1. [Tie] White Blood Cells -- The White Stripes (Sympathy for the Record Industry); Nuggets II: Original Psychedelic Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond 1965-69 -- Various Artists (Rhino): Essential rock-and-roll comfort food from two unexpected sources. Nuggets II is a plus-size, omnivorous sampler of garage-punk from around the world that casually revises xenophobic rock theory about source validity; 30-odd years later, the White Stripes create a Memphis-recorded miracle that embraces all the right dualities -- boy/girl, soft/loud, words/guitar. Together these 100 tunes across five discs constitute a quest for nirvana in the silent seconds before the riff is reprised.
2. "Love and Theft" -- Bob Dylan (Columbia): Critics have argued that Dylan's career has been revitalized in the last few years, but nobody expected this: a raucous, raunchy, poker-faced laugh riot to set alongside his milestones of 25, even 35 years ago. We don't hear of any princesses on steeples or postcards of a hanging anymore, just an old man taking a page from Jay Gatsby's book: "Can't repeat the past?/What do you mean you can't?/Of course you can."
3. Party Music -- The Coup (75 Ark): Revival of the Year: left-wing hip hop without too much bluster. Party Music, along with Outkast's Stankonia, is another bit of evidence furthering the hypothesis that one ideal form of the quintessential hip-hop album is a P-Funk album with more limber vocalists. Instructive where Chuck D was stentorian, smooth where KRS-One was brutal, Boots Riley can make a lyric like "Even renowned hack historians have found that/the people only bound back/when they pound back" sound not only useful but vital in a time when institutional criticism and dissent are seen as unpatriotic or even evil. Courageous.
4. Lucy Ford -- Atmosphere (Rhymesayers): The Midwest has always been fertile ground for dreamers, storytellers, and keen observers (see no. 2) for good reason; it's an excuse to be shy, and it's either that or off yourself inside of a grain elevator. So try and find this kooky hip-hop collection from Minneapolis' Slug, because the best song's a dream, the second-best song's a story, and there are observations everywhere, with a welcome emphasis on other people in a highly self-referential genre.
5. Satellite Rides -- The Old 97's (Elektra): This is rock- and-roll for the whole family -- high lonesome boys spooked by the ghost of alt-country who play just fast and loud enough to sound generic and untrustworthy. Then the lyrics set in, and not many folks can better their confused, heartsick urges and girl problems: "I got a real bad feeling that a book of poems ain't enough" is a personal favorite; "I may be a bird in a cage/But at least it's your cage" explains a hell of a lot. - - Addison Engelking
1. Innocence and Despair -- The Langley Schools Music Project (Bar None): In the mid-'70s -- apparently when we had fewer compunctions about letting teaheads cavort with our children -- a long-haired music teacher, Hans Fengler, recorded 60 miniature Canadians (ages 9-12) as they stumbled sweetly through the golden-hued canon of FM hits of the day (i.e., Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" and a devastatingly beautiful take on the Eagles' "Desperado"). Somehow, this year, the recordings were unearthed and disseminated. On the night of September 11th, after I had burned out on Peter Jennings and CNN, I put this on and drank enough Cape Cods to fill a Mr. Turtle pool. It was the only thing that made sense. When their sweet little voices intoned, "The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me" on their cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," I shuddered, wept, and quietly crawled into my highball glass, knowing for sure that it was a portal to a time and place (1977, rural British Columbia) that knew nothing of the end of the world. Innocence and Despair, indeed.
2. In Search Of -- N.E.R.D. (Virgin, UK): This hip-hop debut from hot-shit producers the Neptunes (Jay-Z, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Britney Spears) ranks up there with Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Outkast's Stankonia as a hall-of-fame party platter. Will cause your booty to whine and paw at the inside of your britches -- trying to get out like a dawg that needs to "do its business."
3. Is This It -- The Strokes (RCA): So is it truly an overhyped record from a group of bored, privileged chick magnets? Are the songs sometimes listless and derivative? In spite of these qualities, is it still on perpetual heavy rotation and do you involuntarily and adoringly coo along with your special lady friend when she remarks on how "fuckable" the little brats are? Well, sadly, the answer is "Yes" cubed.
4. Even in Darkness -- Dungeon Family (Arista): This album, a collaboration between Outkast, Goodie Mob, Organized Noize, and assorted Freaknik hangers-on miraculously sidesteps the side-project stigma -- more fun than it has a right to be.
5. Oh, Inverted World -- The Shins (Sub Pop): The lyrics are wistfully oblique and the arrangements veer dangerously close to saccharinity, but the way they evoke the enchanting solitude of a thousand latchkey afternoons on "New Slang" (prettiest song of the year!) and other suburban odes earns 'em a spot in my year-end hot tub. -- David Dunlap Jr.
1. Isolation Drills -- Guided by Voices (TVT): This year's All That You Can't Leave Behind: a muscular return to form by a band threatened with irrelevance and oblivion. But, while U2's album is global in scope, this Midwestern record is strictly personal: Robert Pollard bravely examines his notorious alcoholism and his general indie-prolific persnicketiness. Finally flirting with deeper meaning beyond the sound itself, he finds that despite all the missed opportunities and fuck-ups, he is all regrets but no regret. A hard-won, heartbreaking triumph.
2. Is This It -- The Strokes (RCA): Is This It is nothing less than a great New York City punk album, but there was no way it could live up to the unfair context of its prerelease buzz. Still, away from all the critical hubbub, the record bristles with more energy and excitement than just about any other album this year.
3. Oh, Inverted World -- The Shins (SubPop): As the video for their shimmery "New Slang" suggests, the Shins are very '80s college music: could-have-been favorites of old-school 120 Minutes and Postmodern MTV. Like early R.E.M., they wrap their lyrical obscurity around themselves like a childhood blanket. But the lyrics make more sense with each listen and the tunes become more hummable until their debut becomes not just another indie-rock record but the culmination of the subgenre's recent fascination with pop hooks and song-over-sonics sensibility.
4. "Love and Theft" -- Bob Dylan (Columbia): Of the many recent releases by a slew of has-beens and over-the-hills, "Love and Theft" is the only one that disproves Richard Strausbaugh's theory, as laid out in his book Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia, that aging rockers are embarrassing themselves and ruining their legendary back catalogs for listeners everywhere. Instead of resting on past successes, Dylan builds on his own canon with this valentine to American traditional music, at once both jokey and gloomy.
5. Satellite Rides -- The Old 97's (Elektra): Others may get all the press, but Rhett Miller was always alt-country's best songwriter, and today he's post-alt-country-pop's best songwriter, with intelligent lyrics and supernaturally catchy hooks. He's also one of rock's most conflicted Romeos (and therefore one of its most interesting frontmen). One minute he's sincerely proposing marriage, the next he's trying hard not to tempt a woman to break her vows. That we believe such contradictions is a testament to his easy intimacy. That we still like him suggests an honesty many songwriters can't muster (ahem, Ryan Adams). -- Stephen Deusner
1. Anthem Of The Moon -- Oneida (Jagjaguwar): An organ- heavy, psychedelic noise-pop record that has absolutely no counterparts and very few sonic reference points over the past 40 years. 2. Neu!/Neu! 2/Neu '75 reissues -- Neu! (Astralwerks): The Neu! reissue project was personal justification for eight years of I-told- you-so. Music is still catching up to these 30-year-old albums, just like contemporaries Can and Faust were at the time.
3. Jackson C. Frank -- Jackson C. Frank (Castle Music): Jackson C. Frank's story merits a book, but the painfully condensed version goes like this: Badly scarred by childhood burns, an American expatriot living on insurance money in the middle of Britain's fertile mid- '60s folk scene releases one album in 1965 (reissued here), dates Sandy Denny, befriends and offers a young Al Stewart his first appearance on record, runs out of insurance money, returns to America, and ends up mentally ill and homeless by 1975. A folk obscurity that would be a massive influence on Nick Drake, whose entire output is eclipsed by less than half of this album.
4. Endless Summer -- Fennesz (Mego): What if the saddest music this year had no words? Herein lies the best specimen of the poorly named "folktronica" movement. But this Austrian sound-savant (born Christian Fennesz) and former Jim O'Rourke collaborator has broken free of genre boundaries to create something that I can't properly fathom -- but I will attest to its beauty.
5. Dead Meadow -- Dead Meadow (Tolotta): This debut is the better of Dead Meadow's two releases from 2001, and Dead Meadow is the best band to ever attempt Blue Cheer/Sabbath/Led Zep post-boogie for the new millennium. -- Andrew Earles