ALBUM OF THE YEAR 1 Is This It
THE STROKES (RCA) Petulant, frustrated, trendily dissolute, and clothed straight out of a ’60s mod-rock fashion show, Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas may be the most cocksure rogue since Oasis’ Liam Gallagher. If that seems like a throwback, you’re right. So is the first album from this New York City band — a start-to-finish cannonball of jabbing songs, ragged guitars, muffled singing, and punching-bag rhythms that manages to be both revivalist and completely unfusty. Unlike so much of what passes for current rock, particularly the downtrodden nu-metallists, Is This It feels raw, spontaneous, and unquestionably alive. It starts groggily, with the ennui-drenched title song; by the time it ends (a brisk 35 perfect minutes later) with ”Take It or Leave It,” the band is fully awake, and so are you. In a year that offered much terrific music but little in the way of innovation, the Strokes (who’ve already been through a gauntlet of hype and backlash) give hope that something new, even if it is steeped in something old and borrowed, is around the bend.
2 NO MORE DRAMA Mary J. Blige (MCA) She’s been dubbed the queen of hip-hop soul for nearly a decade, but to my ears, this is the first time Blige has fully delivered on that title. The supposedly new, improved, positive-minded Mary J. is on display, and so is a fresh warmth and richness to her music. One of those rare big-budget, multiproducer projects that maintains a consistent flow, No More Drama glides from operatic hip-hop to swelling balladry to older-school R&B. Producers Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, Rockwilder, and Jam and Lewis are at the top of their game, and there’s no unnecessary drama or melodrama in Blige’s soulful, life-experience-drenched singing. Let’s hope the new generation of squishy, overbleating divas is taking notes — and not just from the wonderfully deranged gospel number about PMS.
3 TEN NEW SONGS Leonard Cohen (Columbia) I’m almost as surprised as you to find the grandfather of Goth-folk on a year-end list: Who thought we’d ever hear from him again after he retreated to a Zen Buddhist temple several years back? But we have, and this set of worldly-wise meditations is a quiet stunner — like having an intimate bar conversation with a witty, ruefully serene, and very enigmatic stranger as gentle electronic beats and luxurious melodies pulsate in the background. It includes two of the most seductive songs you’ll hear this year: ”In My Secret Life,” about being haunted by romance past, and ”The Land of Plenty,” about being haunted by the sins of country and religion. The latter, a possible new national anthem if we need it, deserves to be played at ball games and at high school assemblies.
4 SCORPION Eve (Ruff Ryders/Interscope) The hip-hop offshoot called bounce was on everyone’s lips this year, but the second album from rap’s female roughrider has a powerful, meaty bounce all its own. Eve’s rhymes don’t venture far beyond boasts and kiss-offs to those who disrespect her; in wanting to compete with the boys, she at times sacrifices nuance. But with producers like Swizz Beatz and Dre behind her, who cares? ”Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” her slinky romp with Gwen Stefani, is just one of many delights of an album that also revels in Caribbean sway and sing-along hardcore. Even more impressive, she stares down duet partner DMX.