A.A. Bondy, American Hearts (Superphonic)
Haunting, elegiac, Skip James-influenced folk music that, had Bob Dylan recorded it, would be hailed as Album of the Century. Songs like "Black Rain, Black Rain" possess all the darkness and light of the human soul, and Bondy's ghostly tenor and lovely finger-picking style transform each bittersweet track into nothing short of revelation.
The Cult, Born Into This (Roadrunner)
Reborn after a four-year gig playing Jim Morrison in the Riders on the Storm tribute band (also including the Doors' Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger), Ian Astbury, with his Cult co-founder/guitarist Billy Duffy, sounds like the sonic shaman he was nearly 20 years ago. Short of a rumored Zep reunion record, Born remains the most recent evidence of the power of deadly rock riffs and bombastic singing.
Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood soundtrack (Nonesuch)
Not only the greatest film score of the last decade but among the year's top classical compositions. The Radiohead guitarist makes his own band's 2007 release, In Rainbows, sound paltry with a searing musical backdrop to P.T. Anderson's epic adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!
Merle Haggard, The Bluegrass Sessions (McCoury)
At the ripe old age of 70, the Hag sounds better than ever, and his latest songs are among his best. Now he hitches his wagon to Merle's All Stars, a band of bluegrass vets that makes every lyric and note by the country-music giant sound timeless and true. Listen to "Learning to Live With Myself," in which Haggard notes, voice cracking, that "even locked down in a prison / there's a cellmate with friendship to earn," and say this isn't incredible music.
Eyvind Kang, Athlantis (Ipecac)
Kang's 12-song choral concept album melds classical composition with shards of punk, jazz and atmospheric noise. Athlantis is an effort to create a modern-day oratorio with vocalists like ex-Faith No More's Mike Patton. If you have a taste for the Ramones and 20th-century French composers like Maurice Duruflé, Kang's rich, dark melodies will wrack your soul.
Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime (ANTI-)
Produced by Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood (son of Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood) in FAME Studios and performed by the Truckers themselves, Crime captures Detroit singer LaVette at her most raw and heartfelt. American soul doesn't get any grittier than, say, LaVette's take on John Hiatt's "The Last Time."
Wynton Marsalis, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note)
Jazz trumpeter and composer Marsalis' musically omnivorous, epic song cycle about the end of the American dream marks the triumphant debut of golden-voiced Jennifer Sanon, who has mastered every kind of vocal attack (from Ella Fitzgerald to Julie London). An instant and highly intoxicating jazz classic that, despite its depressing theme, offers a sliver of hope.
Graham Parker, Don't Tell Columbus (Bloodshot)
A wordsmith at least on par, if not superior to, Elvis Costello, Parker continues to fashion the punk-influenced rock that made him a critical darling ever since his mid-'70s debut. Columbus has all the fire and passion of an album made by a 20-year-old troubadour--only the lyrics cut deeper, and the music really packs a wallop.
Pig Destroyer, Phantom Limb (Relapse)
This CD will rip your face clean off, impure and simple. If you claim to enjoy really aggressive music, no one does it better--and with more psychopathic aplomb--than the four bad dudes in Pig Destroyer. Phantom Limb is their most vicious and transgressive album to date.
Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang, Dislocation Blues (Rounder)
The best roots and blues album of the year, with a posthumous performance by the late and very great Whitley. Together with Aussie guitarist Jeff Lang, Whitley digs deep into his and Lang's originals, as well as Dylan's "Changing of the Guard." A stone-cold masterpiece.
The Avett Brothers, Emotionalism (Ramseur)
It's difficult to convey the magic of this record (and the Avett Brothers generally) without using the word "bluegrass," since on cursory inspection, that seems to be their milieu. But Emotionalism, rather than being a genre recording, is instead a very earnest pop record that happens to prominently feature banjo and vocal harmony--and a literal heart on the record sleeve.
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)
Unfortunate title aside, Ga x5 is another high-quality effort from the best rock band on the planet. Pop gems like "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "The Underdog" (which Billy Joel only wishes he could have written) would be career-makers for lesser bands, but for Spoon, they're just matters of course.
LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (Capitol)
The apotheosis of James Murphy's uniquely sardonic hybrid of dance and rock, Silver is the kind of record that results in descriptors like "mature" and "serious" due to thoughtful epics like "Someone Great," even as it gently nudges you to the dance floor via instant classics like "Us Vs. Them." Also, no record this year sports more cowbell--genius, Q.E.D.
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
The conventional Wilco (of A.M. and Summerteeth and Being There) is my preferred iteration, so where some critics heard Sky Blue Sky as "dad rock" and "Volkswagen yuppie sellout," to my ears, it was the glorious noise of a return to form. On "Impossible Germany" (perhaps the song of the year) and "Side With the Seeds," the guitars interplay like snakes on a caduceus, and finally, guitar god Nels Cline is put to good use. One caveat: I really could have done without the pseudo-Grateful Dead boogie of "Walken." But I'm not going to throw away a perfectly good VW because it has a dent, now am I?
Kanye West, Graduation (Roc-A-Fella)
Kanye West records are so automatically Top 10 material that it's tempting to leave them out in favor of something less, shall we say, exposed. But Graduation would be a Top 10 record in nearly any year, with bona fide pop hits ("Stronger" and "Good Life"), off-kilter hits ("Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Good Morning") and songs about all Kanye's hits ("Barry Bonds"). The hits, they just keep coming.
John Vanderslice, Emerald City (Barsuk)
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the latest from the criminally underrated Vanderslice is that apart from Steve Earle, he's as close as we get to a protest singer these days. Emerald City dares to offer a critical take on Sept. 11 and the Iraq war as Vanderslice's peers go around pretending that there's nothing to get exercised about. Regardless, this record can be enjoyed solely on its sonic merits, as on the urgent "Time to Go" or the hauntingly melancholic "Kookaburra."
Battles, Mirrored (Warp)
I had long dismissed Battles due to a misperception that they were too noodly and amelodic and not focused on the got-damn groove. Mirrored puts that notion to rest with extreme prejudice with cuts like "Atlas," the best slab of prog-rock bombast since King Crimson's "Thela Hun Ginjeet."
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (Republic)
Although the bloom is off Amy's rose these days, as her drug-addled ridiculousness plays out in tabloid Technicolor, we mustn't forget how refreshing Back to Black is, from Winehouse's charming vocal affect to the tautly mannerist playing of her backing band (Sharon Jones' Dap Kings), to producer Mark Ronson's earnest effort at Spectorizing the whole affair. Here's hoping that Back to Black isn't simultaneously Winehouse's U.S. debut and her swan song.
Ween, La Cucaracha (Rounder)
Who'd have thunk that the goofy little comedy-rock duo from Philly would now be releasing its 10th studio album to great acclaim and a large, ever-growing fanbase? On La Cucaracha, the hilarity is still there, but is perhaps more subtly expressed. That is to say, if, like me, you find gay Ibiza dance anthems ("Friends") or yacht-rock trifles that sport David Sanborn sax solos ("Your Party") to be "subtle."
Lily Allen, Alright, Still (Capitol)
If you had told me that a privileged British tart who mucks about the mire of what's left of ska-pop would have ended up on my list, I would have called you daft. Or some even-more-inflammatory British adjective. But, damn if Lily isn't smart enough to understand how impudent the whole mission of pop music is, taunting everyone along the way. This album just plain makes me giddy.
Band of Horses, Cease to Begin (Sub Pop)
There's no instant classic like "The Funeral" here, and Cease to Begin doesn't quite measure up to 2006's debut, Everything All the Time, but there's something grandiose, comforting and cathartic in these 10 songs. Even the trifling act of naming a gorgeous ballad after a German-born basketball player ("Detlef Schrempf") can't seem to break the spell of this album, one of the least-cheesy odes to being in love in recent memory.
Feist, The Reminder (Cherry Tree)
That sultry-jazz voice, those pretty little ballads, those Motown-esque arrangements--there's much to like about The Reminder. Even though I've listened to "1234" as much as any song this year (not counting the few thousand times I've heard a snippet of it on those iPod commercials), I'm still not sick of it. And it doesn't hurt that Feist turns in a credible cover of one of my favorite Nina Simone songs, either.
Lupe Fiasco, The Cool (Atlantic/Wea)
I suspect that had this album been released earlier, as opposed to mid-December, it would have appeared on a lot more of these year-end lists. The follow-up to Food and Liquor is far more complicated than its widely praised predecessor, too dense to jump to conclusions about after a cursory listen or two. Fast, wordy and smart as hell, Fiasco seems to take what's best about Jay-Z and Kanye West, then recast them in his own moral voice.
Golden Boots, Burning Brain (Park the Van)
Tucson's musical history is pretty much based on weird, and these guys further the concept while sounding like no one else. Burning Brain is where they truly found their voice, all '60s psychedelic twang that sounds like the acetate was left in the sun a few hours too long.
Vampire Weekend, "Blue CD-R" (self-released)
I've had a secret link to these guys' new album for a couple of months now, but I can't bring myself to use it. Why? Because the songs on this demo EP are so damn good, I'm scared of being disappointed by the full-length. Let's all cross our fingers that it upholds the precedent set by these nerdy indie-pop-meets-Africa tunes.
The Weakerthans, Reunion Tour (Epitaph/ANTI-)
Lovely melodies and thoughtful arrangements accompany John Samson's poetry (it would be a disservice to call it anything else), slicingly observational and crushingly wistful. If you like Clem Snide but wish they were a little more sincere, and a little more Canadian, say hello to your new best friends. Bonus points for including "Virtue the Cat Explains Her Departure," a heartbreaking and worthy sequel to 2003's "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue," one of the best songs of the last five years.
Ween, La Cucaracha (Rounder)
One song is Young Americans-era Bowie vocals backed by a lite-house track labored over by Haddaway wannabes; the next is a faux-earnest folk song whose first lyrics are, "You're just an object to me." Elsewhere: fucking lessons, a 10-minute-plus homage to Jethro Tull complete with flute, and raw country far removed from 1996's 12 Golden Country Greats. Like all the best Ween albums, it sounds like home to a bunch of disenfranchised, too-smart-for-their-own-good psuedo-musicologists.
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (Republic)
Let the tawdry-minded eat up the tabloid column inches about her, but also remember that this album is brilliant. With heart firmly glued on sleeve, Winehouse sounds like she believes every heartbreaking word she sings, even when it's at her own expense.
Patrick Wolf, The Magic Position (Universal)
While recent bands have been pillaging from '80s sources somewhat indiscriminately, this young, London-born multi-instrumentalist plucks from some more unlikely ones--New Order, the New Romantic crooners, maybe a bit of Echo and the Bunnymen--then spins them out into irresistible electro-folk chamber-pop tunes. Even when it veers into over-the-top melodrama--as on "Magpie," a duet with a spooky Marianne Faithful--you've gotta admire the kid's chutzpa.