Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The Rapture, Ladytron, and The Streets had the true hits of 2002

The Rapture, Ladytron, and The Streets had the true hits of 2002

Off The ChartsTo commemorate 60 years of the Billboard Hot 100, Off The Charts revisits each year since it was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut, yet still made a significant impact.

The year: 2002

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 2002

1. Nickelback, “How You Remind Me”
2. Ashanti, “Foolish”
3. Nelly, “Hot In Herre”
4. Nelly (feat. Kelly Rowland), “Dilemma”
5. The Calling, “Wherever You Will Go”
6. Vanessa Carlton, “A Thousand Miles”
7. Linkin Park, “In The End”
8. Fat Joe (feat. Ashanti), “What’s Luv?”
9. Usher, “U Got It Bad”
10. Puddle Of Mudd, “Blurry”
11. Avril Lavigne, “Complicated”
12. Ja Rule (feat. Ashanti), “Always On Time”
13. Jennifer Lopez (feat. Ja Rule), “Ain’t It Funny”
14. Jimmy Eat World, “The Middle”
15. P. Diddy (feat. Usher and Loon), “I Need A Girl (Part One)”
16. Usher, “U Don’t Have To Call”
17. Mary J. Blige, “Family Affair”
18. P. Diddy (feat. Ginuwine, Loon, and Mario Winans), “I Need A Girl (Part Two)”
19. Eve (feat. Alicia Keys), “Gangsta Lovin”
20. Creed, “My Sacrifice”

What insights into 2002 can we divine from the year’s top-charting hits, other than an abhorrence for spellcheck? It was a year bookended by the alpha and omega of Clear Channel rock—Nickelback and Creed—which delivered powerful ballads that lodged deep in the heart of America’s butt. It was a year in which the nation simply could not get enough of singing ladies being interrupted by Ja Rule. It was a year in which Ashanti roamed free across the studio plains, liberally spreading around guest spots that bloomed into radio hits, like an R&B Johnny Appleseed. It was the year that, actually, only Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” and Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” played on a constant loop—all as part of the Bush administration’s efforts to confuse and distract you from its expansions of the Patriot Act, and everything else on here was only invented after the fact to convince you otherwise. “The Calling”? Nice try, Dick Cheney!

Though if you were to go looking for more concrete evidence of post-9/11 anxiety in this, the first full calendar year we spent living in fear of another massive terrorist attack, you’d be hard-pressed to find it—other than a predominance of particularly overwrought love ballads, that is. There is a sort of pained, existential howling in those hits from Linkin Park and Puddle Of Mudd—one that’s countered by the “Everything will be just fine”/“Chill out, what you yellin’ for?” reassurances of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” and Lavigne’s “Complicated.” But for the most part, rock, rap, and R&B artists were all about sincerely pledging themselves to others, with the kind of sappy sentiments proffered when you’re not 100 percent your loved one will leave work alive. With the notable exceptions of Nelly and Eve, everyone on this list was ready to commit. Along with the more directly September 11-associated schmaltz lying just outside the top 20—like Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” and Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”—this speaks to the generally mawkish mood everyone was in.

Still, if you were really measuring the impact of 9/11 on the era’s musicians, naturally you’d have to look to the ones who saw it happen on their doorsteps. Around Ground Zero, New York was suddenly alive with purpose again, its music scene newly teeming with artists pursuing their own, idiosyncratic dreams with the kind of urgency and fuck-it attitude you get after a near-death experience. And thanks to the breakout of The Strokes the previous fall, followed by the creep of Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights onto the Billboard charts that year, the world was paying attention. Dance-punk, nu-wave, art-punk, or whatever you wanted to call it was exploding out of Brooklyn at a rate faster than hipsters in other cities could copy it, and this—combined with the growing taste-making influence of Pitchfork-like blogs, and the fact that everyone knew how to use Soulseek and CD burners—formed an entire alternate universe that had nothing whatsoever to do with radio, MTV, or Billboard, and would openly recoil and throw stones at the idea of Nickelback being the No. 1 artist of the year. Here are some dispatches from their dimension.

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, “Another Morning Stoner” (February 2002)

After gaining notoriety for its explosive live performances and, to a lesser extent, a pair of albums, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead made its major-label debut in 2002 with Source Tags & Codes. The first Trail Of Dead album to even come close to capturing the band’s unpredictable live energy, it famously scored a perfect 10 on Pitchfork and was rapturously received by fans. None of that translated into superstardom, of course, but Source Tags & Codes remains Trail Of Dead’s defining work. Standout track “Another Morning Stoner” serves as a microcosm of the album: layers of guitars atop a ferocious rhythm section, Conrad Keely’s vocals sounding alternately plaintive and pissed. Trail Of Dead had found its studio footing. [Kyle Ryan]

Boards Of Canada, “Dawn Chorus” (February 2002)

Few electronic artists—few musicians, period—inspire the kind of intense theorizing that surrounds Boards Of Canada, where every song produces a tangle of red string connecting decoded sample sources, references to cults and numerology, and other clues slyly hidden inside the watercolor haze. Geogaddi jumps around that rabbit hole more playfully than most: The duo’s 2002 benchmark contains numerous, near-subliminal allusions to David Koresh and the devil within its winking 66:06 running time, which creates a sense of apocalyptic, possibly prophetic unease beneath all its smeary beauty. That’s true even of the gorgeous standout “Dawn Chorus.” Titled either after the natural phenomenon of birdsong at sunrise or the mysterious electromagnetic disruption named after same—or more likely, both—“Dawn Chorus” masks a female voice eerily intoning, “You may be dead,” under one of BOC’s most outwardly pretty compositions, a carillon of slowly melting chimes and warped, surging synth-brass tones that’s matched by orgasmic sighs (that maybe, might be sampled from porn). It’s a song that invites obsessive, immersive listening; you can see why Boards Of Canada fans are a little crazy. [Sean O’Neal]

The Rapture, “House Of Jealous Lovers” (March 2002)

Sub Pop’s rejection of The Rapture’s “House Of Jealous Lovers” seems like one of those seminal, generational divides—erstwhile guardians of the vanguard officially no longer “getting it.” After all, with this track, the former San Francisco band became the de facto leader of New York’s dance-punk scene (and every city’s version of same), after it was coaxed into screaming life by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who mixed its slashing guitars and Luke Jenner’s Robert Smith-ian gulps with his techno-crunched beats. Seeing the potential for a whole new wave of music where Sub Pop didn’t (or couldn’t), Murphy released “House Of Jealous Lovers” as the flagship of his fledgling DFA Records, officially kicking off that label’s own epochal run. And while it certainly spawned countless imitations from bands that had also heard of Gang Of Four and Public Image Ltd.—and that kind of diluted the whole “dance-punk” thing before it barely got started—there was no matching the original’s power and irresistible pull, a song so undeniable it even briefly made the cowbell cool again. [Sean O’Neal]

The Walkmen, “We’ve Been Had” (March 2002)

Two years before The Walkmen’s breakout hit—the rage anthem “The Rat” off 2004’s Bows + Arrows—the quintet offered a lilting, echoey statement of purpose with its debut album, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone (the most Walkmen-y of all the band’s titles). The sweet, tinkling piano in “We’ve Been Had” belies Hamilton Leithauser’s disenchanted singing about passing time and feeling out of touch, themes that would emerge repeatedly in The Walkmen’s 14-year run. While the nostalgic instrumentation gives Leithauser’s look back a wistful lift, the lyrics, with their lackadaisical talk of dumb haircuts and moving to New York, sound an awful lot like what The Strokes were up to around the same time (Things just aren’t the same anymore, whaddaya gonna do?), but executed in a way that’s distinctly the band’s own. [Laura Adamczyk]

J-Live, “The Lyricist” (April 2002)

Hip-hop was in a strange place in 2002. The jiggy era deflated around the turn of the millennium, leaving a handful of bright lights in the mainstream and a teeming underground split between warring factions of reactionary true-school proselytizers and devil-may-care deconstructionists. J-Live’s first album was a much-delayed golden age document that finally found release in 2001; the next year, he released All Of The Above, in which he made the case for himself as the purest, most gimmick-free emcee around—all mic skill, wordplay, and intellect, Talib Kweli but even more so. Album closer “The Lyricist” finds him running wild through playful flutes and big, round bass pulses, scattering syllables and puns throughout. It’s just as defiantly ideological as anything else in the 2002 underground—the track is called “The Lyricist,” for fuck’s sake—but it’s also refreshingly playful about it, reflecting the joy J-Live brought to his craft. [Clayton Purdom]

Mclusky, “To Hell With Good Intentions” (April 2002)

Mclusky’s second album, Mclusky Do Dallas, landed like a sock in the jaw—a bar brawl of an album with deadly wit and deadlier guitar hooks. The giddy sense of humor underlying the Welsh trio’s balls-to-the-wall rock ’n’ roll is at its pithiest in “To Hell With Good Intentions,” a sing-along anthem that declares the band’s bona fides over a repetitive monster riff: “We take more drugs than a touring funk band,” Andrew Falkous says. And: “We have more songs than a song convention.” As the boasts get more ridiculous, the music gets more frenzied, culminating with the line, “When we gonna torch the restaurant?”—a proposal that, for one manic moment, seems like a pretty fucking great idea. Less than two minutes and 30 seconds later, it suddenly stops, passed out cold on the curb. [Katie Rife]

Sage Francis, “Inherited Scars” (April 2002)

Sage Francis was a natural fit for Anticon, the collective/label formed by a slate of forward-thinking emcees interested in pushing hip-hop into the avant-garde. Francis arrived as a storied battle rapper and slam poet, but his debut, Personal Journals, set a template for just how penetrating, clear-eyed, and confessional hip-hop could get. “Inherited Scars” is one the album’s most difficult tracks, written in the second-person to a sister revealing her self-mutilation habit to Francis. He refuses to blink, exploring the history of familial pain that wrote itself over both of their bodies (“How would your body be different if I still dropped by for visits? / Is it my place to put a smile on your face?”) as DJ Mayonnaise’s dense tapestry of drums urges him onward. [Clayton Purdom]

The Decemberists, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” (May 2002)

The Decemberists arrived fully formed on 2002’s Castaways And Cutouts, and they’d successfully build layers on that foundation again and again in the ensuing years. But did they ever make another song as perfect as “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect”? Funny, specific, and evocative, it languidly imagines three scenarios for its narrator: soldier, architect, and Spaniard, each with its own attendant, bigger-than-average words (“balustrades” and “vagabonds”—could there be more Decemberists-y syllables?), each gorgeously romantic and down to earth. (And funny! “We are vagabonds / We travel without seatbelts on.”) Later songs and albums would sometimes pile on the sounds and concepts a little too high, but “Architect” represents an ideal version of how the band’s uncomplicated sounds and literary ideas can fit so gorgeously together. [Josh Modell]

Mastodon, “March Of The Fire Ants” (May 2002)

The circular buzzsaw riff that opens the first single from Mastodon’s first album was like a prehistoric clarion call, announcing that a new species had emerged fully formed from the primordial sludge of Atlanta’s underbelly—an alpha predator with feet planted firmly in the three-way intersection of mathy virtuosity, hardcore ferocity, and a swampy strain of Southern rock. Another couple years would pass before these bellowing beardos really stampeded to the top of the food chain, beginning their crossover climb with 2004’s Moby Dick-inspired concept masterpiece Leviathan. But “March Of The Fire Ants” firmly established what would stand, for a couple albums anyway, as the signature Mastodon sound: bestial intensity combined with serpentine, prog-rock noodling, yet never so technically ecstatic that it couldn’t serve the primary function of tearing your fucking face off. [A.A. Dowd]

LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge” (July 2002)

An appropriately defeatist theme song for a scene steeped in retro-revivalist scavenging, ironic posturing, and fuck-it attitude, “Losing My Edge” marked the debut of James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem project—and the opening salvo of the new generation of hip, hyper-self-aware bands storming out of New York City. Over a simple, somehow sarcastic-sounding drum machine pattern, Murphy lays out the inner monologue of every early-’00s, prematurely aging scenester whose “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s” has left them especially mindful of just how unexceptional and ephemeral their own cool is, a self-consciously tasteful assemblage of vintage leather jackets and agreed-upon cultural touchstones (Can, Suicide, Captain Beefheart) that ends with Murphy just straight up rattling off his record collection. It would all be just era-specific novelty—an “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” for the Friendster set—if it weren’t for the fact that “Losing My Edge” is just so damn fun, a song whose snark comes married to a soaring sound that would set the standard for an entire movement to follow. [Sean O’Neal]

RJD2, “The Horror” (July 2002)

While DJ Shadow spent 2002 being critically acclaimed for the phoenix-like eruption of creative rebirth displayed on The Private Press, new kid on the block RJD2 signed to Def Jux, took the more commercial potential displayed on the other artist’s landmark Endtroducing..., and turned that style into one of the most attention-grabbing debuts of the year. Deadringer is overflowing with catchy, hip-hop-inflected beats, but “The Horror” stands out for delivering a cross between a ’60s spy theme and the kind of menacing rhythm that would be right at home on a RZA mixtape. While RJD2 would continue to evolve, his first album remains a perfect storm of old-school grooves and millennium-crossing anxiety. [Alex McLevy]

Neko Case, “Deep Red Bells” (August 2002)

There’s no denying the power of Neko Case’s clarion voice, whether it’s singing about love, loneliness, or, in the case of “Deep Red Bells,” murder. Every song on Case’s 2002 album, Blacklisted, has a velvety richness and depth that evokes the damp, pine-scented forests of her native Pacific Northwest. “Deep Red Bells” engages with the region’s sinister reputation more directly, telling the story of a hitchhiker who becomes one of the many “like you who lost their way / Murdered on the interstate” by a serial killer, one inspired by the Green River Killer who’d terrorized Washington State in Case’s youth. Case paints a vivid sensory picture of a young woman’s tragic life and lonely death, comparing the taste of blood to the metallic tang of cheap popsicles, then evoking the comforting embrace of nature around the victim’s bones after they’re dumped from some desolate overpass. As the band drops off and Case’s lament goes a cappella, her voice becomes the closest thing to a funeral hymn these women will ever have. [Katie Rife]

Spoon, “The Way We Get By” (August 2002)

Never content to rest within pop’s traditional parameters, Spoon followed up 2001’s successful Girls Can Tell with the ambitious Kill The Moonlight, an album that expanded its boundaries beyond guitar-driven indie rock considerably. Irrepressible case in point: “The Way We Get By” snubs the guitar completely, crafting a slightly sinister, piano-based ode that brings to mind early Squeeze as Britt Daniel paints a rosy picture of a carefree lifestyle filled with pot, petty crime, and Iggy Pop references. The song marked a notable breakthrough into TV and movies for Spoon after it turned up in the first season of The O.C.; it also established the Spoon credo of never doing things the conventional way. [Gwen Ihnat]

Isis, “The Beginning And The End” (September 2002)

The fittingly titled first track on Isis’ second album, the seminal Oceanic, marked the end of the abrasive racket the band had made on past releases and the beginning of something better: a predilection for sprawling, spidery, occasionally gorgeous soundscapes, the kind for which the combining of “post” and “metal” was made. Around the minute and a half mark of this opening epic, Aaron Turner and company hit a new groove, finding an almost funky calm at the center of the storm, before bringing said storm roaring back in tempestuous waves. Sadly, the real end would arrive just eight years later; a group famous for going long didn’t last very long. But the fresh start forged on “The Beginning And The End” was also a path forward—for Isis, and for dozens of like-minded acts determined to treat metal more like a marathon than a sprint. [A.A. Dowd]

Ladytron, “Seventeen” (September 2002)

Ladytron’s retro-futuristic electro-pop embraces humanity’s ultimate demise in the cold, metallic claws of the robot revolution, but if the cyborg songwriters of the year 3000 can come up with hooks as infectious as “Seventeen,” then all hail our artificial overlords. “Seventeen” evokes the hip poseurs of Warhol’s Factory as much as it does a neon-drenched futuristic dance floor, its deadpan chorus reflecting the cruelties of an image-driven culture built on exploiting youth like a rapidly fading it girl in a pair of oversized sunglasses: “They only want you when you’re 17 / When you’re 21 / You’re no fun.” It’s a song so ice-cold that its layered synths and whispered vocals don’t give it a sense of warmth or intimacy; they just enhance the detachment. [Katie Rife]

Mr. Lif, “Live From The Plantation” (September 2002)

By the time of Mr. Lif’s debut, I Phantom, Def Jux had already released three stone-cold classics from Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and label head El-P. Lif’s post-apocalyptic concept album fit right into that Def Jux’s burgeoning legend, but the album’s best track doesn’t slot into that overarching narrative at all. Instead, “Live From The Plantation” traces Lif’s disdain for the 9-to-5 lifestyle over a trio of bright, cartoony beats from Edan, one of the only producers for whom “bright” and “cartoony” are positive attributes. In hindsight, those swinging horns and beatboxing vignettes are a better fit for Lif’s permanently congested spitfire flow, turning his casual daydreams about murdering his boss into something darkly comic and unexpectedly insightful. [Clayton Purdom]

Broken Social Scene, “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” (October 2002)

The minimalist gem in the maximalist treasure trove of Broken Social Scene’s breakthrough record, “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” forms an incantation around a small handful of lyrics, like its eponymous subject dreamily scrawling the same phrases over and over in the margins of her trig notebook. It’s a blueprint perfected by You Forgot It In People, a series of euphoric crescendos and decrescendos steeped in the instrumental-rock experience of the band’s many, many members. But there are vocals on this too, their signature slow dance—aching, almost whispered vocals from Metric’s Emily Haines, her words duplicated and warped in the studio as more and more sound piles up beneath her. (It’s a backing track so nice, You Forgot It In People uses it twice: The swirling violin figures, floor-tom thrum, and descending bass comedown are reclaimed for the album-closing “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart.”) All of Haines’ Broken Social Scene star turns represent the emotional peaks of their respective albums, but she reached her most majestic heights the first time around. [Erik Adams]

The Streets, “Has It Come To This?” (October 2002)

The Streets were a genuine phenomenon in the U.K., but it mostly clicked with music critics in the States, who hailed Mike Skinner’s debut as the arrival of some sort of “British Eminem.” But what made Original Pirate Material work wasn’t so much Skinner’s speak-singing voice as it was his writing voice, which detailed youthful malaise of a very universal sort. “Has It Come To This?” may have had a blissful garage beat, all cascading pianos and glitching divas, but Skinner tackles it with a mixture of weary resolve and stoned cool, listing his video game systems without the sense of pride Biggie once did. “Deep-seated urban decay, deep-seated urban decay,” he repeats at one point while dropping out the beat, as if attempting to explain the cloud of pot smoke he’s disappeared into. [Clayton Purdom]

The Mountain Goats, “No Children” (November 2002)

John Darnielle’s songs are often their own photo negatives, contrasting brightly rendered vocals with much more somber themes. The most famous example (by virtue of it being the most prominent Mountain Goats song) is “No Children,” the Tallahassee opener that kicks off a musical saga. The album follows an increasingly miserable couple, who are at each other’s throat whenever one of them isn’t pouring whiskey down it. “No Children” is both the estranged lovers’ intro and swan song, tracking their anger, despair, and, ultimately, relief that at least there are no children in this unhappy household. The scathing ode to how love can go so horribly wrong bounces along so merrily that you forget you’re narrating the end of someone’s marriage by singing along. [Danette Chavez]

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Machine” (November 2002)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs were well on their way to much bigger things in the fall of 2002, when Touch And Go Records released their second EP, Machine. A major-label debut would arrive the following spring, when it seemed their success was a fait accompli. With Nick Zinner’s howling guitar—alternately palm-muted and noisy—Karen O’s attitude-heavy vocals, and Brian Chase’s drum pounding high in the mix, “Machine” is all swagger, an appropriate starter for what would arrive on Fever To Tell. The song more than justified the already-significant hype that was building up. [Kyle Ryan]


Clinic, “Come Into Our Room
The Dillinger Escape Plan, “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things
Frou Frou, “Let Go
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Rockets Fall On Rocket Falls
Iron & Wine, “Bird Stealing Bread
The Libertines, “Up The Bracket
The Notwist “Pick Up The Phone
Pedro The Lion, “Indian Summer
Pretty Girls Make Graves, “Speakers Push The Air
Rilo Kiley, “With Arms Outstretched

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