1) Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge): I would sacrifice all the music I heard in 2005 for the first six songs on Gimme Fiction: dramatic, literary rock dissolving Purple Rain's sly sensuality in waves of acidic modern snark. Austin's finest vacillates wildly between cocksure bravado and vague unease, until you can't tell whether the blowout falsetto torch song "I Turn My Camera On" is a come-on, a put-down, a saucy Battle of the Sexes war cry or simply a cry for help. Regardless, Elvis Costello is out of a job.
2) The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador): The Pornos' own Return of the Jedi unfolds like a veritable 30-ring circus for power-pop lovers: The unstoppable Carl Newman as ringmaster, Neko Case as the booming-voiced bearded lady, cryptic weirdo Dan Bejar as the Elephant Man and a full cast of swirling voices and exotic instruments as the clowns, acrobats and human cannonballs. Alternately heart-racing and heart-stopping, Twin Cinema is an overwhelmingly joyous spectacle and, yes, the Greatest Show on Earth.
3) Low, The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop): How appropriate that such an infamously narcotizing band's latest disc would get slept on. No one likes The Great Destroyer: It's either too dour and monochrome for outsiders or too fancy and gussied-up for superfans. Both camps get the dreaded gas face. "When I Go Deaf" is a monster of minimalist melodrama, and "Silver Rider" wraps Low's classic boy-girl slow-churning duets of doom in brightly colored Wagnerian grandiosity. Beautiful and devastating.
4) Art Brut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll (Fierce Panda): I remain deeply conflicted. These Brit jerkoffs insist on the very first track ("Formed a Band," in fact) that this is not irony. Such a denial is necessary boneheaded punk fronted by a sneering speak-singing wiseass generally raises one's Terror Alert to orange, at least. But some of this shit is hilarious ("Good Weekend" and "Fight" especially) and, in a profoundly ironic twist, "Emily Kane" is the one love song of this year that I choose to believe.
5) The National, Alligator (Beggars UK/ Ada): They're NYC cool-kid magnets and Modest Mouse disciples now, but swear to God I can smell the Midwestern on these Cincinnati boys: that crooning, overwrought angst so unsightly in person but so mesmerizing and invigorating on Alligator, which uses the classic "electric guitar in one hand, glass of bourbon in the other" paradigm to point out the joy-, fear-, and heartbreak-shape clouds floating menacingly in perpetually gray Ohio skies.
6) Jamie Lidell, Multiply (Warp): Just an absurdly good time, this one. Lidell, a UK techno bloke known primarily only to studious readers of The Wire, suddenly crafts a party-annihilating mix of classic soul screamers and dense, shockingly fly sampler manifestos, sonically linking Al Green, Thriller-era Michael Jackson and that beatboxer guy in Police Academy. "When I Come Back Around" is the jaw-dropper; "The City" is the jaw-breaker.
7) Stars, Set Yourself on Fire (Arts & Crafts): Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade steal all the headlines, but Stars are the relentlessly romantic Canadian supergroup to beat. There's not a shred of artifice or insincerity to Set Yourself on Fire's string of busted-relationship vignettes, be they brutally honest ballads ("The Big Fight") or gauzy, cooing rockers ("Ageless Beauty"). And even when the focus turns to techno-fied Bush-bashing ("I hope your drunken daughters are gay"), the result is still winsome, straightforward and gorgeous.
8) Doves, Some Cities (Capitol): Dour, lush Britrock is an endlessly renewable resource, but this is gourmet shit. Third in a criminally underrated series of Doves missives, Some Cities steps confidently from jaunty, almost Christmas-y piano rock ("Black and White Town") to more indulgent vistas of keyboard-guitar pedal-studio wonkery that retains its humanity even while bombarding humanity with squalls of orchestral weeping and thunderbolts of angry distortion. High-maintenance, high-reward.
9) System of a Down, Mesmerize (Sony): Oh man, is this band ever ridiculous. Cementing its reputation as the only remotely tolerable nü-metal band ever, Armenia's finest goes apeshit on the first of its two-disc '05 output, juggling arena rock, thrash metal and jaunty Eastern flourishes into a Category 7 testosterone tornado that's thrilling, terrifying and resolutely dumb as hell. A pleasure so guilty they'll sentence you to the chair but an electrifying riot nonetheless.
10) Rogue Wave, Descended Like Vultures (Sub Pop): Lo-fi my ass. The Bay Area's bittersweet Sad Bastard Rock prodigies get the gorgeous production they deserve on this sophomore set, slick and disorienting and romantically soft-focus, like a Guy Maddin film filtered through Sub Pop's new dream-pop lens. Two years from now, Evan Rachel Wood will enthusiastically declare "Rogue Wave will change your life!" in a soapy hipster flick, and she'll be ever so right.
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