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4. Nathaniel Merriweather
"Anger Management," from Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By (75Ark)
The most prolific members of music's version of Mensa, Mike Patton (Fantomas, Mr. Bungle) and Dan the Automator (Handsome Boy Modeling School, Gorillaz) collide with predictably brilliant results. Stretching out on a satin-sheet-covered beat from the Automator, Patton gets melodramatic as only he can, whimpering Why must God punish me? like a sleazy lounge singer hoping to get sympathy sex from a duped barfly.
"Space Dementia," from Origin of Symmetry (Mushroom)
Radiohead fans, this band will own you in 2002 when Origin of Symmetry comes stateside courtesy of Maverick Records. Currently available only overseas (try amazon.co.uk), the sophomore effort by this ambitious art-rocking outfit takes falsetto vocals, cathartic guitar crunch and spacey lyrical oddities to peaks unscaled since The Bends, especially on this frightening pledge of devotion. I'll cut your name in my heart, Matthew Bellamy croons menacingly; we'll destroy the world for you. He's a creep, he's a weirdo.
6. Tech N9ne
"It's Alive," from AngHellic (JCOR)
Tech N9ne answers everyone who's slept on Midwest hip-hop by proclaiming his city's virtues and siccing Toto on haters. Meanwhile, producer Icy Roc works soft-and-loud dynamics like a club DJ, follows up his choruses with sizzling drum and bass breaks and adds enough thump to keep Tech's declaration of civic pride blasting out of car windows on every main drag in Kansas City.
7. Belle & Sebastian
"I'm Waking up to Us," from I'm Waking up to Us (Matador)
Belle & Sebastian, one of the few groups that still releases honest-to-goodness three-song singles, demonstrates the potential beauty of the format with this stunningly solid twelve-minute lush pop showcase. The tunes each conceal sharpened fangs behind their pretty closed-mouth smiles -- "I Love My Car" is a list of possessions, inanimate objects and animals that the singer favors over the unfortunate lover he's serenading -- but "I'm Waking up to Us" offers the sharpest contrast between sweet string arrangements and sour sentiments.
"It's a Wonderful Life," from It's a Wonderful Life (Capitol)
Anyone who has seen Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" paired with harrowing footage of natural disasters, poverty-stricken neighborhoods or bombed-out war zones knows the indelible impression that the combination of optimistic music with depressing imagery can make. "It's a Wonderful Life," which seems to be hiding unspeakable sorrow beneath its airy facade, could add another level of pathos to these devastating displays.
9. Bill Withers
"I Can't Write Left Handed," from A Break from the Norm (Restless)
This live track, unearthed by Fatboy Slim for inclusion on his compilation disc A Break from the Norm, is a rare political statement from soul's most underrated master. After recounting his meeting with a wounded soldier ("getting shot at didn't bother me," he's told, "it was getting shot that shook me up"), the charismatic Withers places himself in the young serviceman's combat boots and offers this transcription of a letter from a soldier who lost his right arm to enemy fire. A sobering listen given the current climate, "I Can't Write Left Handed" pays tribute to the armed forces while still emphasizing that war is hell.