Someone viewing the 2002 Billboard album charts from a foreign land (say Singapore) would probably get the impression that American musical tastes are as sterile and homogenized as American brand names. Hell, someone in America looking at the charts might get the same idea. Familiarity is the mandate. Fashion is the condiment. But a McDonald's hamburger smothered in Kraft's lo-cal ranch dressing is still nothing more than an overly tart version of a McBurger. As 2002 came to a close, McDonald's posted its first losing quarter in the company's history and their stock value has plummeted almost 60 per cent from its high water mark. There's hope.

The face of the 2002 year-end charts doesn't look much different than past years, with the exception that the designer jeans are being worn a little lower on the hips. True to form, the major labels are banking on multi-platinum artists from days gone by to generate even bigger hits. Also true to form, they are hedging their bets with lavish and expensive publicity campaigns for some pretty dismal recordings. For example the US$25 million spent to force feed Michael Jackson's latest opus on the public. In actual sales, that amounted to about US$10 per disc spent just on publicity. No wonder CD prices are so high. But if you were to listen to the major labels, it is the nine out of 10 artists who don't make the charts that are the cause of their financial woes. That is when they're not whining about the Internet. Somehow I doubt that the combined marketing budgets of those nine "loser" acts came anywhere close to US$25 million.

The lasting quality of music cannot be measured out in Soundscan blips. Great music comes from the heart, not from corporate strategy rooms. Which is why you can still buy Woody Guthrie and Gram Parsons albums, but old Vanilla Ice CDs gather dust at yard sales for a quarter (no respectable used CD shop would have them). The fact that we Americans can be duped into buying so much crap is a phenomenon that escapes me. The fact that we cling so dearly to those recordings that we most identify with does not. To twist a phrase by the Drive-by Truckers, "such is the duality of the American muse."

Here are 10 distinctly American discs from this year that you would probably be clinging to long after you threw your Mariah Carey discs in the dumpster — if only you knew they existed in the first place. "Americana" is probably not the right term for them though. Because the messages on these releases can be appreciated by anyone in the world who has broken a sweat, fell in love, or raised a fist at an aloof politician. Music seeping with human emotion.

Southern Rock Opera (Lost Highway)

It seems fitting that a year ending with Trent Lott's political self-sabotage started out with this double-CD set. Released independently by the Alabama-based band and picked up in mid-year by Lost Highway, the Drive-by Truckers set out on two missions, "an unblinking look at the post Civil-Rights South and the death of the Southern Rock glory days." On the first they succeed, correctly pointing out that racism is a worldwide problem that, because of George Wallace, is "conveniently played out with a Southern accent." They challenge the misconception that the South is any more racist than any other part of the world (also correct) and sing hallelujahs to the South's musical history of racial harmony among musicians (Muscle Shoals in this instance but the same can also be said for Memphis). The Truckers make a strong case that the political face of a state is not necessarily the true face of its people. By the end of the year, Trent Lott (from Mississippi) was reminding us all that not much has changed. As for their look at the "death of the Southern Rock glory days," they fail miserably by making one of the most glorious albums in the history of that genre.

Alabama Ass Whuppin' (Second Heaven Music)

No slouches in the productivity department, the Truckers also managed a live album this year. Alabama Ass Whuppin' has numerous highlights and gives a pretty good indication that, like their heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd, they're a very dynamic live outfit. And, at some point during their set, they will not only rock you, but they'll bring you to tears as well. In this case with The Living Bubba, an ode to Gregory Dean Smalley, the deceased Atlanta guitarist who started the Bubbapalooza fest. But if you've got the patience to track one down, a great bootleg soundboard recording from the 400 Bar in Mpls, MN (2/15/02) is even better. That one includes the unreleased Thank God For The TVA, a whole-nother history lesson about the South.

Slippage (New West)

No signs of slippage here, as the little band from Denton, Texas continues to amaze on their fourth release. Brent Best proves again to be one of America's best songwriters with tunes like Sister Beams and Butchers. And the band also proves to be great interpreters as well, as anyone who has ever caught their live act can tell you. This time around it's a cover of To Love Somebody that will leave you asking yourself which blue-eyed southern soul singer originally recorded it. Oh, yeah. It was the Bee Gees.

Respect The Dead (Northern Blues Music)

This W.C. Handy Award nominee will remind you a lot of Taj Mahal, with its offbeat and folky approach to the blues. Ten Million Slaves and Three Stripes On A Cadillac are highlights.

49th And Melancholy (Flat Earth Records)

No low-cut jeans here. This is bib-overall music with an anarchist's bent. If the cover featuring a '40-ish "red" theme doesn't clue you into Gibbs' anti-capitalist views, the music certainly will.

Things Change (Leap Recordings)

The opening Got Away With It seems to poke light-hearted fun at "blue-collar" millionaire rockers like Bruce Springsteen. By the time you get to Weight Of The World though, you know that Bob is the genuine article (blue-collar that is, not millionaire). It you suffer from depression, you might want to take a Valium or two before indulging.

Keep On Burning (Bowstring Records)

Thirty years coming and worth the wait. Documented extensively in the pages of BigO.

The Lost Outlaw Album (Sphincter Records)

Willis Hoover made one single for Monument in the late '60s and one album for Epic (simply called Hoover) in 1970. After recording these tracks for Elektra in 1971 and 1972, the album was nixed after a regime change at that label. That was enough for Hoover. He packed up his bags and left Nashville to become a journalist in his home-state of Iowa and never looked back. In 1997 a fan rescued the master tapes for nine of the 12 songs recorded for Elektra out of a dumpster (literally). This year Kinky Friedman released the tracks on his Sphincter label. This should have been a genre-defining record. Recorded at Glaser Studios in Nashville, this is "outlaw country" music from before the time when Waylon made that term a household name. For music fans, it's better late than never. But it's a bittersweet pleasure when tempered with the knowledge that Hoover never recorded again. Features Randy and Gary Scruggs from their pre-Grammy days.

Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis)

Maverick Memphis producer and piano player (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jason & The Scorchers) better known as Jim Dickinson steps out for one of his rare solo projects. Like his other work, you'll swear you've heard these all before. But at the same time, you'll swear you never heard anything quite like it. Drunken sounding horn players spice up some Jerry Lee sounding country tunes. And he even pulls out an old unreleased Bob Frank number!

Jerusalem (Artemis)

The most patriotic record of the year, no matter what you heard. It's that duality
thing coming into play again.

Bill Glahn was the publisher of Live! Music Review. Look out for Piss On It: The Best Of Live! Music Review, which will be published by BigO Books this coming year.

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