On the other hand, irrepressible singles do show up on spotty CDs (see the latest from Pink, DMX and Stone Temple Pilots) and the best songs arent necessarily the radio singles (see almost any metal or hardcore rap act), necessitating that each track be given at least a cursory listen. Given that about thirty albums get released each week (and thats a conservative estimate), that leaves more than 1,500 titles to sift through at years end. And it turns out that, at the very least, 10 percent of those rank between damn good and borderline excellent, with almost every genre producing a few gems.
Hip-hop rode a fourth-quarter rally to an impressive showing. Jazz offered lavish reissues and fresh approaches. Bluegrass lassoed a massive audience thanks to a dark-horse soundtrack. Hard-rock shrugged off its dunce cap on the way to producing the years three most intelligent releases. And regular rock, courtesy of the Strokes and the White Stripes, generated hype about albums that actually deserved it. Doubtless, all of the Pitchs writers still harbor some frustration about the worthy discs they just didnt have room to tout, but none has any regrets about selecting the standouts found on the lists that appear in the following pages.
Top 20 Albums
1. System of a Down
Wake up, singer Serj Tankian shouts at the opening of System of a Down's alternately jagged and sadly poignant single "Chop Suey!" It's an appropriate rallying cry from a band that serves as an alarm clock for the heavy-music scene, alerting fans lulled into accepting mediocrity by waves of inessential rap-rockers and grunge revivalists that it's time to open their eyes and experience real innovation. A socially conscious band with a master satirist's feel for subtlety, System of a Down cloaks its commentary with metaphors and lightens the mood with absurdist humor. Other change-minded acts have turned their albums into straight-faced rallies; SOAD prefers to throw a political party.
Director's Cut (Ipecac)
When crafting a covers album, some artists pride themselves on being able to retrace the selected songs without ever straying outside the lines. But to hear Mike Patton update movie themes is to imagine Jackson Pollack recreating a staid still life. While maintaining the music's inherent spookiness, Patton and his cohorts (Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins, former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Mr. Bungle's Trevor Dunn) magnify its menace with thrash outbursts, plodding downtuned dirges and anxiety-inspiring keyboard accents, often within the same tune. But the group's most important weapon is Patton's malleable voice, which lends a creepy calm to Henry Mancini's "Experiment in Terror" and a demon-possessed mania to "The Omen."
3. Masta Ace
Disposable Arts (JCOR)
Write your rhymes in the shower/You're washed up, raps Masta Ace, sneering at himself during the scathingly self-critical "Dear Diary." He needn't have worried -- despite the seven-year hiatus since his last release, the Masta still ranks among hip-hop's top lyricists. He has abandoned his on-beat, off-beat flow, sporting an efficient, snippy delivery that makes him sound like Slim Shady's positive-minded twin. And he's ditched his bass-loaded attack, which made speakers shiver as his disc approached the player. Now he opts for smooth backdrops that massage his robust verses rather than smother them.