1. Koop - Waltz for Koop (Jazzanova/Compost)
Top honors this year for me go to the Swedish duo Koop, who masterfully made a jazz record that sounds electronic, or an electronic record that sounds jazz, with Waltz for Koop. Evoking a long forgetten era of hep, they've managed to make a record that succeeds at failing: there isn't a single original idea on Waltz for Koop, when you get down to it, but somehow it sounds like the freshest thing I've heard all year.
2. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
No doubt the record that will make every top 10 list in the country this year. Overlooked in the mythologizing of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the fact that this is a really good record, and even if Warner had accepted it as such, and I'm Trying to Break Your Heart had never been made, it still would be just as good. However, Warner didn't take the record, and the movie was made, and the Tweedy legend grows only larger. No, he's no Dylan, no Springsteen -- but "Heavy Metal Drummer" is a damn good song nonetheless.
3. Cinematic Orchestra - Every Day (Ninja Tune)
Two out of the top three come from the murky realm of post-electronic "chill" music, a genre title so entirely unbefitting that I hesitate to even use it. Luckily, Cinematic Orchestra makes the case that their music is more than just a soundscape for the Ecstasy set to come down to; instead, over the course of seven songs on four sides, Every Day moves from the slow burning head nod of Massive-era trip hop to the eclecticism of free jazz, all the managing to be an album, a feat that very few of Cinematic Orchestra's peers have managed.
4. Neil Halsted - Sleeping on Roads (4AD)
The Mojave 3/Slowdive frontman quietly dropped Sleeping on Roads this winter, as befits a man of his pedigree. If Spinal Tap introduced the world to the amps that go to eleven, Halsted's must stop at four. He writes for people who own nice headphones, so if you don't have a pair, go buy one, and then get Sleeping on Roads. Quiet, introspective, yes, but beautiful and melodic as well.
5. Sondre Lerche - Faces Down (Astralwerks)
While critics fawn over Beck and his latest album, the big secret is that the best Beck album released this year was recorded by a nineteen year-old Norwegian and was called Faces Down. Lerche's record begins where Beck's Mutations left off, and incorporates the folk and Brazilian influences that made Mutations such a critical hit. The title track on Lerche's record could easily compete for single of the year, and the range of the record suggests wonderful things to come out of Norway for a while.
6. Clem Snide - You Were a Diamond (spinART)
Officially, You Were a Diamond was released in 1998, and seemingly few were paying attention. Since last year's The Ghosts of Fashion earned such good notices, spinART remastered the out-of-print earlier record and added two bonus tracks. It's the original material that shines here, though. There's a reason the kids at the shows are screaming for Clem Snide to play "Nick Drake Tape" and "Chinese Baby" -- perhaps the two best songs in the bands oeuvre. Frontman Eef Barzelay, on the shortlist for best name in rock music, writes songs like he means them, and has forced me to consider that putting "indie rock" and "ballad" next to each other might not be a contradiction of terms.
7. Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)
Another of this year's critical darlings, Interpol has received so much press that I almost hesitate to list them here, but for the undeniable fact that they've recorded a fine album. Yes, they sound like Joy Division. But that's not such a bad thing. Hopefully the lesson of the Strokes will be instructive: wholesale appropriation of a musical idiom, along with an oversized helping of New York City chauvinism, can get you into the pages of Spin and in the ears of the adoring masses. It might even be enough to make a whole record out of. But don't try to duplicate the formula -- lightning doesn't strike twice, after all. The record is good - but the world doesn't need another Smiths cover band.
8. Iron and Wine - The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop)
Sub Pop used to be one of the most potent signifiers in the world of indie rock -- but it's a long road from Nirvana to Iron and Wine. Luckily, the label has managed to travel it, and now Sub Pop boasts some of the best singer/songwriters recording today: Damien Jurado, Rosie Thomas, and now Iron and Wine. The Creek Drank the Cradle features "Bird Stealing Bread", the most poetic and profoundly affecting song I heard this year.
9. Blackalicious - Blazing Arrow (MCA)
The boys from Quannum are back at it, but the case for quality mainstream hip-hop is becoming harder to make each year. Yet the Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel have managed, making a record for hip hoppers who can remember a world before Eminem, before Snoop graduated from Doggy to Dogg Father. Blazing Arrow has strong production, great hooks, thoughtful verses, and even manages to incorporate a few "guest appearances" without sounding contrived.
10. Beth Gibbons - Out of Season (Go Beat)
I'll never understand record company politics. I look around me and see scores of people holding import copies of Beth Gibbons' latest, a fine record that departs from the Portishead sound without losing the haunted, striking quality that make Portishead a staple of year end Top 10 lists in the mid-1990s. But no one wants to pick this record up in the United States. Thank goodness for the global economy.
I would be remiss if I did not end this list without mentioning a few very honorable mentions:
- The Streets - Original Pirate Material (Vice)
- DJ Shadow - The Private Press (MCA)
- Beth Orton - Daybreaker (Astralwerks)
- Sonic Youth - Murray Street (Universal)
- Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
- Badly Drawn Boy - About a Boy (ArtistDirect)
- Pavement - Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)