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The year's best: from Kanye West to Loretta Lynn

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After Janet Jackson's bare breast made a quick appearance during the Super Bowl half-time show back in February, as America watched two aloof, moneyed men run for president, pop artists moved in divergent directions in 2004.

Either they adhered to a somewhat conservative approach, incorporating safe, classy elements into their image and music (think Alicia Keys, who straightened her hair, put on some heels and crooned over pseudo-classical piano runs; and Kanye West, who rocked a white suit and rapped about Jesus); or they flourished in shrill, jaggedly aggressive productions (think "Lose My Breath" by Destiny's Child or anything by Lil' Jon, the self-proclaimed king of crunk).

As for albums, some were able to smoothly meld moderately conservative conventions with sweaty crunkness: Usher's Confessions, the biggest album of 2004 with more than 7 million copies sold, is the finest example. However, Destiny's Child's Destiny Fulfilled faltered as Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle tried to reconcile their sweet and salty sides. Some of the best albums of 2004 dusted off classic harmonies and melodies, making them feel new again; some looked backward and forward all at once. Here are my picks, in no particular order.

Rahsaan Patterson, After Hours: Since his 1997 self-titled debut, the New York native has produced solidly organic soul music with integrity and heart, which means you seldom hear the singer-songwriter on the radio. But lovers of modern soul (or just good music, period) are hip to Patterson's Stevie Wonder-and-Chaka Khan-influenced vocals and buoyant, funk-fueled music. Of his three albums, After Hours, released in October, is the finest one: moody, a little introspective, an instant classic. It features one of the best dance grooves to come out this year, the exhilarating, horn-spiced "So Hot." Sadly, not enough people heard it.

Van Hunt, self-titled: The Prince-influenced multi-instrumentalist and singer produces sterling tracks on Patterson's last two albums. And he comes into his own this year with his critically acclaimed debut. Quirky and ingenious in spots, the CD is written, arranged and produced by the Atlanta resident, who also plays all the instruments (save for the strings) on the sweepingly fluid album. As he invokes the spirit of mid-'70s funk and soul, Hunt writes incisive tunes about the peaks and valleys of urban love today. "Down Here in Hell (With You)" is strangely disturbing and touching at the same time.

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose: OK. Garage punk rocker Jack White and country queen Loretta Lynn seem like an odd combination. But the pairing produced the best country album of 2004. White, a longtime Lynn fan, provides spare, sympathetic arrangements that luminously showcase the singer's still-vigorous voice and powerful songwriting. He freshens her classic sound with a biting blues-rock edge. Earthy wisdom, humor, frankness, intimacy, resiliency - all the qualities we love about Loretta Lynn bloomed wondrously on Van Lear Rose.

Chaka Khan, ClassiKhan: Recently, some pop veterans have glittered up the standards with varying degrees of success. Aaron Neville and Boz Scaggs attempted to interpret the American Songbook but bombed. Rod Stewart has put out three platinum-selling volumes of standards that should have bombed. But ClassiKhan, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, is the only standards album to come out in 2004 that manages to inject some energy, flavor and imagination into such tried-and-true chestnuts as "The Best is Yet to Come" and "I'm in the Mood for Love." The pop-funk legend possesses real jazz chops. And her improvisational talent and fiery sax-like vocals incinerate such cuts as "Is That All There Is?" and "'Round Midnight." Her inclusion of two James Bond themes - "Diamonds are Forever" and "Goldfinger" - give the set a nice twist and a dose of campy drama.

Jamie Cullum, Twentysomething: This piano-playing cat from England brought fun and refreshing quirkiness to jazzy pop on his critically acclaimed American debut, Twentysomething. Recalling Bobby Darin, Billy Joel, even Nat "King" Cole at times, Cullum sounded as if he's having a ball throughout the Stewart Levine-produced album, vibrantly re-creating such covers as Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" and the Neptunes' "Frontin'." Other highlights include the instant vintage title cut and his atmospheric take on "Singin' in the Rain."

Patti Smith, Trampin': Known as the mother of the punk movement, Smith gracefully eased into the maternal role on this eloquent and brilliantly simple album. But the artist has lost none of her fire and spunk: The 12-minute protest epic "Radio Baghdad," which recalls her seminal 1975 debut Horses, attests to that. Smith warmly offers hope for the future with the title cut, an old Marian Anderson hymn.

Kanye West, College Dropout: With 10 Grammy nominations, the Chicago rapper-producer is the breakout artist of the year. After producing smashes for Twista ("Slow Jamz"), Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name") and others, he released his debut as an artist in February. The double-platinum album showcases West's imaginative skills as a producer as he uses warm, full arrangements spiked with sped-up samples of old soul records to buttress his thoughtful rhymes. The guy raps cleverly about an array of subjects - strippers, guns, college life, his near-fatal car crash, Jesus - over beats that are equally smart and daring.

Jimmy Eat World, Futures: The Arizona band may have one of the worst names in rock, but on Futures, the guys brought a refined, mature sound to the trapped-in-the-adolescence punk-rock genre. With Jim Adkins' aching vocals dominating the bright productions, such anxiety-fueled songs as "Drugs or Me" and "Work" enrich the group's sound with blistering emotion. A solid album throughout.

Franz Ferdinand, self-titled: The music of these shabbily glamorous Scottish dudes is enjoyably fluffy, employing New Wave guitars and menacing grooves. The record is dark at times, romantic, dramatic. Overall, Franz Ferdinand is an irreverent, mostly derivative set but still a treat - one of the year's biggest guilty pleasures.

The Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs: In its six years away from the studio, the veteran hip-hop trio didn't get soft on us. The New York guys, all pushing 40, deliver with an album whose topics are bitingly relevant ("Right Right Now Now") as the production style recalls the funky, free spirit of the mid-'80s - back when the Beastie Boys exploded with the classic Licensed to Ill. To the 5 Boroughs amazingly retains the same manic energy but with interesting stylistic turns here and there that keep the trio on the edge of the game.

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