Veteran divas, rockers lead race to the bottom

And the worst singles of 2002?

Where do we begin?

The raw truth about pop music is that most of the hit sounds on the radio, regardless of genre, are simply reworkings of a formula. It's the work of industry pros cranking out music aimed at fitting into the commercial radio formats of the day.

The so-called "golden ages" of pop (whether we're speaking of hip-hop, rock or country) are when innovative forces take over momentarily and redirect the mainstream into more adventurous paths. That's what happened so dramatically in the '50s and '60s in rock, in the '60s and '70s in country, in the '60s and '70s with soul music and in the '80s and '90s with hip-hop.

There is innovation now, but it is generally so far beneath the radar screen that you can find few traces of it on mainstream radio playlists. What you do find is a manufactured pop sound that substitutes the hit-making strategies of savvy record producers for the burning artistic vision that fuels truly great artists.

In drafting a Bottom 10 of 2002, the temptation is to start with Kelly Clarkson's overblown "A Moment Like This," which is manufactured pop at its worst.

You get the feeling that any of thousands of capable amateur singers could have stepped into the recording studio and made that record. You understand how the "American Idol" exposure pushed the song to No. 1, but it's still a distressing reflection on the lack of sophistication of so many record buyers.

Even more disturbing, so many established hit-makers end up giving us records as hollow as "A Moment Like This." Given the context of "American Idol," you don't expect Clarkson to be able to call the shots in the studio. But the veteran divas -- from Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston -- have no such excuse.

These are record-makers who can call upon the industry's best producers to help them achieve their grandest pop visions. The fact that they gave us such mediocre work during 2002 suggests they either chose unwisely or they have no vision.

So, my list of the worst singles of the year -- Nos. 1 through 3 -- would be anything from the latest Carey, Houston and Faith Hill albums.

The No. 4 to No. 6 spots would go to some veteran pop-rock and country figures whose Sept. 11 reflections were either unduly bland, such as Paul McCartney's thin "Freedom" and Neil Young's first-draft "Let's Roll," or downright crude, as in the case of Toby Keith's jingoistic "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."

The No. 7 to No. 9 spots would be anything else from the latest Carey, Hill and Houston albums.

And No. 10? Gee, how do we make room for both Creed and Cristina Aguilera?

-- Robert Hilburn

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