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.
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.
Fantomas, The Director's Cut (Ipecac). You'll find yourself imitating Mike Patton's demented la-la-la-la-la-laaaaa from the Rosemary's Baby theme at the most inopportune moments (while shaving, in bank queues, during your field sobriety test), but don't worry, you're not crazy. Not until you start shouting, "It's the year 1!" will they cart you off -- just make sure The Director's Cut goes with you on your little holiday.
The Conformists, Date Rape (Everywhen Records). Only on vinyl could you isolate the implosion of self and the resulting explosion of anger that roils and churns through the Conformists' latest effort to communicate just what they think of all us outsiders. One for the analog loyalists, the unwashed and the autistic lovers of the world.
The Fall, Live in Reykjavik (Resurgence). Recorded in 1983, this disc captures the Fall at their shambling best. Amped-up, aggressive and barely in tune, lead yelper Mark E. Smith and the band fight their way through their set with a passion that justifies the religious devotion of their fans.
Four Corners, Say You're a Scream (Kindercore). Kicking out Kinksy, mod, sing-along garage rock, the Four Corners are a fuzz-fueled exception to the usual Kindercore crowd. "Brilliantly executed inside joke" points for including both stereo and mono mixes for each of the CD's tracks.
Fugazi, The Argument (Dischord). Darker and denser than than previous work, The Argument is no Waiting Room 2001; fans who expect such a rehash are doing the band a disservice. Although continuing to evolve, Fugazi still seethes with the personal and political indignation that's made it the last essential band in the underground.
Grandpa's Ghost, Stardust and Smog/Early Autumn Waltz at the Two Fourteen (Upland). Zigging when expected to zag, Grandpa's Ghost skips the usual noise almost completely on the first disc of this twofer, concentrating on heartbreakingly beautiful acoustic folk. Disc 2 gets back to more traditional Ghost territory, with enough guitar freakishness to bend even the most open of minds.
Guided by Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT). In a just world, "Chasing Heather Crazy" and "Glad Girls" would be monster radio hits, and Guided by Voices would be selling out stadiums. As usual, though, fans must make do with Bob Pollard's stadium-size ambitions and one of the best albums of the band's career.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Tyranny of Distance (Lookout). Featuring late-'70s U.K.-style power pop topped with Leo's keening terror and inventive songwriting, The Tyranny of Distance is a mod gem of an album, certain to be unjustly overlooked in a genre-obsessed indie punk scene.
Love as Laughter, Sea to Shining Sea (Sub Pop). Love as Laughter serves up a swaggering mix of '70s NYC punk, '80s DC guitar rock and '90s indie sensibility. Catchy and rockin' as hell, this album is worth it for the opening track's ba-da-ba-da-da chorus alone.
Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus (Matador). Simply on the basis of Malmus' track record, it was a given that this would be a decent album, but who knew the former Pavement frontman had so many great hooks and choruses left in him? Though the album is hardly perfect, it at least sounds as if Malkmus is actually enjoying being in a band.
Shins, Oh Inverted World (Sub Pop). Walking a fine line between inspiration and imitation, the Shins manage to evoke every great guitar pop band from the Beatles to Built to Spill without sacrificing their original ideas one bit.
Star Death, The Dark House (No Loyalty). After a slightly disappointing first album, the Star Death, possibly the best live rock band in St. Louis, finally have the recorded muscle to back it up. Minutemen-ish instrumental interplay meets grippingly poetic lyrics and ends in a 20-minute free-jazz freakout.
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony). In RCA Studio B, decrepit and broken down from disuse, cluttered with ghosts, two musicians and a friend set up mics and rolled tape. The magnetic particles defeat summary. Fate, sin, dreams, myths and beatific bad trips.
Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia). In the black wake of September's zero hour, these ruinous tales seem prophetic. And Dylan, his voice brackish, snarling, dying the rounder's disease, is laughing. Not because misfortune is mirthful. No. We're all down in the flood, and if you don't laugh, you'll die with the taste of dies irae forever on your lips.
Ian Hunter, Rant (Fuel 2000). Since Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter has tried too hard or not enough. Now the glam is gone, replaced by a personal and political history writ in rock & roll lightning. Piano and guitars draw blood and thunder while Hunter lays down his working-class demands -- formed in the gut, delivered from the same place.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live in New York City (Columbia). On "Land of Hope and Dreams," the 52-year-old rocker commandeers the gospel train, derails it, then re-steels the glory. In the smithy of the E Street Band's soul he forges -- like no other rocker still standing -- the conscience and faith and desire of anyone still willing to believe.
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul (Epic). Patty Loveless has spent the last decade caretaking for country's soul. With her first bluegrass album, the roles are reversed: Her heart and voice are reconfirmed by the harder, deeper music of her coal-mined Kentucky spirit.
Bill Frisell, Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, Bill Frisell With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Nonesuch). This compelling guitarist leads two jazz visionaries through a labyrinth of new, unpredictable songs, plus two standards: "Moon River" and "Hard Times." After 150 years, the latter finally tallies all the harrowing memories and incarnations of Stephen Foster's song -- and then cancels the count.
Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century (EMD/Real World). Eight spirituals, two Tom Waits tunes, a Stones and Ben Harper song -- all testify that God is not dead. Four survivors of a seminal gospel group wail, scrape and soar to the heavy but spare grooves of slide man David Lindley, double bassist Danny Thompson and guitarist John Hammond. This is the gospel according to nothing but the truth.
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill). Five years after his last new record, Crowell gathers a dean's list of losers and bastards, lives poisoned by hate, deceit and dirt, and gives them the freedom and respect that society would deny. A white-trash fresco as honestly detailed as it is hopefully sung.
Césaria Evora, São Vicente (Windham Hill). Evora's music is called morna, but on this lavish, carnivalesque suite, sorrow gives way to succor, grief to ravishment. São Vicente is Evora's Black Orpheus. "Ah! Pain definitely exists," she sings in Portuguese, "but so does joy."
Ray Wylie Hubbard, Eternal and Lowdown (Rounder). The old master takes one step back from his weary troubadour role, jams a slide on his index finger, lets Gurf Morlix distill electricity like red-dirt hooch and winds up greasy, graced and defiled.
Cindy Bullens, Neverland (Artemis). Bullens fell off the radar screen after a solid rock effort in 1979. Now she's older, wiser, more aware of life's nagging inconsistencies and melodically richer than ever.
Continental Drifters, Better Day (Razor & Tie). You can easily hear the pain informing these songs. But America's best pop/rock band shines because of enough love and faith to overcome anything.
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill). His parents are dead, so everything Crowell held inside for fear of their questions comes tumbling out in a jumble of memoir, fiction, delight and fear.
Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia). After staring down death, Dylan comes out laughing, not to mention feeling generous. Producing the record himself, he achieves the loosest, grandest, most eloquent music he's made in 25 years. Consider this a love letter to the American musical forms that have nurtured him from the beginning -- and remember that love letters sometimes make you cry.
Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot). No rock & roll song kicked more butt this year than "Castanets." The rest of the record takes Escovedo's typical poignance and weds it to richly evocative production.
Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Silvertone). The Fat Possum artists (T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, et al.) use the blues as an exploration of the gaping maw inside life. But they never had a virtuoso guitarist shine such a powerful light inside that maw before. Guy hasn't had songs this good in 30 years.
Joe Henry, Scar (Mammoth). Dark, powerful, beautiful explorations of emotions at the center of events big and small, these songs are uniformly exquisite. "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," featuring a guest solo by Ornette Coleman, opens up all the possibilities of that title.
Dolly Parton, Little Sparrow (Sugar Hill). From bluegrass to Cole Porter to alternative-rock radio hits, the sources all fold into Parton's expansive worldview. Good times, bad times, entranced by life or hit in the face by it, Parton sings as if she's the one you trust to help.
Jill Scott, Experience: 826+ (Hidden Beach). One album to her name, and here comes a live follow-up. One disc is all songs from the last record, done freer and more jazzlike. The other disc is new material, almost as good. Scott examines moments and realizes there's more than one way to look at them.
Rufus Wainwright, Poses (Dreamworks). So he slurs his words into mush. That's because (a) he's so in love with the beautiful melodies he writes that he's in a hurry to get to the next note and (b) he knows you don't need to hear every word to get the romantic content of these songs.
White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry). They're as raw as you could want, but this brother/sister duo's bluesy punk is also surprisingly complex and artful. Jack White may sing like a young Robert Plant, but he's also a playful songwriter with a self-effacing wit.
I Am Kloot, Natural History (We Love You). Unlike most practioners of Brit pop's "new acoustic movement," Kloot writes songs that actually move. Thanks to a percussive guitar style, Natural History creates electricity without amps. Singer John Bramwell's snarky delivery mines lust out of dada lyrics where blood beats out "happily ever after" as a turn-on.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, BRMC (Virgin). This California trio came up with the year's most striking sound. BRMC throws the shimmery affectations of shoe-gazer pop into the grime of punk rock. They've mastered an atmosphere of doom more striking than most "plainclothes" Amerindie bands.
Ladytron, 604 (Emperor Norton). Imagine the Stereolab pop album you've dreamed of, as sung by Annie Lennox. 604 purges pathos from new-wave revivalism and restores synth pop to pristine glory. The cold comforts they sing of (tenuous relationships and compulsive shopping) match their burbling pop.
Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol). Neither the return to "real songs" that some wanted nor Kid A redux, Radiohead's fifth album is avant-garde without disservicing their songcraft. But it's the lurch of "Life in a Glass House" that proves Radiohead is most powerful without fancy production.
The Faint, Danse Macabre (Saddle Creek). Nebraska emo punks pretending to be Gary Numan pretending to be the Prodigy? Yes, it's thoroughly posed. But the Faint are so fake they're beyond real. Their synth hooks are electroshocks, and "Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen" is the most touching weepie ever about lifeguards and drowning hoaxes.
Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album (Barsuk). Seattle's Death Cab finally found themselves on this graceful, melancholic album. With reverb-laden guitar work, The Photo Album's lovelorn stories assume a late-night poignancy without emo histrionics. And on the groovy "We Laugh Indoors," they've beaten Modest Mouse to their own hit.
Varnaline, Songs in a Northern Key (Artemis). This fusion of studio finesse and roots rock could give Grandaddy or Wilco a run for their money. Frontman Anders Parker's songs mix pedal steel and windblown Hammonds with dreamy lyricism. It's the sound of a hopeful drive through the Mojave.
Beulah, The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette). After flirting with the majors, Beulah sounds more radio-ready than ever. Coast is the trimmest Elephant 6 effort since the Minders, full of hits from some Day-Glo alternate universe where FM radio never appeared.
Gorillaz, Gorillaz (Virgin). Along with countless hooks, there's a Trojan-horse appeal to Gorillaz. As pop radio swallows the bouncy "Clint Eastwood," the teens who spring for the record also get the rhymes of Del tha Funky Homosapien, snippets of dub and even the Buena Vista Social Club. Beneath their animated visages, Gorillaz are less cartoonish than 'N Sync.