A brush with greatness
Music industry misses a beat

Dec 29, 2005 times dispatch.com

It's here.

That thing the really serious music pundits say will destroy the music industry one day? Yes, it's arrived, in all of it's "War of the Worlds" creepiness.

Albums are dead. Singles rule. All praise the digital download. Unless you're like me and are already pining for the time when artists were capable of creating more than one 3 1/2-minute masterpiece in return for a multimillion-dollar record contract.

Let's see, when did that last happen? Right. Last year. With U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" and Green Day's "American Idiot."

So maybe I'm knee-jerking the burial of the album concept. Maybe 2005 was merely an off-year, a regrouping period for all of the musical elves to get their acts together with plans to wham us with their brilliance starting next week.

Or maybe I just refused to buy into the hype attached to three artists who inspired a lot of chatter this year -- Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens and M.I.A. Dreary, monotonous and scattered, in that order.

So I reluctantly offer this list of the best albums of 2005. Consider it more a focused version of a long ranking of very good, but nowhere near great, releases.

Best albums

1. Kanye West, "Late Registration" (Roc-A-Fella): Still not the musical messiah he considers himself to be, West and his big mouth nonetheless demand to be heard on this collection of witty, socially provocative gems. With a reverential nod to Earth, Wind & Fire ("Touch the Sky") and a valentine to his mother ("Hey Mama"), West deftly injects something woefully lacking in most rap -- a heart.

2. Neil Diamond, "12 Songs" (Columbia): Credit producer Rick Rubin for demolishing the sequined glop famed in the Diamond oeuvre and forcing the striking songwriter out of hiding. "Hell Yeah" is gruff and forceful, while "Delirious Love" (with Brian Wilson), is a pillowy pop dream. Sparse and stripped to the essentials, these "12 Songs" indicate a legend not quite ready to quit.

3. Fountains of Wayne, "Out-Of-State Plates" (Virgin): Even this band's leftovers are more memorable than most artists' best material. This two-disc collection from the "Stacy's Mom" guys illustrates how this band is so not a one-hit wonder. "Maureen" and "Janice's Party" are delectably wry and melodic, while a melancholy read of Britney Spears' " . . . Baby One More Time" points to true geniuses at work.

4. Coldplay, "X&Y" (Capitol): So much potential to be album of the year but too much manicured pondering to make it that far. Chris Martin and Co. became so preoccupied with outdoing U2 -- silly boys -- that they lost sight of their own strengths. "Fix You" is easily the band's most majestic song ever and "Square One" skips along an irresistible groove, but much of "X&Y" is like a vapid blonde -- lovely, yet dull.

5. Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation, "Mighty Rearranger" (Sanctuary): Who knew the old guy still had it in him? Heavy rock riffing, bluesy detours and that growling voice resulted in Plant's most ferocious solo outing in years. No Led Zeppelin but mighty close.

6. Paul McCartney, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" (Capitol): Who knew the old guy still had it in him? Oh, already applied that to Plant? Well, these kudos are given for different reasons. Sir Paul gently pushes quiet guitar lines and sparse percussion around "English Tea" and "Jenny Wren," while the album's best track, "Vanity Fair," soars with the kind of melodic grace only he can supply.

7. Common, "Be" (Geffen): Smart, warm and tight, the underappreciated hip-hop prince hooks up with Kanye West for a handful of songs, including the breezy "Go" and the languidly soulful "Real People," the perfect primer for those wondering what resides at Common's core.

8. The Magic Numbers, "The Magic Numbers" (Capitol): These Londoners -- two brothers and two sisters -- share their obvious adoration of'60s pop ("Which Way to Happy") with the occasional lite-country twist ("Long Legs"). Try not to sing along.

9. The Click Five, "Greetings From Imrie House" (Lava/Atlantic): Bubble gum? Possibly. Impeccable bubble gum? You got that right. These Berklee grads learned quickly from mentors Elliot Easton (The Cars) and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne). The stunning harmonies on "Good Day" and "Pop Princess" recall the Beach Boys, while their whizzing cover of the Thompson Twins' "Lies" demonstrates a bit of bite. But just a bit.

10. Madonna, "Confessions on a Dance Floor" (Warner Bros.): Not the perfect dance record -- and not even as consistently solid as "Ray of Light" -- but Madonna does her best to make plodding electro-pop interesting. She mostly succeeds, with the fizzy "Sorry" and insanely appealing "Hung Up" the beacons on her first complete foray into dance music.

Runners-up: The Rolling Stones, "A Bigger Bang"; Emma Bunton, "Free Me"; Cast Recording, "Monty Python's Spamalot (2005 Original Broadway Cast)"; Ben Folds, "Songs For Silverman."

Worst albums

1. Rod Stewart, "Thanks for the Memory, the Great American Songbook Vol. IV" : When even Elton John can't muster any sauciness for "Makin' Whoopee," it's time to bury this puppy for real.

2. Bo Bice, "The Real Thing" (RCA): Liar. This just proves that even Bo couldn't escape drinking the "Idol" Kool-Aid.

3. Ashlee Simpson, "I Am Me" (Geffen): In all seriousness, "Autobiography" had its moments. This one? Not so much.

4. The White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan" (V2): Jack White is a tremendously talented man. Alert me when he records something listenable.

5. R. Kelly, "TP.3 Reloaded" (Jive): Can someone just throw him in jail already?

Best singles

1. The Killers, "Mr. Brightside": Paranoia and jealousy + a throbbing chorus like a "Pulp Fiction" shot of adrenaline to the heart + singer Brandon Flowers' drama-school delivery = a synth-pop masterpiece.

2. Kelly Clarkson, "Since U Been Gone": A soaring kiss-off that definitively separates the power-lunged Clarkson from the rest of the mushy "American Idol" pack and crowns her this generation's Pat Benatar.

3. Franz Ferdinand, "Do You Want To": The odd tempo shifts, the high-pitched do-do-do chorus line, that delicious line about "your famous friend." And you thought "Take Me Out" was catchy.

4. Coldplay, "Fix You": A gorgeous promise to a loved one in pain, the song peaks when the Edge-like guitars swell from the bottom and play tag with Chris Martin's falsetto.

5. Gorillaz, "Feel Good Inc.": A thick groove peppered with that maniacal laugh, this latest creation from Blur's Damon Albarn with the mighty Danger Mouse producing was the year's most unexpected radio smash.

6. Kanye West, "Gold Digger": What's funnier, Kanye's rant about Tyco and Geico or Jamie Foxx pulling out his Ray Charles impersonation?

7. Gwen Stefani, "Cool": Glistening'80s pop that likely spurred many dance-floor memories at the prom this year.

8. Green Day, "Wake Me Up When September Ends": Poignant and stirring, the song written about the death of Billie Joe Armstrong's dad gained new meaning with its blunt video questioning the war.

9. Missy Elliott, "Lose Control": Leave it to Missy to take what sounds like the background music to "Centipede" or "Space Invaders" and twist it into a popping foundation.

10. U2, "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own": Another dead dad elegy, this one has the ever-grandiose Bono demonstrating exactly how he has his father's "opera" in him.

Worst singles

1. The Black Eyed Peas, "My Humps": Quite possibly the worst song ever. Stupid ("Lady lumps"? Spare me) and degrading ("What you gon' do wit all that breast? All that breast inside that shirt?"), it's like a parody of itself.

2. The Pussycat Dolls, "Don't Cha": Didn't the Spice Girls break up? Oh, right. Some of their songs were actually pretty good.

3. Jessica Simpson, "These Boots Are Made for Walking": Let's see, she can't act, can't dance, can't hold a marriage together and, in case we weren't certain before, can't sing. Must be genetics.

4. Jennifer Lopez, "Get Right": Not the worst song in the J. Lo catalog, but that shrill, incessant horn blast was enough to land it here.

5. 50 Cent, "Candy Shop": Take out the failed marriage, switch the she to a he and the singing to rapping and behold the male Jessica Simpson.

Fun, forgettable songs from mediocre bands

Nickelback, "Photograph"

Switchfoot, "Stars"

Artists we hope to hear from again

Anna Nalick, "Breathe (2 AM)"

Daniel Powter, "Bad Day"

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER