1. Gary Wilson—You Think You Really Know Me (Motel)
You Think You Really Know Me is like a piece of dirty gossip: it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep it under wraps, but once it’s aired—even a little bit—it becomes a duty to continue spreading it around. And the folks at Motel Records, bless their hearts, knew exactly how to behave once they discovered this naughty-and-nice 1977 self-released gem, a jazzy, loungy polyphony of the sly, the strange, and the oh-so-sensuous. Having barely made it out of the basement domicile Wilson recorded it in during its day, You Think became a bona fide phenomenon in New York City circles earlier this year, and for good reason. Even 25 years after its initial release, the deliciously teenage lyricism, climaxing crooning and outta-this-world soundscape could cause a moral panic in the buttoned-up and white-picketed reaches of the social order. Here’s to songs about making out, ruby red lips, and 16-year old girls named Cindy.
2. Interpol—Turn On the Bright Lights (Matador)
Sure, they’re too New York for their own good, they were victims of a totally annoying hype machine, and it can be convincingly argued that the release of Turn On the Bright Lights triggered the end of one of the most exciting revivals in recent indie rock memory. Still, I dare anyone to deny the utter majesty of this album. From machine-gun bass lines, live wired guitar, time-bomb drums, and bone-chilling vocals, Interpol have created a debut that is both a tragic, beautiful reflection of this historical moment and an artful, evocative classic.
3. The Streets—Original Pirate Material (Vice)
Mike Skinner, a.k.a the Streets, could have summed up his anger with a couple of “fuck yous”—addressed at the music business, the forces that colluded to deprive his upbringing, or society at large. But instead, he played out the story of his experience on an album that jars your ears, challenges your mind, and commandeers your ass. This album is an often humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, piece of social commentary about working class British life; it defies categorization, belief, and sometimes, gravity.
4. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man Out of Season (Go Beat)
Out of Season moves slowly. It takes a full minute for the opening track to break its windy preface and actual descend into something that sounds like melody. Beth Gibbons, the mesmerizing vocalist of Portishead fame, has a way of drawing out her notes like elastic bands, saving up their power until it’s a wonder whether she’ll fire or break. But the wait—for the moment of release, the cascade of music, or the five years since Gibbons last released an album—is for certain worth it. Shunning urbanized beats for bucolic symphonies, Out of Season is a brutally gorgeous album, showcasing Gibbons’ passionate, eerie, soulful singing and delicate, smoky songwriting.
5. Clinic—Walking With Thee (Domino)
Clinic break ground once again with their sophomore effort—an aural exclamation point that balances chaos and control, paranoia and peace. They write the songs that make the whole world sing in tongues.
6. Richard Ashcroft—Human Conditions (Virgin)
Mark my words: Richard Ashcroft will be a legend—and Human Conditions will be the categorical proof. His second solo release after the breakup of English master-rockers the Verve, Ashcroft has continued on the path he began with 2000’s Alone With Everybody, and arrived at place that’s overfull of brilliance and grace. This album absolutely bursts with contemplation, spirit, and vision, paying homage to the highs and lows of the human spirit.
7. N.E.R.D—In Search Of (Virgin)
The hardest working producers in show business, N.E.R.D. (also known as the Neptunes) this year released their own bad-ass material which blows apart the barrier between rock and hip hop. The sweaty mess of songwork shows off half a dozen guest artists—including their homegirl Kelis—and traverses twice as many musical styles in its course. Down-and-dirty lyrics, icy rap/singing, thrilling beats—what more could you ask for?
8. Supergrass—Life on Other Planets (Parlophone, UK)
On every subsequent album, Londoners Supergrass further punctuate their sound—a little bit grander, a little bit tangier, a little bit campier, but all the while increasingly terrific. Gaz Coombes’ vocals fizz as if he’s carbonated. The guitars bounce with pop-o-matic glee over melodies that positively shine. Life is one minute honky tonk, the next minute space camp, and overall an amazing testament to the evolving potential of Britpop. Stand up and cheer, get down and boogie, but either way, get your hands on a copy of this album and plug in.
9. The Reindeer Section—Son of Evil Reindeer (Bright Star Recordings)
An adorable, confessional album from the ultimate Scottish indie supergroup, consisting of members of Mogwai, Snow Patrol, Mull Historical Society, Belle & Sebastian, and Arab Strap, among others. Son of Evil Reindeer pops with fairytale mischief and shimmers with porcelain observation.
10. Low—Trust (Kranky)
“That’s How You Sing Amazing Grace”—the opening track of Low’s 2002 release, Trust—would be enough to have this album make my top 10 list; I can barely make it through the weighty dirge without gasping, stopping the sound, and starting over. And Minnesota natives Low don’t stop there. They mine the recesses of emotional life with a methodical, yet relentless, intensity. Theirs is a simple formula—unaffected singing and straightforward harmony, potent guitar and bass, quiets and louds and slows and not-so-slows—but Low execute it as if it were a complex algorithm. And when they do it, it is.