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Putting a Spin on Pop That Rose to the Top

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page C01

You won't find Franz Ferdinand -- the band or the Austrian archduke -- in this Top Pop Albums of 2004 extravaganza. The cheeky Glaswegians were the hands-down darlings of critics this year, but to these ears, FF's self-titled debut sounded like a bunch of same-sounding B-sides from Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" days. Wilco, the Libertines and the Streets -- also faves of music snobs the world over -- didn't goose me much, either.

What you will find here are the 10 albums from '04 -- a phenomenal year for newbies and old favorites -- that spent the most time spinning in my CD player, long after the reviews were written.

Okay, are we ready? Good. Commence grumbling . . . now:

The Killers, "Hot Fuss." Just might be the album of the year. Kinda chilly, slightly glammy and totally yummy blasts of '80s-style British new wave -- from four young dudes in Las Vegas? Led by charismatic singer Brandon Flowers, the Killers are by far the best of the new retro rebels. Think New Order with more heart. Or the Cure with less Dippity-do.

Gretchen Wilson, "Here for the Party." Not since Tanya Tucker have country fans so embraced such a hell-raising hottie. The Bud-swilling, boy-teasing belle of the Muzik Mafia -- a collective of outlaws, also including Big & Rich, who are looking to spice up Nashville -- gave a big howdy with the irresistible double-wide anthem "Redneck Woman."

Loretta Lynn, "Van Lear Rose." White Stripes goon Jack White producing the Coal Miner's Daughter sounded like a bad idea. But this May-December couple works wonders, from heartbreaking laments about lost loves ("Miss Being Mrs.") to wicked honky-tonk kiss-offs ("Mrs. Leroy Brown").

Ludacris, "The Red Light District."Atlanta's Ludacris, the Cheech and the Chong of hip-hop, throws his best bash yet. His rhymes are silly, his hooks are huge and his punch lines hit more than they miss. Check out the bump-and-thump of "Number One Spot," built on a stuttering sample of Quincy Jones's "Soul Bossa Nova" (aka the "Austin Powers" theme song).

Kanye West, "The College Dropout." The most impressive hip-hop debut since Jay-Z dropped 1996's "Reasonable Doubt." Hard to imagine that producer-turned-performer West will ever top the chilling gospel thunder of "Jesus Walks," but it'll be fun listening to him try.

Green Day, "American Idiot." The most influential band of the past 10 years goes to the opera -- a pop-punk opera -- and gets its "Tommy" on for this epic about a wacked-out teenager named "the Jesus of Suburbia." Who knows what frontman Billie Joe Armstrong is howling about, but the sudden shifts in genre, melody and mayhem remind me of the latter half of "Abbey Road."

Gwen Stefani, "Love. Angel. Music. Baby." The No Doubt singer's solo sabbatical is the guilty-pleasure hit of the year. If "Rich Girl" -- a hip-hop remake of "If I Were a Rich Man" -- doesn't put you in a better mood, you have serious problems, pal.

Nellie McKay, "Get Away From Me." Randy Newman in a cocktail dress? Ben Folds with a perm? Eminem loose in the Blue Note? On her double-disc debut, this piano-playing New Yorker raps, rocks, scats, croons -- and defies categorization with cocky verve.

Courtney Love, "America's Sweetheart." Yeah, that's right. I totally dig Courtney Love. Really. I adore her. On this glorious train wreck of pop, metal and mania, she thrashes around like a crash-test dummy in a Maybelline puddle, a cautionary tale tottering down the gutters of the Sunset Strip in broken heels. I find that refreshing.

Velvet Revolver, "Contraband." You just know former Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland has more bad headlines in his future. And ax-wielding guitar star Slash certainly isn't long for this world. But on "Contraband," these metalheads pump out a blistering hairball of killer licks, rowdy anthems and, most importantly, zero irony. Definitely the rock album of the year.

Of course if you corner me tomorrow -- "Where's Nas?" "Have you even heard of Keane?" "How about Interpol, muttonhead?" -- there's a very good chance that the aforementioned list will shift and shimmy. Here are 10 more from '04 that will keep me waffling:

Modest Mouse, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News"; U2, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"; The Mavericks, "The Mavericks"; Prince, "Musicology"; Brian Wilson, "Smile"; the Zutons, "Who Killed . . . the Zutons"; Big & Rich, "Horse of a Different Color"; Scissor Sisters, "Scissor Sisters"; Travis Tritt, "My Honky Tonk History"; and Ricky Fante, "Rewind."

And then came the clunkers. Perturbed Parrotheads sent surly letters when I deemed Jimmy Buffett's "License to Chill" to be a manipulative dud. But I like getting mail, so I'm saying it again: It stinks like a weekend pirate with a Corona hangover. Lenny Kravitz's "Baptism" was like a "Mad TV" spoof of a Lenny Kravitz album. And on Tim McGraw's mushtacular "Live Like You Were Dying," the behatted pretty boy makes wife Faith Hill sound tough and Dr. Phil sound wise.

As for live shows, there were several humdingers. Hank Williams III tore up the Black Cat. Velvet Revolver, the Scissor Sisters and John Fogerty made the 9:30 club feel like the center of the rock universe. And alt-country crooner Allison Moorer warmed a chilly Birchmere.

But the best bangs for your buck were a trio of shows at MCI Center. A charming, funny Prince broke out the hits -- and played them straight -- for three booty-bumping hours. Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott joined forces for the Ladies First Tour, an all-night spectacle that moved along briskly despite the lavish stage designs. And the Vote for Change finale, featuring a who's who of left-leaning rockers -- Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, the Dixie Chicks, and then some -- was light on Bush-bashing, heavy on the classics and unforgettable no matter what your political persuasion.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company