1. The Way It Really Is, Lisa Loeb. I think my lowest point in 2004 was the entire month of August. This album came out in August, and a lot of the songs really summed up where my heart was at the time. Comparatively speaking, this is a much more stripped-down album than what I’ve come to expect from Lisa. “Try” is a gorgeous piano ballad with a lovely layering of backing vocals. “Lucky Me” is a soft, sad song that moves along on a stuttering acoustic guitar part and a detached vocal that perfectly channels how numbing the initial sadness of losing someone can be. There are brighter spots here, too. “Fools Like Me” bops along with purpose, and I’ve always liked clever marriages of acoustic guitars and drum loops. But it also boasts her most dazzling vocal arrangement since the mesmerizing “Bring Me Up” from 2002’s Cake & Pie: “But I did, I can, I was, I am, only human, living, dying. Just like any fool who ever breathed. If love is blind, if love’s a drug, it always is, it always was. And love was surely made for fools like me.” And I love the part that carries it home: “Maybe it’s the sanest thing, or just the sweetest kind of dream. But love was surely made for fools like me.” Outstanding. And there’s this great, shimmery backing vocal effect on the pre-chorus that still gets me every time. Beautiful. I also like “Probably,” which is a real rocker. “The grass is probably green. The sky is probably blue. I’d probably do anything for you. I probably love you. I probably do.” The album ends with “Now I Understand,” which sounds like somebody kidnapped the Beatles, condensed them into honey, and drizzled them all over a Lisa Loeb song. If you can afford it, pony up the extra cash and buy the Japanese import, which has an extra track called “This Isn’t Happening.” Excellent song. I love this woman.
2. Back in the Circus, Jonatha Brooke. Would have grabbed the top spot, but Lisa’s album had more new songs than Jonatha’s. The two best shows I saw in 2004 were Jonatha Brooke shows; her voice is so good that I often think, “Whoa, my heart has done what her voice just did.” And it got me good in February, which was the second saddest month of 2004 after August. Or maybe the third after December. At any rate, I’ll never forget the first time I heard the bridge of “Less Than Love is Nothing.” It’s a gut-slammer: “I wish you well. I wish you mine. I wish you were alone tonight. I wish that I could leave the past behind, for once, I wish that love would last.” A lump came up in my throat and tears started streaming down my face, and I probably listened to it 10 times in a row and had one hell of a cry, and felt a hell of a lot better. Until I got to her amazing cover of “Eye in the Sky,” where she sang this line with an impossible blend of hope and grief: “The sun in your eyes made some of the lies worth believing.” Whew. “Better After All,” which bounces around on a great piano riff, is probably her best single to date. It takes everything that’s great about Jonatha Brooke and packs into two minutes and 42 glorious seconds. I also can’t get enough of “It Matters Now,” which begins thusly: “Sour, sour grapes make bitter wine. And you’re no funny Valentine.” Valentine’s Day is less than a week away. And that’s not very funny. Next!
3. Airstreams & Satellites, Garrison Starr. From the best bridge ever on the album’s opener, “Gasoline,” to the confessional hidden track (“Inside Out”) that closes it and all the gems in between like “Hey Girl,” “Wonderful Thing,” “Like a Drug,” and “Runner-up,” the universal themes of life, loss, and love on Garrison’s latest, greatest offering will leave you suspecting she knows you better than you know yourself. There’s not a recording artist alive who can boast anything remotely similar to her voice and style. Amazing.
4. The Babydoll EP, Kay Hanley. Sure, it’s only an EP, but Kay’s six songs can kick your album’s 10 songs’ asses any day of the week. At 36, Kay is a hot-rockin’ mommy of two who’s far beyond the days of bullshit. And for my money, she’s got the best voice in rock music. (I’m still trying to recover from the way she sings “my fingers on your faded blue jeans where my eyes had already been” in “Princely Ghetto” from 2002’s Cherry Marmalade album.) The songs here find Kay in top form. Her husband, fellow Letters to Cleo grad and guitar god Mike Eisenstein, produced the songs, and they rock harder here than they’ve ever rocked before. Kay’s voice just sounds so at home with all the crunchy guitars and muscular drums. “Lullaby Lucky” has one of my favorite lyrics: “I’m not your mom. I’m a fucking A-bomb.” And the ballad “Stay Stay” has a gorgeous vocal arrangement. This is a hot little collection of songs, from one of the hottest women on the planet.
5. One Love, New Edition. There are a couple of painfully sub-standard filler tracks here, like the ridiculous “All on You” and the weak “Love Again,” but the rest of this disc proves that nobody does what New Edition does better than New Edition. These guys are it, plainly and simply. And there’s no Bobby Brown on this record, meaning it’s the same lineup from the legendary Heart Break album: Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe. The guys are in their late 30s, and several of the songs reflect that. Songs about relationships that have lasted a long time, when the people in them are old enough to look back on the good times and bad times and share some perspective on it all. One of my favorites here is “Best Man.” It’s about a guy who’s forever been in love with his best female friend, but her take on the situation is, “Hey, let’s be just friends so that you’ll always be there for me, but I can do whatever I want. Won’t that be a great deal? For me?” Finally, he’s ready to lay it all out. “Now we’re getting older, and I don’t know how to act. As a matter of fact, there’s something I want to ask: Have you ever considered me as the best man for you?” Every member of the group gets to shine on this record. “Hot 2 Nite” and “Feelin’ It” are killer dance tracks. But the entire album is worth the price of admission just so you can hear “Rewrite the Memories,” which was written and produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. This is it. This is the track. It’s like someone said, “Okay, New Edition, we’re going to send you guys into a room with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and don’t come out until you have crafted the most amazing piece of music that every man in that room is capable of. Times ten.” And when they left that room hours later, they were holding “Rewrite the Memories.” This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard from these guys and, just as “I’m Still in Love with You” did on their 1996 Home Again album, it keeps changing up the vocal arrangements as it draws to a close. The best moment happens at the 3:40 mark. Ralph sings, “Rewrite the memories,” and Ricky sings it right behind him, and then Johnny comes in behind them with, “Never meant to make you cry.” Ralph: “Get back where we used to be.” Ricky achingly adds, “Back where we used to be,” just as Johnny comes in with, “I want to turn back the hands of time.” And there’s a low, tumbling piano part, and they harmonize it all the way to the end. And it’s perfect. It does not get any better than this. Other standouts are “Newness” and “Wildest Dream.” The former is another Jam and Lewis collaboration, about a guy who’s telling his lover of many years that every time is still like the first time. “I see your face, and everything’s new again.” The latter is a fun song where the guy is telling his girl, “I can give you diamonds, baby. I can take you ’round the world. But none of that is really what you need. I just want to give you something that you can’t put a price on, and it will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.” All you need is love. All you need is One Love.
Runner-up because I got it way late:
Happenstance, Rachael Yamagata. Like Jonatha, Rachael has one of those “my heart has done what her voice just did” voices, and the lyrics here will knock the wind out of your sails, pick you up again and send you on your way. “I Want You” is way hot and old-timey, boasting my favorite line: “The only kiss I’ve ever missed, I shared with you.” Whew. Whether the subject is pain or pleasure, this thing smolders.