain and John Lennon.

On a more inspirational level, "Lose Yourself," the song from the film "8 Mile," is a statement of self-affirmation that is likely to remain an anthem for years.

There are other records worth remembering on this nostalgic night, but it's Eminem's world.

In looking back over the music we've shared the last 12 months, here are the 10 singles or album tracks most worth toasting.

The recordings vary widely in ambition and style, but they all have a feel of flesh and blood, a rarity in a mainstream pop world filled with manufactured music whose only goal is fitting radio station formats.

The 2002 countdown:

10. Nelly's "Hot in Herre" (Universal). Nelly's not much of a philosopher. About the only thing he's interested in here is to get some girl to take off her clothes. But you have to tip your hat to anyone who can put together a sonic punch that is worthy of the best George Clinton and James Brown.

9. The Hives' "Hate to Say I Told You So" (Sire, Burning Heart, Epitaph). There's such a wonderful swagger, wink and pure celebration to this garage-rock-inspired track that it seemed like some lucky accident the first time you heard it. But then the Swedish band backed it up live with an attitude and a dozen more songs to match its hyperactive spirit. Can't wait for the next album.

8. The Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize??" (Warner Bros.). This frequently witty, offbeat Oklahoma rock crew scores a knockout in this lushly orchestrated song that actually finds a way to make death a feel-good subject.

7. Missy Elliott's "Work It" (The Gold Mind/Elektra). On the heels of last year's irresistible "Get Ur Freak On," this good-natured tale of seduction and self-esteem is further evidence that Elliott and studio cohort Timbaland are the most consistently interesting hip-hop production team outside of the Dre camp.

6. Angie Stone's "Wish I Didn't Miss You" (J). Built around a killer sample from the O'Jay's "Backstabbers," this tale of struggling to break free from the spell of an old relationship is as stylish and seductive as the best of '60s and '70s soul music that inspired it.

5. Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" (Blue Note). This classy, restrained track is pure pop magic, a record that feels wonderfully organic in an age of so much manufactured pop. All the divas -- from Celine to Mariah -- should sit down and study this record.

4. Bruce Springsteen's "Empty Sky" (Columbia). Springsteen's "The Rising" single, a more straightforward look at Sept. 11, has gotten more attention than this album track, but "Empty Sky" has a more personal, intimate and, ultimately, affecting edge. The song, which speaks about losing a loved one in the World Trade Center, begins with this haunting image: "I woke up this morning / I could barely breathe / Just an empty impression / In the bed where you used to be / I want a kiss from your lips / I want an eye for an eye / I woke up this morning to an empty sky."

3. Eminem's "Lose Yourself" (Shady/Interscope). Written for "8 Mile," this single speaks about finding the courage to reach for your dreams with an energy and command that may make it a rallying cry that is equally potent on headphones or the sound system at athletic events. A more substantial, hip-hop equivalent of Queen's "We Will Rock You."

2. Eminem's "Without Me" (Web/Aftermath/Interscope). The rap itself in this good-natured romp is a marvel as Eminem takes on everything from the vice president's wife to the race issue in hip-hop. But the music may be even more remarkable as Eminem and a team of co-producers put together a rhythm track that is so seductive it has the feel of a sing-along, a nursery rhyme.

1. Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" (Web/Aftermath/Interscope). In the most absorbing single since his own "Stan" in 2000, Eminem tries to close the book on some lingering emotional wounds, including his own need for anger management. But the heart of the song is when he deals with the pain of childhood and his estrangement from his mother. In the sequence, he screams at his mother, "Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me? Well, guess what, I am dead. Dead to you as can be."

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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