By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Also: Superchunk, Here's to Shutting Up; Quasi, The Sword of God; Andrew Bird and His Bowl of Fire, Swimming Hour; Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator); Anita Lane, Sex O'Clock.
Thomas Brinkmann, Rosa (Ernst). Over the course of two years, Cologne techno composer Brinkmann created a series of 12-inches, each named for a different lady. They're landmarks, structurally fascinating and thick with ideas: Whereas most techno and house tracks wallow in a simple groove for six minutes, Brinkmann's songs are just that: songs, with weirdo hooks and a rolling, hell-on-wheels momentum. Rosa collects these remarkable singles.
Björk, Vespertine (Elektra). What was at first listen a mere wisp explodes with depth and discovery after a few more. Filled with grace and bursting with love, Vespertine is a sublime drama from one of the decade's most important voices. Knuckleheads who insist that electronic music has no heart haven't listened -- really listened -- to Björk.
Dungeon Family, Even in Darkness (Arista). A hip-hop party on wax created by members of the Outkast and the Goodie Mob, Darkness is smart but not pretentious, lowdown but not stupid, thick but not muddy. The record provided joyous levity during the heartbreaking fall. Everyone should be doing the "Crooked Booty" right about now.
Gorillaz. Gorillaz (London). What threatened to be a joke created by Blur's Damon Albarn and Tank Girl author Jamie Hewlett evolved into something else: a combination of deep-end dub, hip-hop (incredible rhymes by Del tha Funkee Homosapien and beats by Dan the Automator) and pop. And it includes the best LSD tribute ever to hit the charts, "Clint Eastwood."
Silver Jews, Bright Flight and "Tennessee" EP (Drag City) "Oh Lord, please come down from the mountain/Some of us are broke and having problems/And everybody knows/That I know what's going on/And if cars could run on teardrops/ I'd be long, long gone." David Berman can't sing worth shit, but he's the best lyricist out there (read his book of poetry, Actual Air). A recent move to Nashville suggests he's tossing his hat into the songwriting ring, which is great news: George Jones should be singing "Friday Night Fever."
Timbaland/Missy Elliott. Man of year, perfector of the eardrum punch. Missy's "Get Ur Freak On" is still shocking, 1,000 spins later, as is Bubba Sparxxx's "Ugly." His vibe is so vital that even his blatant imitator beat-biters sound inspired when they riff on his theme.
Mirwais, Production (Virgin). Also known as Madonna's French Music producer. Overshadowed by Daft Punk in the French house category, Production one-ups even Daft's brilliant Discovery. It's smarter, funkier and, best, Frenchier.
Boredoms, Rebore series (Warner Japan). The Japanese iconoclasts offered their entire oeuvre to four producers: DJ Krush, Ken Ishii, U.N.K.L.E. and Boredom kingpin Eye. Participants were invited to pick and choose from the myriad Bore sounds and make magic. They did, turning out work that ranges from deep, slow trip-hop to frenzied techno to Eye's inspired, gorgeous self-exam. Pricey, but worth every penny.
Strokes, Is This It? (RCA). Hot action from hot rockers who boil hot rock to its essence. Skeptics are correct in questioning the hype. But goddamn, man: These hooks are perfect.
Phoenecia. Brownout (Schematic). Miami's Phoenecia started as schizo Aphex wannabes, but they turned slow and brown this year with a subtle electronic record, filled with uncharacteristic restraint, humble melody and enough fanciness to alienate the minimalists in the house.
Also: Mogwai, Rock Action; Radiohead, Amnesiac; Leonard Cohen, Ten New Songs; Moldy Peaches, The Moldy Peaches; Handsome Family, Twilight.
Zeni Geva, 10,000 Light Years (Neurot Recordings). A fantastic voyage to the center of the cyclotron, an exploration of the cramped claustrophobia separating galaxies, stars, planets, people and mitochondria.
Harkonen, "The Grizz" EP (Hydra Head). Harkonen sounds exactly like Cream would have sounded if Clapton had replaced his right hand with the skeletal claw of a dead pirate and his left with the three-fingered paw of the mythic Siberian god-bear.
Merzbow, Dharma (Double H Noise Industries). Science friction meets science fractals and 1,000 suns are snuffed out so your satellite TV gets better reception of the porno-terrorists' grand vision, the music of the spheres.
Faxed Head, Chiropractic (Web of Mimicry). If you enjoyed fingering your anus while watching Scott Baio's anti-ganja Afterschool Special, you'll love this amateurish monstrosity of metal, inhalants and misery.
Marduk, Infernal Eternal (Century Media). Horrifying live document of the underworld's mightiest black-metal death machine, the relentlessly out-of-control Marduk. Listen to Marduk or drink diesel fuel -- it makes no difference to your brain.
Melvins, Colossus of Destiny (Ipecac). As good or worse than Prick, depending on your level of anomie. Static currents, electrical hums, stray disembodied voices, ham-radio frequencies and heavily medicated guitar noodlings ferment into a nauseating sour sonic mash that climaxes in a bare-knuckle brawl.
Slayer, God Hates Us All (American). What's so funny about peace, love and understanding? This album. Evil is as Slayer does.
Velvet Underground, The Quine Tapes (Polydor/Universal). A three-disc, two-edged sword that reminds us why Lou Reed deserves any respect at all and also underscores how much this group suffered after John Cale was forced to exit.