1. Winter Pays for Summer, Glen Phillips. Glen finally made a solo album that’s better as a whole than any of the Toad the Wet Sprocket albums. The warmth and depth of the lyrics are matched beautifully by the rich, dynamic complexity of John Fields’s crisp, clever production. Highlights are “Finally Fading,” about a guy who’s finally ready to stop listening to the lingering voices of doubt and start trusting his heart for once, and the gorgeous “True,” which basically says that I’ve seen your best, I’ve seen your worst, and through it all I’ve never loved you for anything less than all of it. (He also points out his own shortcomings: “I’m inconsistent at best, never at rest, ever the fool. I’m always stumbling around, knocking things down, but whatever else I do, I’ll be true.” Excellent bridge, too: “I won’t tell you a lie, so be careful what you ask me. I don’t care, I don’t mind, if you never understand me. Every day, every night, I can promise you, I can promise you I’ll be true.”) “Duck and Cover” is the closest to a Toad tune — “There’s nothing too special about getting hurt. Getting over it? That takes the work. One way or another, we’ll all need each other. Nothing’s gonna turn out the way you thought it would, but, friends and lovers, don’t you duck and cover, ’cause everything comes out the way it should” — and “Courage,” with backing vocals by Ben Folds, is flat-out gorgeous, especially when the cello makes a long, hopeful sigh before the second verse. My favorite is “Thankful,” which could power a space shuttle with its layered, whirling instruments and crazy backing vocals. Also be sure to grab the iTunes-only single “Always Returning,” recorded during the Winter Pays sessions and better than a few of the tracks that actually made it on the album.
2. Extraordinary Machine, Fiona Apple. “Oh Well” is my favorite. “I was feeding on the need for you to know me, devastated at the rate you fell below me. What wasted unconditional love, on somebody who doesn’t believe in the stuff. Oh, well.” (The way she belts out that last “what wasted unconditional love” gets its own award for best delivery of any line on a record released in 2005.) Because really, when you open yourself up to someone you thought you could count on, and you just want them to see you and love you for who you are, but then they turn into somebody else on you, what are you going to do about it? Have an adult conversation with someone who’s totally incapable of one? No. The only thing you can do is watch them go, and sit there with the fact that the answers you need aren’t going to come. Oh, well. “Please Please Please” is a lot of fun — “My method is uncertain; it’s a mess, but it’s workin'” — and “Better Version of Me” is all groove. From start to finish, this thing is unstoppable.
3. 12 Songs, Neil Diamond. I grew up hearing a lot of Neil Diamond, and the older I get the more I admire his particular brand of songcraft. Never has that gift shown through as purely as it does here, thanks in large part to minimal production by Rick Rubin. (You’ll be shocked by how few instruments some of these songs have.) My favorites are the rollicking “Delirious Love” and album closer “We,” with sweet lyrics and quirky music that would make Harry Nillson proud. It’s good.
4. Made in China, Juliana Hatfield. “What the fuck? It’s a miracle I’m even here. You’re over me, but I’m alive. What do I care?” As far as I’m concerned, Juliana Hatfield never left. “Made in China” combines the immediacy of some of the earliest Blake Babies stuff with the rawness of Bed and the bark/bite of Total System Failure. It’s obvious that she banged it out in a hurry; it’s fierce, and it hurts. I’ve always related really well to Juliana’s lyrics, and it scares me a little when I think about how well I relate to some of these. A signature line from “My Pet Lion”: “I’ve got tricks to keep me in line, like being good for a while. I sit on my hands, but my heart speeds up. So I just say, ‘What the fuck.’ Can’t hold on. I gotta let go.” Let it go, Juliana. We’ve all got to let it out sometime.
5. Hearts & Flowers, The Dilettantes. One-woman rock factory Kay Hanley (of the late, great Letters to Cleo) and fellow rocker Michelle Lewis are on every song here, with guest spots being filled by the likes of Leah Andreone, Lisa Loeb and Tracy Bonham. (Nina Gordon — the sweet that made Veruca less salty — is also a revolving member, but the stuff with her was recorded too late to appear on this EP.) It’s hot California girl rock from some of the best female writers, singers, and players in the business, and God bless Kay and Michelle for making a happy home for these Venuses of Chick Rock. Hooks and harmonies abound, and the first time I heard Lisa Loeb saunter into the second verse of “September Girls Still Want U” … whew. This is the second year in a row that an EP involving Kay Hanley has beaten out full-length LPs by other artists for a slot in the top 5.