By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
The best albums I heard this year held true to the eternal verities of melody and song form. I list them in alphabetical order because, on any given day, any of these could be my favorite.
Neko Case and Her Boyfriends, The Virginian (Bloodshot). This is a compilation of material Case has recorded over the last few years, but none of it has crossed my path before. She's an amazingly gifted country singer who sometimes writes, and more often finds, songs that look at love from angles few have described in music. She handles torch ballads and exuberant dance numbers with ease.
Christine Collister, Dark Gift of Time (Koch). Collister sings songs by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, David Olney, Billie Holiday, Nick Drake and Robert Wyatt, and each sounds as if she invented it. That's because of her rich, stunning alto, her faith in the words, and the invention of her arrangements.
Continental Drifters, Vermillion (Blue Rose). Three great singer/songwriters team up in this amazing band. Peter Holsapple, once of the dB's, and Vicki Peterson, once of the Bangles, are known quantities. Susan Cowsill, once of the Cowsills, turns out to be their match. If the Band had been in the Paisley Underground, they might have sounded like this. (Available from Miles of Music, (818-992-8302.)
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory (Mercury). Though All This Useless Beauty had more variety and greater depth, this unrelenting collection of cleverly revealed heartbreak makes three masterful outings in a row from Costello. It's also a brilliant return to melodic form from Bacharach. Costello may strain to reach the high notes, but the songs just keep revealing new depths with every listen.
Michael Fracasso, World in a Drop of Water (Bohemia Beat). What if some New York singer/songwriter like Willie Nile were to move to Austin, Texas, and soak up the singer/songwriter tradition of, say, Butch Hancock? You'd probably get something like this album, full of delightfully catchy songs populated with maddeningly quirky characters. Charlie Sexton prods things along with a band that recalls nothing so much as Graham Parker's Rumour.
Nick Lowe, Dig My Mood (Upstart). No longer the king of infectious power-pop, or even up-tempo country, Lowe sounds as if he's been listening to '60s countrypolitan artists like Ray Price. At first, it put me off, but these songs get under the skin. Lowe's voice hugs the tunes close to the microphone, and the words offer harrowing visions of loneliness.
Madonna, Ray of Light (Maverick). Yeah, she's into spirituality, and she loves her baby. Yeah, she's hired William Orbit to provide some contemporary dance spin to her sound. But her real brilliance lies in the tunes. Madonna is a great songsmith, coming up with melodies that fit her voice like a glove yet which are eminently singable by others. I await a decent tribute album, with several cuts from this one.
Sweet Honey in the Rock, Twenty-Five (Ryko). Is there anything in great music that Sweet Honey in the Rock can't do? These five women sing a cappella with unparalleled technical virtuosity, offering beautiful melodies, rhythmic vitality, unconventional harmonies, invigorating counterpoint, spine-tingling passion, all handled with unparalleled technical virtuosity. Your jaw will drop half-a-dozen times -- wait till you hear Aisha Kahlil start scatting on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."
Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks). His mother, Kate McGarrigle, taught him to love intricately woven melodies. His father, Loudon Wainwright III, taught him to deliver them with panache and wit. Somehow, he picked up a passion for opera and show tunes. Rufus Wainwright was probably the most original artist to debut this year and, because he's only just hitting drinking age, he's also the most promising. Stunning string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks only made Wainwright's great songs even better.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury). Williams possesses the most insinuating vocal delivery in contemporary music. She can sneak five layers of emotional complexity into something as simple as a brief pause between two words. She writes songs that reveal whole worlds of meaning, slides them into country melodic traditions and has them perked up with perfectly designed guitar and keyboard parts, provided here by a host of companions, including former partner Gurf Morlix.
Ah, the year-end list.
Nada Surf's The Proximity Effect (Elektra) continues to affirm that there's a lot to this group, long beyond the one-hit-wonder status inflicted on them by the briefly popular "Popular." This New York three-piece produces crafty power-pop with just enough of an edge ("Mother's Day") to keep them an arm's length from the skinny-tie underground. They rock, with cleverness, skill and humor.
Hooverphonic's Blue Wonder Power Milk (Epic) is the kind of heavenly music once produced in a far-more-downbeat fashion by 4AD. Now, "ethereal" hovers and soars, with drum & bass rhythms backing beautiful melodies and gorgeous moodscapes. Absolutely thrilling.
DJ Shadow's Preemptive Strike (Mo'Wax) culled the best singles from this major turntablist, including the shoulda-hit "High Noon" with its funky, Wild West guitar and the retro-futurism of "Organ Donor." More effective than UNKLE's highly anticipated debut, though that one's got some moments, too.