For every troubling trend in music in 2002 -- the seemingly hopeless banality of commercial radio; the very real harm song downloading is doing to artist royalties; the skyrocketing, greed-driven cost of concert-going -- one quick look at the year's list of CD releases gives me hope. In fact, the crop was so good that dozens of CDs didn't receive nearly the attention they deserved. Therefore, I now offer my Top Ten list of best under-the-radar CDs of 2002. They following may have eluded your music-searching radar last year, but here's hoping they'll be household names in 2003.
#1 Jerry Joseph & The Jackmormons: Conscious Contact (Terminus Records) -- This disc should have pushed Joseph into the upper echelon of rock songwriters. On these dozen taut, rootsy songs, Joseph is at turns tough, heartfelt, chilling and even tender. Judging from the band's extensive touring in the Southeast and on the West Coast, part of country has discovered this talented artist. It's time for the rest of the country to do the same.
#2 Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed The Fish? (Artist Direct Records) -- Like the more-celebrated Rufus Wainwright, Damon Gough (who operates under the name Badly Drawn Boy) creates the kind of genre-defying range of pop music that's sorely lacking these days. Though not as baroque or operatic as Wainwright, Gough still creates a kaleidoscope of pop that recalls everything from Stephen Foster to the Beatles and beyond. This CD is pop at its most inventive and sticky sweet.
#3 Candy Butchers: Play With Your Head (RPM Records) -- Mike Viola's latest effort defines edgy pop. On tunes like "My Monkey Made a Man Out of Me" and "Tough Hang," driving beats, tense moods and Viola's wonderfully grainy vocals go toe-to-toe with some of the catchiest melodies any songwriter produced this year. Add in a few acoustic tunes that are at turns quirky and beautiful and you get an adventurous, addictive gem of a CD.
#4 Anna Waronker: Anna (Five Foot Two/Oglio Records) -- After several years co-fronting the under-appreciated group That Dog, Waronker sparkles on this first solo effort. Featuring big guitars, big beats and even bigger melodies -- all laced with Waronker's honeyed vocals -- this is the potent pop CD Veruca Salt dreamed of making.
#5 Cindy Bullens: Neverland (Artemis Records) -- Bullens gained a measure of notice with a pair of albums released in 1979 and 1980, then took an extended hiatus from record making to raise a family. "Neverland," her third release since returning to the business in 1994, is a first-rate effort that finds Bullens rocking confidently on rootsy tracks like "Hammer & Nails" and "Sensible Shoes," and showing a tough and tender side on more understated fare such as "Long Way Down (I Liked Falling)" and "The Right Kind of Goodbye."
#6 Tegan and Sara: If It Was You (Vapor Records) -- Tegan and Sara might sound like the name of a folksy duo, but most of the time, this pair actually kicks out a smart collection of rocking guitar pop that ranges from the insistent "I Hear Noises" to the janglier "Under Water" to one tune, "Living Room," that introduces some loping country into the CD's poppy context.
#7 Doves: The Last Broadcast (Capitol Records) -- While other new British bands like the Vines and Coldplay got well-deserved hype, the Doves got largely lost in the shuffle. Shimmering tracks like "Words," "There Goes the Fear Again" and "Caught by the River" are as beautiful and evocative as rock music gets, and the sense of ambition on this CD suggests the Doves will be hard to overlook much longer.
#8 Slobberbone: Slippage (New West Record) -- The rough-cut sound of these Texans remains, but with every album, the songwriting of bandleader Brent Best gets sharper and more developed. This time around, blazing rockers like "Write Me Off" and "Springfield, IL" sit comfortably alongside sturdy ballads like "Sister Beams" and "Find the Out." Bands like Slobberbone prove that there's room for considerable artistry within classic bar-band rock.
#9 Josh Joplin Group: The Future That Was (Sheridan Square Entertainment) -- Joplin's voice will remind you of Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and the group's rootsy pop sound doesn't break any stylistic ground, but on this CD Joplin's fast-developing songwriting chops make any lack of innovation trivial. Bouncy, up-tempo tunes like "Happy at Last" and "Trampoline" and easy-going songs such as the title track and "Wonderful Ones" and make this disk a subtle charmer.
#10 Ultimate Fakebook: Open Up and Say Awesome (Initial Records) -- A couple of years ago, Ultimate Fakebook seemed primed for a shot at the big time, having signed with major label Epic Records. But the band ended up leaving Epic without ever releasing a new CD. Listening to the ultra-catchy -- and easily accessible -- power pop on Open Up and Say Awesome, one has to wonder how Epic could have ever let Ultimate Fakebook get away.