Tori Amos, Rufus Wainwright

The most beloved album of 2001--and rarely has a release received so much across-the-board praise, at least one without a $100 bill slipped inside--is also the most baffling. The concept of Tori Amos' Strange Little Girls, having a woman perform songs about women written by men, isn't exactly novel, though it's prone to create plenty of novelties; pop artists have been gender-bending standards since men discovered the joys of wearing lipstick and eyeliner and women started buying strap-ons. Even Amos has long made sport of male-penned pop hits, crafting inspired, neo-classical Muzak out of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Thank You," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Wrapped Around Your Finger," "Imagine" and "Wild Horses" on various CD singles and in concert. Always she strips down the song, like a thief picking clean an abandoned car, until it's but a skeleton made of piano-key ivory. Sometimes it works: A frustratingly abbreviated version of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," contained on a bootleg of covers, is astonishing--a tremble instead of a roar that dashes all hope of reaching the promised land. Often, it doesn't. The woman's got brains and balls to match, no doubt, but temerity that results in high art doesn't necessarily mean the music's any good.

When a female colleague says that Strange Little Girls is "so Tori," she's dead-on; the album is less a musical experience than an intellectual one. (Another colleague compares the disc, with its pics of Amos in garb suited to the "character" of each song, to the rock equivalent of a thesis; grade C, more or less.) Now and again she hits on the germ of genius: Her "97 Bonnie and Clyde" is the disc's keeper--a sort of sequel to "Me and a Gun," another of her victim-empowerment plays. Over a stirring string arrangement, the killer becomes the killed: Amos, her voice but a whisper, is the corpse in the trunk on her way to the dumping grounds, griping about the stench ("Dada must have run over a skunk") and offering apologies to the daughter she's leaving behind ("But you know your mama, she's one of those type of women that do crazy things, and if she don't get her way, she'll throw a fit"). It's harrowing...but also a bit campy and daft, like a Roger Corman movie set to song or Sunset Boulevard played for tear-stained grins. And her take on Tom Waits' "Time" is simply beautiful; when she performed it on The Late Show With David Letterman days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, it sounded somehow appropriate--an elegy for better yesterdays, a promise for better tomorrows.

But far better than she have ruined "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and far worse than she have made shambles of Neil Young (here, she turns "Heart of Gold" into scrap metal). She completely misses the point of the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," about a high school girl turned shooter long before Columbine; imbues 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" with even more treacle, an impressive feat; rescues 1969 lyrics for a 1970 Lou Reed song about last-gasp sex before the glamour fades ("New Age"); and plays Joe Jackson's "Real Men" completely straight, when Joe didn't. So she dicks around with rough boys (Lou Reed, Slayer, Eminem and...Depeche Mode?), but emasculation isn't to be confused with liberation.

Opener Rufus Wainwright is the real risk-taker on this bill: a son of privilege mordantly bemoaning his decadent lifestyle (too many smokes and candy bars, wanh), a child of culture who basks in opulence even as he tries to run far from it. His is an antiquated sound (Randy Newman by way of Van Dyke Parks by way of 19th-century go-for-baroque) and an educated tale ("I'm looking for the tower of learning/I'm looking for the copious prize"), which means he proffers a beauty best examined from a distance lest you find it all so mannered and melodramatic ('cause it is). But Rufus is his father's son, all right, meaning, like Undeclared's Loudon III, whose "One Man Guy" Rufus kindly covers, the kid's sincerity is filtered through the knowing smirk of someone fed up with being well-fed. Rufus' second disc, Poses, isn't as good as his first--you can only be surprised by someone once--but it's still a tiny masterpiece in a world where Tori Amos is celebrated for massacring other people's songs. And that counts.