Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood: Fables and song structures are flung about, while the musicians display utter confidence that the songs are improved by the stress test. Case now shows bandleader capacity that’s equal to her fantastic voice. The unique listen of the year (but well complemented by Jolie Holland, on the same label).
Alejandro Escovedo, The Boxing Mirror: Once again, mortality and memory are the stuff of a classic. Compare with Automatic for the People — but this one’s more autobiographical. The updated ’80s rock touches add a haunting shadow (or is it a halo?).
Chris Knight, Enough Rope: This has a harder instrumental edge than his previous — but paradoxically, fewer all-or-nothing lyrics. The extra blast of mature realism finally brings this country-rock Kentuckian right alongside Mellencamp and Earle.
My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade: Theatrical rock of a quality not heard since Freddie Mercury left the stage. “Teen-agers” is the best shout-along in ages — too bad the parental-advisory language will keep it off airwaves and jukeboxes.
Goldfrapp, Supernature: Electronics-based duo dishes up kicky-and-kinky romantic hooks plus thoughtful respites. Concise and perfectly paced — quite the rarity among club acts.
KEVIN M. WILSON
The Duhks, Migrations: Canada’s coolest ensemble delivers another infectious record. Bluegrass, ragtime, acoustic blues and even Negro spirituals seep into this set. Jessee Havey’s vocals will haunt you.
Los Lobos, The Town and The City: After 30 years together, the wolves in this pack are still hungry for creative exploration. Here they continue to fuse R&B, jazz and Mexi-Cali rock in ways that will blow your mind.
Mason Jennings, Boneclouds: Jennings obviously studied religion and philosophy and/or digested a good bit of George Harrison’s style of pilgrim-pop. This delightful album deals with issues of life, love and death and is sure to please your ears.
Gob Iron, Death Songs for the Living: Nobody can sing about downer topics like Jay Farrar. As Gob Iron, Farrar and friend Anders Parker (of Varnaline) alternate on the lead vocals of these eschatological tracks in a way that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself.
Tim Finn, Imaginary Kingdom: In reality, the gorgeous melodies and thoughtful lyrics that characterized his work with Split Enz and Crowded House begin to take hold after several listens.
Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way: Natalie, Martie and Emily gave a subtle middle-finger salute to their flag-waving, red-state fanbase with this Rick Rubin-produced album. With guest stars like Gary Louris, Mike Campbell and Sheryl Crow, this CD has been a favored playlist on my iPod since May.
The Fray, How to Save a Life: Cute, young boys from Colorado sing about love and cable cars, and manage to snag a play on last season’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Their mellow pop sound is truly McYummy.
Dashboard Confessional, Dusk and Summer: Cute, brooding boys from Florida sing about love and beaches and laying your armor down. They have stolen my heart.
Beyoncé, B’Day: And the hits keep on comin’. Just about the time I’m ready to switch the dial forever from pop radio, Beyoncé drops another addictive tune. “Ring the Alarm” and “Irreplaceable” make sitting through feeble songs by Hinder or the Pussycat Dolls worth it.
The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers: Jack White is a genius, and whatever he touches turns to gold — including this supergroup side-project effort. Forget Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” “Steady As She Goes” is the top song of the year.
R. Keenan Lawler, Music For The Bluegrass States: Broken fingers channeling the enigmatic spirits of the earth. To understand the living, you must commune with the dead. Scary, beautiful and weird.
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood: She’s a cute redhead who writes smart, engaging American music. Fuck classifications. She can do no wrong.
The Crooked Jades, World’s On Fire: Appalachian campfire-folk-art-festival from … uh … California. My 3-year-old daughter likes to sing along to “Heaven’s Gonna Be My Home” with me; therefore, it is the best album ever.
Scott Walker, The Drift: The kind of record your weird old bachelor uncle would record if he hung out with Russian prostitutes and had access to a small orchestra.
Various, Classic Railroad Songs: Songs about hobos and songs about trains usually make for compelling listens. Songs about hobos AND trains always come up aces. Hobos are the cherry on top of the railroad subgenre sundae.
Sean Lennon, Friendly Fire: These tracks were certainly cut from the same cloth as his father’s best work but are in no way derivative. A sophomore effort with 10 flawless tracks. Not too shabby.
Tom Waits, Orphans: Waits divides his three musical personalities over three discs: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. Meet Waits, the backwater blues-rocker, the mournful balladeer and the crazed carnival barker/drunken poet, respectively. Waits at his best and a disc for all occasions.
Sloan, Never Hear the End of It: This unrecognized mid-’90s pop-rock act makes a comeback with another unnoticed effort: a whopping 30 tracks of pop song-craft at its finest.
Paul Simon, Surprise: A unique Brian Eno collaboration that expertly combines the pair’s distinct, strong musical personalities to give listeners quite a surprise.
Elliott Brood, Ambassador: This trio reinvigorates alt-country with these eerie, creeping, banjo-laden murder ballads and historical tales.
Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit: A brilliantly consistent disc from a brilliantly consistent band, Pursuit added traces of glam (“White Collar Boy”), boogie rock (“The Blues Are Still Blue”) and psychedelic soul (“Song for Sunshine”) to their already impressive palette. They’re great live, too.
Wolfmother, Wolfmother: This Aussie power trio takes damn near everything that was cool about ’70s hard rock — power chords, heavy organ fills, white afros — and regurgitates it for the here and now.
Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not: Young, loud and snotty. Hooks aplenty. Debut of the year, etc.
Goldfrapp, Supernature: Justin Timberlake said he was bringing sexy back this year. Too bad Allison Goldfrapp beat him to the punch: She’s 10 times sexier than that pantywaist. Plus, she could kill him with her bare hands. She wins.
Tool, 10,000 Days: Critics who don’t really listen to much metal will genuflect over Mastodon’s Blood Mountain this year, but Tool’s record is a more varied, coherent and, ultimately, more satisfying listen. Deal with it.
Built to Spill, You in Reverse: The lovable album that finally convinced me I was a fan.
Sean Lennon, Friendly Fire: A latecomer that’s still warming my heart with its epic melodrama.
Kaki King, … Until We Felt Red: King upped the ante by introducing vocals on some tracks where previous releases had none (except for a bonus track on Legs to Make Us Longer).
Edith Frost, It’s a Game: The classic quality of the new recording offers fans her rich vocals on a platter in a style reminiscent of Wonder Wonder.
Bonnie Prince Billy, The Letting Go: I was astounded by The Letting Go’s power to warm and chill the listener simultaneously. Perfect winter listening.
The Flaming Lips, At War with the Mystics: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Beirut, Gulag Orkestar: Psych-folk gypsies break your heart one lilting melody at a time.
The Futureheads, News and Tributes: These lads extol virtues of stun-gun guitars and stacked harmonies.
Villebillies, Villebillies: Pop wizardry that goes well with whiskey.
Lucky Pineapple, The New Rainbow: I need new dancing shoes. The old ones are worn out. Thanks, folks.
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