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13. Various Artists
The Gift (Will)
Much has been made of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack's triple-platinum success, and rightfully so -- achieving such sales without radio support or a hit parent film is an incredible accomplishment. But The Gift, the haunting musical partner to Sam Raimi's ignored Southern Gothic suspense flick, also deserves accolades. Despite its numerous versions of "A Man of Constant Sorrow," O Brother can't match this album's desolate outlook, best summarized by Willie Nelson's brilliantly bleak "Great Divide" and Loretta Lynn's "Mamma Why," a plot-hugging theme song for the film's orphaned child. Mostly composed of well-aged tracks from legends, The Gift also features some young blood, including two haunting numbers from Neko Case and Amy Nelson's morbid farewell, "In Case We Die."
14. The Coup
Party Music (75Ark)
To call this the year's best political hip-hop disc is to damn it with faint praise -- sadly, there's not much competition. But Party Music is more than the king of a tiny province. It's a series of genuinely revolution-minded outbursts set to deep-grooving funk from a real live band, another asset that distinguishes the Coup from the rest of the rap pack.
15. Mem Shannon
Memphis in the Morning (Shanachie)
16. Saffire -- The Uppity Blues Women
Ain't Gonna Hush (Alligator)
While most of his contemporaries stick to singing about lost love, new love and love lost again, Mem Shannon, though not above such songs (see the back-to-back "I Love the Way You Love" and "Unconditional Love"), makes room for topical numbers, too. from the vantage point of his '71 Maverick, Shannon chides those SOBs driving these SUVs and trying to run over me. He's also the funkiest bluesman around, opening most tunes with thundering bass grooves. Saffire, a veteran blues trio, epitomizes full-grown woman power. The members are saucy ("Nobody Ever Touched Me There"), sassy ("Ain't Gonna Hush") and witty (the title of "It Takes a Mighty Good Man" leaves out the song's punch line: to be better than no man at all).
17. Vann Tiersen
18. Tosca Tango Orchestra
Waking Life (TVT)
Without its giddy accordion-heavy score, Amelie couldn't have been so effortlessly uplifting, so unfailingly endearing. And without the Tosca Tango Orchestra's dreamy orchestral companionship, Waking Life, for all its visual stimulation, would have become insufferably dialogue-laden.
19. Bobby Conn
The Golden Age (Thrill Jockey)
20. Ryan Adams
Gold (Universal/Lost Highway)
Conn and Adams set this year's Gold standard with two very different albums, but their discs have one important thing in common -- more variety than a major-label sampler. Conn can be a bitterly observant cynic one moment and a helium-toking funky white boy the next, and he's equally adept at wearing both hats. Adams' eccentricity is more maddening because while he's clearly better at being an emotive songwriter than being a Southern-rock bad boy, he insists on occasionally auditioning for the Black Crowes. As a result, Gold is the only album on the list with must-skip tracks, but its size (21 songs, including the five on its bonus disc) and the exquisite delicacy of its ballads make these lapses much easier to bear.
Top 20 Songs
1. Missy Elliot
"Get UR Freak On," from Miss E ... So Addictive (Elektra)
2. Bubba Sparxxx
"Ugly," from Dark Days, Bright Nights (Interscope)
"We Need a Resolution," from Aaliyah (Virgin/Blackground)
It takes a clever application of the Midas touch to enable a producer to recycle the same basic beat without stretching it thin, as Dr. Dre did with "Forgot About Dre" and "The Real Slim Shady" and Timbaland does with Missy's "Get UR Freak On" and Bubba Sparxxx's "Ugly." Timbaland's signature backdrop, a high-pitched hook swaying like a charmed snake over an immense bass line, carries both Missy and Bubba, neither of whom qualifies as an upper-level MC. But his partnership with the late Aaliyah is an equal one: He drops her off in a mesmerizing labyrinth of erratic programmed beats and orchestral samples, and she brings it home with confident sass and versatile vocals.