View From Another Country 1. Tom Russell, Hotwalker (HighTone) An audio documentary that combines original songs, covers and sound bites from interviews to conjure a lost bohemian America. A well-traveled raconteur, Russell paints artists like Charles Bukowski, Harry Partch, Lenny Bruce, Buck Owens and circus performer Little Jack Horton—audacious characters who represent what’s great about the American spirit and what’s lost in corporate, high-tech culture.
2. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Nothing but the Water (Grace Potter Music) Potter seems too young to create music this soulful. Like Bonnie Raitt in the early ’70s, Jonell Mosser in the late ’80s and Patty Griffin in the ’90s, she’s an innately confident stylist who has absorbed all that’s funky and transcendent about roots music. She also writes concise, penetrating songs and fronts a sharp quartet who understand that what’s left out is as important as what’s left in.
3. The Duhks, The Duhks (Sugar Hill) This young Canadian quintet find high adventure in acoustic music, giving everything from down-home spirituals to uptown newgrass a robust reworking. Singer Jessica Havey is the star, but she’s elevated by cagey instrumentalists who keep their arrangements focused and their spirits open.
4. Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now (Lost Highway) Gauthier finally has found a larger audience for her searing, openhearted acoustic songs, all delivered in her well-tempered Louisiana drawl. Whether lifting up the destitute or calling for grace, her words cut with poetic precision.
5. Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill) This time, instead of showing how many styles they can master, this young acoustic trio forge a modern sound of their own. They tackle the likes of intimacy and self-deception with unflinching nerve, creating a densely ambitious work reminiscent of those of Pete Townshend or The Waterboys’ Mike Scott.
6. Rodney Crowell, The Outsider (Columbia) On the third of a trio of unabashedly personal albums, Crowell sounds off on society and politics, steadfastly questioning himself along the way.
7. Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From (MCA) Not exactly the retro move it’s sometimes billed as, Womack’s return to form ditches contemporary country’s strident grooves for a wise, wistful trip through a grown woman’s heart.
8. Greg Trooper, Make It Through This World (Sugar Hill) This veteran songwriter has grown bolder, more descriptive and more heartfelt with each album; collaborating here with the great Dan Penn, he finds the perfect partner to underscore the emotion and energy in his street-corner voice.
9. Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, Red Dog Tracks (Train Wreck) An old, wise rambler and a young, earthy instrumentalist harmonize on sweet, smart songs about love, moonlight, whiskey and other mysteries that make life worth the trouble.
10. Adrienne Young, The Art of Virtue (Addie Belle) Young’s earth-friendly ethics and divine hedonism come alive in pop-minded stringband music that’s as fresh and flavorful as organic fruit.
Jazz and Blues 1. Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) This 1957 Voice of America concert was inadvertently discovered earlier this year while an archivist at the Library of Congress was digitally transferring a box of tapes. It’s the jazz equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as Monk’s angular, minimal chording triggers the assertive runs of Coltrane’s early style in an impeccably remastered recording.
9. M.I.A., Arular (XL/Beggars) A fantastic mash of jerk beats, oscillator shots and pidgin rhymes.
2. Wayne Shorter Quartet, Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve) At 72, Shorter hasn’t stopped reinventing modern jazz harmonics, dismantling given forms and reconstructing his own compositions. These live quartet dates build upon Shorter throwing out brief, fluttery soprano sax figures for pianist Danilo Perez to either propel or dissolve.
3. Frank Zappa, availability of back catalog on iTunes Being able to bypass the novelty items and pick out the tracks on which Zappa’s jazz-inflected writing and peregrinating guitar solos evolve can help recover the lifeblood behind a now amorphous history or understanding of “fusion.”
4. Little Freddie King, You Don’t Know What I Know (Fat Possum) This Delta native has shaped a dirtier, more primitive guitar voice than the man whose name he’s invoked for over 40 years. His unadulterated country blues also can make chicken shack dances and rickety freight shuffles rise above rough tape loops, as well as hint at the ramshackle beats of New Orleans, his adopted home.
5. Herbie Hancock, Possibilities(Vector/Hancock) It’s not jazz, and not all of Hancock’s immense cast and selected cuts rise to the occasion. But when it works, his arrangements of pop and cross-cultural tunes are even more fluidly integrated (and more humanized) than those of the master of this sort of thing, Quincy Jones. Not to be missed are Joss Stone and Johnny Lang playfully melding on what was originally a clunky vehicle for U2 and B.B. King, “When Love Comes to Town.”
6. David Liebman, The Distance Runner(HatHut) This fusion-era Miles Davis sideman has never received enough recognition for forging technical and improvisational paths that are almost unmatched in his generation. This unaccompanied solo concert finds him exploring new lyrical ranges on the wooden flute, as well as on tenor and soprano saxes.
7. Ronnie Earl and Duke Robillard, The Duke Meets the Earl (Stony Plain) Bred in New England, these two former Roomful of Blues lead guitarists speak from different stereo channels to spaciously complement each other on mostly Chicago and Texas material, with Jimmy McGriff’s B-3 soul to glue them together on some tracks.
8. Susan Tedeschi, Hope and Desire (Verve) Tedeschi’s gospel-weary blues voice has been fully road-tested since her last album came out three years ago, bringing massive conviction to this living history of eclectic, unobvious song choices.
9. Steve Reich, You Are (Variations), Cello Counterpoint (Nonesuch) Enabling Maya Beiser to play over seven of her own densely multi-tracked cello lines, Reich again proves to be the elder statesman of a post-classical domain where mechanical and human voices commingle.
10. David S. Ware, Live in the World (Thirsty Ear) Ware is the best current inheritor of the spiritual-free jazz tradition, with this three-CD live set capped by a new take on Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite.”
Found Sounds 1. Gary Allan, Tough All Over (MCA Nashville) “Life-size dominoes / One falls after another / Things are tough all over,” Allan sings, and a more appropriate epigram for 2005 is hard to imagine. After losing his wife to suicide in 2004, Allan makes the year’s finest country record: every moment real, yet given a pop gloss that only heightens the impact.
1. Edan, The Beauty & the Beat (Lewis) Full of wild metaphors and hazy imagery, Edan’s razor-sharp flow rides classic rap beats fleshed out with samples of trippy, psychedelic rock. His combination of two seemingly disparate genres isn’t so farfetched; psychedelic rock was about freedom from conventional reality, ’80s rap was about freedom from the reality of ghetto life. Acting as DJ and MC, Edan creates a recording freed from the conventions of commercial hip-hop.
2. Bettye LaVette, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-) This record sneaks up on you—you’re seduced before you know it. LaVette’s singing transcends the usual soul-music mannerisms, and you’ll never hear Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” the same way again.
3. Black Mer-Da, The Folks From Mother’s Mixer (Tuff City/Funky Delicacies) Inner-city Delta blues meets twisted soul on this reissue of the Detroit band’s two albums from the early ’70s. “My Mistake,” about a cuckold who murders his buddy and then wishes he’d killed his wife instead, is as tough as anything on There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
4. Reckless Kelly, Wicked Twisted Road(Sugar Hill) These Austin-based roots-rockers make intellectualized road music that has as much in common with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band as it does country. The playing is egoless, the writing literate.
5. Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho, Paêbirú(Shadoks) Originally released in 1975, this psychedelic classic from northeastern Brazil combines flute and guitar passages with freak-outs worthy of Amon Düül and the Soft Machine. Appropriately enough for a record whose subject is the four elements, most of the first pressings of the album were destroyed by either fire or flood—no one is sure.
6. Tod Dockstader and David Lee Myers, Bijou (ReR) Musique-concrète pioneer Dockstader constructs an aural narrative whose tone is remarkably elusive: this collection of found sounds and decaying tones suggests a 1940s film noir set in the Midwest, but the story is a series of cues for dialogue that never comes.
7. Fast ’N’ Bulbous, Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind (Cuneiform) Guitarist Gary Lucas and arranger Phillip Johnston recast Captain Beefheart tunes and make the case for him as a composer the equal of Thelonious Monk. While Monk’s music evokes a New York taxi ride, Van Vliet’s compositions bring to mind desert landscapes, beautiful erosion.
8. Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) Recorded by the Voice of America, these 1957 tapes lay undiscovered for nearly a half-century. Monk never sounded more lyrical or focused. The year’s most significant jazz discovery, and the year’s best jazz.
9. Various Artists, Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story 1962-1979 (Ace) The great producer and arranger is here revealed as the thinking person’s alternative to Phil Spector. He transforms Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Helpless” into a cry from the heart; his production of Marianne Faithfull’s “Sister Morphine” rivals the Stones’.
10. Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic (Domino) Playful, jazzy and in love with percussion sounds of all kinds, Kieran Hebden’s compositions are kinetic, but never disconnected. “You Were There With Me” is one of the year’s calmest moments, and one of its most energizing.
Kitchen Sink 1. Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) Writing about 1967’s Basement Tapes when those apocryphal demos finally were officially released, the critic Robert Christgau opined, “We needn’t bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967 too.” Much the same can be said of this newly unearthed summit between two of jazz’s supreme visionaries. The main difference is that this self-surpassing call-and-response from 1957 wouldn’t just have been the best album of that year; had it been released in either 1967 or 1975—at any time, really—it likely would have been the best record of those years as well.
2.-3. M.I.A., Arular (XL) / Gogol Bordello, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike(SideOneDummy) Crackling with a refugee’s sense of rootlessness and arrival, these noisy, tonic records articulate a bracing grammar of uplift and resistance for the age of globalization. Fueled by the slogans and libido of one Eugene Hutz, Gogol Bordello smear their fiddle- and accordion-driven stomps with dissident splotches of dub, klezmer and rap for what amounts to a Balkan update of Combat Rock by way of Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. For her part, Sri Lankan-born Londoner M.I.A. gets over with spare, spongy beats and sly, sexy rhymes shot through with bhangra, raga and favela funk. “I got the bombs to make you blow, I got the beats to make you bang,” goes the blipping, bleating refrain of “Pull Up the People.” And how.
4. Annie Hayden, The Enemy of Love(Merge) Wonder mingled with the weight of the world colors this indie stalwart’s muted, by turns comforting and devastating second solo album. Hayden’s tuneful miniatures are worthy of Lately I Keep Scissors, the 1989 opus of rocker-grrrl den-mother Barbara Manning.
5.-6. Bettye LaVette, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-) / Fannypack, See You Next Tuesday (Tommy Boy) LaVette’s staggeringly personal reimagining of songs written by other women amounts to a de facto concept album about the convergence of autonomy and self-possession at the pregnant heart of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” With imperiousness bordering on nobility, it also rescues the peripatetic soul singer’s 40-year career from the margins. Meanwhile, the double-dutch beats and puckish come-ons of Fannypack might raise a different kind of hell, but this multi-culti trio of young female MCs likewise testify to the virtues of being children who’ve “got their own.” No one’s gonna steal their joy, that’s for sure.
7.-8. The Mendoza Line, Full of Light and Full of Fire (Misra) / Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (Sub Pop) The Mendoza Line’s alternately luminous and raging seventh album is a desperate, post-punk clutch at humanity in a world assailed by bigotry and bad faith. A triumphant one, too, but never triumphalistic, unlike the president they can’t abide. Herculean rockers Sleater-Kinney achieve a similar sort of transcendence on The Woods, harnessing melody and noise with hitherto unheard proficiency and might. Words and guitar, they got it. And then some.
9. Kanye West, Late Registration(Roc-a-Fella) View Late Registration primarily as a rap record, and West’s lyrics and flow are something of a letdown. Approach it as a pop album, though, and the expansive melodies and grooves deliver on its outsized ambition, much as visionary records by Curtis, Marvin and Stevie did back in the 1970s.
10. Sara Evans, Real Fine Place (RCA) A country album so sleek, sophisticated and voluptuous in production and execution—Patty Loveless meets New Order?—that it almost makes you forget about Evans’ creepy right-wing politics. Alas, not even “Bible Song,” a monument to liberation written by Lori McKenna, suggests there’s hope where Evans’ ideological redemption is concerned.
All Denominations 10. Ryan Shupe & The RubberBand, Dream Big (Capitol) Taking a page from the book of Big & Rich, Shupe and his band let a host of influences—from jazz to reggae to rock—seep into their pop-spiked bluegrass to create a frisky, infectious debut.
1. Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Souls’ Chapel(Superlatone/Universal South) Look closely at the cover of Souls’ Chapel, and you’ll see a note in fine print: “Compatible with All Denominations.” Damn right. The spiritual yearning in Stuart’s openhearted, open-armed revival of the Mississippi gospel he grew up with strikes a universal note even with godless heathens like me.
2. Paul McCartney, Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard (Capitol) With Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich working quality control, Sir Paul stepped up his game with a reflective, darkly baroque gem that suggests—bad dye job be damned—he’s ready to get the most out of acting his age.
3. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene (Sony Nashville) Screw winning—coming in third on Nashville Star two years ago just gave Lambert the time to let her talent simmer to a boil. Her debut is a Molotov cocktail of tough-girl cheek, including the best, most confusing dis of the year: “Are you still a bullet in your daddy’s gun?”
4. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine[unreleased version] (Sony) When the final, Mike Elizondo- produced version of this was released, critics went on about how its embattled, unreleased predecessor made with Jon Brion was too ornate and fussy anyway. So why do I still prefer the latter? Let’s just say I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more Mellotron.
5. Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die?(Sugar Hill) With this third album, the trio finally separate themselves from Alison Krauss’ feathery influence and discover their hard edge. Fire is all about navigating the treacherous thickets of young adulthood, with only wood and strings to guide you.
6. M.I.A., Arular (XL) She couldn’t conceivably have lived up to the Internet hype, but by the time the chatter had died away, these whiplash rhymes and spring-loaded beats had already done their duty.
7. The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan(V2) Why did I finally get on board after resisting them all these years? Must have been the marimbas.
8. Feist, Let It Die (Interscope) She’s quiet, she’s Canadian, she’s Steely Dan’s wet dream. Incidentally, she also sang lead on my favorite song of the year, sadly unreleased in the leaked version that obsessed me via MP3 for months: Broken Social Scene’s “7/4 (Shoreline).”
9. Little Big Town, The Road to Here (Equity Music Group) Written off as has-beens after their 2002 debut stiffed, this two-man, two-woman vocal group miraculously produced the year’s most bracing harmony record—and the best Fleetwood Mac song Fleetwood Mac never wrote (“Bones”).
10. Audioslave, Out of Exile (Interscope) It’s hard to imagine anything as passé as the second album by a supergroup whose members enjoyed their heyday a decade ago, and I’ll stipulate that this isn’t as striking as their debut. But it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I need a Zeptastic dinosaur-stomp groove and Chris Cornell’s apocalyptic wail to help push my lethargic ass through the day.