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BEST POP CD: CAT POWER

Friday, December 26, 2003

BY ED MASLEY, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

Critics couldn't get enough of OutKast and the White Stripes. And surprisingly enough, it didn't hurt the sales or Grammy nomination odds of either record. Clearly, someone's messing with the order of the universe. And being a liberal, I can only assume it's the President.

1. CAT POWER, "YOU ARE FREE" (MATADOR)

Chan Marshall opens her latest release with an aching eulogy to an unnamed guitarist who certainly lived the life of Kurt Cobain, attempting to soothe the reluctant voice of a generation -- unnamed though he is -- with, "I don't blame you/They never owned it/And you never owed it to them anyway." The album also features guest appearances by Eddie Vedder and Cobain's old bandmate Dave Grohl. But the masterpiece they've helped her paint here couldn't be further removed from the sound of Seattle. Quiet is the new loud on these 14 tracks of urgent, understated, ultimately devastating indie-folk -- a lonesome crawl down Desolation Row that frequently recalls the early work of Patti Smith without resorting to the flattery of imitation.

2. THE MINUS 5, "DOWN WITH WILCO" (YEP ROC)

Another year-end list, another Wilco record, only this time even Tweedy takes a back seat to the name above the title, Scott McCaughey's The Minus 5 -- a loose collective of the Young Fresh Fellows' friends and family (fellow R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, McCaughey's wife and Posie Ken Stringfellow). On his latest collection of wistful, hook-intensive pop, he welcomes Wilco to the fold. And you can barely tell. Sure, Tweedy takes the mike on one of two songs he co-wrote and adds some atmospheric "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" synth, but the vision is all McCaughey, who's rapidly emerging as the Brian Wilson of his generation. After nearly 20 years of doing very little wrong, the once and future Young Fresh Fellow may have hit a new high with his side band.

3. BLUR, "THINK TANK" (VIRGIN)

The sound of Damon Albarn stretching out and taking what's left of the band he led before Gorillaz along for the ride -- except guitarist Graham Coxon, who bailed mid-session. The end result is more in keeping with the world-music turn he took on "Mali Music" than the cartoon hip-hop he took to the charts with Gorillaz. "Crazy Beat" is for the club kids while the electronic Indi-punk "We've Got A File On You" could be the most explosive thing he's ever done. But the heart of "Think Tank" is the ballads -- aching, atmospheric, effortlessly tuneful works of beauty that just about secure the man my vote for best rock singer of the past two decades.

4. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS, "NOCTURAMA" (ANTI-)

I completely underrated this at 3 stars back in March, but it's a four-star grower, highlights ranging from the violin-fueled desperation of "There Is a Town" to the raucous soul-punk menace of the organ-heavy "Dead Man in My Bed." And then he cranks it up a notch to close the album with a 15-minute celebration of that ring of fire Johnny Cash was always going on about. You'll feel the flames yourself in every gonzo organ jab as Cave runs down a laundry list of everyone who ever felt the burn, from the "hopeless defendant" and "toilet attendant" to the "pornographer, the stenographer and the fashion photographer," attacking all 38 verses with an unadulterated passion bordering on madness.

5. LISA GERMANO, "LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG" (INEFFABLE)

In the melancholy, understated opener, Germano rhymes "places to drown" with "all that you feel is you're going down." And down is where she stays for the duration here, on one of this year's more unsettling treasures, a profoundly depressing yet beautiful song-cycle mining the depths of addiction -- both to alcohol and friends -- for inspiration. Not for those who crave an easy listen.

6. OUTKAST, "THE LOVE BELOW/SPEAKERBOXXX" (ARISTA)

Weighing in at 135 minutes, OutKast's incredible split-personality masterstroke is shockingly more focused, more ambitious and more entertaining than even the peaks of "Stankonia" promised. Andre plays the Merry Prankster on "The Love Below," backing up the jokes with a jaw-dropping vocal performance -- imagine Al Green's sweet falsetto coming out of Bootsy's mouth with occasional flashes of Prince -- and music steeped in all the greatest funk and soul traditions. "Speakerboxxx" can't help but seem a little normal sharing jewel-box space with Dre. But Big Boi's always been the more impressive rapper, and it shows in tracks that find him doing rap gymnastics on a bed where old-school soul, electro, funk and hip-hop all get down together.

7. WHITE STRIPES, "ELEPHANT" (V2)

More punk, less classic-rock and so much more garage than the record that got them lumped in with a bunch of other bands that aren't really garage. There's even one song here that cribs the Troggs' "I Want You." But for all the lo-fi charm of cuts like "Black Math," they've also expanded the sound enough to make the most of all eight tracks on "There's No Home For You Here" with an army of Jack on vocals. Sounds like Queen.

8. RADIOHEAD, "HAIL TO THE CHIEF" (CAPITOL)

It's a slippery slope from consistently brilliant to taken for granted. "What's that? A brilliant new album by Radiohead? That's nice. But have you heard the Justin Timberlake?" It's sad, because this album picks up where "Amnesiac" left off with occasional flashbacks to the band's more rockist past and a palpable feeling of dread in the face of U.S. foreign policy.

9. TED LEO, "HEARTS OF OAK" (LOOKOUT)

His tribute to the Two-Tone movement rocks more like a tribute to his favorite old Thin Lizzy records, while his sweet falsetto seems to channel Van Morrison pouring his Irish soul into an old Impressions song on "First to Finish, Last to Start." But there's a punk intensity at work as well, which suits the passion -- if not the bookishness -- of Leo's lyrics.

10. BETTIE SERVEERT, "LOG 22" (HIDDEN AGENDA)

A richly textured charmer, it takes you from intimate ballads through epic guitar jams to quirky Elastica-worthy New Wave (on a strong contender for the coolest rock song to feature a whistling solo since The Clash did "Jimmy Jazz"), only to end with a cut that makes you wonder if they've gone out dancing with the Cardigans.

ALSO

11. The Johnsons Big Band, "(love taps &) SOFT PUNCHES"

12. Stephen Malkmus, "Pig Lib"

13. The Eels, "Shootenanny"

14. Spiritualized, "Amazing Grace"

15. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "Master and Everyone"

16. A Band of Bees, "Sunshine Hit Me"

17. Northern State, "Dying in Stereo"

18. Grandaddy, "Sumday"

19. (International) Noise Conspiracy, "Bigger Cages, Longer Chains"

20. K-OS, "Exit"

21. The Raveonettes "Chain Gang of Love"

22. The Deadly Snakes "Ode to Joy"

23. Howard Tate "Rediscovered"

24. Loose Fur "Loose Fur"

25. Supergrass "Life on Other Planets"

26. Mull Historical Society "Us"

27. The Decemberists "Castaways and Cutouts"

28. The New Pornographers "Electric Version"

29. Bardo Pond "On the Ellipse"

30. The Minus 5 "I Don't Know Who I Am"

31. Drive-By Truckers "Decoration Day"

32. Missy Elliott "This is Not A Test"

33. The Modey Lemon "Thunder & Lightning"

34. The Raveonettes "Whip It On"

35. Sorry About Dresden "Let It Rest"

36. Café Tacuba "Cuatro Caminos"

37. My Morning Jacket "It Still Moves"

38. The Datsuns "The Datsuns"

39. Folk Implosion "The New Folk Implosion"

40. Al Green "I Can't Stop"

41. Zwan "Mary Star of the Sea"

42. Yeah Yeah Yeahs "Fever to Tell"

43. Ed Harcourt "From Every Sphere"

44. Baxter Dury "Len Parrot's Memorial Lift"

45. Quasi "Hot [Expletive]"

46. Elvis Costello "North"

47. MC Honky "I Am The Messiah"

48. Dead Meadow "Shivering King & Others"

49. Andrew "Happy to Be Here"

50. The Singles "Better Than Before"


Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com .

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