By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
This annual ritual is a form of exhibitionism peculiar to geeks. The subtext of all best-of lists is "Hey, look at me! I'm so much more interesting than the guy in the next cubicle who likes Shania and owns fewer than 100 CDs." It's easy to understand why people make lists -- the same reason they masturbate, sing karaoke and order vanity license plates, duh. The real question is why anyone should want to read them. Does anyone really care whether the new Bob Dylan made Music Authority X's final cut, besides, of course, Music Authority X and (possibly) Bob Dylan?
No hard data exist, but we're guessing a few people care, even if it's just our fellow geeks. Reading other people's lists gives us an opportunity to rag on their bad taste and lack of refinement: "What a moron! He likes that Ryan Adams piece of shit, but he leaves off the new Bob Dylan album?" It's also a chance to compare our faves with those of the so-called experts and congratulate ourselves for the overlaps: "Hey, maybe I do have good taste if Greil Marcus agrees with me!" But perhaps the most important function of the best-of list is self-torture. See what you forgot about, see what you missed altogether and face the fact that your list will never be as complete or authoritative as you like to pretend because there's no way you'll ever hear more than a tiny fraction of all the stuff that comes out in any given year.
Let the self-indulgent self-torture begin.
René Spencer Saller
Divine Comedy, Regeneration (EMD/Nettwerk). The Divine Comedy's over-the-top, oh-so-British chamber pop might seem grandiose or pretentious, but only if you're allergic to beauty. Leader Neil Hannon (the band's sole constant) has a big, extravagant powerhouse of a voice, every bit as good as Thom Yorke's and maybe as good as Brian Ferry's; his dark and bombastic cabaret glam succeeds where Nick Cave's fails because Hannon understands the difference between camp and kitsch, between art and artiness, between self-mockery and self-parody.
Chocolate Genius, Godmusic (V2). Marc Anthony Thompson (a.k.a. Chocolate Genius) makes concept albums (his last record was called Black Music), but don't hold that against him. Smart and scabrous, tender and excoriating, these soulful hymns celebrate transcendence in a godless universe.
Rufus Wainwright, Poses (DreamWorks). Wainwright is that rare thing, a singer/songwriter who's good enough to do either and even better when he does both. Like Edith Piaf and Judy Garland, Wainwright has a big, brash, beautiful voice that seems at once human and outrageously theatrical. Wrap it around one of his unforgettable melodies -- tunes that might have been written by Cole Porter, had he hung out in West Village discos -- and you've got sheer pop perfection.
Handsome Family, Twilight (Carrot Top). Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, but thank God there's the Handsome Family to find its accidental consolations, the invisible birds that fall out of closets and perch on the hands of dying men.
Sam Phillips, Fan Dance (Nonesuch). Perhaps Phillips' most austere venture yet (her husband, T-Bone Burnett, is responsible for the warm but minimalist production), Fan Dance showcases Phillips' raspy warble and her uncanny way with a pop melody. Fun fact: Phillips is responsible for those glorious la-la-las that brighten almost every episode of The Gilmore Girls.
Jay Farrar, Sebastopol (Artemis). A bevy of guest stars add some unexpected flourishes, but no one overshadows Farrar, whose hypnotic slack-key dirges and mournful baritone turn time inside out and back again.
Dungeon Family, Even in Darkness (Arista). Weird, trippy hip-hop that's too catchy to qualify as experimental and too drugged-out and outside to outsell Jay-Z, Even in Darkness straddles the line between booty-shaking and consciousness-raising more successfully than anything since P-Funk and Sly and the Family Stone.
Sarah Dougher, The Bluff (Mr. Lady). These small but sturdy folk-pop songs insinuate rather than clobber. Alternately cryptic and direct, cerebral and conversational, Dougher isn't as in-your-face as her more famous collaborator Corin Tucker, but she sings with no less urgency.
Sparklehorse, It's a Wonderful Life (Capitol). Woozy, rusty, fucked-up and brilliant, this is Sparklehorse's best CD to date, pitting Mark Linkous' fragile but evocative voice against electronic birds, Polly Jean Harvey, the Cardigans' Nina Persson, Dictaphones, Optigans, Chamberlins, Wurlitzers and Mellotrons.
Webb Brothers, Maroon (Atlantic). The sons of legendary songsmith Jimmy Webb ("MacArthur Park," "Wichita Lineman"), Justin and Christiaan Webb prove that straight-ahead alt-rock still has a reason to exist. Accessible/hooky but never obvious/dumb, these songs explore all the varieties of postcollegiate malaise without seeming dreary or self-indulgent.