1. Common, Electric Circus (MCA)
Lonnie Lynn has spent his whole career as a rapper moving toward personal and artistic liberation, and on this long freaky acid-rock psychedelic masterpiece he breaks on through to the other side. Common's emotional growth pushes his music beyond anywhere that anyone else is right now: not only does this record have clever hip-hop tunes (Dixieland on "I Am Music", the Laetitia Sadier chorus on "New Wave") but its rock-oriented cuts like "Jimi Was a Rock Star" and "Electric Wire Hustler Flower" kick it out too. Crucial contributions from the Roots and other Soulquarians and Erykah Badu help take this out of the stratosphere, but this is Com's show all the way, and he even manages to atone for his previous homophobia with the stunning third verse of "Between Me, You, and Liberation". This, my friends, is The Next: "I used to write shit / To please niggaz / Now I write shit / To freeze niggaz." Oh yeah.
2. Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (MCA)
Truthfully, this is the most perfect album I heard this year, and should probably be at #1. Gift of Gab is a damn great rapper all right ("Hell of intelligent diligent heaven-sent / Benevolent relevant medicine / Poetry pedestrian / Peddlin' mad adrenaline / To lyrical gentlemen", and that's just the first example I thought of), but his heart is so big that no other hip-hop lyricist in the world can match up with him. And Chief Xcel's beats are on point like they always are, full of references to old soul and capable of changing on a dime; "Make You Feel That Way" was this year's most beautiful song, followed closely by "First in Flight". We also get the 10-minute epic "Release" from these two, but contrast is provided by Cut Chemist, whose "Chemical Calisthenics" collab with Gab is the best avant-hop jam, like, ever. This record might be too perfect.
3. Stew, The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs (Smile) / The Negro Problem, Welcome Black (Smile)
Stew is the best songwriter in the US, and these two records prove it. The Negro Problem record is the glossier shinier model, and it hums at all speeds: pop glory ("Out Now"), loungecore ("Bermuda Love Triangle"), arty mentalism ("Is This the Single?"), and even British Invasion bounce ("In Time All Time", the best Thelonious Monk tribute of the year). But The Naked Dutch Painter is even finer: every song is as maddening and funny and catchy and fucked-up as life itself. It is more or less a tribute album to Stew's two biggest obsessions: smart beautiful women ("Giselle", "North Bronx French Marie", the title track) and drugs (the 10-minute trilogy called "The Drug Suite"). Stephen Merritt fans better listen to these LPs to see how intelligent pop music can be made: light to balance the darkness, gravity to tie the silly stuff down to earth.
4. Tabla Beat Science, Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove (Palm Pictures)
At least four continents are represented by this incarnation of Tabla Beat Science, the techno/ethno/hip-hop/breakbeat/dub ensemble, and the damage they do to the idea of "genre" during these 100 live undubbed minutes is incalculable and lovely. I don't think I can say it better than our PopMatters review, which asked the musical question, "Could this concert, this band, be saving the idea of the true rock band?" Well, I could have said it better, but it's a damned good question.
5. Jaguar Wright, Denials, Delusions, and Decisions (MCA)
Jag is not to be messed with, as we learn again and again on this record. It's satisfying to hear her talking 'bout sex babee with Bilal (!) on "I Can't Wait" or reading the riot act to nogoodniks ("I Don't Know") and hoochies ("Ain't Nobody Playin'", "Same Shit Different Day, Part 2") alike, with toughness and profanity for all. But what gets you is when she drops the middle finger and starts telling off herself in "The What-Ifs," or when she admits vulnerability in the Jill Scottish "Country Song." And when she pulls out all the stops on "Self-Love", urging people stuck in bad situations to get the hell out of them and save themselves, it's the vocal performance of the year. Soul music has a new contender -- any surprises that she's from Philly? And that the Roots are all in her corner? No. But this beats Phrenology hands down.
6. Stella Chiweshe, Talking Mbira (Piranha)
Zimbabwe's queen of the thumb piano finally gets the masterpiece she's deserved for thirty years, courtesy of the great German label Piranha. These 10 songs run the gamut from celebratory to melancholy, from instrumental jams to a capella joints, from world-pop to wild Africanisms -- and from 1988 till last year. But Chiweshe's crinkly voice and amazing dexterity on the mbira tie everything together, and serve to re-re-re-introduce us to one of Africa's bravest and most important musical innovators.
7. Gomez, In Our Gun (Virgin)
No one liked this record except the people who heard it, who all understand how great it is. Gomez is easy to hate, apparently, because they're young and British (which is cool, but they're from the Midlands, which is very unfashionable) and they like the blues and they don't go around proclaiming that they're the greatest band in the world. But this collection of fun funky songs, sad scary songs, and sly sneaky songs cannot be denied; the boys have shrugged off their jam-band pretentions and decided to shoot for bugged-out hooks, surrealistic pillowbook lyrics, and textures of sound taken from every instrument they could find. Anyone who says otherwise didn't actually hear the record, and shame on 'em.
8. Cee-Lo, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (Arista)
You've heard Cee-Lo sing on other people's records and do his whole Dungeon Family thing with the Goodie Mob, but no one was expecting that his first solo album would come out like this. He's on fire, people, lyrically and musically and spiritually -- this is another one of those albums about liberation that marked this year like fingerprints. All right, so he believes in God and likes to sing about that; big deal, he's not obnoxious about it. He also believes in sex ("Closet Freak"), in music ("Bass Head Jazz"), in his own abilities as a kick-ass rapper ("Big Ole Words (Damn)"), and in freedom freedom freedom above all else. Hearing him narrate his life story in "Gettin' Grown" and "El Dorado Sunrise (Super Chicken)" will make you love this man forever, even when he's bragging, "I get a $150,000 check every three months off Santana".
9. Buffalo Daughter, I (Emperor Norton)
This Tokyo trio (two women, one guy DJ) made my avant-garde all-star team with I, but I'm not sure I want to recommend this record to you, because you won't get past track two, where they just seem to be chanting "I" and "I know!" over and over. If you can't handle 1:21 of that, then you don't deserve the ecstatic dance song "Discothéque du Paradis" or the Led Zeppelin cop "Earth Punk Rockers" or the hypnotic '70s-FM-droner "Mirror Ball" or the sambafied "Robot Sings" or any of this great LP. A fully-formed work with beautiful challenging music that people will claim to have loved when it first came out but no one else put it on their list except me.
10. Trio Mocotó, Samba Rock (Six Degrees)
These three canny Brazilian funkateers were Jorge Ben's backing band for many years in the 1960s and 1970s, and released a few albums of their own before retiring in 1975. Now here they are, 27 years later, with the funnest album I've heard in a long while. Their ears are still wide open to electronica, to hip-hop, and to funk, but it's all rooted in the music of their native land. My friend Adriana in Sao Paulo says she can't stop listening to it -- if it's good enough for actual Brazilians, it's good enough for me.