“Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” 50 Cent
My favorite rap album of all time, and it’s not even close. Fitty may not be the most talented turner of phrases out there (that honor goes to Eminem, who makes an unforgettable guest appearance here on “Patiently Waiting”), but his menacing Southern drawl is captivating. Too often rap albums are a few great singles wrapped in 40 minutes of filler, but there’s almost none of the latter on “Get Rich,” which consistently offers some of the best beats I’ve ever heard.
There’s no way I can endorse this album for anyone, because I’m convinced 50 Cent is an evil man, and his lyrics in several places are utterly vile. But sometimes an evil man is what’s called for in certain situations: When I was assigned to cover the trial of a hideous serial rapist and murderer for the entire month of January 2004, I ended up putting “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” in the CD player every single night on the half-hour drive back to the office. The utter rage Fifty unleashes on this album on tracks like “What Up Gangsta,” “Many Men (Wish Death),” “Blood Hound,” and the aforementioned “Patiently Waiting,” to name a few, was amazingly cathartic, allowing me to vent all the emotions pent up from a tense, dark day in the courtroom and clear my head for the difficult story I would write each evening.
Favorite Track: “If I Can’t”
“Sing the Sorrow,” AFI
Has a punk band this century unleashed an opening salvo to match what AFI does with the first six songs off this, their mainstream breakthrough record? I don’t know, but it would be tough to beat the stretch of five-star tracks, starting with gothic intro “Miseria Cantare (The Beginning)” into smash hit “The Leaving Song, Pt. 2,” and culminating with “Girl’s Not Grey” and my …
Favorite Track: “Dancing Through Sunday.” And, oh yeah, the rest of the songs are pretty awesome, too.
“Dangerously in Love,” Beyonce
Though it’s a bit scattershot the further into the album you go, “Dangerously in Love” proved Beyonce wasn’t just the standout in Destiny’s Child, she was an exploding superstar all her own. This release offered a quartet of outstanding singles (and accompanying memory-burn videos): “Baby Boy,” “Me, Myself and I,” “Naughty Girl,” and …
Favorite Track: the unmistakable landmark hit, “Crazy in Love.”
“You Are Free,” Cat Power
The only reason I bought this album when it came out—and the only reason I’d even heard of Cat Power—was because Eddie Vedder provided guest vocals on one track. To my initial disappointment, Vedder’s contribution can barely be heard in the background of “Good Woman”; but over the years, the CD’s stark, arresting presence wormed its way into my consciousness and has become a standout album of that year.
Favorite Track: “Speak for Me”
“A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar,” Dashboard Confessional
This album marked the pinnacle of Chris Carrabba’s return to his electric, punk roots. Over the previous D/C releases, he had been slowly adding instrumentation to his acoustic-guitar-and-a-stool dynamic; “A Mark” saw him going all in, not only with a full band, but plugging in for the first time in a few years. The results were outstanding, matching his heartfelt songwriting while embracing his considerable power-pop talents. The first song I heard off this record was in summer 2002, when D/C opened for Weezer, and I was blown away at the time by "Rapid Hope Loss," which just exploded off the stage when compared to the quieter acoustic stuff surrounding it in the set. There isn’t a weak entry to be found here, and picking a …
Favorite Track: is like choosing a favorite kid. Today it’s album closer “Several Ways to Die Trying.”
“Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers,” The National
Here The National begin the journey that would eventually lead to their two outstanding albums later in the decade. “Sad Songs” begins to move away from the rootsy vibe of the band's debut and into more rich, orchestral territory, relying more on the electric guitar and allowing drummer Bryan Devendorf to take a more prominent role. Though they still do gorgeous country-tinged ballads just fine (“Lucky You”), there’s more of a straightahead rock feel here, best heard on my …
Favorite Track: “Murder Me Rachael.” And the best was yet to come.
“Lost Dogs,” Pearl Jam
Every Pearl Jam fan’s dream came true in 2003 when the band released this double-CD compilation of b-sides. Sure, not every single little thing was on there, but it was enough. Some of the tracks included had been around for awhile—especially classic “Ten”-era cuts like “Wash,” “Alone,” and “Yellow Ledbetter”—but it sure was nice to have them all in one place and in good playing condition. In PJ’s true warts-and-all tradition, there are some downright bad songs included here (“Don’t Gimme No Lip,” “Black, Red, Yellow,” “Sweet Lew”). On the other hand, “Lost Dogs” offers some of the band’s best work, too, such as “Hard to Imagine,” “Fatal,” “Down,” and “Footsteps.” Then there’s …
Favorite Track: “Sad,” which is so phenomenal, I could write an entire post about it alone; how one of the band’s best tracks was left off “Binaural” I’ll never understand. "Sad" makes “Lost Dogs” one of the most important releases of my decade all by itself. That and the liner notes, which offer up explanations and a timeline for the songs. Oh, and the make-PJ-fans-drool double-truck picture of the Pearl Jam Recording Vault. … See? “Lost Dogs” is great.
“Final Straw,” Snow Patrol
Here the Irish band took big steps out of their quirky earlier days into the larger world of arena rock, paving the way for their big-time breakout smash three years later. “Final Straw” balances the two sides of Snow Patrol’s sensibilities masterfully, with idiosyncratic marvels like opener “How to Be Dead” and especially the beautiful slow-burner “Somewhere a Clock Is Ticking.” The album’s first half builds to a rumbling fervor that finally explodes in the galloping “Spitting Games.” “Games” is the first of a trio of five-star songs that serve as both the album’s literal and metaphorical heart, as it’s followed by the chiming “Chocolate” and my …
Favorite Track: the epic “Run.”
“Elephant,” The White Stripes
Nobody was quite expecting it, but in 2003 Jack and Meg White grew up. In a hurry. “Elephant” is a take-no-prisoners opus that saw the Stripes shed some of their playfulness in creating a masterwork for the rock and roll ages. Oh, and they did it in two weeks. White doesn’t mess around, either, dropping his career’s most iconic riff right at the album’s outset as the intro to “Seven Nation Army” (the lick so often misinterpreted as a bass line—it is not). From there “Elephant” offers the blistering “Black Math,” sonic boom “There’s No Room For You Here,” and stunning reworking of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.” The Stripes take a three-song breather in the middle of the record with a trio of quiet numbers (including Meg’s memorable lead vocal on “In the Cold, Cold, Night”) before unleashing what might still be White’s fiercest blues track, “Ball and Biscuit.” Then the remainder of the album flashes by amidst a whirlwind of fiendish guitar riffs and pounding drums. Five years on, it’s still as exciting as ever.
Favorite Track: “Seven Nation Army”
“Mary Star of the Sea,” Zwan
Oh, how I wish Billy Corgan would’ve stuck it out with this rebound project and left well enough alone with The Smashing Pumpkins. This excellent post-Pumpkins one-off held the essence of what I loved about Corgan’s former band, but liberated from the expectations and mythology. The dour frontman sounds downright weightless on “Mary Star of the Sea,” offering an hour of lush, forceful guitar pop/rock in the vein of “Stand Inside Your Love” that he does so well—or did, anyway. There may be a couple clunkers here (“Baby Let’s Rock!” ugh), but Zwan had all the right elements going for it. What a shame.
Favorite Track: “Lyric”
“Anchors Aweigh,” The Bouncing Souls
“Deja Entendu,” Brand New
“Unclassified,” Robert Randolph and the Family Band
"We're a Happy Family: Tribute to Ramones," various artists
“Between the Never and the Now,” Vendetta Red
“Fever to Tell,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs