The first half of the 2005 Twenty:
Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
The mercurial Ms. Apple resurfaces with a grand collection of baroque pop, contemplative confessions, and intriguing, clever wordplay. The music is at turns playful, delicately sparse, and (quite effectively) dense and Apple is in fine, earnest, affecting voice. Extraordinary indeed.
Beck - Guero
With an intoxicating blend of potent pop hooks, funky rock ‘n’roll and hip hop beats, tasty world music and electronica touches, cool vocal arrangements, and funny/touching/insightful/willfully oblique lyrics Beck and producers The Dust Brothers recall the feel of their classic Odelay collection without merely repeating themselves.
Big Star – In Space
Okay, this is not on a par with #1 Record or Radio City…but then not much pop music is (and those original Big Star records are 30 years old…they should have been massive hits but they weren’t…hopefully they’re being rediscovered by more and more people every year)…but so what? This is a mighty fine power pop collection with two original members of Big Star (including Alex Chilton, an underappreciated pop music genius) and two members of the Posies delivering 12 shimmering, infectious, catchy pop tunes (including the sweetly wistful “Turn My Back on the Sun” and the playfully funky “Love Revolution”, the best dance song that Gamble & Huff never wrote.)
Mary J. Blige – The Breakthrough
Aretha is, now and ever, the Queen of Soul but, that said, it’s been a long while she put out an album with as potent a mixture of heartache, passion, longing, and self-affirmation as this one. The astonishing Mary J. breaks through with grand songs, great beats, and, most important of all, her amazing gospel-infected voice. (Another plus is that the guest-stars aren’t allowed to take over the show…and that includes U2, who team up with Ms. Blige for a soaring cover of “One”.)
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
This collection is ragged, heartfelt, wryly poetic, insanely catchy and utterly engaging...from the wistful opening of "At the Bottom of Everything" to the controlled cacophony of the coda to the closing rocker "Road to Joy". (It gets extra points for bringing in the peerless Emmylou Harris to sing harmony on three cuts.)
Common – Be
Mostly produced by Kanye West, this terrific CD focuses on tight mid-tempo beats and funky hooks (along with judiciously chosen samples) that keeps the attention on Common's smooth flow and his vibrant raps about love, faith, respect, and empowerment.
Ry Cooder – Chavez Ravine
On this dazzling, bittersweet, compelling new CD, Ry Cooder chronicles the tale of the co-opting a thriving Los Angeles Mexican-American community to make way for Dodger Stadium with the help of an enormously talented assemblage of like-minded friends and comrades. Cooder has always followed his muse wherever it took him...pop music, soul music, "world" music, movie music, whatever appealed to him he immersed himself in it with exuberance and reverence.
Shemekia Copeland – The Soul Truth
The blues are all right...especially when they're storming so passionately...so sensually...so powerfully...from the body and soul of Ms. Shemekia Copeland. There are a couple of awkward lyrical patches here and there but those are easily forgiven and quickly forgotten when you're being totally engaged by real heartfelt blues...by real honest-to-Aretha soul music.
Cowboy Junkies – Early 21st Century Blues
A remarkable collection of songs...two originals by ace guitarist Michael Timmins (the evocative "December Skies" and the wistfully bittersweet "This World Dreams Of"), two traditional folk songs arranged by the band (the oft-covered "Two Soldiers" and the anti-slavery song "No More"), and seven shrewdly chosen covers...that comment on the state of our world in a still new century.
Bettye LaVette – I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise
A soul survivor turns 10 songs written by women…Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Sinead O’Connor, Aimee Mann, others…into searing, pure rhythm & blues magic; from the raw, undeniable a cappella opener of O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” to the closing affirmation of Apple’s “Sleep to Dream”, it’s a wonder.
(The second half of the Twenty will be presented in the next post)