Bear in mind we ask our writers not to rattle off some highfalutin' notion of what the best albums of the year are, just what they liked the best. Here, then, is part one of those lists, starring Gene Armstrong and Annie Holub; part two will appear in these pages next week.
Boards of Canada, The Campfire Headphase (Warp)
The reclusive Scottish duo of Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin easily have exceeded the electronic-ambient wonders of their previous albums, as well as any expectations that listeners may have had for this one, an electric-acoustic hybrid masterpiece of psychedelic mantras and rich sound environments. Gone are the openly derivative influences of such acts as Neu! and My Bloody Valentine, replaced by contemplative instrumental musings the likes of which haven't been heard since David Bowie's late-'70s collaborations with Brian Eno and the deceptively simple wordless snippets on Roxy Music's Avalon.
Kate Bush, Aerial (Columbia)
Fans of the endlessly creative British rock songstress patiently have awaited this, her first album since 1993's The Red Shoes. And the great Kate--whose amazing work predates all those touchy-feely Lilith Fair waifs--doesn't disappoint across two expansive discs, subtitled A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey. Accompanied by a cast of Anglo-European prog-rockers and jazz session players, she has given us a gift of rich songwriting, mesmerizing beats, neo-Baroque dances and sublime beauty. Plus, when was the last time you heard musical tributes to the number ' and to a clothes washing machine?
James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, Ali Jackson and Reginald Veal, Gold Sounds (Brown Brothers)
Knowing the damage it does to my rock-critic credibility, I admit up front that I am no fan of Pavement, which always seemed to me more an ironic inside joke than a band. It took this surprisingly robust set of bebop and free-jazz interpretations of songs from Pavement's songbook to wake me up. This grouping of contemporary jazz giants--tenor saxophonist Carter, pianist Chestnut, drummer Jackson and bassist Veal--exploits the somewhat free-form, low-fi nature of Pavement's music to make room for some of the year's best blowing.
John Coltrane, One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse)
Speaking of jazz saxophonists, no one has ever come close to matching the power, speed, articulation and spirituality of Coltrane, and this double-CD set is one of two recently unearthed live recordings (along with the Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, which seemed to receive more media coverage) to be released this year. Made with his classic quartet--McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and the legendary Elvin Jones on drums--these 1965 recordings from the Half Note were made for late-night radio broadcasts. Marking an important transitional period from post-bop to out-there improv, this set is a revelation for Coltrane fanatics.
Charles Lloyd, Jumping the Creek (ECM)
Too much jazz saxophone? Never. Lloyd has been playing since before Coltrane died, and he's seen jazz trends (psychedelic jazz-soul?) come and go. But he's been refining his vision for the last decade or so, and it includes talented pianist Geri Allen, who ably bridges old-school melody and the avant-garde. The original compositions reference a combination of post-bop, minimalism, European chamber jazz, early music and folk music from different cultures. Nothing I've heard this year is as startlingly beautiful as this album's opener, a cover of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas."
The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)
Intricate pop-rock doesn't get much better than the third album by this beloved Canadian ensemble, captained by singer-songwriter Carl Newman. Along with his loose consortium of collaborators--including singer Neko Case, Destroyer singer-songwriter Dan Bejar and new member Kathryn Calder, who plays piano, sings and happens to be the bandleader's niece--Newman indulges his affection for The Zombies, The Kinks and Guided by Voices on a marvelous excursion into quirky, eccentric and brilliant melodies. The great songs keep coming and will haunt your dreams. Sounds warm and wonderful on vinyl, too!
Nine Horses, Snow Borne Sorrow (Samadhi Sound)
Nine Horses features singer-songwriter David Sylvian, his drummer-percussionist brother Steve Jansen (the two were members of the 1980s new wave band Japan) and German experimentalist Burnt Friedman (of the space jazz outfit Flanger). The roster of guests includes longtime Sylvian collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto. Subtle undercurrents of dub and jazz ripple through lush tribal-ambient dance-rock with lyrics balanced between social commentary and personal confession. This gorgeous disc is a departure from Sylvian's recent experiments in noise and collage, and it will thrill Japan fans whose tastes have grown up with them.
Pelican, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (Hydrahead)
Ostensibly a heavy-metal instrumental ensemble, this Chicago band evolved on its second full-length CD into the potential saviors of hypnotic post-rock. The group layers acoustic guitars, challenging rhythms and multi-faceted compositions onto its leviathan rock. Where you expect grindcore-style sludge, you get delicacy; where you expect bombast, you get nuance. For instrumental music, there is much about it that is hopeful, romantic and eloquent. Fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mono and Explosions in the Sky will find it worthwhile to seek out this priceless disc.
Archer Prewitt, Wilderness (Thrill Jockey)
Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Prewitt, a moonlighting member of The Sea and Cake and former member of the defunct The Coctails, explores his inner Burt Bacharach with this collection of pop mini-symphonies. It's his third such release, and by far the most sophisticated to date. The dense arrangements--mellotron, vibes, synthesizer, bells, strings and horns abound--and airy, 1970s-style production come off as light and frothy but not without substance. The heartfelt lyrics and unforgettable melodies of such tunes as "Way of the Sun" and "Judy, Judy" approach pop perfection.
Patti Smith, Horses (Arista)
What's a 30-year-old album doing on this list? Punk-rock poet and priestess Smith celebrated the anniversary of her immortal debut with a remastered two-CD set that includes a new live version of the entire work, recorded this past June in London. Three decades on, Horses remains one of the most remarkable artistic statements in popular music, and it's still my favorite rock album. Smith brings a contemporary relevance to her epic work while at the same time emphasizing its connection to Allen Ginsberg's classic beat poem "Howl." Original band members Lenny Kaye (guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are back on the new version, along with Television guitar god Tom Verlaine and, on bass, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea.
Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
Orchestral, choral, heartbreakingly gorgeous songs, each of which reads like a great American novella, occupy Illinois, the second in Stevens' 50 albums for 50 states project. If they're all going to be this epic, the project will either never be completed, or we're all going to have to make room for 48 more incredible records. I'll gladly build an extra shelf for Stevens' music.
Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (Sub Pop)
The Woods was recorded live in the studio and twitches with energy--it gets so loud, at times it sounds like the speakers have blown. The lyrics are angry and creatively political, and Corin Tucker's voice warbles and hits notes that don't seem to be humanly possible to hit. The Woods rocks harder than anything I've heard in a long, long time.
Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek)
You know it's a good music year when Bright Eyes doesn't make my top two. I'm Wide Awake is Conor Oberst's best record yet: the mostly acoustic, country bent gives the album focus, holds it back from being too introspective and captures through short scenes, trumpets and simple guitar the way the world looks to all of us disillusioned but somehow giddy twentysomethings: "Our freedom's a joke, we're just taking a piss / and the whole world must watch the sad, comic display / if you're still free start running away" (from "Landlocked Blues").
Pernice Brothers, Discover a Lovelier You (Ashmont)
Discover a Lovelier You is lush, with synthesizers creating layers of sound under chorus- and reverb-soaked electric guitars, and Joe Pernice's breathy voice, except it's never precious or overdone. Pernice Brothers play jangly pop with dark lyrics--take, for instance, "Sell Your Hair," which sounds like an innocent lullaby as Pernice sings "I'd be a criminal and you'd be a whore in Scotty Square."
Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge)
Spoon's rhythms are visceral--the piano and drums hit you right in the gut. The guitars are on the left, the bass on the right, and somewhere in the middle, "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" hypnotizes. The extra beat thrown in on the ending chorus of "Sister Jack" is deliciously unsettling, and the bass on "I Turn My Camera On" nearly outfunks Rick James, bitch.
The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)
There isn't a song on this record that isn't catchy, clever and so over-the-top that it falls gracefully back to terra firma--"The Bones of an Idol" showcases Neko Case's voice (it's like buttah); "The Bleeding Heart Show" ascends into "hey-la, hey-la" nirvana at the end of the song; and just the title of "Sing Me Spanish Techno" gives you an idea of the kind of sweet pop this is.
Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs (Righteous Babe)
Andrew Bird's violin, whistling and orchestrations sound unlike anything else you've heard before, but also strangely familiar, a soundtrack to a movie you're sure you've seen but can't quite place. "Tables and Chairs" ends with a promising vision of apocalypse: no money, no need for survival kits, a band, dancing bears, "and that's not all--there will be snacks," sings Bird, "so don't you worry about the atmosphere."
Decemberists, Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)
All Decemberists albums have their moments, but Picaresque has more of them than its predecessors: There's "Sixteen Military Wives," "Eli, The Barrow Boy," "We Both Go Down Together," "The Sporting Life" and perhaps the best example of the Decemberists' dramatic balladry, "The Mariner's Revenge Song," with its gypsy accordion, tambourine and plot out of Dickens mixed with Melville.
Sigur Rós, Takk... (Geffen)
If Iceland really is half as amazing as the travel guides and Sigur Rós' music suggests it is, then it's a wonder it hasn't been gentrified by evil American developers. As the opening chords of Takk ... relax the senses, let us all now hold hands and hope that there will always be music this pure, that it has the power to rise above commercialization and economic interests, and that it remains a free expression of human emotion. Amen.
Heavenly States, Black Comet (Baria)
Not only do the rhythms and melodies make you want to turn up the volume; Genevieve Gagon's violin makes the songs on Black Comet into an entirely different beast--it's an extra shot of espresso in an already strong cup of coffee. The title track combines some fiddling ripe for a hoedown with Ted Nesseth's rock guitar and shouts; the bridge in the middle of "Elastic Days" is fit for a symphony hall, and just when you think this is just another rock band with strings, "Racetrack" erupts into madness.