Honor roll: Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album

Each of these albums has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album. They are ranked by honors received.

Album:Genius Loves Company

Genius Loves Company

Ray Charles

The fact that Genius Loves Company will be Ray Charles’s final new album inspires an unavoidable blue feeling. But it’s also a happy reminder that the man spent the last months of his life at work doing what he loved. The overall effect of these dozen duets is autumnal and smooth. Brother Ray is on point and cruising here. Fine moments abound—you can hear his delight even in the rather stiff company of Diana Krall and Natalie Cole. His voice sounds a bit frayed by ill health at times, but it also allows for great performances like the slyness behind the…

Album:Come Away with Me

Come Away with Me

Norah Jones

It is not just the timbre of Norah Jones’s voice that is mature beyond her 22 years. Her assured phrasing and precise time are more often found in older singers as well. She is instantly recognizable, blending shades of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone without sounding like anyone but herself. Any way you slice it, she is a singer to be reckoned with. Her readings of the Hank Williams classic “Cold Cold Heart” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” alone are worth the price of the CD. Jones’s own material, while not bad, pales a bit next to such masterpieces.…

Album:Two Against Nature

Two Against Nature

Steely Dan

Never so much a band as the slyly crafted specter of one, Steely Dan’s mid-1990s “return” to live performance was as surprising as it was perverse. They’d previously toured only once, round about the era of Watergate, pet rocks, and Shaft. A half-decade after their concert comeback and a mere 19 years after Gaucho seemingly closed out their recording career, the jazz-pop conceit of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen deliberately dropped back into a recording landscape where they weren’t so much seasoned vets as alien ambassadors…

Album:Justified

Justified

Justin Timberlake

Common wisdom holds that debut albums have an autobiographical slant, so it’s hard to believe that Justin Timberlake’s first non-’N Sync outing doesn’t purloin much of its subject matter from the singer’s breakup with Britney Spears. Half the songs are about the abrupt severing of a romance and the singer’s rather hard-hearted stance. Sure, he may have been the wronged party, but that doesn’t excuse the inflexible emotional posture revealed in “Cry Me a River,” “Never Again,” and the sniping “Last Night.” But Timberlake apparently thinks it does, since he…

Album:Breakaway

Breakaway

Kelly Clarkson

Kelly Clarkson could have played her American Idol-propelled career much differently, languishing in the role of dippy ingénue or shunting her musical development by leaning too heavily on overnight stardom. Instead she dug in her heels and allowed good sense (or a good manager) to steer, and somewhere Simon Fuller and the rest of the TV gang ought to be smiling. Credit Breakaway, which couldn't be more aptly titled--the sophomore effort represents a seismic split from the thin if pretty debut, Thankful. Here we encounter Clarkson as…

Album:Chaos and Creation in the Backyard

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard

Paul McCartney

Sir Paul is an elder statesman now, but Chaos and Creation in the Backyard finds him in considered and tastefully restrained form, penning songs worthy of his finest hour. McCartney crafts this collection of songs with exquisite balance, lining up haunting chimes and heartfelt lyrics (“Riding to Vanity Fair”) alongside pounding “Hey Bulldog”-esque chords and eerily Beatles-ish multitracked vocals (“Promise to You Girl,” “Fine Line”) and, most impressively, distinctively new yet timeless gems of songcraft (“Anyway,” “Jenny Wren”).…

Album:Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

Gwen Stefani

In her own unique way, Gwen Stefani has managed to shift our culture since coming onto the scene as the lead singer of No Doubt. With years of defining style and 30 million in record sales under her belt, she will again turn heads with this debut record that is as fresh as it is retro and as progressive as it is feel-good familiar.

With this project, she has enlisted some of the biggest names in music (Dr. Dre, Eve, The Neptunes, Andre 3000, Nellee Hooper, Dallas Austin, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Linda Perry and Tony Kanal) to create a genre bending masterpiece that is guaranteed to be one of the most talked about records of this year (2004) and beyond.

Album:Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock

Sade

Sade’s brand of elegant pop/R&B owned the charts in the ‘80s, making the Nigerian/British chanteuse one of those artists whose very name becomes the adjective to describe their sound. After an eight-year layoff, Sade and her core band (and longtime producer Mike Pela) are back with a CD that is both a stunning reaffirmation of her artistry and a solid soulful collection. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Lovers Rock is that it picks up where Sade left off, which means you will hear no cool beats or hot hired hands or hip-hop cameos. This is…

Album:Extraordinary Machine

Extraordinary Machine

Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple, brooding, brainy belter and capital-A artist of near forbidding depth, begins her much gossiped-over third CD on a lark. The title track, one of two songs produced by Jon Brion before the label dispute that prompted hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (50 Cent, Eminem) to step in, sounds like a Judy Garland number slathered with irony or something Rufus Wainwright might have had a hand in—strings soar, beats bump around skittishly, and notes require a ladder. But playful as it is, by the time the chorus kicks in it’s clear why the world has missed Fiona…

Album:Wildflower

Wildflower

Sheryl Crow

Since her 1993 debut, Tuesday Night Music Club, Sheryl Crow has been churning out unassailably appealing CDs in an unassailably appealing voice. Which means, according to the rules of the pop music cosmos, by album six it’s about time for a misstep. Natural law, fortunately, will have to keep checking its watch. Wildflower moves Sheryl Crow one step closer to Hall of Fame status as she shunts the established rock star’s impulse to get all experimental, but instead sprawls, rambling rose-like, across the substance-spiked pop landscape she helped…

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