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Critic: Bill Ketzer

 

1. System of a Down

Mezmerize

Incredibly written, brilliantly executed and flawlessly produced. Not one bad song here.

2. Clutch

Robot Hive/Exodus

No surprises from Neil Fallon’s cavalcade of pure rock fury, but that’s OK by me. The smoker you get, the player you are.

3. Greatdayforup

Flores de Sangre

One of the finest stoner metal bands out there, and (bonus!) they just happen to hail from Albany, N.Y.

4. High on Fire

Blessed Black Wings

Kaboom! A splendid assault on the senses. Filthy, stupendous riffage from the underworld.

5. Pelican

The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw

Like the band says, they’re a “fucking triumphant band.” Primarily instrumental, trance-inducing hooks make this one excellent for heavy-bag work or sparring.

6. Testament

Live in London

Sure, they’ve put out more live albums than Kiss, but this one is a scorcher. All the hits, all original members, overwhelming might.

7. Corrosion of Conformity

In the Arms of God

This ain’t your big brother’s COC, but it’s great stuff nonetheless. Pepper Keenan for Czar of Too Far, and bring back Reed Mullin for God’s sake.

8. Bonnie Raitt

Souls Alike

It’s just a bunch of damn good grooves. Raitt has always been underrated somehow, but she can sling the axe better than most.

9. Coheed and Cambria

Good Apollo, I’m Burning/Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness

I wanted so badly to hate this band, but despite my best efforts they crept into my psyche and make me feel like foraging for God or victory or both.

10. Alice Cooper

Dirty Diamonds

Thank God I hung on through the Epic years. This guitar-driven return to the formula Alice hasn’t delivered since the mid-’70s makes me want to weep in the bathroom with a razor. In a good way. Killer band. Dick Wagner is out there somewhere, smiling.

Critic: Carlo Wolff

 

1. Fiona Apple

Extraordinary Machine

In which our divette of the sorrows unleashes an extraordinary third album, a mélange of Bohemian angst, fervent singing, remarkably eclectic production and lyrics of passion and intelligence. A winner all around, and a stylish slap in the face to Apple’s record company, which didn’t deem this commercial enough in its first iteration.

2. Bettye Lavette

I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise

After years of connoisseur hits (read: uncommercial efforts) for trophy labels like Atlantic and Motown, Detroit secularist Lavette has released a collection of songs written by women and recast them in her own, world-weary voice. Sparked by Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” and Fiona Apple’s “Sleep To Dream,” this barbed-wire gem restores bluster and pride to the blues.

3. Spoon

Gimme Fiction

I got into this toward the end of the year, thanks to a friend who keeps his ear to more grounds than I do. It’s 11 songs of tight structure and leaky, shredder guitar. It’s Britt Daniels’ elliptical lyrics and purposeful guitar welded to Jim Eno’s implacably swinging drums. It’s dark and beautiful and catchy, particularly “I Turn My Camera On” and “Sister Jack.”

4. Robert Plant and Strange Sensation

Mighty Rearranger

Plant has lost the high notes but refined the approach, melding mysticism and metal in this velvety, assured album. He is a “mighty rearranger” of hard rock, giving Ray Charles his due in “Brother Ray,” spreading the joy of his cool, young band in “Shine It All Around” and refreshing whatever tradition turns you on in “Tin Pan Valley.”

5. John Legend

Get Lifted

The guy’s got great chops, a well-developed sense of community, and universal appeal. I haven’t separated the tunes in my mind, but I know that whenever I listen to this, it raises me up. I’d love to see John Legend preach in a church; he does fine on disc.

6. Nine Inch Nails

[With Teeth]

This is Trent Reznor’s most cohesive album. Sparked by the devil-disco “Hand That Feeds,” this incorporates the orchestral efforts Reznor first attempted in The Fragile, bracketing them with successful stabs at funk and, of course, hard rock. It’s an exciting, characteristically dark album by a great rock auteur.

7. Neil Diamond

12 Songs

A dandy Americana record, despite a dud or two. Produced by Johnny Cash reviver Rick Rubin, Diamond sounds fine here; the record is smooth and confident and authoritative. And in tunes like “Save Me a Saturday Night” and “Delirious Love” (get the deluxe edition for the version with Brian Wilson), Diamond has crafted pop you can’t get out of your head.

8. Franz Ferdinand

You Could Have It So Much Better

These Glasgow boys get it down on their second album, a slight improvement on (and continuation of) their debut. I’d like “Do You Want To” to go on forever, the hook’s so catchy. I’d also like the album to be longer; nevertheless, this is pop as it should be.

9. Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane

At Carnegie Hall

John Coltrane

One Down, One Up

These are the most important jazz reissues of the year, the Miles Davis Cellar Door Sessions notwithstanding, because they resurrect key groups of the ’50s and ’60s. The Monk date has the edge in wit (Monk is the wittiest of jazz composers) but the Coltrane Quartet’s improvisations are so deep and propulsive, they leave you breathless.

10. Ry Cooder

Chavez Ravine

I like this more for concept than execution. It’s Cooder’s attempt to craft a musical history of a Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles that was bulldozed to make way for Dodgers Stadium. It’s intellectually brilliant, politically impeccable and just rhythmic enough to engage.

 

 

 

Critic: David Greenberger

 

1. Moondog

The Viking King of Sixth Avenue

This single-disc overview is a perfect entry point into the musical world of the man who came into the world as Louis Hardin in 1916 in Kansas. He died in 1999 in Germany having written symphonies and songs, invented instruments and collaborated with the sounds of ships and traffic in New York City.

2. Chris Whitley

Soft Dangerous Shores

A stunning 15-year run of consistently compelling releases came to a sad end last month when Whitley died.

3. Robert Wyatt & Friends

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

This 1974 concert marked Wyatt’s first and last performance after his crippling fall the year before.

4. Kimberley Rew

Essex Hideaway

Clocking in at under 31 minutes, it has everything a great album needs in terms of diversity, continuity and commitment. Includes the mortality-infused “Your Mother Was Born In That House” and the title track, filled with its promise of romance preserved.

5. Amy Rigby

Little Fugitive

Her fifth album continues to offer glimpses into the rock & roll heart of modern woman. There’s the euphoric “Dancing With Joey Ramone” and the staggeringly honest “The Trouble With Jeanie,” which finds a new window to look through at the difficulties and surprises encountered in remarriage.

6. Bill Hicks

Salvation: Oxford November 11, 1992

This two-disc set affords a complete picture of one of the finest comedian-social commentators of the past quarter-century.

7. The Incredible Casuals

Nature Calls

This disc comes 10 years after their last full official release; these 15 songs are filled with the glory of blazing hooks and the unstoppable wallop of Rikki Bates.

8. Pinetop Seven

The Night’s Bloom

Singer-songwriter vignettes filtered through an undulated dreamscape of carnivals, midnight tidal pools and migrating birds.

9. Bill Frisell

East/West

With one disc recorded on each coast, this two-CD set is a tour through Frisell’s stew of jazz seasoned with folk, country and pop.

10. Various Artists

Good for What Ails You

Subtitled Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937, this will suffice nicely until a time machine is invented.

Critic: John Brodeur

 

1. Kanye West

Late Registration

As good as Kanye says it is. Hiphop producers should study this like a textbook.

2. . . . And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

Worlds Apart

If you missed out on this one (as I suspect you did), put it on your to-do list. The most expansive (and expensive, likely) rock album of the year.

3. The Decemberists

Picaresque

The band that gained the most ground in ’05. They finally solidified a live lineup that kills, and this latest album was outstanding. Their next one will be on Capitol, but don’t expect a Death Cab-like disappointment from their major-label debut.

4. Sleater-Kinney

The Woods

The best band on this list, and the year’s heaviest record.

5. Fiona Apple

Extraordinary Machine

This baby just swings. Impeccably recorded by second-stringer Mike Elizondo—the kick drum resonates for entire measures, and the smoke and whiskey on Apple’s voice is odorous—this Machine has twice the oomph as the Jon Brion-produced variation that leaked via the Internet this spring. (No offense to the Brion version—it still would have made the Top 20.)

6. M.I.A.

Arular

Overflowing with personality and completely irresistible, Arular features the hands-down coolest tune ever used to sell a Honda Civic.

7. eels

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations

A career record. This supposedly took seven or eight years to move fully from concept to fruition, and it sounds like it. Thirty-three songs over two discs, bound by a perceptible but unintrusive theme, and featuring E’s best work yet.

8. Deadboy & the Elephantmen

We Are Night Sky

In one fell swoop, Dax Riggs and Tessie Brunet have laid waste to the White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age, and just about every other band you think is swell. You owe it to yourself to track this down.

9. System of a Down

Mezmerize & Hypnotize

Mezmerize rattled the metal scene this spring simply by being a new release from the most interesting metal band of the day. (“B.Y.O.B.” is also the weirdest single of the year.) System really made strides with this fall’s Hypnotize—it’s not the “same album with different songs,” as Damon Malakian would have us believe. It’s better.

10. Brazilian Girls

Brazilian Girls

“Pussy, pussy, pussy, marijuana”—what else is there? When I go clubbing in my living room, this is my shit.

Critic: Kirsten Ferguson

 

1. Brendan Benson

The Alternative to Love

This is a rare perfect pop album, of the sort not many people are making these days. It doesn’t take much work to like this album; its hooks and harmonies catch you instantly, yet they don’t wilt over time. Great upbeat in-the-car listening.

2. M.I.A.

Arular

M.I.A. may draw on a lot of genres and geographic regions, from U.K. grime to Brazilian funk, but she combines them in a way that no one has before, and her producers add the sort of pop-culture references that perk up Western ears, from the Rocky theme song to video-game sound effects.

3. Devendra Banhart

Cripple Crow

He may be a long-haired freak, and one who’s not afraid to indulge his inner child in song. But at this point, there’s no denying that Banhart is one of the best songwriters around, inside the psychedelic folk scene or outside of it.

4. Portastatic

Bright Ideas

Songwriter Mac McCaughan, who also plays in Superchunk (although they are in some form of hiatus), is back in true form here. This is some of his best material in years, from the uplifting melodies to the poetically disaffected lyrics that indie kids know and love him for.

5. New Pornographers

Twin Cinema

Their third album may not quite approach the giddiness and energy of their first, Mass Romantic, and rumor has it that singer Neko Case, busy with her solo career, is phoning in her vocal parts these days. But the New Pornographers are still one of the best pop bands around, and they have a wistfulness that hits nostalgic 30-something indie-rock fans square in the gut.

6. Common

Be

The pairing of Common, one of the most insightful hiphop lyricists around, with hiphop wunderkind Kanye West, who builds his productions on a foundation of ’70s soul samples, is a great one. From “The Corner” to “Go,” this album goes down very smooth, a welcome contrast to the more jarring beats that have been popular in recent years.

7. Black Mountain

Black Mountain

There’s nothing modern about this album: It’s about as late ’60s-early ’70s retro as it gets. But Black Mountain’s culture-mining is a druggy Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad blues-rock version that’s not overdone yet. And they do it very well.

8. Sons and Daughters

The Repulsion Box

I’ve liked this band since seeing them open up for Clinic at the Pearl Street Nightclub last year. They sound like a Scottish version of L.A. punk band X, with male-female vocals that trade off each other stunningly well, a little bit of righteous anger and a bristling energy.

9. Roots Manuva

Awfully Deep

He won the Mercury prize in Britain, but doesn’t get much play here in the States. Even in Britain, he’s too dark and cerebral for mass appeal. I dig his dub-laden, trippy and haunted sound; his authoritative vocals add weight to anything he raps over.

10. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals

jacksonville City Nights

I gave up on this guy a few years ago. He’s a drama queen, and his most recent albums have suffered. Maybe I only like him when he puts on his country-rock costume. But here, as on his earlier more traditional country albums, he’s written songs so good that you have to forget about the personality, at least for the time being.


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