1. The College Dropout Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): With its scholastic framework, conflicted relationship to hip-hop proper, admittedly grating skits, and overwhelming hubris, Kanye West's undeniable, ubiquitous, endlessly compelling debut is the newer, better version of an earlier sure shot, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. But where Hill got by on sonics organic production and sixth-sense vocal arrangements West is an idea and detail man: confrontational kiddie chorus defending drug-dealing as survival, "token blackey" rolling a blunt on break at the Gap, autobiographical anthem rapped through a wired jaw, literal salvation on the dance floor, family reunions and handed-down civil rights history, the first nigga with a Benz and a backpack.
2. Horse of a Different Color Big & Rich (Warner Bros.): Like The College Dropout, this debut tour de force challenges the assumptions of its largely conservative genre from squarely inside the belly of the beast. If Big & Rich's mainstream-country-as-classic-rock-as-hip-hop conceit was a notion whose time had definitely come, it wouldn't have been as sweet without such an avalanche of inspired music and deceptively elegant songwriting: classic-rock crunch and honky-tonk swagger, calypso & western and rap en espanol, soaring choruses and endless Everly Brothers-style harmonies, witty boasts, Walter Mittyish fantasies, and novel romantic metaphors. And though the pair played coy when it came to party politics, "Love Everybody" seems like a pretty welcome message given what we learned on Election Day.
3. All the Fame of Lofty Deeds Jon Langford (Bloodshot): "Hard work, get it while you can," Brit-turned-Chicagoan Jon Langford cackles sarcastically midway through his outsider's appraisal of a country gone crazy. Once an unintentional preemptive strike at George W. Bush's debate strategy, it's now the comic-horror refrain that haunts this president's almost surely disastrous second term. As for Langford, he'd like to condemn his adopted home to damnation but he loves it and its music too much to give up: "The country isn't stupid even though it's silent," he promises, against all countervailing evidence. "It still has eyes and ears, it just can't find its mouth."
4. Van Lear Rose Loretta Lynn (Interscope): This is just the kind of high-concept reclamation project (see all those Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin records or Solomon Burke's borderline-unlistenable Don't Give Up On Me) so consistently and predictably overrated that I found myself underrating it until a late-year round of relistening reminded me how grand it really is. Lynn's all-new songs are shockingly, uniformly excellent (tell me "Family Tree" isn't the equal of "Fist City" or "You're Not Woman Enough To Take My Man"), but hipster-backlash victim Jack White deserves equal billing for his genius production. With Lynn a better singer than Meg White or Holly Golightly and a better songwriter than Jack himself, Van Lear Rose might be a better lovestruck mash-note follow-up to the White Stripes' White Blood Cells than Elephant was.
5. A Grand Don't Come for Free The Streets (Vice/Atlantic): With its linear narrative, this sophomore platter from Brit one-man-band wunderkind Mike Skinner is pop music as novella where his heroic debut, Original Pirate Material, was more a collection of self-contained short stories. Skinner's plotline about missing cash and sketchy friends can be a little hard to follow, but the relationship songs at the core comprise a sure romantic arc untouched by anything else in hip-hop or techno history. A love song about coming to the realization that you'd rather lie on the couch at your girl's house watching TV than go boozing with your mates speaks the kind of common truth rarely heard in a pop song. And when it sounds like the Chi-Lites, Valhalla awaits.
6. The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me The Hold Steady (Frenchkiss): Craig Finn and Tad Kubler's previous band, Minneapolis' Lifter Puller, earned a nationwide cult following what seemed about six months after they called it quits. Relocated to Brooklyn to pursue real work, they've been pulled back in: "She said, 'It's good to see you back in a bar band, baby,'" Finn sneers on "Barfruit Blues." "I said, 'It's good to see you still in the bars.'" Trading in Lifter Puller's heavy-machinery new wave and spastic punk-funk for the bar-band basics, including Skynyrd guitar, Clarence Clemons sax breaks, and the essence of Meatloaf and Billy Joel, Finn continues to write insanely quotable songs about nightlife glitz and grime that he may or may not have any actual experience with.
7. East Nashville Skyline Todd Snider (Oh Boy): This career-best effort from onetime Memphian Snider is the saddest, funniest, and most deeply humane "protest" record of the year even if it isn't overtly political. Snider is too modest and too nice to lecture anybody about anything, but he seems to understand in his bones just how extreme American life has gotten over the past three years, and he is certain of at least one thing: The bad shit always rains down hardest on the poor.
8. Sonic Nurse Sonic Youth (DGC): Though I guess there might be some, um, Aerosmith fans who would disagree, Sonic Youth has evolved into the most durable American rock band ever, as good or better more than 20 years into their run as they've ever been. Their singular career arc from pure chaos to relatively straight-ahead rock into a more organized noise has landed them in a place where it seems like they could rock out in their own urban-pastoral free-jazz kinda way forever and ever, amen. I still think 1998's A Thousand Leaves is their finest "post-sellout" record, but this is a close second.
9. More Adventurous Rilo Kiley (Brute/Beute): I'd heard of but never actually heard Rilo Kiley until More Adventurous, and even though I haven't had the chance to backtrack through their discography, I find it unfathomable that earlier records could match this indie-rock breakthrough. Even in this age of clueless commercial radio and overwhelming listening options, pop music this glisteningly tuneful and strongly, soulfully sung can't stay hidden long.
10. Hidden Vagenda Kimya Dawson (K): More than a dozen listens in, a few songs on this hopelessly obscure, partly homemade collection of anti-folk ditties still don't connect. But the ones that do provide the finest guide for living pop music provided this year, from a part-time day-care worker skilled in imparting wise advice in instantly graspable language.
11. Shake the Sheets Ted Leo/Pharmacists (Lookout!): With classic-rock reach and a punk-rock heart, Leo & Co. pack one feverishly kinetic, achingly sincere, politically committed anthem after another, making Shake the Sheets the perfect alternative for rock fans too put off by Bono's martyr complex to give themselves over to U2.
12. Get Away From Me Nellie McKay (Columbia): Flipping the bird to Norah Jones with the deliciously sarcastic title of her debut album and signaling its contents with a gloriously silly album cover (the Lil' Red Riding Hood of Manhattan Avenue, replete with "parental advisory explicit content" label), this cabaret-piano-playing, drama-queen hip-hop fan proved a little too weird to be embraced by the NPR-listener fan base she courted. But from gin-soaked reveries to deceptively prickly cocktail-jazz to a gleefully guileless paean to the transformative powers of adopting a pound puppy, this double-disc opus is so teeming with ideas you know she'll be back to give it another shot.
13. To Tha X-Treme Devin the Dude (Rap-a-Lot): This laconic Houston underdog with his smart, funny, and comparatively gentle tales of weed, women, and not much else delivered the second-best American rap record in a year dominated by one.
14. Showtime Dizzee Rascal (XL): Officially released in the U.S. in January but widely available as an import months prior, Brit teen rapper Dizzee Rascal's debut, Boy in Da Corner, was the sound of a kid whose world ended at the end of the block but who knew the landscape intimately. This quick-footed follow-up is an after-the-goldrush record from a kid hungry for a prime place in global hip-hop culture. With standard-issue hip-hop bluster balanced by sharp, regretful reportage, the cold-eyed threat of violence informed by a menacing sense of humor, and everything made stronger and more purposeful by a foundation of generosity, Dizzee might just be the most compelling MC on the planet, even if it'll take most American listeners a dozen listens to cut through his Donald Duck brogue enough to find out.
15. Laced With Romance The Ponys (In the Red): With their chugging-and-chiming duel-guitar attack, yelping vocals, danceable rhythm section, and open-hearted personality, this Chicago quartet was the indie-rock little-engine-that-could I rooted for hardest this year.
Honorable Mentions: Good News for People Who Love Bad News Modest Mouse (Epic); Last Exit Junior Boys (Domino); Mm Food? MF Doom (Rhymesayers); Madvillainy MF Doom & Madlib (Stones Throw); Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand (Domino); Encore Eminem (Interscope); The Dirty South Drive-By Truckers (New West); Red Bedroom The Fever (Kemado); We Shall All Be Healed Mountain Goats (4AD); When the Sun Goes Down Kenny Chesney (BMG); The Present Lover Luomo (Kinetic); Here for the Party Gretchen Wilson (Sony Nashville); Van Hunt Van Hunt (Capitol); Harder and Harder The Paybacks (Get Hip); The Grind Date De La Soul (Sanctuary Urban); Universal United House of Prayer Buddy Miller (New West Records).
1. "99 Problems" Jay-Z: How a man can go from concocting this the most blistering rap-rock hybrid in the long, proud history of the form to doing an entire album with Linkin Park is a mystery beyond my comprehension.
2. "Maps" Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Right, we were all putting this on mix-tapes a year and a half ago, but 2004 was when I first heard it on the radio or saw it on TV. My most telling musical moment of the year: The shock of hearing this brutal lovelorn plea on a local modern-rock station followed by the predictable sound of a deejay making strip-club jokes.
3. "All Falls Down" Kanye West: Invoking Lauryn Hill's meltdown and making something of the impulse, West puts hip-hop, black America, consumer culture, me, you, and even himself on the couch.
4. "Happy People" R. Kelly: Kelly may be a creep in real life, but he's a genius in a recording studio, and this is his most beautiful single ever. Soft soul so relentlessly gorgeous Smokey Robinson himself couldn't have topped it.
5. "Remember When" Alan Jackson: This indelibly delicate and clear-eyed adult love song makes every competing nostalgic Nashville product sound like the ad copy it no doubt is.
6. "Jesus Walks" Kanye West: Liberation theology via Hot 107.
7. "Redneck Woman" Gretchen Wilson: I doubt she really knows all the words to every Tanya Tucker song, but I totally believe that Lil' Miss Pocahontas Proud buys her lingerie at Wal-Mart and wills it into looking as good as anything in a Faith Hill video.
8. "Love Me for a Little While" Janet Jackson: Buried under the hoopla of the "wardrobe malfunction" and quickly forgotten, this shoulda-been-a-contender wasn't just the best guitar-driven R&B since "Hey Ya!" but nearly the best since Prince's "When You Were Mine."
9. "This One's for the Girls" Martina McBride: Ostensibly "country," this nifty, righteous little guitar-pop anthem crossed over to soft-rock radio and should have gone a lot further.
10. "Yeah" Usher, featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris: The blandest superstar sex symbol imaginable, it's fitting that Usher was by far the least interesting component of his own biggest hit. Usher's verses are entirely forgettable and Ludacris' cameo is put-out-or-get-out misogyny at its worst. But none of that matters with Lil Jon's sproingy synth riff implanted in your hum matrix or when the producer du jour comes back with the beat that makes your booty go clap.
Honorable Mentions: "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" Big & Rich; "Float On" Modest Mouse; "Yeah (Crass Version)" LCD Soundsystem; "Wild West Show" Big & Rich; "Suds in the Bucket" Sara Evans; "Dream" Dizzee Rascal; "Rubberband Man" T.I.; "Dirt Off My Shoulder" Jay-Z; "Toxic" Britney Spears; "Take Me Out" Franz Ferdinand.
1. Funeral Arcade Fire (Merge): At the top of the indie-rock heap sits this full-length debut from the Montreal-based Arcade Fire, a quasi-concept album about the fears of childhood and the disappointments of adulthood about, as its title suggests, death and grief. Win Butler sings about old neighborhoods and lost friendships while the band takes the songs down dark roads into new wave, punk, folk, heavy metal, and the best string parts in ages, all with a passion that is no less heartfelt for being so big and ambitious.
2. Get Away From Me Nellie McKay (Sony): A precocious psychotic with one of the most gleefully anarchic debuts in recent memory, McKay gets AOR soft rock in a headlock and gives its pretensions a well-deserved noogie. She flying-tackles Eminem rap ("Sari" beats anything on Encore), Doris Day weepies, art-metal bombast, and supper-club jazz, while eulogizing her dead kitty, seducing her own clone, taunting President Bush, and dissing men in general. The year's most invigoratingly fearless album.
3. Van Lear Rose Loretta Lynn (Interscope): Van Lear Rose introduced a new generation to the feisty Butcher Holler native Loretta Lynn and added "producer" to Jack White's c.v. Lynn sounds best vulnerable, heartbroken, steely, strong-willed on quieter numbers such as "Trouble on the Line," the spoken "Little Red Shoes," and "Miss Being Mrs." Generous and good-hearted, closely observed but casual, they're less songs than late-in-life ruminations, coming from somewhere beyond the stage, the studio, and the record label.
4. Scissor Sisters Scissor Sisters (Universal): These dozen tracks, which straddle as many gay cultures as possible, prove intelligent, inventive, and forthrightly emotional. Stronger stuff than your average dance album, this debut moved hearts, minds, and booties.
5. Shake the Sheets Ted Leo/Pharmacists (Lookout!): Listening to Shake the Sheets on November 1st made me hopeful that I could make some sort of difference in the way my country was run, that millions like me could save the world. Two days later, listening to the same songs was a sobering experience: The album's message had changed profoundly, and on the eve of another four years, Leo demands we not let life go back to normal, that we try to maintain this level of involvement and activism, that we keep shaking the sheets, no matter who's in power.
6. Anniemal Annie (679): If bubblegum pop is going to be the new garage rock, then Annie is the new Strokes. A Norwegian dance-music veteran, she sings in a whisper like Kylie Minogue but her hooks are more shameless and satisfying, which is saying a lot. Subtle shades of emotions, perhaps sparked by the untimely death of her musical and romantic partner Tore Korknes, color each song, so that "Me Plus One" possesses a potent self-deprecation and "Heartbeat" sounds perfectly, even exuberantly heartbreaking.
7. SMiLE! Brian Wilson (Nonesuch): The album we all knew he had in him but we never thought would actually get made, SMiLE! was Wilson's "teenage anthem to God," which he started back in 1967. Almost 40 years later, it's catchier than garage rock, more sincere than emo, and more challenging than post-rock as it pushes American pop music to its compositional limits.
8. The College Dropout Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): This would have been higher on my list it's the most innovative rap album since Big Boi's Speakerboxxx but for that last track. The man who created "Jesus Walks" indulges the sin of pride as he reminisces about his career in a long, self-worshipping monologue. On the other hand, West has 20 songs leading up to it that earn him the right to boast.
9. Our Endless, Numbered Days Iron & Wine (Sub Pop): Improperly lumped in with freak-/neo-/nu-folkies such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, Florida's Sam Beam transcends any trendy scene label. His second full-length is a gently sung, percussively strummed Americana folk album that's easily better than those of his supposed scene competitors. While "Naked As We Came" devastates as Beam contemplates his and his lover's mortality, "Cinder and Smoke" proves perhaps even more fearsome, if only for the out-of-nowhere coda in which Beam aiih-yigh-yighs his way to an oncoming apocalypse.
10. The Slow Wonder AC Newman (Matador): One of four satellite albums this year orbiting Planet New Pornography, Newman's solo debut proves, perhaps inadvertently, who the brains behind that supergroup really is. Each of these 10 songs is a Frankenstein's monster of verses and anti-verses, choruses and pre-choruses, and bridges and counterbridges. Despite the stitched-together aspect, they move fluidly and organically, each hook outdoing the previous as Newman sings about creative frustration, bruised romance, and political hypocrisy.
Honorable Mentions: Too Much Guitar! The Reigning Sound (In the Red); Thunder! Lightning! Strike! The Go! Team (Memphis Industries); The Dirty South Drive-By Truckers (New West); All the Fame of Lofty Deeds Jon Langford (Bloodshot); Good News for People Who Love Bad News Modest Mouse (Epic); Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand (Domino); East Nashville Skyline Todd Snider (Oh Boy); A Grand Don't Come for Free The Streets (Vice/Atlantic); Showtime Dizzee Rascal (XL); Mignonette Avett Brothers (Ronseur).
1. The College Dropout Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): In 2004, Kanye West's big mouth finally paid off when the braggadocios producer dropped his own album on an unsuspecting audience. West who literally came back from the dead after a near-fatal car crash breaks all the rules by mocking his peers ("All Falls Down"), pulling off badass rhymes ("Through the Wire," where he spits "There's been an accident like Geico/Thought I was burned up like Pepsi did Michael"), and, most importantly, singing about faith ("Jesus Walks"). Gaudy and glorious, The College Dropout is a real stunner.
2. Van Lear Rose Loretta Lynn (Interscope): The blacktop highway that stretches from Nashville to Memphis is exactly 200 miles long. It's listed on maps as Interstate 40, but everyone from truckers to tourists knows this ribbon winding between the pine trees as "The Music Highway." Loretta Lynn and Jack White burned up that road working on Van Lear Rose, recording on location at Lynn's Double L Ranch and Memphis' Easley-McCain studio. On the self-explanatory "Story of My Life," Lynn hammers her point home: She's gambled on her life, and she's loved, laughed, and lived and lost a few things along the way. But, with Van Lear Rose, she's scored a winning hand once again. "I have to say that I've been blessed/Not bad for this ol' Kentucky girl I guess," she sings with a laugh on the song's last verse. It's the perfect ending to a perfect album typically understated, characteristically jubilant, and 100 percent Loretta Lynn.
3. Laced With Romance The Ponys (In the Red): Led by guitarist Jered Gummere, the Ponys channel Television's gritty street style, flavoring the sound with equal parts melancholy and wonder. Initially, jaded Brooklynites hardly cocked a collective eyebrow toward this solidly indie Chicago rock outfit, but songs such as "Let's Kill Ourselves" and "Sad Eyes" quickly won over the naysayers.
4. Exhibit A The Features (Universal): Don't send your skinny ties and white belts to Am-Vets yet: Just when new wave seems unbearably passé, the Features blast off with this impeccable major-label debut, which blows Franz Ferdinand and the Strokes out of the stratosphere. Remember when Pavement dropped "Summer Babe" on an unsuspecting world? With handclaps, Buzzcocks-worthy guitar riffs, a wailing organ, and Guided by Voices frontman Bob Pollard's flair for songwriting, Exhibit A marks a similar milestone for a new generation. Who knew that tiny Sparta, Tennessee, could birth such a wonderful band?
5. Half Smiles of the Decomposed Guided by Voices (Matador): By the time you read this, Robert Pollard will have pulled the plug on Guided by Voices: The band's final concert occurred on New Year's Eve at Chicago's Metro theater. Clocking in at just 45 minutes of music (much shorter than earlier, epic releases such as Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes), GBV's swan song is grandiose nevertheless. Pollard's soaring vocals make "Girls of Wild Strawberries" sound like the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" updated for the 21st century, while "Sing for Your Meat" is pure pop insanity.
Honorable Mentions: Before the Poison Marianne Faithfull (Anti-); Sunshine Barato Mosquitos (Bar/None); Juve the Great Juvenile (Universal); Uptown Top Ranking EP Scout Niblett (Secretly Canadian); The Drifter Waylon Payne (Universal).
1. The Doldrums Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti (Paw Tracks): Discovered hiding out in the Los Angeles hills by the band Animal Collective, Ariel Pink makes music that will quickly polarize the room. You may think you hear shades of Guided by Voices or Bobby Conn in New Doldrums, but Ariel Pink has that distinctive feel of someone who is completely oblivious to contemporary music. Maybe he was a latchkey kid who grew up next door to a thrift shop and only devoured 25-cent Little River Band and Pablo Cruise LPs until deciding to take a crack at his own brand of afternoon rock. The ultramurky recording will be the first quality to turn some listeners away, but those willing to pay very close attention will be rewarded to no end. If this guy could be utilized in some sort of underground Brill Building situation, we'd have unforgettable hits everywhere. Again, this is not for everyone.
2. On/Off Mission of Burma (Matador): When a once-seminal band reunites to wide acclaim, a new studio album is not far behind. I usually let someone else tell me how inevitably bad it is, but I'm such a huge fan of Mission of Burma that I gave this one a chance. Color me impressed. This has more energy and passion than a large portion of the younger bands attempting post-punk these days this from a 53-year-old man (band leader Roger Miller) with acute tinnitus.
3. Pass the Distance Simon Finn (Durtro/Jnana): Mired with legal issues upon its initial release, this obscure folk anomaly from 1970 has been hard to come by until re-released this year. By all accounts, and there are few, Finn was a folkie embracing a (very) customized version of Christianity not an unpopular route for hippies of the day. Sounding addled and unhinged, Finn's minimal but maniacal open door to his singular (and admittedly, confusing) spirituality will have some listeners white-knuckling the armrest. He makes Syd Barrett sound like Dan Fogelberg. The album's centerpiece, "Jerusalem," is like the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" as performed by a stripped-bare Skip Spence, and there's so much outpouring of emotion toward the song's climax that Finn starts coughing uncontrollably.
4. Witchcraft Witchcraft (Rise Above): The degree to which this band makes it sound as if the last 25 years never happened is almost overkill. Just when I thought that the Doom/Black Sabbath clone movement wouldn't yield another worthy listen For fans of Dead Meadow, Pentagram, Electric Wizard, etc.
5. Probot Probot (Southern Lord): The guest vocalists on this record are exactly that guest vocalists. That erstwhile Foo Fighter Dave Grohl wrote every song, played every instrument (Motörhead's Lemmy did play bass on his track), and managed to make each song sound so true to the source band providing each song's lead singer is a gross show of talent.
Honorable Mentions: Panopticon (Ipecac); Leviathan (Relapse); Your Blues Destroyer (Merge); Blue Cathedral Comets On Fire (Sub Pop). •