In ranking these discs, I've made a concerted effort to only include new studio material on the list, avoiding box sets, greatest hits, and live sets, so four discs that I've found an essential part of my year -- The Essential Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. in Time, Steve Earle's Just an American Boy and Delbert McClinton's Live -- were excluded. So here goes:
1. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
What do you get when you mix a buzz saw blues guitar played at peak volume with screeching drums and songs of dysfunctional love? How about if you toss in a joke or two? What about adding the wickedest cover of a Burt Bacharach song this side of Elvis Costello ("I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself") and a perfect send up of the Mamas and the Papas ("Well It's True That We Love One Another")? You get this year's finest rock and roll record, the gritty, sublimely derivative (in a good way) Elephant by the White Stripes.
2. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
Big Boi and Andre 3000 could have released this big messy double disc as a pair of solo albums, but instead opted to revel in their split personalities with spectacular results -- notably the two singles, "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move". Big Boi, on the Speakerboxxx portion of the program, drenching his B-boy raps in a thick veneer of contemporary R&B, some old-school funk and a whole lot of dance grooves. By itself, Speakerboxxx would have been one of the better hip-hop records of the year, but its pairing with the phantasmagoric and funkadelic The Love Below, Outkast has managed to create one of the most remarkable discs of the year. Andre 3000's contributions are a melting pot of neo-soul, space-age '70s-era love-will-conquer-all funk (à la George Clinton and Earth, Wind & Fire) and a sly sense of humor that turns the entire affair into one long dirty joke.
3. Joe Strummer, Streetcore (Hellcat)
Streetcore is Joe Strummer's straight-on rock and roll record, the disc we've been waiting for since Strummer and his bandmates kicked fellow frontman Mick Jones out of the Clash nearly two decades ago. It is a rocking, rumbling record, a pastiche of straight-on rockers, '60s rave-ups, folk, and Third World rhythms, upon which Strummer sets his most focused lyrics since his days with The Clash. It is an album of memory and politics, of connections and echoes, references to the Clash ("London is burning", he sings at one point) mixing in with ruminations on aging ("I want to do everything silver and gold / and I've got to hurry up before I get too old") and calls to political action and freedom -- his simple, exquisite cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song functioning as the disc's focal point.
4. Warren Zevon, The Wind (Artemis)
Warren Zevon looks into the eyes of death and laughs. Zevon looks into the eyes of death and sings for the future. Zevon looks into the eyes of death and sets himself to work. The Wind is Zevon's farewell letter to the world, a mix of sentimentality and cynicism, the final act of a musician who has spent the better part of 30-plus years following his own path and chasing the elusive muse. It is very much a disc about death but somehow seems less death-obsessed than many of his earlier outings -- perhaps because he knew his time among us was limited. It is a remarkably honest record -- he is "looking for a woman with low self-esteem / To lay me out and ease my worried mind" ("Dirty Life and Times") and wants to "paint the whole town grey" ("Disorder in the House"). He's sick and "may have to beg, borrow or steal/some feelings" ("Numb as a Statue"), but "We may never get this chance again! / Let's party for the rest of the night!" ("Rest of the Night"). And then there is the album's endnote, "Keep Me In Your Heart," which could easily have fallen into maudlin cliché, but instead, thanks to Zevon's cracking baritone rasp, stands as a remarkable ode to temporality.
5. Lucinda Williams, World without Tears (Lost Highway)
On World without Tears, Lucinda Williams continues to tell the stories of women at the edge, women for whom happiness remains an elusive property, cast into the past, in which the present lacks focus and the future, well, the future is not even worth talking about. The disc may feature the most fleshed out and painful lyrics of the year, achingly specific, brutally honest and raw ("Flirt with me don't keep hurtin' me / Don't cause me pain / Be my lover don't play no game / Just play me John Coltrane" from "Righteously" or "I ain't got no hot water / and they shut off the heat / Can you loan me some money /for something to eat / Been out here on this corner for about a week / Tryin' hard to stand on my own two feet" from "American Dream"). And where the strength of her previous disc, Essence was its softness, World without Tears finds its strength in its guitars, a jangly, nerve-rubbing strength that helps this disc defy the easy labels the record companies like to impose.
6. Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (American)
A brooding but somehow uplifting disc, the fourth and final of his work with producer Rick Rubin finds the Man in Black staring into the abyss and showing no fear. Cash had been sick on and off for most of the last decade and that stress and strain lend an added wait to this record, especially to the Nine Inch Nails tune "Hurt", which sounds as if it's being sung from the grave, and on his pained version of "Bridge over Troubled Water". Cash, as with all of his Ruben discs, sings a mix of originals, older country tunes and current rock and roll, with the highlight, ultimately, proving to be the Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus", recast here as gritty gospel.
7. Roseanne Cash, Rules of Travel (Capitol)
Roseanne Cash's Rules of Travel is the kind of country record people should be listening to these days, but aren't. It is a disc full of evocative lyrics and lush vocals -- "44 Stories" and the title cut should have been hits -- with guest appearances from Steve Earle (on the touching "I'll Change for You") and Sheryl Crow. The disc's highlight, however, is a poignant duet she does with her father called "September When It Comes" that not only avoids the kind of smarmy sentimentalism these kinds of things tend to fall into, but rises into that rare atmosphere where the greatest of ballads live.
8. June Carter Cash, Wildwood Flower (Dualtone)
Carter Cash's final testament is a powerful disc that allowed her to bring her career full circle. Daughter of the legendary Maybelle Carter, a member of the pioneering Carter Family, Carter Cash started singing with her two sisters and her mother in their own band, the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. Much of Wildwood Flower is devoted to loving interpretations of Carter Family classics, with husband Johnny Cash and other family members chipping in on backing vocals. The production of the disc -- by son, John Carter Cash -- is first-rate, mixing vintage recordings of the original Carter Family with the updated versions. (It features the wonderful "Anchored in Love", on which Carter Cash's first cousins Janette and Joe Carter and Janette's son Dale Jett join in a Carter clan reunion.) It is a disc that captures a sense both of the past and of the present, a disc that allows Carter Cash to pay homage to her roots while also pointing the direction that best of country music is taking these days.
9. Warren Zanes, Memory Girls, (Dualtone)
Warren Zanes debut solo disc, Memory Girls, can be described simply as a great pop record, sharing common sonic space with Wilco's Summerteeth, while also echoing some mid-'60s pop sounds (Beatles, Beach Boys). On first listen, the disc seems rather self-contained, keeping to a rather narrow bandwith of sound, but repeated listenings help tease out the full array of influences that underpin a collection of songs that Zanes -- former lead guitarist for the indie-rock Del Fuegos -- has described as his way of putting "the dozen ex-girlfriends still rattling around in my head" into storage. There are elements of soul and New Orleans jazz, a good amount of orchestral pop and psychedelic overtones. The production shimmers like the ocean in the sun, with Zanes' rough-hewn voice riding atop the sonic wave, breaking like a white cap in the winter surf.
10. (tie) Dido, Life for Rent (Arista)
Dido writes songs from a grown-up perspective, about breaking up and obsession and unrequited love. She has a fragile voice, a breathy voice, reminiscent of the great English pop singers of a time past -- though her vocal technique is wispier, less soulful than someone like Dusty Springfield or even Petula Clark. On her debut disc, the wonderful No Angel, her vocals were bathed in an electronic stew, creating an emotional core that underscored lyrics that alternated between joy and anguish. Life For Rent is a darker record lyrically, with much of the some of production characteristics, though there is a more noticeable use of acoustic guitar, allowing Dido's voice to float off into the atmosphere like a memory. Highlights are the single, "White Flag", a song about obsession, the pained "Life for Rent" and "Mary's in India".
10. (tie) Chris Knight, The Jealous Kind (Dualtone)
Chris Knight is one of the reasons that musical labels are a waste of time. Ostensibly a country singer, Knight bears only the slightest resemblance to slick musicians like Kenny Chesney who populate the country charts. Knight, when all is said and done, is just a great singer and songwriter, a man who tells stories with the best of them, who puts his stamp on the songs he sings and rocks pretty hard when he wants to. There is a lot of Steve Earle in Knight's presentation on this disc and a lot of Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash in his writing. His voice, with its cracks and fissures, reeks of life lived, granting his tales of hard luck, bad times and bad dudes a real emotional honesty that is lacking on so much of what gets airplay on country stations these days.
Top five songs of the year:
1. "Hey Ya" by OutKast. A rambunctious, get out of your seat and move song -- a dance song that revs at warp speed and doesn't let up.
2. "No One Knows" by Queens of the Stone Age. A loud, guitar- and drum-driven metal romp that always seems to get me pounding on my steering wheel along to the bass line.
3. "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes. Jack and Meg White craft a bluesy dance number lathered thickly with their trademark feedback and Jack's delirious yawp of a voice that demands the volume dial be turned as high as it can possibly go.
4. "Stacey's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne. A teenaged fantasy set to an updated new wave soundtrack, sort of the Knack but with more gusto and more intelligence (and those handclaps are irresistible).
5. "Bad Day" by R.E.M. Call this "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" part II, recast with an eye toward our media obsessed culture and set to a raging guitar.