By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Favorite Album: Kathleen Edwards, Back to Me (Zoë/Rounder). In the age of the iSnob, it's rare to come across an album that doesn't skimp on a single song. But Back makes for a killer summer road trip to 'Ole Miss that could potentially include key lime pie and oceans of bourbon.
Most Overlooked: Martha Wainwright, Martha Wainwright (Zoë/Rounder). Say you have a three-headed monster whose skulls belong to Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos and Joan Baez. That's Martha Wainwright, sister of Rufus, whose debut album was a unique amalgam of these three folk princesses. Mike Seely
Favorite Album: Bright Eyes, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek). Despite its programmed beats, Digital sounded intensely personal, thanks to themes of squandered potential, insurmountable isolation and, um, piñatas.
Most Overlooked: Boys Night Out, Trainwreck (Ferret). This sextet channels its metaphorical bloodlust into a post-punk tale of a guilt-ridden psychiatrist and his downward-spiraling patient. Forget Green Day's notion of a concept album; this is musical storytelling at its most visceral. Julie Seabaugh
Favorite Album: Boards of Canada, The Campfire Headphase (Warp). Headphase may be the worst album released by these electronic masterminds, but it's easily one of the most gorgeous, trippiest albums of the year. Headphones required. Drugs optional.
Most Overlooked: Odd Nosdam, Burner (anticon). Dub beats, shoegaze washes, found sounds and even Mike Patton swirl together on this solo debut from cLOUDDEAD's DJ. Sometimes strangely beautiful, sometimes just strange, Burner reveals talent that cLOUDDEAD hinted at. Jordan Harper
Favorite Album: The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (French Kiss). Sufjan Stevens may wear the alt-Christian crown these days, but the Hold Steady's song-cycle brought redemption into the mainstream. The album's prodigal daughter wades through perverted baptisms and druggy saviors to be reborn at the Easter Mass.
Most Overlooked: Black Mountain, Black Mountain (Jagjaguwar). This great slice of druggy sludge wasn't exactly unheard (the band opened for Coldplay). But this Canandian quintet gave psych-rock equal doses humor and gravitas. Christian Schaeffer
Favorite Album: Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (Epic). After six years of wandering in the desert, it seemed Fiona Apple would never reach the Promised Land. But when she did, the fruit was ambrosial. "Tymps" embodies every superb aspect of her discography, from haunting catches to dissonant chords.
Most Overlooked: Valley Lodge, Valley Lodge (www.valleylodgemusic.com). Rock-pop as a legitimate genre only requires the Valley Lodge. Their debut seamlessly blends raw rock with infectious, carbonated hooks. Kristyn Pomranz
Favorite Album: Ry Cooder, Chávez Ravine (Nonesuch). For Cooder, history is a Panavision popular-music dream composed of epic guitar grooves, deathless melodies and haunted voices singing of creation and destruction, beisbol and baile and rhythm-rich shangri-las.
Most Overlooked: Margot & the Nuclear So & So's, Dust of Their Retreat (Standard Recordings). The problem with Richard Edwards and company is that they don't hail from Canada. As a result, their smartly stringed, acoustic-electric panegyrics to self-medication (via new drugs and Wes Anderson movies) have gone uncharted by hipster radar. Roy Kasten
Favorite Album: The Silver Jews, Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City). David Berman possesses Shel Silverstein's wit and the prismatic vision of poet John Ashbery. Exhibit A: "Like a brown bird nesting in a Texaco sign, I've got a point of view/And the kicker is that, I'm getting back into getting back into you."
Most Overlooked: Black Dice, Smiling Off EP (DFA/Astralwerks). NYC noise band Black Dice hit hard this year with the hiss-and-clang amalgam The Broken Ear Record but the two best remixes on this EP are DFA's dancefloor thumper and Luomo's drunken, elasticized stomp. Quaalude disco, anyone? Randall Roberts
Favorite Album: Slim Thug, Already Platinum (Geffen). By linking with the Neptunes, Slim Thug looked to the future with a cosmopolitan cross-pollination of Houston and the rest of the rap world, equal parts shiny spaceship beats and Texas drawl.
Most Overlooked: Ross Hogg and DJ B.Cause, Slump and Grind (myspace .com/rosshogg). Chock full of slang you won't understand and Keak Da Sneak's cookie-monster flow, the Bay Area-rap primer Grind places lesser-knowns next to greats like E-40 and Too $hort. Andrew Friedman
Favorite Album: The Kills, No Wow (Rough Trade/RCA). The Kills' Alison Mosshart opens Wow with a snarl and that intensity never wavers. Jamie Hince's serrated riffs spark blues-punk bonfires, and Mosshart's saucy taunts fan the flames.
Most Overlooked: Reckless Kelly, Wicked Twisted Road (Sugar Hill). Road alternates between honky-tonk romps and high-lonesome tearjerkers, making it an ideal soundtrack for those nights when beer-fueled rowdiness yields to wistful reminiscences about wrecked romances. Andrew Miller
Favorite Album: High on Fire, Blessed Black Wings (Relapse). BBW fills me with reckless energy that I haven't felt since I first started listening to metal as a child in the early '80s.
Most Overlooked: The Drift, Noumena (Temporary Residence). Influenced by ambient pioneer Brian Eno and Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities, these masters of grooves draw lines between dub, jazz, ambient and rock. Guy Gray