By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American Recordings): Only Johnny Cash could make songs so identified with other singers ("I Won't Back Down," "Solitary Man," and "One") sound so much like his own. Tom Petty, Merle Haggard, Will Oldham, Sheryl Crow, and a host of others come along for the ride, but Cash might as well be the only member of the cast. He hasn't sounded this good, this alive, in years. Somehow, the voice of God and the devil live inside one man.
Chappaquiddick Skyline, Chappaquiddick Skyline (Sub Pop): Backed by music-box guitars and don't-wake-the-baby harmonies, Joe Pernice sums up Chappaquiddick Skyline (the band and the record) one line in: "I hate my life." And it's all downhill from there.
Destiny's Child,"Independent Women, Pt. 1" (Sony Music): Try hearing this song once and not end up singing it for the next week, even if you don't want to. They might be the new Supremes, but I'm not sure if it's in terms of talent, or just because Beyoncé Knowles is planning to become the first independent woman in the group, with a solo debut due next year. Throw your hands up at that.
Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis Records): Still not sure if I'm actually in love with Transcendental Blues or just Steve Earle's version of Nirvana's "Breed" on the bonus disc that comes with some pressings. Guess it doesn't matter, since both rescue Earle from a series of well-intentioned if not terribly exciting albums, including his brief and volatile partnership with bluegrass great Del McCroury. "Everyone's in Love With You" shows off his Beatles fixation more than any other song on here, but they all seem to be window-shopping on Abbey Road. The older and sober Earle meets his young and fucked-up version head-on, resulting in a record that's neither rock nor country, just great.
Various Artists, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Epic/Razorsharp/Sony Music Soundtrax): You wanna know why The W, the Wu-Tang Clan's third go-'round, was so weak? Because The RZA wasted all of his good beats on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's retelling of Tsunetomo Yamamoto's samurai how-to Hagakure. (And no, I didn't know who wrote it either before I looked in the liner notes.) Forest Whitaker's gravelly recitations from Hagakure pop up occasionally, as they do in the film, so the only thing missing from the Ghost Dog soundtrack is Cliff Gorman's Flavor Flav homage. Which, if you've seen it, is quite a bit.
Jurassic 5, Quality Control (Interscope): Nothing new here, and in fact, that's probably why it works so well. Straddling the gap between the old and new schools, MCs Chali 2Na, Marc 7, Zaakir, and Akil trade rhymes like baseball cards while DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark stay out of the way like the best jazz sidemen, never letting you see them sweat.
J Mascis + The Fog, More Light (Ultimatum Music): Who cares if J Mascis already made this album?
Outkast, Stankonia (LaFace): Though Andre 3000 and Big Boi lost a step after 1998's Aquemini, how can you fault a disc that contains the two best hip-hop singles of the year--"B.O.B." and "Mrs. Jackson?" Fuck Limp Bizkit: "B.O.B." is where rock and hip-hop (and electronica and funk and pretty much everything else) come together. The only way I know Eminem hasn't heard this is that he hasn't given up yet.
Queens of the Stone Age, "Feel Good Hit of the Summer"; U2, "Beautiful Day" (Interscope): Hands down, the two best rock singles of the year. Though, strictly speaking, any song with the lyrics, "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy and alcohol"--and that, by the way, is the entire lyric sheet--has to have the edge.
Radiohead, "Optimistic (Live from Dublin)" (Capitol): What Kid A could/should have sounded like. It's clear from the security-camera video MTV2 shows once an hour that they enjoy playing this way. So why don't they? The bastards.
The Wannadies, Yeah (BMG): Instantly catchy, with huge choruses, more harmonies than a boy-band audition, and melodies that immediately reprogram your internal jukebox. This is pop music at its finest, 14 songs that shake your ass, loosen your lips, and lower your defenses. Yeah is irrepressible and irresistible, the kind of disc that never overstays its welcome in the CD player.
The Waxwings, Low to the Ground (Bobsled); The Figgs, Sucking in Stereo (Hearbox): An entire library of rock and pop on two too-short discs. The Waxwings and The Figgs don't over-think things here, remembering that rock and roll was, is, and always will be about what three or four guys can do within the guitarbassdrums setup with nothing except blood, sweat, and cigarettes--and in The Figgs' case, a cowbell--to help them along. You may hear a little bit of every one of your favorite records on Low to the Ground and Sucking in Stereo, but it's only the beginning, never the whole story.