Wow, what a weak year that was. Just when you thought things were going to get better, ’NSync sold 2.5 million in one week—then scored a gig at the Super Bowl! Ouch! Those consumers should have been listening to these …
1. Ryan Adams Heartbreaker (Bloodshot) Former frontman of alt-country band Whiskeytown steps out on his own. Where his old band sounded a lot like Uncle Tupelo and its spin-offs Wilco and Son Volt, this one is stripped down, like a more depressed Steve Earle. The songs rock occasionally, but it’s the ballads that shine. The powerful and emotional “Call Me on Your Way Back Home” is a song about finding lost love. It has my vote for the best heartbreak song of the year.
2. 16 Horsepower Secret South (Razor & Tie) The Denver band’s third full-length album finds them with less religious guilt and country influence, showcasing more of a rock band. But the songwriting is intact. “Poor Mouth” and “Praying Arm Lane” are among the best songs they’ve ever done. The cover of the relatively obscure Bob Dylan track, “Nobody ’Cept You,” makes for one of the best love songs of the year.
3. Radiohead Kid A (Capitol) After a very long wait, the usually unconventional Radiohead finally released their fourth album. On Kid A they traded their guitars for a more atmospheric, experimental sound, making an album as far away from the mainstream as they could have. People were shocked. “How could this happen?” Hang tight, kids—the “conventional” album comes out in the spring.
4. Allison Moorer The Hardest Part (MCA) Shelby Lynne’s little sister is all grown up now. Moorer made her debut a couple years ago singing “A Soft Place to Fall” in the movie The Horse Whisperer. On her sophomore album she returns with a set of very personal country songs—none more so than the hidden track telling the true story of how her dad killed her mom when she and Shelby were very young. “Day You Said Goodbye” and “Send Down an Angel” are two of the many great songs on this album.
5. Travis The Man Who (Epic) Another Brit-pop band that went to the school of Radiohead, vocalist Fran Healy and bandmates seem to celebrate the fact that they are losers in great songs like “Why Does it Always Rain on Me?” and “Turn.” Also, look for an excellent (and serious) cover of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time.”
6. Fatboy Slim Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks) Norman Cook’s follow-up to the very successful You’ve Come a Long Way Baby finds him in a house mood. Halfway is full of great dance tracks that will make you want to shake your groove-thing, much like “Praise You” did a year ago. Guest vocalists abound, including Jim Morrison and Roland Clark, though the highlight is Macy Gray. She sounds as if she’s trying to remove her “Demons” on one track, and contributes to a funk-soul groove reminiscent of the early ’70s on “Love Life.” Not a weak track in the bunch.
7. Lee Ann Womack I Hope You Dance (MCA) Third album for this award-winning country girl. The title track, in which she wishes nothing but the best for her ex, is the best here, but the Rodney Crowell-penned “Ashes by Now” and final cut “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” are sure to please. The popularity of women in country music is at an all-time high, and this album is one that stands out among the crowd.
8. Coldplay Parachutes (Nettwerk) The first single is “Yellow,” and it’s the best of the year—a love song about the stars and how they “shine for you.” Coldplay is another Brit-pop band, currently the most popular in the UK. The British magazines Q and Select both voted Parachutes among the best albums of the year.
9. Yo La Tengo And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador) This independent band has been around forever, combining the influence of the Velvet Underground with noise and introspective lyrics. This time out they made one of the year’s best albums. Songs like “Everyday,” “Tears Are in Your Eyes” and the 17-minute “Night Falls on Hoboken” are sad but beautiful.
10. Soundtrack Requiem for a Dream (Nonesuch) A disturbing soundtrack from a disturbing film. The film ponders the horrors of heroin and pill abuse, and gradually gets more and more painful to watch. The soundtrack, the brainchild of Kronos Quartet and Clint Mansell, is equally dark, but not nearly as unpleasant. The first track, “Summer Overture,” may be one of the most haunting pieces ever written.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Emmylou Harris Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch) About 30 years and 30 albums have passed since Emmylou released her first album—and the self-penned “Bang the Drum Slowly,” shows she hasn’t lost her touch.
Richard Ashcroft Alone With Everybody (Virgin) It was just a Brit-pop kind of year. Not as good as some of the UK’s finest, but the lead singer of The Verve still has his moments, especially on the sad “A Song for the Lovers.”
Sinead O’Connor Faith and Courage (Atlantic) She once again pushes her voice to almost unbelievable extremes with “Hold Back the Night.”
Patti Smith Gung Ho (Arista) Patti Smith’s third album since her comeback is also the most consistent. “One Voice,” “New Party” and the title track make it a keeper.
Shelby Lynne I Am Shelby Lynne (Island) The year 2000 gave us a lot of good albums from women in country. Here’s another one, full of personal lyrics and just enough of the alt-country sound to make the kids happy.
Madonna Music (Maverick) Madonna loses William Orbit, except for “Runaway Lover” and “Amazing,” but finds a whole batch of new producers who start where “Ray of Light” left off. “Paradise” and the fun title track make it worth your while.
PJ Harvey Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island) The queen of angst returns after a couple years with “You Said Something,” a sad tune destined to become a favorite. Thom Yorke makes an appearance on “This Mess We’re In.”
Q-Tip Amplified (Arista) Q-Tip is back without his Tribe (Called Quest), and he sounds as good as ever. His sensual rap brings “Breathe and Stop” and “Vivrant Thing” to life. Korn and Busta Rhymes stop in for guest spots.
Sigur Ros Agaetis Byrjun (Fat Cat) The second album from this Icelandic band, and I still can’t understand a word. To be honest, I could care less—it’s all about the music here. The most surreal and relaxing landscapes you’ll ever hear coming out of a speaker.
Grandaddy The Sopthware Slump (V2) Excellent follow-up to “Under the Western Freeway.” But how would you describe them? Lo-fi? Alt-country? Modern? Who knows—just check it out. Another album full of very sad songs.