How many times can one woman be emancipated? That's the hyperbolic question posed by Mariah Carey's blockbuster comeback The Emancipation of Mimi, the year's second-biggest-selling album. In case you're wondering, the answer is at least three, but Mariah wasn't the only one making a comeback in 2005. It was a year of return-to-forms, from Garbage's gloriously hard-edged Bleed Like Me to Ani DiFranco's understated Knuckle Down (the folk icon's most focused, pure, and emotional work in years) to the Dave Matthews Band's Stand Up (the quintet's most ambitious, fluid set since 1998's Before These Crowded Streets) to Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor (which, in its first three weeks, has already outsold the singer's last album). Fiona Apple also made a comeback of sorts: After a six-year hiatus, the infamously volatile singer-songwriter's latest made its debut on the web, not record store shelves, and it's this version, not the largely-rerecorded release, that tops our list.
1. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
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. Patrick Wolf, Wind in the Wires
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, Confessions on a Dance Floor
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 on a Dance Floor, 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., Arular
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.