Looking back over 2002, I found myself gravitating to established artists whose work had more substance than the frivolous fluff emanating from the more youthful corners of the commercial market. Escapist entertainment did not in any way fill the bill this year for me. I wanted perspective. And thus the following albums are generally thoughtful, moving and provocative. They have little to do with the worlds of skateboards and booty-shaking, on the one hand, or bloated bank accounts and Beemers, on the other. It was a good year--one of the better ones when you consider the caliber of releases on this list.
1. Bruce Springsteen The Rising (Columbia) Bruce rediscovered his "rock voice" on an album of wise, deep and viscerally gripping songs written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
2. David Bowie Heathen (RCA) Bowie's most solid album since 1981's Scary Monsters. Playful, unnerving and terribly bright.
3. Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch) Wilco bent all the rules in this impressionistic song cycle that played through like an aural daydream.
4. Steve Earle Jerusalem (E Squared/Artemis) A thoughtful, contrary look at America that is no less patriotic for daring to question the moral foundations of a nation drunk on materialism, greed and spiritual bankruptcy.
5. Pulp We Love Life (Rough Trade) British progressive pop group, led by the grandly eccentric Jarvis Cocker, aimed for the stars on this ambitious and often thrilling record.
6. Coldplay A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol) A lovely, restless, and emotionally gripping album about worlds upended and "trouble that can't be named."
7. Mark Knopfler The Ragpicker's Dream (Warner Bros.) As good as any Dire Straits album and Knopfler's best solo disc. His soulful creativity within idiomatic frameworks is impressive.
8. Brian Ferry Frantic (Virgin) A solid return to form for the poised crooner, who touches on everything from Roxy Music-style avant-pop to existential cabaret to Dylan deconstructions
9. Phish Round Room (Elektra) Post-hiatus, this eclectic foursome goes deep in an album of lengthy musical conversations wherein shared bonds are excitingly rekindled.
10. Queens of the Stone Age Songs for the Deaf (Interscope) Hard-rock album of the year: Cream-like vocals, grungy guitars, raging tempos, coruscating wit.
11. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers The Last DJ (Warner Bros.) Petty bites the hand that on this anti-music biz broadside. His sparkling songcraft is an antidote for those suffering from latter-day musical burnout.
12. James Taylor October Road (Columbia) A folksy, autumnal album from a singer/songwriter who's wisely savoring adulthood rather than bemoaning lost youth. A burnished gem.
13. Richard X. Heyman Basic Glee (Turn-Up) Power-pop gem that will put you in mind of the Beatles and the Byrds. Todd Rundgren and Emitt Rhodes, too.
14. Flatlanders Now Again (New West) Three Texas legends (Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely) reunite. As good as you might hope it would be.
15. Tift Merritt Bramble Rose (Lost Highway) The heir apparent to Emmylou Harris's folk-country crown steps forward with an amazing voice and songs worthy of it.
16. Ryan Adams Demoitis (Bloodshot) Prolific, and quite possibly manic, Adams distills five unreleased albums worth of demos into one that's rawer and realer than Gold.
17. Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon Clone (Private Music) Weirdly wonderful and witty collaboration between two musical masterminds.
18. Superdrag Last Call for Vitriol (Arena Rock) Tennessee foursome marries rocking alt-pop sensibility to solid Beatles/Kinks-style songcraft.
19. Mary Ann Farley My Life of Crime (Powder Burn) Farley paints a series of musical canvasses that are, like one of her song titles, "Strange and Wonderful."
20. Speech Spiritual People (Artist Direct) Arrested Development's ex-frontman drops a literate, conscientious and insightful hip-hop disc. If only such a thing were commercially viable.
21. Tin Hat Trio The Rodeo Eroded (Ropeadope) Fearlessly and playfully crossing musical borders, this album will surprise those who thought they didn't like "world music."
22. Josh Clayton-Felt Spirit Touches Ground (Dreamworks) A funky, folksy songpoet, Felt cut this inspirational fare-thee-well right before his premature death to cancer
23. Slobberbone Slippage (New West) Midwestern troopers rock and rage like a young, hungry Graham Parker and the Rumour.
24. Peter Wol Sleepless (Artemis) The former J. Geils Band vocalist borrowed Bob Dylan's band to back him on this folksy, bluesy diamond in the rough.
25. The Hives Veni Vidi Vicious (Sire) Hives, Vines, Strokes: it's a monosyllabic return to guitar, bass, drums and attitude, and some of the best news of 2002.
Parke Puterbaugh lives in Greensboro and has been writing about music for such outlets as Rolling Stone, Stereo Review and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the past 20 years.