Elliott Smith, XO (1998)
While this intimacy may be best captured on his earlier, largely solo acoustic albums, it was on XO, his first with lush production and full band work-ups, that his material made its greatest impact on me. (Which is not to disparage its immediate predecessor, Either/Or, which remains a personal favorite as well.) While clean and polished, the songs lose none of their charm and earnestness, simply adding some buoyant, almost Beatlesque adornments to keep things varied.
The clear stand-out is "Waltz #2 (XO)," a simply stunning tale of unrequited love; it's lost none of its power in 20 years. But plenty of others are nearly as majestic. Opener "Sweet Adeline" perfectly sets the stage, starting off with the bare acoustic intimacy of prior albums before opening up into tastefully deployed studio wizardry and sweeping harmonies. "Baby Britain" is as close as he ever came to power pop, a McCartney-infused piano-driven stunner; "Independence Day" is a lovely midtempo jaunt; and "Bled White" takes full advantage of the bigger, bolder sound, complex and swirling but still grounded. And the album closes with the a capella "I Didn't Understand," a gorgeous (and heartbreaking) send-off that would make Brian Wilson weep.
Throughout, Smith's gorgeous vocals and heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics are captivating; even the professional sheen can't blot out the inherent sadness of the music. And it's hard not to listen to Smith these days without the crushing sense of loss from his early departure. But XO does a phenomenal job of freshening up the material without sacrificing its intensity.
Here's the "Baby Britain" video: