1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
The story of this release is almost as good as the album itself. Wilco recorded this prize over a year ago. But Warner Brothers, their label at the time, said it wasn’t “commercially viable.” Unwilling to make the changes Warner Brothers asked for, Jeff Tweedy and company took their record and left. Then, while the RIAA was busy fighting online music exchange, Wilco leaked the tracks online, where it was downloaded like mad by ravenous fans. Shockingly, when Nonesuch Records struck a deal with the band and released the CD earlier this year, the same supporters also paid money for it. Hey, I guess music fans actually do care about supporting their favorite artists. Making a lush, beautiful album of music helps, of course.
2. N.E.R.D., In Search Of . . . (Virgin)
Producing duo Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, usually credited as The Neptunes, have the golden touch when it comes to hit-making. They’re responsible for some of a large slice of the ubiquitous pop and hip-hop you’ve been hearing on the radio for the past four or five years, ranging from Jay-Z to Britney. But catering to others must get tiresome after a while. Maybe that’s why they decided to make an album of their own, filled with kitschy nastiness. The result is the best hip-hop record of the year.
3. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope) Beck couldn’t have come up with a better title for this one. After releasing the best Prince record of the last decade, 1999’s Midnite Vultures, he follows with a shockingly good, straightforward breakup album. Gone is the musical pastiche that put him on the map. You won’t find anything resembling “Satan Gave Me a Taco” here. In its place is a focused album, filled with Beck’s melancholic voice. Who knew he could sing this well? Listen to Sea Change, and get in line to give the little guy a big hug.
4. Sigur Rós, ( ) (MCA)
It’s silly to even pretend that breaking the rules and experimenting is what popular music is all about. Clearly, based on the thousands of professional musical recordings released each year, this is not the case. But Sigur Rós broke most of the big rules with this year’s follow up to Ágaetis Byrjun, while still creating an aural treasure that is a true pleasure to listen to. The group sings (for lack of a more convenient word) in a make believe language and none of the songs have any titles. Really, the album doesn’t have a title either, unless you count the pair of parenthesis on the jewel case. All rule-breaking aside, the beauty of this recording justifies the technological pursuit of higher fidelity headphones all by itself.
5. The Roots, Phrenology (MCA)
Calling The Roots the best working hip-hop band does them a disservice. The fact is, The Roots might be the best working band, period. They break the hip-hop model by using live instruments, and actually playing them well. Don’t mistake these guys for nu-metal or rap metal or whatever we’re calling Limp Bizkit these days. The Roots are the fusion of rhythm and poetry. Phrenology serves as a reminder of just how good these guys really are. With rhymes that will get you thinking and a refreshing lack of ego, Phrenology infiltrates the surface and gets inside your head.
6. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice)
Search for this British, hip-hop gem in a record store and you may wind up in the electronic music section. That’s because Mike Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets, leans heavily on the garage and two-step beats popular in his native UK to back up an album’s worth of solid rhymes. Much like the Beastie Boys 1992 breakthrough Check Your Head, these songs are incredibly likable because Skinner raps about such unlikely topics. Spitting out tales of life centered around cannabis, the Sony PlayStation and takeout food, it makes you feel like you’re burning out on the couch right next to him.
7. Brendan Benson, Lapalco (Star Time International)
Here’s another example of a fantastic album filled with crisp pop tunes that received almost no publicity this year. After discovering this disc by accident, I have to assume that there are many others out there like it. It is only probability and flimsy marketing budgets that keep them from me. Benson’s album combines all of the best qualities of Mathew Sweet and T. Rex, with a home spun charm that’s impossible to resist. Brendan Benson is one more treasure from the burgeoning Lincoln, Nebraska music scene.
8. Gomez, In Our Gun (Virgin)
This album brings Gomez back to their debut Bring It On, which earned them Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize for new artists in 1998. It finally sounds like the group is comfortable working with a decent recording budget after 2000’s enthusiastic and slightly bombastic Liquid Skin. The album covers a great deal of musical ground, from ballads to power driven drum and bass loops. In Our Gun is further proof that Gomez can do anything they set their minds to, and make it sound splendid.
9. Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (Blue Note)
Just because adult contemporary radio stations picked up on this seductive album and played a few of its songs into the ground doesn’t make it any less wonderful. Norah Jones crosses genre boundaries at will on her debut, handling styles spanning from country to jazz to soul with grace beyond her years. The range gives her ample opportunity to show off a powerful, mature voice and some amazing piano skills. With piles of talent at her disposal, Jones is only going to get better.
10. DJ Shadow, The Private Press (MCA)
Six years after putting out the ground-breaking, genre defying Endtroducing, DJ Shadow throws another collage of sound at us. No two songs on this album are even remotely similar, let alone close to anything from his debut CD. If it makes a sound, it’s fair game for Shadow. This album might take a few tries to catch. But once it does, it will live in your stereo for a long time. Maybe until the good DJ gets around to perfecting the next masterpiece.
In Their Own Category Awards
Best soundtrack that eclipses the movie: Badly Drawn Boy, About a Boy, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Best Radiohead Impersonation: Doves, The Last Broadcast
Best Album By an Artist With a Name Nobody Pronounces Correctly: Me’shell Ndege’ocello, Cookie: The Anthropological Mix Tape
Best Reason to Claim You’re From Nebraska: Bright Eyes, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Best Album to Buy Without Hearing Any of It First: Clinic, Walking With Thee
Best Tom Waits Albums: Tom Waits, Blood Money and Alice