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18. Donnie Iris - 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection

I was going to review the new Eagles compilation, The Very Best Of, but realized that I didn't have much to say beyond praising the prowess of their early singles, griping about the placement of Hotel California, commenting on Don Henley's sometimes retreaded lyrical territory, and giving the album an A-.

Instead, I thought I'd give some space to a guy who hasn't had a millionth of the success of The Eagles. I came across Donnie Iris recently, two times. The first was when I was researching my eighties compilations and the charts listed a minor 1980 hit called Ah Leah! The second mention was a recent Fountains Of Wayne interview in which one of the members joked that they were planning a tour with Donnie. The interviewer went on to explain that Iris was an early '80s nerd-rocker.

Well, this got my attention. All you have to do is put the words nerd and rock together and you've got me. If that seems odd, think about the nerd success rate in pop music: Buddy …

17. Ruben Studdard - Soulful (2003)

Here's why I believe Ruben's American Idol win was justified, even though Clay Aiken has proved more popular since the show ended: From the first auditions to the final episode, Ruben was was consistently great, seemingly without effort. All of the other contestents had at least one (but usually several) cringe-inducing performances. But Ruben stayed true, and by the end seemed to be competing against nothing but the sense of inevitabilty surrounding him.

So, I hate to say that I'm quite disappointed with his debut album, Soulful. The voice that Ruben showcased on AI was a throwback to traditional soul men like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Luther Vandross, and perhaps it was too much to expect a similarly old-school album. That sort of thing just doesn't exist in today's R & B; guys like R.Kelly, Musiq and D'Angelo are the closest we've got.

Soulful tries to please both sides, the old school and the new jack, and in the process loses any sense of, w…

Honorable Mention #4: Zwan - Mary, Star Of The Sea (2003)

This was the hardest one to omit from my final list. Zwan came to us in January, riding on a white cloud. This was Billy Corgan's chance to start over, without the weighty commercial expectations of The Smashing Pumpkins. The cover was bright, with bubble letters and a rainbow-colored seventies style graphic. There were free stickers included in the CD case. A couple of songs even had exclamation points in the titles!

Despite the mod-goth image they had, the Pumpkins always had a wide-eyed innocent side, witness Today, 1979, or Stand Inside Your Love. It was this kind of music that Zwan focused on and the optimism was evident in the sound of the guitars and the female harmonies on songs like Honestly and Heartsong.

Unfortunately, the record sold poorly, interest in an acoustic side project was minimal, and Zwan broke up this fall. All we have left is one great album to remember them by. It might be the answer to a trick trivia question someday: Name the band Billy Corgan was…

Honorable Mention #3: Nada Surf - Let Go (2003)

A thoughtful, poppy return from a group that still holds minor-one-hit-wonder-from-the-nineties status. If you remember said hit, Popular (which featured droning guitars underneath a recital of a '50s etiquette manual), you'll barely recognize the band on this record.

The songs are still on the clever nerd rock side of things. There are tunes about Bob Dylan albums, fruit flies, and playing soul records at the wrong speed. But there is also a song completely in French, Cheap Trick paraphrasing, and introspective numbers like Inside Of Love, wherein the singer wonders what it'd be like to "be a me with a you."

This is a great record, released in the cold of January 2003. Similar to the Oscar race, albums released later in the year have a better chance of getting recognition, but not in this case. It just barely missed the top 10.

Rating: A
Fave Song: The Way You Wear Your Head

Honorable Mention #2: Gavin DeGraw - Chariot (2003)

The sticker on the cover of this 20-something's debut record compares him to Billy Joel and Van Morrison. Others have likened him to Stevie Wonder and Jeff Buckley. Sure there are similarities, but he's not exactly like any of them. He doesn't have Joel's flair for storytelling, or Van Morrison's esoteric nature, or Stevie's funkiness, or Buckley's sense of drama.

What he does have is a great voice and a gift for melody. Over music that's piano-driven and muscular, he emotes without going over the top. Lyrically, it's a lot of the same old girl-boy romance dynamics stuff, but if he really does idolize Elton John and Billy Joel, that will change as his songwriting matures. For now, as he sings on the opener Follow Through, "this is the start of something good."

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Meaning

Honorable Mention #1: Liz Phair - self-titled (2003)

Okay, so she tried to sell out, and it didn't really work. Snobby fans wanted Exile In Guyville all over again, and the buying public really couldn't handle a mainstream radio artist who had a song as explicit as HWC. Always striving for that middle road, I happen to like the album quite a bit.

I believe that it's an artist's perogative to do what they will with their career, and Liz decided that she wanted to try to sell some more records. So she wrote some songs with Avril Lavigne's producers, and came up with a semi-hit that sounds like Complicated (Why Can't I). Critics ignore that the other Matrix collabos are sharp, especially Rock Me and the opener, Extraodinary.

If you don't like the results, fine, but I think an artist wanting to become more commercial is less silly than a fan expecting their favorites to stay the same and not take chances. Besides, there have been much worse "sell-outs" in rock & roll history. The Flame, by Cheap…

16. The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)

Though they come off as rock 'n' roll minimalists, I believe The White Stripes are actually very shrewd businesspeople. They came to prominence a couple of years ago with an awesome Lego-animated video, a white and red wardrobe, a cockamamie are-they-husband-and-wife-or-brother-and-sister controversy, and no bass player. All were gimmicks designed to get attention, and it worked.

Critics have fallen all over themselves about the band. I think they were on 9 of this year's 12 Spin covers, and the other three months they were on Blender's. And you know it got out of hand when Rolling Stone named Jack White the 17th greatest guitarist of all time (ahead of George Harrison, The Edge, and Eddie Van Halen…please). So let's cut the crap. The most important question is: Does the music live up to the spectacle?

Well, usually, but I don't believe that Elephant is all that and a side of fries. Yes, there are lots of things to love about The White Stripes and this rec…

15. Outkast - Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (2003)

The standard critic line for a double album is as follows: It would have made a brilliant single album. Everybody with the audacity to put out two discs, from the Beatles and Clash to Smashing Pumpkins and Jay-Z has had this criticism leveled at them. (Jay-Z even tried to take the advice last year, putting out the revisionist The Blueprint 2.1, which critics promptly dismissed). But when Outkast released this double album, the line was nowhere in sight. Why?

Well, for one this isn't a double album strictly speaking…it's two solo discs packaged together. But Outkast is also that rare group that can stimulate both the minds of the critics and the bodies of the people. Critics love them because they are so adventurous and different. They have a vision and a style and they are bringing it to us as they see fit. Now fans might love them because of that, but mostly I think it's just because they make awesome singles. One need look no further than 2001's Dre and Big B…

14. Counting Crows - Films About Ghosts, The Best Of… (2003)

It's weird seeing all of these '90s artists anthologized. In recent weeks we've seen best ofs from Sheryl Crow, Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, and Tori Amos. Of course, groups like Toad The Wet Sprocket, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins already have compilations, and we're still waiting on best ofs from Oasis, Dave Matthews Band, and Pearl Jam, so it shouldn't really bother me. And yet…

I guess it's part of getting older, but seeing career retrospectives from artists whose first songs I clearly remember encountering creates a wonky feeling. It's like, how did so much time pass so quickly, and what have I been doing with it? Was that really eight years ago that a guy in my dorm declared his everlasting love for Gwen Stefani, and we all said: "Who?"

But it's also a proud feeling, because now there's proof that my generation has produced some genuinely lasting, respectable musical artists. Maybe it's the fatalist in me, but I always h…

13. Justin Timberlake: Justified (2002)

Justified, on the other hand, has been winning over new fans for a year now. Taking a step away from his successful 5-member boy band, JT hired Timbaland and The Neptunes to help him become the new Michael Jackson. And damn if it doesn't almost work! Songs like Last Night and Rock Your Body effectively capture that King Of Pop spirit and Like Nothing Else even sounds like a MJ ballad.

Before I go on, I must admit that the version I have of Justified is different. I ripped the songs before giving the CD away, and arranged and edited them when I burned it. Here's my tracklisting:
1. Seniorita
2. Like I Love You
3. Let's Take A Ride
4. Cry Me A River
5. Still On My Brain
6. Last Night
7. Like Nothing Else
8. (Oh No) What You Got
9. Never Again
10. Rock Your Body
11. Take It From Here

Anyway, on the getting personal tip, there are a few songs here that seem aimed at Britney...Never Again and Still On My Brain are both addressed toward a lover who has betrayed our poor hero. But the showst…

12. Britney Spears - In The Zone (2003)

"I'd rather see you bare your soul," special guest Madonna tells Britney Spears on Me Against The Music, the first song on In The Zone. What follows on the next 11 songs is nothing of the sort, and I wonder if that isn't for the best.

It takes a special artist to inject the personal into pop. Madonna has done it, but not with complete success. Michael Jackson's attempts (perhaps understandably) have consistently failed. Recently, Christina Aguilara made the jump.

But Britney has wisely realized that now is not the time. So instead of lyrics about her break-up with Justin, or the trappings of celebrity, we get the club jams, love songs, and come-ons that are the bread and butter of dance pop.

The album starts off shaky; even though Me Against The Music hits some melodic and rhythmic highs, both it and (I've Got That) Boom Boom feature more self-reference than your average Jay-Z song. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like anything that makes my pop mu…

11. Fleetwood Mac - Say You Will (2003)

There are two things I'll continue to mourn about the passing of vinyl as the dominant format for music releases. One is the packaging (I think because the space to fill was so big, artists used to put a lot more thought and effort into it). The second thing is length. While, due to capacity issues, LPs couldn't be too long without spilling into double sets, CDs have 78 or so minutes. So in this CD age, some artists feel it is necessary to use every one of those minutes, like Fleetwood Mac.

Their return album has 18 songs (the shortest ones just under 4 minutes), seemingly under the supposition that more is better. Of course that's not the case, but before I quibble let's just take a moment to celebrate the fact that this record even exists, given the band's turbulent history. It's amazing that they are even alive and speaking to one another, let alone producing vital music.

The band has gone through several permutations, and this latest version is sadly wi…

10. The Thrills - So Much For The City (2003)

Despite their name, The Thrills are not part of the "the garage band" trend started by The Strokes and The White Stripes (and followed by The Vines, The Libertines, The Hives, etc.). They are from Dublin Ireland, and the only way they might be defined as garage is if you’re referring to the carport on the Wilson brothers boyhood home in Hawthorne California.

Like The Beach Boys, The Thrills take a lot of elements and then make sure that everything is in place and nothing grates the ear. Banjo, harmonica, pedal steel, and organ are all incorporated seamlessly, and harmonies are added everywhere they’ll fit. The lead singer doesn’t have an amazing voice (he sounds somewhat like Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips), but it doesn’t matter.

What every review of this album is bound to mention is how the band does not sound Irish at all and how the songs are California-obsessed (L.A., Santa Cruz, San Diego, Big Sur, and Hollywood are all mentioned in various songs). Not since Dre a…

9. Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)

I’ll admit that though I love rap and hip-hop, I rarely get obsessed with complete records in that genre. I like to think that the reason for this is that rap records just aren’t built for uninterrupted, repeated listens, but that’s really just a polite way of saying that I find most of them to be bloated. If it isn’t too many filler songs (not just a problem in rap), it’s grating between song skits, or so many guest cameos that the artist barely appears on some songs.

Jay-Z has been plenty guilty of all of these things in his career. In fact, only three of his seven proper albums don’t grossly commit the crimes listed above. I guess it’s natural that a person this prolific (he’s released one proper album per year since 1996) will have some duds amidst the explosive stuff. But the fact remains that he’s hit some dizzy heights and had some great hits. His 2001 Unplugged album showcases that brilliantly, and when we take some time to consider his memorable guest raps on other artist’s so…

8. The Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic (2003)

There are three things about CD reviews that I dislike. The first is an overabundant use of the second person. Second is when the reviewer goes overboard comparing an artist’s sound to another artist. The third is when an attempt is made to connect the record to some sort of unrelated larger social context.

I just needed to get that out there.

Okay, so let’s say you go into the record store and you come across this record, The Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantic. You know nothing about the band, and there’s no date on the packaging. The cover features a skewed photo of the group standing in front of a spray painted title. It has a yellow border and the name of the band around it. From the way the band looks, and the aesthetic of the packaging, it’s concievable that you might believe you’d found a reissue of an obscure late ‘70s new wave punk album.

And though it was actually recorded in 2002 and released this year, were you to buy and listen to the album, nothing would spoil that not…

7. Guster - Keep It Together (2003)

I discovered this record thanks to a friend who asked for it for his birthday and then was kind enough to play it for me. Every year I have at least one album and artist that was nowhere on my radar but landed in my path even so. I love that.

If you take a quick look at my top 20 favorite artists list (go ahead, I’ll wait), it is probably pretty easy to figure out what kind of music I like best. I’m a sucker for songs with hooks galore, harmonies abounding, la la, ooh, bah bah background vocals everywhere, and ringing guitars dominating. The Beach Boys, XTC, The Beatles, and The Monkees are all staunch purveyors of this sound. So are Guster.

As someone who loves words and writing I hate to say it, with pop music lyrics don’t matter. They’re really just there to rhyme and sing along with and not be distracting. When pop music really excels, it’s when the lyrics are deep and interesting and clever without taking attention away from the song itself. Guster is a band that knows how …

6. Black Eyed Peas - Elephunk (2003)

People who don't like rap usually cite a lack of musicality and an overabundance of brutality. They ignore that rap is really an overarching term for three broad categories: party rap, socially conscious rap, and gangsta rap. Usually none of it gets played on VH1, yet in the last couple of months the Black Eyed Peas' Where Is The Love has jockeyed for the top spot on that channel's top 20 countdown. Of course having Justin Timberlake singing the hook doesn't hurt, but the song also subverts that aforementioned stereotype: it's a very singable ode to tolerance and peace.

What a welcome bit of turnabout! Not since the early '90s (when P.M.Dawn and Arrested Development managed to have hits) has any socially conscious rapper not named Outkast met with commercial success. They have watched their counterparts thug and party it up and meet with big dividends, and found little for themselves. Sure they got props from critics and the assurance that they were elevat…

(Quite) A Few Words On "Best Of" Compilations

Why do "best of" compilations exist? There are several reasons, all of which can be sorted into two categories. Category number one involves benefits for the artist and the record company. Historically, artists released singles that weren't on albums, and thus they had to be collected. Now, it's more cynical, with a best of being a chance for the record company to cheaply cash in and/or for the artist to easily fulfill a part of their contract.

The second category concerns benefits for the consumer. There are many:
1) For new fans, they're a good way to get to know an artist who may have a catalog too big to just blindly dive into (the problem is, if you get obsessed, you'll probably end up buying all of the songs twice when you get the actual albums);
2) Some artists have songs you like, but albums you just don't want to buy. For example, I'm still waiting out those TLC and Matchbox Twenty best ofs;
3) Even an a…

5. R.E.M. - In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 - 2003

It's fitting that there's a moon on the cover of this compilation. Of course it references the hit Man In The Moon, which guitarist Peter Buck calls the "quintessential" R.E.M. song. But it also stands as a symbol of how circular their career has been. When the band started, they were critically beloved, and had a small-but-devoted fanbase. Then suddenly a string of four albums (Document No.5, Green, Out Of Time, and Automatic For The People) produced huge hits, and everybody learned their name.

But really, since 1991 the band has had only minor hits and their fanbase is probably now only slightly bigger than when they started. The follow-up to their masterpiece Automatic For The People was called Monster and tried for a hard-rock sound. It was the first album I bought by them, so it's really amazing that I like them as much as I do. My favorite album by them is 1997's New Adventures In Hi-Fi. The last two albums, Up and Reveal have disappointed me som…

4. Madonna - American Life (2003)

It was kind of sad seeing Madonna in her Gap commercial earlier this fall. Not because she sold out (some artists are just sold out from the beginning), but because she was singing the lyrics to a new song, Hollywood, set to the music from an old one, Into The Groove. It was sad because it seemed to say that her new work just couldn't stand on its own.

I hate to be disappointed by artists I really like, but it's usually inevitable. Very few have a flawless catalog. Still, with your favorites, even if the album doesn't meet expectations, there's usually at least one transcendent moment that reminds you of why you love them so much. Yes Madonna has a few subpar albums, including Erotica, Bedtime Story, and Music, but each one of these had at least one classic song: Rain, Take A Bow, and What It Feels Like For A Girl.

When American Life came out this past spring, I listened to it a couple of times and put it on the shelf because, surprisingly, nothing hooked me in. Bu…

3. Clay Aiken - Measure Of A Man (2003)

Just when you thought that teen pop was a phase we'd grown out of, with Britney smooching Madonna, JT lovin' McDonalds urban style, and Nick Carter reduced to being a celebrity judge on The Wade Robson Project, along comes Clay Aiken.

Now Clay isn't a teen, and he doesn't have the facelessness we first associated with the teen pop sound in the halcyon days of the late '90s, so it's strange that his sound would go in that direction. And yet, the first song on his new album is co-written by Andreas Carlsson, the man who (as part of Max Martin's Swedish songwriting factory) co-wrote songs for Britney, N*Sync, and Backstreet Boys (including I Want It That Way, perhaps the definitive pop song).

That first song, Invisible, is also the first single, and check out these lyrics: "If I was invisible / then I could just watch you in your room/If I was invisible/I'd make you mine tonight." Sure, it's a little date-rapey, but not since Every Breath You…

2. Barenaked Ladies - Everything To Everyone (2003)

"Would anybody hear me/if I shed the irony?" Ed Robertson asks halfway through BNL's sixth album and it's a good question. To the casual observer it may seem that BNL have just started to struggle against their goofy image, which they first acquired back in the early '90s with If I Had a Million Dollars, and was galvanized by the smash One Week.

But it's been going on much longer than that. Their second album, Maybe I Should Drive, was not exactly what fans of Be My Yoko Ono were expecting. There were funny/clever songs like Alternative Girlfriend and A, but there was also seriousness creeping in on a song like You Will Be Waiting. Their next big hit, The Old Apartment, seemed funny but was really about desperate nostalgia. If I Fall and Break Your Heart were also straight out affecting. And so it has continued through their massive success (Stunt) and follow-up (Maroon) with the serious songs beginning to outnumber the funny ones.

When I saw them in conc…

1. Mandy Moore - Coverage (2003)

It seems an odd choice for my first review, an all-covers album by a minor player in the blonde teen pop invasion of 1999. But take a look at some of the artists Miss Moore covers: Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson, Joni Mitchell, and XTC! There was no way I could pass up a list like that, even if the CD only ended up as a dusty curiosity in my collection.

Besides, isn't this every rock nerd's dream…a hot girl with cool taste in music?

Mandy didn't just choose her songs well, she also surrounds herself with good company. Scanning the liner notes we see that the songs feature contributions from Evan Dando, both Rembrandts, Dan Wilson (of Semisonic) and Andy Sturmer (of Jellyfish). The background vocals by the latter two on Can We Still Be Friends are awesome.

The arrangements are good, the players excellent, and the sequencing perfect, but I do have one quibble. While I like her artist selection, I think some of the song choices were too obvious, especially One Way O…