1. The Neptunes ruled the music world. This year, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams pulled off something that'll be discussed among industry types, music enthusiasts, critics and weird record-store clerks for years to come: They somehow attained a bold, artistic integrity while consistently clocking off commercial tunes for pop performers. While practically every song that appeared on black/Top 40 radio this year was produced by the pair, their best work was, ironically, still on the fringe. In Search Of , their debut album as rap/rock/R&B fusion band N.E.R.D., is a dynamic piece of pop music anarchy -- sincere and silly, poignant and perverted, noisy and nervy, dead-sexy and dead-serious. And radio had no freakin' idea what to do with it. It literally had no equal when it was released in March (after several months of postponed release dates thanks to Hugo and Williams tweaking and retweaking their product), and it still doesn't. In Search Of stands alone as the album of the year. While the Neptunes may be overexposed at this point, I will never get enough N.E.R.D.
2. Two-man hip-hop crews proved you didn't need a boatload of rappers to make a great album. A rapper showing up at the studio with his or her crew may seem on the face of it to be a good thing, but too often the result is just a roll call of mediocre MCs. That's why the two finest hip-hop albums of 2002 came from duos who concentrated on extolling the simple pleasures of the genre, as opposed to an MC-heavy free-for-all. O.S.T., the second album from People Under the Stairs, is just about as purely enjoyable as a hip-hop album can get; it jettisons the egoism and pretentious preening that mark far too many of today's rap releases in favor of simply bringing some giddy ditties to the table. Blackalicious took it to a quirkier, still more imaginative level with Blazing Arrow, which poses the question, can a hip-hop album feature guest shots from members of Jurassic 5, Ben Harper, Zack de la Rocha and Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and still be considered a hip-hop album? The answer is yes. These two albums have a better understanding of the brotherhood of man than an album filled with the usual band of brothas.
3. Canada became cool, eh! As filmmaker Michael Moore recently, hilariously divulged in Bowling for Columbine, Canada is where it's at: a practically nonexistent crime rate, beautiful homes, respectful citizens, public officials who don't jerk people around. The land of the maple leaf is also churning out some pretty impressive soul singers. Despite criticisms that he's just a photogenic Stevie Wonder sound-alike (do you know any soul singers who aren't?), Toronto's Glenn Lewis released the most satisfying -- and most criminally ignored -- R&B album to come along in years, World Outside My Window. Meanwhile, Winnipeg white boy Remy Shand came across the border with a Stratocaster and a smoldering attitude when he dropped his funky debut, The Way I Feel. After listening to these albums, you'll be able to forgive the Great White North for giving us (insert name of vacuous pop diva, overintellectual power trio or bland riot-grrrl here).
4. Hip-hop DJs finally got the respect they deserve. Whether it stemmed from the newfound success of the X-ecutioners with their album Built from Scratch, or the cult success of Doug Pray's DJ documentary Scratch, or the various releases from DJ/Rupture, RJD2, Z-Trip or Astralwerks' Constant Elevation compilation, the hip-hop DJ suddenly became more visible to the mainstream this year. Two releases scratched even louder than those projects about the importance of record wreckers. DJ Shadow paused long enough from his nonstop record archaeology to release The Private Press, his long-awaited second album, which placed hip-hop DJs on equal footing with those who spin techno, trance, electro and jungle. DJ Jazzy Jeff didn't take it that deep, but he did release perhaps the best album from BBE's "Beat Generation" series with The Magnificent, proving once again that rappers are nothing without the DJ laying down the beat. If only his old partner Will Smith had remembered this when he was Born to Reign.
5. Two neo-soul artists invented a new genre: retro-progressive R&B. The CD booklet for Musiq's second album, Juslisen, has a shot of a young kid (ostensibly Musiq) listening to records and eight-tracks on an old-school hi-fi. Similarly, the CD for Raphael Saadiq's Instant Vintage shows a photo of a preteen Saadiq playing bass. The snapshots show the reverence for the history of soul music that Musiq and Saadiq have had since they were young. Better still, this veneration shows in the grooves. Instead of bastardizing this legacy, as so many contemporary R&B artists have done, Saadiq and Musiq expand on it. This is most visible in their popular singles: Musiq adds clandestine acoustic guitar strums to "Halfcrazy," the year's saddest sad song, and Saadiq makes a tuba sound like the coolest instrument ever on "Still Ray." Musiq and Saadiq may be purists, but they're also experimental minds.