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Showing posts from December, 2003

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…