1. It figures that Fiona Apple would finally record an album I could get behind 100% and then decide she's unhappy with it. "I'm a frightened, fickle person," Apple sings on "Better Version of Me"—it's an unfortunate truth, but you can't hate her for it, and I don't. "My method is uncertain," she continues a few songs later, "It's a mess but it's working." And, thankfully, the songs are so damn good it didn't really matter how or when the album saw the light of day. Still, the ghosts of Jon Brion's original masterpiece haunt—or, more accurately, taunt—the officially released Extraordinary Machine. For every song that's been improved there's one that's been unnecessarily tooled with. Dr. Dre associate Mike Elizondo's drum programming and slick production values restrict what was once free and spirited. Brion's version of the album (and make no mistake, it's as much his baby as it is Apple's) is more classically arranged, layered with Sgt. Pepper's-esque strings, horns, bells, and whistles. There's magic in the original leaked recordings, a feeling of daring and wonder, a sense of two people locked in a room (or, in this case, L.A.'s Paramour Ballroom with a full orchestra) beyond the reach of radio airwaves and outside context. Brion managed to give the recordings a warmth and intimacy that leveraged the bombast of his Vaudeville-esque arrangements. It also helps that this is Apple's most mature collection of songs to date. In a word: extraordinary.
2. Armed with a penchant for the melodramatic and a bevy of musical toys, Patrick Wolf, a lanky 21-year-old singer-songwriter from South London who stands 6'4" with dyed black hair and elfin, pasty-white features, can at times come off as a little too precocious for his own good. Luckily for him (and us), he's a damn good composer, no doubt due to his one-year stint at Trinity College music conservatory following the release of his solo debut Lycanthropy, after which he retreated to a harbor town in Cornwall, England, to record the follow-up Wind in the Wires. Almost entirely surrounded by water and secluded from the rest of England, the Cornwall peninsula was the perfect place for Wolf to sink into his songs. In fact, the environment seems to have informed most of the lyrics. The album bristles with life, furtive and gothic, like the Cornish cottages and castles around him—you can almost smell the salt in the air, you almost can feel the damp granite, you can almost hear the creaking doors and the solitary caws of gulls "lost at sea."
3. Madonna's American Life was a bona fide folk album, a record filled with literal protest songs by an artist who'd evidently forgotten she'd been making candy-coated ones throughout her entire career ("Holiday," "Express Yourself," "Music," et al.). Confessions on a Dance Floor, her 10th non-soundtrack studio album, was purported to be a return to her club roots. Sure, the album might be pure dance, without a trace of a live string arrangement (blame the death of Michel Colombier, Madge's arranger of choice since 2000), but Madonna hasn't written in such an orchestral manner since, well, maybe ever (credit producer Stuart Price, whose parents were classically-trained musicians). The bridges and ascending chord progressions of songs like "Jump" and "Sorry" are reminiscent of Madonna's collaborations with Pat Leonard, who helped bring a musicality to some of her best work. The album's 12 tracks work better as a whole, not as individual singles, and not just because one track segues into the next. It makes sense that songs like "Hung Up" and "How High" were sprung from the loins of what was originally intended to be a musical score; the album could easily be adapted into a musical—albeit one best kept to the tour stage, where Madonna has always aimed for a theatre experience anyway—and performed in sequence beginning with her arrival at a club and ending with blissful revelation the following morning. But with Confessions, an album sparked by the singer's desire to invoke "ABBA on ecstasy," Madonna doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, she simply rolls with it.
4. M.I.A. 's long-delayed debut, Arular (the political name given to her father, co-founder of a Tamil militant group in Sri Lanka), opens with M.I.A. demanding, "Get yourself an education!" Despite her ticking-time-bomb collages of beats and infectious hooks (in and of themselves enough to pledge allegiance to the M.I.A. consortium), it would behoove even the casual hipster to educate themselves on the tumultuous history that informs much of the album. Born Maya Arulpragasam in London, M.I.A. bounced back and forth between the civil war-torn Sri Lanka and India before settling in the projects of South London and discovering—and learning English via—hip-hop music. While filming a tour documentary, Canadian electro-rapper Peaches introduced Maya to a Roland groovebox, with which Maya frantically wrote most of Arular, and the rest is, as they say, history. It's easy to diagnose Maya's outlandish tech-hip-pop as World Music, that ever blurry wasteland of a category bookended by The Tao of Pooh and any one of Deepak Chopra's many self-help books, but Arular is a head-turning, head-bopping album that defies even that sweeping genre.
5. Nordic pop singer Annie has been making music since the late '90s, when her very first single, "The Greatest Hit," began sending minor sonic ripples across the globe. The track, co-written and produced by her late boyfriend Tore Korknes, samples the debut single by another, more famous blond pop singer, and it's a testament to both Madonna and Annie that M's recycled synth-loop and elastic bassline still sound as fresh as they did in 1999 and, yes, even 1982. "Greatest Hit" almost didn't make the cut on Annie's full-length debut, but we're glad it did; it helps suss out the R&B-influenced dance sound of songs like the clever "Me Plus One" and the midtempo "No Easy Love." Born Annie Lilia Berge-Strand, Annie the songwriter is breathless and unsure of herself, her voice barely registering above a church-wafer-thin whisper and the album ends on a mellow, melancholy note, but just take it as your cue to restart the disc and enjoy the pleasures of Anniemal all over again.
6. Antony's voice is instantly inimitable; he makes the kind of music that compels you to stop talking and start listening. The mind tries to place the vibrato (like that of Nina Simone but more feminine), the swooning diva falsetto (similar to Jeff Buckley but more vulnerable), but his voice is truly unique and, despite the unfortunate aphorism of his band's name and the implications of the album's title, Antony the artist is ultimately sexless. In many ways, it's the listener who provides the gender. Antony and the Johnsons's I Am a Bird Now takes us on a morbid journey from confusion to comfort (Boy George's guest vocal performance on the song "You Are My Sister" is like that of an old queen taking a new one under his wing), and from the beginning of death to its quiet, ephemeral end. It's all surprisingly uplifting, almost in a giddy way, as Antony—or Candy Darling, as pictured on her deathbed on the album's cover—goes flying like a "bird girl." Call it a gay fantasia on sexual and spiritual themes.
7. More gauzy serenity from the Icelandic quartet, only this time they've added more structure to their often-formless compositions, tiny explosions of electric guitar, and lyrics sung in an internationally recognized language! With Takk…, Sigur Rós are one English language album away from replacing Coldplay as the new Biggest Band in the World…and here's hoping that never happens.
8. Worlds Apart, the fourth album from …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is a seamless wartime concept album that attempts to paint a portrait of America halfway through the first decade of the 21st century. It succeeds, in part, by accurately capturing at least a segment of the country's social unrest, but the album's real strength lies in the fact that it doesn't crumble into a massive heap beneath the weight of its creators' grandiose ambition (think Smashing Pumpkins but less obviously beautiful or the Who with a little more grit). It's no surprise the post-punk trio originally set up shop in Olympia, WA; this is the kind of music Courtney Love wishes she could make, and the violent and compassionate Worlds Apart is the record Celebrity Skin should have been. Trail of Dead might not sound like Nirvana but they've certainly captured that band's angst-ridden, anti-establishment spirit.
9. Though she's been "emancipated" before, Mariah Carey claims she titled her latest album The Emancipation of Mimi because she finally feels free to be who she really is, no apologies. And who is Mariah Carey exactly? Like her peers (you know, seventh graders), Mariah is someone who wants to be popular and Mimi expertly delivered the goods by appealing to an urban music-dominated marketplace while simultaneously pleasing old fans. Despite its 14 tracks, the album clocks in at a full 15 minutes less than 2002's Charmbracelet, a testament to the unfussiness of the songs—few even contain bridges of any kind. But whatever the songs lack, they make up for in restraint; brevity keeps you wanting more (just as you start to hear the flaws in Mimi's voice, the padded hook kicks in or the song fades), which is really Mimi's virtue—at least until that glutinous reissue, complete with "We Belong Together" retread "Don't Forget About Us." The original release, however, reprises and builds on the old school Motown sound that was hinted at on her last album. Mimi is one of Mariah's most soulful endeavors and her most consistently listenable album since her last emancipation proclamation, Butterfly.
10. Each year I struggle to decide what to place at the bottom of my Top 10, and I always find myself coming back to Missy Elliott. Good ol' reliable Miss Elliott. Two years ago, Missy's This Is Not a Test! edged out Nelly Furtado's surprisingly earthy Folklore for my bottom slot…but just barely. In 2002, Under Construction also rounded out my Top 10, while her junior effort Miss E...So Addictive placed one slot higher a year earlier. The fact is, Missy's work is best appreciated over time and most of those albums would probably rank higher today, and the infallibly consistent The Cookbook will probably be no exception. In many ways, it's stronger than its predecessors in that, having dispensed with Timbaland, Missy took full control of the kitchen, diversifying her already diverse sonic palette (with the likes of Slick Rick, Scott Storch, and the Neptunes) and proving that her beats and rhymes could continue to be just plain sick. She's still got plenty of ground to cover (I'm convinced she could pull off a straight-up soul record), but there will always be a place at my table reserved for hip-hop's reigning queen.
Singles and Videos
1. Kelly Clarkson's second album Breakaway may be formulaic but it's not the formula anyone expected. She could have played it safe and recorded another collection of vanilla balladry in the Mariah vein; instead, she decided to let her hair down and rock out (at least a little) in a decided bid to "break away" from the American Idol mold. The album's production credits are a who's-who in the post-Avril pop world, the same names who have contributed to recent stinkers by Hilary, Ashlee, and Lindsay, only Clarkson puts the power in the power-hooks and the results are a far cry from the cookie-cutter glop of "A Moment Like This." Almost every song on Breakaway sounds like a hit, and four of them have reached the Top 10 since the album's release one year ago. The second single, the Max Martin-helmed "Since U Been Gone," is all wristbands and fishnets, with the premier Idol doing a damn good impression of Pat Benetar and practically chewing the head off the microphone. Instantly memorable and unequivocally enduring, the future karaoke staple inspired hipster indie rocker Ted Leo to record his own version (a medley that also briefly covers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs's "Maps") and moved Entertainment Weekly to declare that Clarkson was no longer a guilty pleasure but, quite simply, a pleasure. Previous single "Breakaway" may have proven that Clarkson could successfully dodge the sophomore slump but "Since U Been Gone" helped her officially break free.
2. "It's Like That," the first single from Mariah Carey's comeback album set the stage for what would become the singer's 16th #1 (and the second-longest chart-topper of her career). "We Belong Together" is at once understated and over the top, the wobbly diva keeping cool with breathy, rapid-fire verses until the final full-voiced climax that, though scratchy, proves that The Voice has indeed returned—at least on record. The song is as "innovative" as Mariah has been in years while at the same time making direct nods to Bobby Womack's "If You Think You're Lonely Now," Babyface's "Two Occasions," and, more subtly, Janet Jackson's "Come Back to Me." The DJ Clue-produced remix added life to a song that already had (airbrushed) legs and further exaggerated the song's fast-paced vocals. Smartly, Mariah's voice is again the star: verses by Jadakiss and Styles P. are plenty but negligible. Like Whitney and Celine, Mariah's finally got her own anthem.
3. It started out with a kiss (and a U.K. hit accompanied by a not-very-Vegas black-and-white video) and ended up a Top 10 smash in the U.S. "Somebody Told Me" might have been more immediate, but "Mr. Brightside," with its sing-talk verses and newly shot Moulin Rouge-meets-Dangerous Liaisons video (directed by Sophie Muller and co-starring the omnipresent Eric Roberts as the owner of a bordello), turned The Killers into rock stars and elevated lead singer Brandon Flowers to a charcoal-eyed pin-up. Depending on whether or not you've been recently scorned, Flowers's pained description of jealousy ("Now they're going to bed/And my stomach is sick/And it's all in my head/But she's touching his chest now/He takes off her dress now/Let me go/I just can't look/It's killing me/And taking control") can be either comical or harrowing when the song plays on the radio…or your iPod or CD player, which is exactly where this gem (along with Stuart Price's Grammy-nominated remix) belongs.
4. Who would have thought that Ozzy and Sharon's pink-haired, loudmouthed spawn-child would score a #1 dance song in America? Sudden celeb-reality fame earned Kelly Osbourne an insta-deal with her dad's record label, but she was originally positioned to compete with the likes of teen rockers like Avril Lavigne, not Britney Spears. Accompanied by a striking black-and-white music video based on Jean Luc Godard's 1965 sci-fi drama Alphaville (reportedly one of Osbourne's favorite films), "One Word" is an infectious slice of retro-futuristic post-New Wave dance-pop dressed with French dialogue and a charmingly uncomplicated lyric. The track, written and produced by Linda Perry, didn't exactly do for Osbourne's career what "Get the Party Started" did for Pink in '01, but—in a musical landscape not overrun by hip-hop and rock-pop—"One Word" could have been a massive hit.
5. Krumping can be best described as a means of releasing social and cultural frustrations, blending breakdancing, the essence of voguing, and the rhythms of African dance (not to mention the use of face paint) into the kind of nonviolent expression that Martin Luther King could have endorsed. The music video for The Chemical Brothers's "Galvanize," a deep wedge of Moroccan-infused trip-hop featuring a rabble-rousing Q-Tip, wasn't the first to incorporate the street dance style (krumping was featured in clips by both Missy Elliott and the Black Eyed Peas last year) and it wasn't the last (see Madonna's "Hung Up" below), but it's certainly the best. Directed by newcomer Adam Smith, "Galvanize" follows three young boys as they paint their faces like Pagliacci clowns, sneak out of their homes, and make their way to a dance-off at an exclusive nightclub. After the trio slinks past the velvet rope, the black-and-white documentary-style clip goes techno-color, strobes flashing and camera shots stuttering with each of the dueling tribes' manic, confrontational movements.
6. "Hung Up" uses a ticking clock to represent fear of wasted time, but Madonna isn't singing about careerism (or even bringing the people together), she's talking about love. The track embodies the past with its pitched-upward vocals, infectious arpeggio sample from ABBA's "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," and decidedly unironic, archetypical key change during the bridge. "Hung Up" is destined to become one of those songs where the video images are, in classic Madonna fashion, forever tied to the song. Directed by Johan Renck, the clip juxtaposes Saturday Night Fever-inspired garb and dance moves with the patently modern style of krumping (the video was originally slated to be helmed by David LaChapelle, director of the acclaimed krumping doc Rize), a fact that will likely become more fodder for cultural critics interested in the artist's continued appropriation of black culture. But Madonna herself doesn't crump in "Hung Up" the way she vogued in "Vogue" 15 years ago. Dressed in a hot pink Olivia Newton-John-style leotard, Madonna instead stretches impossibly and practices her disco moves in an empty studio, distancing herself from the young street dancers and providing further evidence of her precarious position as an outsider. But the same disco dance that seems awkward and dated (yet compulsively watchable) in that setting comes to vibrant life when performed en masse with the krumpers at a Japanese arcade. Maybe music does indeed bring the people together.
7. For their second go-round, the animated collective known as Gorillaz shook things up by replacing producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura with Danger Mouse, the DJ responsible for last year's renegade Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up The Grey Album. The first result: "Feel Good Inc.," a bouncy, cerebral, hip-rock track featuring cackling laughter, chirping birds, speedy De La Soul passages, and cool, windswept hooks about flying windmills on grassy landmasses from main gorilla Damon Albarn. It's a call to arms to the semi-moronic Epsilons to stand up to big pharmaceutical companies doling out the soma. A dystopian song about anti-depressants shouldn't be this fun but it just is.
8. Jamie Foxx's name attached to anything these days is enough to induce an eye roll and a groan. But if you look past his incessant, faux-humble Ray Charles simulations (and instead look at Hype Williams's multihued burlesque video), Foxx's collaboration with Kanye West, "Gold Digger," is one of the funkiest, freshest singles of the year. Credit Kanye for the wicked beat, flow, and synth lines and the late Charles for the hook.
9. After rumors of professional and personal divorces (the band briefly broke up during recording and lead singer Shirley Manson split with her husband of seven years), Garbage picked up the pieces and recorded their fourth album Bleed Like Me. Lead single "Why Do You Love Me" is fast, filthy, and patently Garbage but failed to spark much interest with the general public or fans disappointed by the band's pop-leaning 2001 release. Like No Doubt's similarly-themed "Don't Speak" (also directed by Sophie Muller), the video for "Why Do You Love Me" paints the band's struggles as a film noir mystery and breaks from the murky black and white just long enough for an evocative, full-color long-shot of Manson in a bathtub pondering whether or not her lover is sleeping with her best friend.
10. Just when you thought Shakira's sandstorm gyrations from "Whenever, Wherever" represented the epitome of sexy-strange, along came "La Tortura," which features the Colombian icon greased up and writhing to the tropical rhythms of her infectious, surprise crossover Spanish-language smash. Latin-pop star Alejandro Sanz watches Shakira erotically chop onions from across the courtyard of their apartment complex while his girlfriend sleeps soundly in bed a few feet away. Fantasy lovemaking ensues, with Shakira exhibiting her latest incarnation of booby-shaking and sexual combat moves in the parking garage downstairs and wiggling in ecstasy on her living room floor while Sanz eats Chinese food. It's a Latin fetishist's wet dream. And the song is pretty good too, handily topping anything off her English-language follow-up Oral Fixation Vol. 2.