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Top of the pop

The year's 10 hummers

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Americans may have invented modern-day pop music, but it took the Beatles to perfect it. And it seems this year the U.K. did it again, filling the top four spots on our look at the year's best pop albums. Maybe next year things will be different -- we still outnumber them. But with good pop records, no matter where it comes from, nobody loses.

U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope) -- By sifting through their past, keeping the essentials (swooping vocals, phased guitar) and abandoning the excesses (goodbye belabored irony and ridiculous "fly" sunglasses!), U2 have finally delivered the great pop album one always suspected they had in them. (JR)

PJ Harvey, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Universal/Island) -- The portrait of a performer becoming a songwriter, Polly Jean's Stories reveals the soul of a vulnerable chanteuse rather than a pop dissident. Lyrically, she is at her most personable; if we're lucky, she'll stay that way. (KY)

Teenage Fanclub, Howdy! (Columbia) -- Disowned critically and virtually a commercial nonentity, Scotland's Teenage Fanclub remains the best guitar-pop outfit of the past decade. The unapologetically anachronistic Howdy! chimes, jangles and hums along beautifully, boasting a perversely cheerful veneer that's set in stark relief to rock's current state of self-conscious hand wringing. (JR)

Coldplay, Parachutes (EMD/Nettwerk) -- Parachutes is simple guitar-and-piano songwriting from a bunch of Brits without an image -- sort of like an R.E.M. of the North Sea. They'll never be as clever as Radiohead, but with beautiful melodies like "Yellow" and a falsetto like singer Chris Martin's, who cares? (KY)

Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador) -- Completely confounding expectations, Hoboken's finest indie rock export demonstrate that power is not necessarily communicated best by volume. Haunting and sublime, Inside-Out may be the crowning jewel in a career already littered with an embarrassment of riches. (JR)

Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego) -- Classic Aimee: rhyming cadences, spirited choruses, that wobbly deadpan alto. Hardcore Til Tuesday fans know she's always been brilliant, but Bachelor No. 2 (released on her own indie label) finally got her the mainstream attention she's deserved for so long. (KY)

Tahiti 80, Puzzle (Minty Fresh) -- Now France has two bands: AIR and Tahiti 80. Puzzle's a wisp of an album, but that wispiness is precisely what makes it such a confection; from "Yellow Butterfly" to "Heartbeat," the melodies just keep coming, and with every breath he takes, singer Xavier Boyer sounds more and more like the Zombies' Rod Argent. (KY)

Nelly Furtado, Whoa Nelly! (DreamWorks) -- This year's other Nelly, Furtado is a 21-year-old Latina-Canadian with a distinctive yowl, not unlike Macy Gray's, and her own seductive blend of pop, hip-hop and tropical spice. She's like a funky Fiona Apple -- only happier and better adjusted. (KY)

Go-Betweens, The Friends of Rachel Worth (Jet Set) -- Effortlessly recapturing the graceful elegance of their '80s heyday, the Go-Betweens prove the exception to the old cult-legend-reunion rule. Grant McLennan and Robert Forrester handily prove that pop music made by adults, for adults, needn't necessarily be boring. (JR)

Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (Bloodshot) -- Freed from alt.country's restrictive yoke, former Whiskeytown front man Adams' delivers a stunning solo debut definitively proving his remarkable songwriting prowess. This careworn, ruminative album expertly captures the essence of sorrow without ever falling into parodic self-pity. (JR)

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