Music

updated 12/27/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/27/2004 01:00AM

10 Standout CDs
It was a year of terrific encores, comebacks and fresh new debuts

Gwen Stefani
Love.Angel.Music.Baby.

Leave it to Stefani to release the disc that made us feel most hella good in 2004. Making her solo debut, the No Doubt front-woman channels her inner Material Girl with a dance-pop CD that will have you partying like it's 1984. Even on her own, Stefani displays a knack for picking the right collaborators, including Eve and Andre 3000.

George Michael
Patience

'80s British pop icons like Morrissey, the Cure and Duran Duran all had comebacks in '04. But it was Michael who made the most triumphant return of all. His deeply personal lyrics reflect an artist who has survived scandal and come out as a gay man, while his sumptuous sounds reveal that he is still one of pop's premier craftsmen.

Brandy
Afrodisiac

This is the album that Janet Jackson wishes she had made instead of Damita Jo. Indeed, Afrodisiac is Brandy's Control, on which she pours her wiser heart into an intoxicating mix of club bangers, juicy mid-tempo grooves and sexy slow jams.

Eminem
Encore

After three multiplatinum albums, a hit movie, nine Grammys and an Oscar, what could Eminem possibly do for an Encore? Roll up his sleeves, grab the mike and go back to being the most provocative rapper on the planet While unleashing his verbal attacks on everyone from President Bush to Michael Jackson, he also takes a hard look at himself on introspective tracks that tellingly reveal who the real Slim Shady is.

Van Hunt
Van Hunt

In a year in which Prince regained his royal stride, Hunt stepped up as heir apparent to the Purple One's throne. On his superfly debut, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist smoothly splices breezy pop ("Dust"), dirty funk ("Hello, Goodbye"), psychedelic soul ("Hold My Hand"), Latin jazz ("Her December"), you name it—all without messing up his perfectly cocked pimp-daddy hat.

Talib Kweli
The Beautiful Struggle

His name means "student of truth" in Arabic, and on his stellar second solo outing this emcee, one of hip-hop's headiest lyricists, imparts his street knowledge with an old-school keep-it-realness that is both anti-gangsta and anti-bling.

Jill Scott
Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2

On her stunning sophomore studio CD, this neo-soul sister shows us what it means to be "beautifully human." Whether she's rhapsodizing about a "Family Reunion" or relating the tragic story of a drug dealer named "Rasool," Scott is one down-to-earth diva with a poet's heart and a powerhouse voice.

Jamie Cullum
Twentysomething

Of all the young saloon singers to emerge in Norah Jones's Grammy-sweeping wake, this cool cabaret cat with the soul-kissed vocals was the one most worth getting jazzed about. The 25-year-old British piano man's U.S. debut crackles with jazz-pop originals and eclectic covers ranging from Cole Porter to Radiohead.

Gretchen Wilson
Here for the Party

Putting a musical spin on the "Redneck Woman," this earthy Illinoisan brings a bluesy new party-girl sensibility to Nashville. She and fellow female newcomers Julie Roberts and Katrina Elam provide some vivacious grace notes in the country-music year.

Find the Hidden Message
Their lyrics were revealing, but who were these pop stars singing about?

"Feeling angry/ But you don't know why/ Why don't you look me in the eye?/ You want my friends/ You want my clothes/ You're one of those"
HILARY DUFF, "HATERS"
BEST GUESS: She's referring to her feud with Lindsay Lohan

"I was 6 years old, when my parents went away/ I was stuck inside, a broken life, I couldn't wish away/ She was beautiful, she had everything and more/ My escape was hiding out, running for the door"
ASHLEE SIMPSON on sis Jessica in "SHADOW"

"This is by far the hardest thing I think I've ever had to do/To tell you, the woman I love/ That I'm having a baby by a woman that I barely even know"
—USHER, "CONFESSIONS"
BEST GUESS: He's owning up to cheating on ex-girlfriend Chilli

"Are your secrets where you left them?/ 'Cause now your ghosts are mine as well/ I think it's time I met them and I think it's time you tell/ And you should have told me when you met me all these things I should know"
GWEN STEFANI, "DANGER ZONE"
BEST GUESS: She's alluding to husband Gavin Rossdale's love child

"I always had the feelin'/ That baby boy was cheatin'/ I kept tellin' myself/ 'If you ain't happy Bran just leave him'/ I wasn't raised to quit/But what do you gain/ If you feel incomplete within?"
—BRANDY on her split with Robert Smith in "WHO I AM"

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