It might not have seemed like it at the time, but 2002 proved to be a major transition point for music. Just as the New York indie rock boom was going global, the last remnants of the 1990s were burning out as the new millennium began to take shape. A new culture was beginning to find its footing, and music was starting to reflect what many saw as the future.
One key element to that was idol stardom. With Pop Idol and American Idol now broadcasting on both sides of the pond, artists like Kelly Clarkson and Will Young were becoming the undeniable faces of pop music, contrasting heavily with the long-haired indie kids who were monopolising guitar rock.
Around the same time, grime and downtempo were starting to make waves in the wake of electronic pioneers like The Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin. Post-Britpop, with its sanded edges and pop sensibilities, was reaching its apex as Coldplay and Doves notched number one albums.
Meanwhile, back in America, a more aggressive strain of rock was beginning to bubble up just under the indie scene. Emo and pop punk had been evolving for a number of years, but 2002 was when acts like My Chemical Romance, Against Me!, Simple Plan, and Box Car Racer all released their debut albums.
Music was getting far more diverse and varied, with room for rock, rap, pop, folk, emo, electronica, and even jazz to infiltrate the mainstream. The record industry was peaking as well, with the last remnants of multi-million-selling albums still giving record companies billion-dollar yearly profits. The collapse would be spectacular, but for any contemporary music fan, it seemed as though things couldn’t have been any better.
With two decades of hindsight, we’re going back and revisiting some of the most iconic and impactful songs of 2002. From across all genres, we culled the hardest hitting and most memorable songs from across the musical world. Break out your Canadian tuxedo and rewind Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, because we’re going back 20 years to the best songs of 2002.
The 20 best songs of 2002:
20. ‘1969’ – Boards of Canada
Having already radically redefined what electronic music could be with 1998’s Music Had the Right to Children, Scottish duo Boards of Canada doubled down on the trippy psychedelia, old-school synth sounds, and wild experimentation on 2002’s heady Geogaddi. At the centre of the album’s epic 23-song tracklist is the swirling ‘1969’.
Densely arranged, featuring manipulated unintelligible vocals and mechanical drum machines, ‘1969’ contains references to infamous cult leader David Koresh and his organisation, the Branch Davidians. All this should make for a real bummer of a track, but ‘1969’ packs in so many loopy hooks that it continues to swim around your brain even as the album hits its final notes.
19. ‘Complicated’ – Avril Lavigne
Avril Lavigne stepped onto the scene as a feisty skater-punk from Ontario, Canada in 2002 with her album, Let Go, which went on to spawn a variety of classics like ‘I’m With You’, ‘Losing Grip’, ‘Things I’ll Never Say’, and of course, ‘Sk8r Boi’. However, ‘Complicated’ stood out alongside the latter as the shining star of the album. Lavigne was 17 years old when this song was released as her debut single, and it would go on to launch a decades-long career that’s still going strong.
Although Lavigne has experimented with her sound in subsequent years, there’s something special about looking back on her edgy teenage breakup song that had millions of young girls captivated and inspired. Even with the attitude of the song, it’s still tonnes of fun to sing in the car on full blast with all your friends. Try and deny it all you like, there’s something intoxicating about this nmumber.
18. ‘Jesus, Etc.’ – Wilco
Wilco fans will likely spend the rest of time battling it out over which album is their best, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of their undisputed big hitters. Following up 1999’s Summerteenth, this album shot them to new popularity and solidified the sombre, twee, complex sound they’re known for. And no song does it better than ‘Jesus Etc.’
One of their most popular songs to this day, ‘Jesus Etc.’ sits alongside ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ and ‘Ashes of American Flags’ as some of the era’s prevailing tracks. We wouldn’t see another album quite like this from Wilco until their 2009 self-titled that often rivals Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the proverbial “Best of” slot. ‘Jesus Etc.’ is smooth, chilled out, and still never gets old, even after two decades.
17. ‘Cry Me a River’ – Justin Timberlake
Is there any guilty pleasure more devilishly delicious than the public break-up song? Sure, we’ve got Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo cranking out awesome F.U.’s to their famous exes nowadays, but the art form of the gossipy mainstream kiss-off was perfected back in 2002 by Justin Timberlake on his debut solo single, ‘Cry Me A River’.
‘Cry Me a River’ is almost drowned out by the real-life drama that inspired it, and most people tend to be on Team Britney these days. But Timberlake’s fully-formed pop star prowess finds him cranking the catchiness and charisma past what anyone thought the former NSYNC singer was capable of. The clattering production style hasn’t aged terribly well, but the monster hook is still as potent as it was two decades ago.
16. ‘The Empty Page’ – Sonic Youth
It’s hard to pick a favourite song from Sonic Youth’s 2002 album Murray Street. Although most people turn to their 1990 modern classic Goo or 1992’s Dirty, Sonic Youth produced hits way into the 2000s, and ‘The Empty Page’ shows off the indie rock edge that Sonic Youth always has in their pack pocket.
The song goes through plenty of shifts just within its four-minute run. Going heavy, pulling back, slowing down, and experimenting with different sounds all find their place in this single track, so it’s no surprise that it attracts a lot of love. However, this one is still a bit of a deeper cut, especially among the rest of Sonic Youth’s discography.
15. ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’ – The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats are impressively prolific, especially after transitioning in and out of being a solo project for singer-songwriter John Darnielle and enduring countless lineup changes. 2002 actually saw two albums from the band, Tallahassee and the sometimes less-known All Hail West Texas, which happens to be the album to host ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’.
Many of The Mountain Goats’ early works have been overshadowed by their mid-career albums, which is not an uncommon occurrence for indie-alternative bands of the era like Modest Mouse, often leaning on self-produced, low-quality audio that sounds, as the kids would say, “Like it was recorded on a potato.” But ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’ is a prevailing classic, especially for longtime fans, and it certainly deserves a spot on this list.
14. ‘There Goes the Fear’ – Doves
The “happy song, sad lyrics” trick is essential to all genres of music. Tried and true for nearly six decades, the old switcheroo between uplifting melodies and deflating narratives never fails to connect, and few were able to make their stories more precisely gut-punching that Doves on their sprawling seven-minute top three hit ‘There Goes the Fear’.
It’s almost hard to properly wrap your head around a sordid tale of life passing you by when the song unleashes a torrent of guitar riffs, propulsive rhythms, and life-affirming melodies. The perfect nexus between fist-pounding indie rock and dour, introspective songwriting, ‘There Goes the Fear’ can still enthral and devastate in equal measure.
13. ‘Lose Yourself’ – Eminem
What solidifies a song’s place in history? Sales? References? Grammys? The number of memes it produces? Placements on lists like these? Cultural stock is a fickle game, but for lack of any real tangible way to count it up, you just know it when you see it. Some songs last a surprisingly long time in the greater public consciousness, so much so that they completely lose their expiration date. From now until the end of time, someone, somewhere, will be pumping themselves up to ‘Lose Yourself’.
Eminem has all those traditional barometers covered: high sales, multiple callbacks from his peers, a few Grammy statues, and a plethora of “mom’s spaghetti”. But he’d still be legendary if ‘Lose Yourself’ was the only song the Detroit rapper ever produced, with its expertly woven rhymes and radically exciting guitar-heavy arrangement. It’s almost impossible to keep your heart down once the song’s monster chorus comes barreling in, and the everlasting impact of ‘Lose Yourself’ solidified Eminem’s place among the all-time best.
12. ‘Don’t Know Why’ – Norah Jones
Easily her most popular song, American singer, songwriter, and pianist Norah Jones captured the world with her slowed-down, jazzy, slightly folky voice, which paired perfectly with the mellow track of ‘Don’t Know Why’. The leading song of her debut album, Come Away With Me, ‘Don’t Know Why’ was a slightly odd choice for the world to pluck out as radio-friendly, especially amid the landscape of late 90s and early 2000s pop music.
Regardless, ‘Don’t Know Why’ was a refreshing take, and it sort of set the stage for artists like Adele, Vanessa Carlton, and Amy Winehouse to rise alongside her. The unique, stripped-down vocals are sweet and wise beyond their years, combining into an unforgettable artist, album, and song.
11. ‘Times Like These’ – Foo Fighters
There was never a more dire time for the stability of the Foo Fighters than 2002. Although they had survived tumultuous turnover in the wake of 1997’s The Colour and the Shape and harnessed their collective power on 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, tensions between Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins were continuing to grow. Hawkins suffered a near-fatal drug overdose at the turn of the millennium, and Grohl opted to put the band on hold while he joined Queens of the Stone Age for the recording and touring of Songs for the Deaf. The initial production of One by One lasted months, cost a million dollars, and wound up going in the trash.
Instead of folding, Grohl rallied the troops with a new composition directly inspired by the conflicts they were going through, ‘Times Like These’. The themes of resilience resonated with the band, and the Foos decided to renew their commitment to each other. ‘Times Like These’ represents the Foo Fighters at their most unkillable, bashing out anthemic hard rock that struck just the right chord with millions of listeners. Even at the brink of collapse, the Foos refused to leave it all behind.
10. ‘Work It’ – Missy Elliott
Perhaps Missy Elliott’s most famous song to date, this track came fresh on the heels of 2001’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’, which in terms of both popularity and musical quality is a tough act to follow. But in true Missy fashion, she came in hot with this fun and catchy song, which became her most successful by reaching the number two position on the US Billboard Hot 100. With a career that reaches back to the 90s and stretches on to this day, ‘Work It’ made history for Elliot herself and for women in rap.
The music video is also iconic, featuring stylized choreography, unforgettable early-2000s costuming, and of course, a breakdancing child Alyson Stoner. Both at the time of release and to this day, ‘Work It’ remains the paramount party song, whether you prefer to breakdance or simply enjoy the Y2K vibes.
9. ‘Dreaming of You’ – The Coral
Any band too afraid to get goofy is a band that takes themselves too seriously. “Jaunty” wasn’t exactly en vogue during the era of detached indie rock coolness, but The Coral proved that great songs can come from even the lightest and most vivacious of places when they let loose on their bouncy 2002 single ‘Dreaming of You’.
Featuring that year’s most buoyant bass line and complete with doo-wop backing vocals, ‘Dreaming of You’ was completely uninterested in looking or sounding like any other indie rock track that decade. Instead, The Coral hyper-focused on hooks to create one of the most joyous and engaging break up songs of the 2000s.
8. ‘Weak Become Heroes’ – The Streets
Grime is everywhere nowadays: on the charts, in the clubs, and most likely populating the playlists of you or someone you love right this very second. All genres have origin stories, but few happen to be as direct and fully formed as when Mike Skinner adopted the moniker of The Streets and dropped his debut LP, Original Pirate Material.
Fusing the lo-fi sounds of New York hip hop with a distinctly British view of modern society, Skinner goes into overdrive as he unleashes it all on ‘Weak Becomes Heroes’. Equally nostalgic and futuristic, the track sums up damn-near everyone’s experience as a young kid trying to be cool and live for the moment before it all slips away. Skinner finds his own zone and keeps the beat going for five rapturous and glorious minutes, with ‘Weak Become Heroes’ signalling that a new style was here to stay.
7. ‘Get Free’ – The Vines
The early 2000s were an amazing time for ripping guitar rock. Anywhere you turned, whether it was to The Strokes, The White Stripes, or The Hives, indie rock was loud, distorted, and unabashed in its intensity. But when it came to pure energy and impact, few bands could match the full-throated excitement of The Vines and their garage rock epic ‘Get Free’.
How singer Craig Nicholls manages to keep his throat intact through the voice-shredding two minutes of ‘Get Free’ is anyone’s guess, and every new scream connects on a primal level. Behind him, the band unleash a torrent of riffs and rhythms that sounds like a sonic tornado. ‘Get Free’ has no fat and no time wasted, and of all the indie-rock scenesters who emerged early in the decade, no one could match the white-hot fury of The Vines.
6. ‘Guess I’m Doing Fine’ – Beck
From homeless coffeeshop crooner to novelty rap one-hit-wonder to alternative sampledelia legend to funk-rock party animal, Beck Hanson was unmatched in terms of eclecticism and critical acclaim heading into the 2000s. But a heartrending breakup got him to revisit his folk past, and Sea Changes represents yet another change of pace from an artist with more left turns than a NASCAR track.
Beck build his reputation on being enigmatic and unknowable, but ‘Guess I’m Doing Fine’ invites you directly into his subconscious to feel the sadness and despair in every aching detail. Beck was already a man for all seasons, but Sea Changes proved that the man could truly do anything he wanted. Stirring and beautifully melancholy, ‘Guess I’m Doing Fine’ is the perfect break-up song, forever trapped in amber and waiting to be rediscovered by new generations of lovelorn romantics.
5. ‘Do You Realize??’ – The Flaming Lips
It can be hard to believe that The Flaming Lips are already twenty years old, but they’ve been going strong since 1983. Their most popular album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, came out in 2002, which includes their hit song ‘Do You Realize??’ In this somewhat dreamy, bouncy, acoustic song, The Flaming Lips connect to their signature sound in an uplifted, festival-friendly track that’s recognizable to this day.
Even with the upbeat swing of the tune, the lyrics take on a wistful, forlorn tone, with lines like “And instead of saying all of your goodbyes/ Let them know you realize that life goes fast/ It’s hard to make the good things last,” this song not only became a nostalgic alternative hit, but also an emotional and personal time capsule.
4. ‘No One Knows’ – Queens of the Stone Age
Emerging from the anti-mainstream desert-scorched world of stoner rock, Queens of the Stone Age might have been the least likely candidates to cross over into the mainstream during the early 2000s. But coming equipped with expert wordsmith Mark Lanegan and earth-shaking drummer Dave Grohl to help elevate their sound, Josh Homme and Nick Olivari weaponised their growly attack with honest-to-god pop-adjacent hooks on the hard-rock juggernaut ‘No One Knows’.
Nearly any track from Songs for the Deaf could have been placed on this list, with special shoutouts for ‘Go With the Flow’ and Olivari’s ‘You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire’. But ‘No One Knows’ remains the finest example of fuzz-soaked guitar rock reaching millions of ears just as music was beginning to permanently move away from the form. Fine-tuned for maximum impact, ‘No One Knows’ is a riff-rocker for the ages and 2002’s finest hard rock moment.
3. ‘Losing My Edge’ – LCD Soundsystem
LCD Soundsystem is one of the most quintessential bands of early-2000s alternative rock. Their electric, percussion and piano-driven songs always have a bit of an awkwardly infectious and attractive quality to them, and ‘Losing My Edge’ is a perfect example of this quality. This single came out the year the band formed in 2002, three years ahead of their debut self-titled album.
Although most people know this song for having been included on their first album, it was actually released as a 12-inch single through DFA records. This track was a unique and intriguing way to burst onto the scene. With a slightly off-kilter beat and repetition of spoken-word lyrics, it makes for the perfect dance track with just enough of a sense of darkness behind it.
2. ‘NYC’ – Interpol
9/11 changed New York. What was once, and always would be, a hardscrabble town became a cultural centre for the brotherhood of man. For perhaps the only time, the weeks after the September 11th attacks made the streets of New York kind, compassionate, and loving. That’s not what Paul Banks is singing about in ‘NYC’. Most of the great songs that were co-opted as New York anthems after the attacks were written before that fateful Tuesday morning (most of those written after, like Paul McCartney’s ‘Freedom’, are better left undiscussed).
‘NYC’ does indeed celebrate New York, but it celebrates the faults, the grime, and the ugliness that pre-and-post-9/11 New York is truly known for. It’s a love letter for a place of opportunity, hard work, failure, and, yes, freedom. But you can’t release an album in 2002 with a song called ‘NYC’ and not have people make a very specific connection. Paul Banks didn’t write ‘NYC’ about 9/11. But that doesn’t matter, because, for a lot of people, that song and that event will always be linked. And that’s ok, because ‘NYC’ truly is a love letter to the city. Just not in the way a lot of people saw it.
1. ‘Time for Heroes’ – The Libertines
When the baton of Britpop dropped to the ground amid a nu-metal delay, The Libertines were busy dealing with their own batons, as they came flying towards their heads. In 2000, Carl Barat and Pete Doherty were ducking and diving as riots broke out across the capital. It would inspire the musical duo to write one of their most impassioned and powerful explosions of quasi-punk poetry, ‘Time For Heroes’. An evolution of the Britpop sound the track has been a mainstay of their live shows from the near-beginning of the group’s voyage to the crest of the British rock wave.
Conceived the moment Doherty was caught across the brow with an extended truncheon from one of Her Majesty’s finest while checking his hair, the song is an impulsive and beautiful thrust and pull, mirroring the environment in which it originated. The track was a composite of the May Day, about which Doherty later remarked: “I felt like there were so many things wrong, and I didn’t know where to channel it. For that moment, I was with people who believed the same thing.”
The song would find its way on to Up the Bracket, The Libertines’ debut album produced by The Clash’s Mick Jones. Already compared to London’s most cherishable punks, Jones may well have made the connection between this song and his band’s own track ‘White Riot’, famously inspired by Joe Strummer’s experience of the Notting Hill riots in 1976. ‘Time for Heroes’ felt similarly seminal for a new millennial generation as it ripped across the airwaves and professed that a new band was about to change the cultural landscape, if only for a short while.