1. Fever To Tell -- Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Interscope): Fever To Tell sounds so spontaneous and gloriously disarrayed that it seems utterly unimaginable that the band could have written down the songs beforehand. It feels more like they found pieces of them on street corners and in bar bathrooms, in gutters and unmade beds, then cobbled them together during a drunken all-nighter. Ignore the predictable cycle of hype and backlash: Right now this sounds like the most immense and exciting band around -- built to last as art and not merely as an artifact of a particular scene.
2. Decoration Day -- The Drive-By Truckers (New West): "Rock-and-roll means well but it can't help telling young boys lies," Mike Cooley sings on Decoration Day. With a three-guitar and -songwriter attack, these Southern boys tie rock-and-roll to a chair, shine a light in its face, and beat out of it hard truths about family responsibilities, failed marriages, dumb suicides, and small towns.
3. Up the Bracket -- The Libertines (Rough Trade): Lurking beneath the Libertines' loose, chaotic sound is a world-weariness that feels deeper and more real than the Strokes' practiced ennui. Maybe it's all the biblical references and call-outs to Queen Boadecia, but these guys are smarter than they look or sound. The debut of the year.
4. Her Majesty -- The Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars): Colin Meloy was meant for the stage: While critics stupidly compared them to Neutral Milk Hotel and the Smiths, the Decemberists came on like the Max Fischer Players performing an indie-rock opera about World War I. Her Majesty wears its unique theatricality and its out-of-time pretensions like badges of honor, making it one of the most original and charming albums of the year.
5. The Black Album -- Jay-Z (Roc-a-Fella): This retiring-the-jersey showcase is all about the unresolved -- and unresolvable -- tension between Shawn Carter, who wants to rap like Talib Kweli, and alter-ego Jay-Z, who can't get hustling out of his system. More than Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, The Black Album is the year's best split-personality album: Instead of relegating each identity to a separate disc, Carter lets them battle for the mic on every song, every verse, every line, every word.
Honorable Mentions: Electric Version -- The New Pornographers (Matador); Feast of Wire -- Calexico (Quarterstick); You Are Free -- Cat Power (Matador); Hail to the Thief -- Radiohead (Capital); Room on Fire --The Strokes (RCA). --Stephen Deusner
1. Talkin' Honky Blues -- Buck 65 (WEA/Warner Music Canada); Disenfranchised -- McEnroe (Peanuts and Corn): The Source would probably excoriate these two "hip-hop" records and not just because the two artisans responsible for them are white Canadians. McEnroe's self-produced, self-distributed album has plenty of beats and rhymes, but it's the life of its creator that comes through the strongest. It makes sense that, in this rap-album-as-Bildungsroman, the most affecting song is about how badly the MC wants to feel the rush he felt when he first heard Mecca and the Soul Brother. Buck 65, on the other hand, is just too strange and prolific for the average hip-hop aficionado. It also doesn't help that he delivers all of his astonishing, funny, lyrical lyrics in a stage whisper. If DJ Shadow spoke, I like to think that this is what he'd sound like. So call both of these beauties "alternative music" and rejoice if you're lucky enough to find copies.
2. Til The Wheels Fall Off -- Amy Rigby (Signature Sounds): Where Lucinda Williams comes off as glassine, distant, and often humorless, Amy Rigby comes off as the kind of gal who would make you laugh and teach you a thing or two (wink, wink). Her breathless, sexy singing and comic timing are at their peak on the record's three great songs: "Shopping Around" is the best failed-relationships-as-failure-of-capitalism song since "Money Changes Everything." "Don't Ever Change" is a heartbreaking song about trying to live in the moment. And "Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?" is even better than its title suggests. Rigby's gotten better with age, too; her fourth album is as good as her debut.
3. Indestructible -- Rancid (Hellcat): You're my gee-tar heroes!
4. Decoration Day -- The Drive-By Truckers (New West): Thank God rock bands aren't structured like NFL teams, because there's no way this trio of near-genius songwriters would ever fit under the next album's salary cap. Until then, embrace Jason Isbell's working-class anthem "Outfit," rock out to Mike Cooley's naughty but nice "Marry Me," and marvel at Patterson Hood's lisp as he croaks his way through tales of unhappiness, suicide, and truly twisted love. How long can this band keep making records this good?
5. Send --Wire (pinkflag): A mean, nasty record full of apocalyptic catchphrases and guitars that sound like the noises your phone makes when you dial up the Internet. Twenty-five years after the classic Pink Flag, Wire regroups for an eardrum assault that burns itself out at the end but leaves plenty of scorched earth and plenty more scorched post-punk "artists" in its wake.
Honorable Mentions: Chutes Too Narrow -- The Shins (Sub Pop); The Black Album -- Jay-Z (Roc-a-Fella); Speakerboxxx/The Love Below -- Outkast (Arista); Balance -- Akrobatik (Coup d'Etat); On the Beach -- Neil Young (Warner reissue). --Addison Engelking
1. How the West Was Won -- Led Zeppelin (Atlantic): I tend to distrust anyone who dismisses Led Zeppelin. Meaning: Someone could say "I don't really like Led Zeppelin" and, if they were stranded on the side of the road, well, I might not stop the car. Caller ID was invented for people who don't like Led Zeppelin. Black Sabbath may have created "heavy metal," but Led Zeppelin created every type of heavy music. The version of "The Immigrant Song" here wastes the MC5 and most of what's called "proto-punk."
2. Civil War -- Matmos (Matador): Full of heart, surprises, and mood, even if it's full of the over-academic guitar noodlings of David Grubbs as well. Great artists should release albums that do exactly what this one does: leave you with absolutely no idea what the next one will sound like.
3. Microminiature Love -- The Michael Yonkers Band (Sub Pop): A 35-year-old album by a Minneapolis outsider who got jacked around by Sire, thus leaving this music unreleased and whispered-about since its 1967-68 conception. It's reminiscent of a surfy Red Krayola if it evokes anything at all. Yonkers has been toiling around active and unknown for all 35 of those years, sometimes jumping on stage with the likes of hometown horror-noise, Throbbing Gristle-revivalist Wolf Eyes and other Midwest bizarros. He finally got his day of sorts with this reissue -- an unexplainable mishmash of avant-/psych-pop. Microminiature Love certainly sounds like it's from the '60s, yet it also sounds like nothing else from its era.
4. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below -- Outkast (La Face): It's been eons since Prince has released diddlysquat worth batting an eye at. This is on everyone's year-end list for a reason: It's like the best Prince album also containing the best of Ashford and Simpson, Rick James, the greatest pop band ever (whoever that is), and Outkast. Really, people, you tell me what the hell "Hey Ya!" sounds like (besides Prince). I'm all ears.
5. Electric Version -- The New Pornographers (Matador): Better than Mass Romantic, with just as many Dan Bejar (Destroyer) ghost-pinned songs. As good as this band is, there was no plausible way that Electric Version was going to suck, but this good? Color me surprised.
Honorable Mentions: Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, July 3 & 5, 1970 -- The Allman Brothers (Epic/Legacy); No Silver/No Gold -- The Baptist Generals (Sub Pop); Forgotten Lovers -- Gary Wilson (Motel Records); Guitar Romantic -- The Exploding Hearts (Dirtnap); Australasia -- Pelican (Hydra Head).
-- Andrew Earles