1. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice)
I've been saying it all year and nothing has changed my opinion: Original Pirate Material is the best British album since OK Computer and nothing less. High praise indeed, but Birmingham-bred, South London-residing MC and poet Mike Skinner has earned it in spades. Original Pirate Material is original and that's the point. It's literally like nothing you've ever heard . . . and that's just the music. Skinner is being credited with single-handedly reinvigorating UK garage, a massively popular genre in England that draws from house, soul, beats, and hip-hop. Skinner brings the hip-hop to the fore, tosses in a bit of ska, and generally bends genres in the most creative and pleasing of manners. Lyrically, Skinner is earning praise as something of a poet, which makes him rather uncomfortable, but if he's going to go around penning lyrics this good, then he bloody well better get used to it. Many of these songs are classics already and insofar as they smartly document real lower middle-class youth life in the UK, they are the equals of much of Ray Davies and Paul Weller's early work. "Weak Become Heroes" has easily replaced Pulp's "Sorted for E's and Wizz" as the definitive song detailing the rave experience. "The Irony of It All" is an uproarious exchange between a student pothead and a lager-loving lout, which manages to touch on class conflicts in an ingeniously humorous fashion. Skinner's soundtrack of 2002 England is completely of its time and yet timeless. A classic for the ages and sadly robbed of the prestigious UK Mercury Prize.
2. Steve Earle, Jerusalem (Artemis/E-Squared)
This massively gifted songwriter is nothing less than the heir to Woody Guthrie, a poet with a sincere political conscience and a populist bent. Steve Earle, not Bruce Springsteen, crafted the most intelligent and thought-provoking musical response to September 11. In the brilliant and hated-by-right-wingers "John Walker's Blues", Earle puts a human face on an easy target of US hatred, the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. In daring to come to some understanding of societal pariahs such as Lindh, Earle shows us his considerable compassion and smarts. The critique of the corruption of the "American Dream" in "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" is among the most political songs Earle has ever written and it's among his best. His sneering drawl on the line "version six-point-oh of the American way" is both cleverly critical and decidedly smart-ass -- a perfect Earle combination. But Earle has hope for us all, too, and offers up "Jerusalem" as evidence of his belief in ultimate redemption and peace between peoples of the world. Jerusalem is a colossal achievement from one of the US' finest songwriters. In almost any other year, this would have been my #1 album.
3. The Libertines, Up the Bracket (Rough Trade, UK)
The first time I heard this record, I was bouncing down Great Marlborough Street through Soho with opening track "Vertigo" blasting through my headphones. The sun was shining and I'd just past Carnaby Street on my way to Berwick Street to hunt for yet more CDs. Seldom has a record grabbed me so immediately from the first few chords. Maybe the perfect London setting helped etch that first listen upon my brain, but successive spins haven't dimmed the luster of this smashing debut album from London's Libertines. Mick Jones (yes, the one from the Clash) produced the record and it's evident right from the get-go. London Calling-era Clash influence is all over Up the Bracket, but this is no slavishly retro affair. These songs all crackle with genuine rock 'n' roll energy. Up the Bracket is so heads and tails above the efforts of the Strokes and the Hives that it would be a real shame if this album was denied a US release. Don't wait for that release. Order this now from amazon.co.uk and enjoy the purest English rock 'n' roll in ages.
4. The Coral, The Coral (Deltasonic, UK)
This merry crew of psychedelic Liverpudlians released one of the best debuts of the year in their native England. Drawing from diverse influences such as Captain Beefheart, The Beatles, Miles Davis, and The La's, these very young 20-somethings have concocted a very sophisticated stew of ambitious music that is quite grand in its intentions. It's frankly very refreshing in this age of US lo-fi indie pop to see young bands trying to hard to create a classic and exploit the production studio's full potential. Ranging from sea shanty-like tunes to '60s British beat and all-out psychedelia, The Coral is an addicting listen and a fabulous introduction to a band that will be producing great music for a very long time. These guys are hotly tipped for US success and will be on these shores come spring.
5. Ms. Dynamite, A Little Deeper (Bigger Beats/Polydor, UK)
Ms. Dynamite snagged the coveted Mercury Prize and released the second-best UK garage album of the year. Not bad for the newcomer from North London, a sassy and sharp vocalist and songwriter already being touted as the British Lauryn Hill. Original Pirate Material should have won the Mercury Prize, but A Little Deeper is certainly worthy of recognition as well. Ms. Dynamite's smart and positive lyrics -- speaking out against drugs, silly gangsta posing, and domestic violence and for self-love -- stand in stark contract to the "bitch" and "ho" talk of Eve and many other US female rappers. Her approach is consistently fresh both lyrically and musically. A Little Deeper draws from a broad musical palate that comes from the more soulful end of UK garage, but also manages to incorporate elements of straight hip-hop, reggae, and dub. She's being primed for US stardom and, if Craig David can do it, then Ms. Dynamite certainly can.
6. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)
In July of 2000, when I first heard Coldplay in London, I knew I had found a really special band. Initially Coldplay was almost relentlessly compared to Radiohead, now they're not undeservingly being feted as this generation's U2, both for their massive popularity and these stadium-sized anthems that singer-songwriter Chris Martin seems to have pouring out of his pen and guitar. Kudos to Coldplay for not playing it safe and simply producing another Parachutes. A Rush of Blood to the Head is more musically sophisticated in its arrangements, which are becoming almost orchestral in intensity, and their sound now seems more defiantly their own than ever before. Welcome to superstar status, lads.
7. Doves, The Last Broadcast (Heavenly/Capitol)
The Last Broadcast was highly touted by NME well before release due to some very strategic listening parties in Soho for the London media. NME's almost breathless adoration of the single "There Goes the Fear" had me eagerly anticipating the new record by these Mancunians. Well, NME was right and "There Goes the Fear" is a classic single, probably one of the best of the still-young decade and it's joined by the equally fabulous "Pounding". Echo and the Bunnymen comparisons are now being drawn and Doves are hailed as rock gods in England. The Last Broadcast is a rare sophomore album that betters a band's debut release.
8. Common, Electric Circus (MCA)
Electric Circus might very well be hip-hop Sgt. Pepper's. It's an eclectic, genre-bending tour de force and should be a required part of any good music collection.
9. The Vines, Highly Evolved (Engineroom/Capitol)
Oddly, the Australian Vines are being lumped in with the Hives as part of the international contingent reviving '60s garage rock. With a heaping dose of Nirvana-esque vocals and Beatle-esque arrangements, that classification is a bit off the mark. Still, the band deserves the attention for creating one of the best pure rock 'n' roll albums of the year.
10. Idlewild, The Remote Part (Parlophone, UK)
After showing so much promise through two earlier albums, Scotland's Idlewild has at last made the record of their career. "You Held the World in Your Arms" was the catchy first single. I heard it first on one of those expensive UK double-CD compilation records and it had me racing to the record shop to find a copy of The Remote Part. Hardly a one-hit record, the album goes from glittering strength to strength, with "American English" being another particularly highpoint. Are Roddy Woomble and company the UK's answer to R.E.M.? Stay tuned.
- My Computer, Vulnerabilia (13 Amp, UK)
- The Music, The Music (Hut)
- The Hives, Veni Vidi Vicious (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph)
- Paul Weller, Illumination (Independiente, UK)
- Interpol, Turn On the Bright Lights (Matador)
- Clinic, Walking With Thee (Domino)
- Solomon Burke, Don't Give Up on Me (Fat Possum)
- Liars, They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Blast First/Mute)
- Royksopp, Melody A.M. (Astralwerks)
- Cornershop, Handcream for a Generation (Wiiija/Beggars)
- Electric Soft Parade, Holes in the Wall (DB, UK)
- Leaves, Breathe (B-Unique, UK)
- Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
- Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (MCA)
- Gomez, In Our Gun (Virgin)
- The Roots, Phrenology (MCA)
- Underworld, A Hundred Days Off (V2)
- Bright Eyes, Lifted Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek)
- Radio 4, Gotham! (Gern Blandsten)
- Wondermints, Mind If We Make Love to You (Smile)
- Schneider TM, Zoomer (Mute)
The Jam, At the BBC (Universal International)
The Who, My Generation [deluxe edition] (Universal)