[These are just selections. Different writers were assigned albums—Faith Evans’ Faithfully, for one—that would’ve made my personal list.]
Aaliyah, Aaliyah (Blackground) — Beats by producer Timbaland and various upstarts suggest a cold machine-run future, but the late singer’s breathy vocals convey the warmth of a lover’s whisper.
Björk, Vespertine (Elektra) — Iceland’s endearing oddball ditches dance-floor rhythms and spins intimate, magical tales of hidden places, “pagan poetry” and a boy who restored her “blisses.”
Jay-Z, The Blueprint (Def Jam) — “Jigga” uses old soul samples for a verbally stunning life map of where he’s been (“Blueprint [Momma Loves Me]”), what he likes (“Girls Girls Girls”) and where his sights are set (“Takeover”).
Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Miss E…So Addictive (Elektra) — Elliott supplants Prince as black music’s premier eroticist by tunefully celebrating sexual abandon (“Get Ur Freak On”) and its close kinship with spiritual rapture (“X Tasy”).