1. El Gran Silencio, Super Riddim Internacional, Vol. 1 (EMI Latin) The best band in the world issues a cumbia/rock/reggae/rap manifesto from Monterrey, Mexico. I could list 100 reasons why this is my favorite record of the year... in fact, I have. Mostly, though, this is the album that best matches up with my idea of music: no boundaries, no fear, the personal is the political and vice versa, and smile through your tears or die. Extra horns and percussion add to their sound, but the formula is simple: Tony and Cano Hernandez write great songs, Campa Valdez is the greatest rock accordionist of all time, and every band needs a bass player named "Vulgar".
2. Super Furry Animals, Phantom Power (XL)
Gruff Rhys knows that the world is going to shit, and tells you why in the most beautiful way possible. This is a hugely ambitious concept record about the deep huge mess our country has made of the post-9/11 world, where the Liberty Belle is also the ninja jihad that sneers, "Suck my oil." The only escape is to disappear into music, and SFA has done nothing to lessen their Beach Beatle Aphex Orchestra image except to hone it and polish it to a high glossolalia -- hard to tell if "Venus and Serena" and "Cityscape Skybaby" melt the mind or the heart first.
3. T.I., Trap Muzik (Atlantic)
This Atlanta rapper is the only lyricist I'd trust in a streetfight. He's done some dirt, and sometimes likes to brag about it, but that doesn't mean that he's proud -- he's a truly conflicted soul, and that's where all the great stuff comes from. One minute, he's the "Rubber band man, wild as the Taliban"; the next, he's lectured by the Ghost of His Own Self Past like Ebenezer Crunk on "T.I. vs. T.I.P." And the backing tracks are fire: DJ Toomp, Kanye West, David Banner, and Jazze Pha all slay, and San (Chez) Holmes makes "No More Talk" sound like Iron Butterfly.
4. Over the Rhine,
Ohio (Back Porch) It's not the concept (Cincy art-poppers go a little bit alt.country), really, nor is it the gutsiness (a double album from a cult band with no name recognition), nor is it even the fact that Karin Bergquist's voice could draw tears out of the Cardiff Giant. Ultimately, it's the songs written by Bergquist and her husband Linford Detweiler; we become this band, and soon we're right there with them, drinking bloody marys with Jesus, sighing over hometown boys, or moaning good sons who've lost their lives in a strip pit somewhere in the imaginary hyperreal Ohio of our collective experience.
5. Lyrics Born, Later That Day... (Quannum Projects)
LB knocks his long-awaited solo debut right out into McCovey Cove, just the way I've been hoping he would do since the day I first heard him flow. What Tom Shimura does is more focused scat-singing than hip-hop, more hip-hop than rap, and more rap than just about anyone else in the universe. A concept record about not losing your shit at the petty (and not-so-petty) annoyances in this world, Later That Day... is funny and smart and deep and all that, but it's also got some hardcore microphone slaughter (particularly in the diss-track "Pack Up") that brings both Rakim AND Snoop to mind.
6. Anthony Hamilton, Comin' From Where I'm From (Arista)
The best R&B album of the year is also the best country album of the year. Like the young Al Green, he's got a lot of voices and every one of them has a depth and heft that no one else can touch. With this kind of arsenal, it's easy to type him as just a singer, but Hamilton's real strength is as a songwriter. Every track has some kind of left-field genius to it, from the Ken Nordine wordjazz that dots the sexscape of "Float" to the pimpinometry of "Cornbread, Fish, & Collard Greens": "I put the juice in Jheri Curls."
7. Susheela Raman, Love Trap (Narada)
Susheela Raman's hair is some kind of antenna; it picks up songs from centuries ago and turns them into weird wonderful wild pop music. The influences of her multi-hued band all burble up to the surface occasionally, but producer/guitarist/collaborator Sam Mills figures out a way to keep Africa and Asia and Europe and the Americas all hopping together. When a song rocks, like on "Half Shiva Half Shakti" or "Manasuloni", it rocks like you wish all "world music" would; when things get delicate, like on "Sabasa", you become afraid to breathe, because it might disturb the fabric of the universe.
8. David Banner, Mississippi: The Screwed and Chopped Album (Universal)
The original version of this record is great enough, combining crunk thuggery with the bleak rage of the dispossessed southern black man: "We from a place where the rebel flag still ain't burnin' / New schools but the black kids still ain't learnin' / Bout SHIT!". But I prefer the surreal kicks of this version, expertly slowed and slashed by Houston legend Michael Watts of Swisha House. Not only does it turn Banner into the Robert Johnson devil he sometimes claims to be, but it also makes the guitars burn hard like syphilis (best metal album of the year!), and makes it flow better, from ignant shit to unbearable sadness.
9. Cibelle, Cibelle (Six Degrees)
This is the cutting edge of Brazilian electronic pop: Cibelle's tricky lovely songs and lovely tricky voice combined with Apollo 9's shape-shifting techno tracks. They honor their samba and tropicalian forebears (Cibelle is clearly the direct heiress of Gilberto Gil's funky aesthetic) while stumbling through the jungle to make new paths of their own. Cibelle, a former actress, has a way with a lyric -- some of it's even in English! -- and a sweet veneer beneath which lurks the fangs of a poisonous killer.
10. Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, Country Music (Columbia)
Last time out, Stuart went from being country/bluegrass fluff in a mullet to proving his genius with the cinematic sweep of The Pilgrim. This time, he scales it back and hits the bullseye again, just playing the shit almighty out of 12 perfect songs. Funny corny stuff like "By George" sits right alongside devastating emo stuff like "Here I Am" and "Wishful Thinkin'", and Stuart honors the fire with "Tip Your Hat" and Cash's "Walls of a Prison" and a duet with Merle Haggard on "Farmer's Blues". The concept is How Much Marty Stuart Loves Music, and it works perfectly.
1. "Don't Wanna Try", Frankie J
2. "Ignition (Remix)", R. Kelly
3. "Pass the Dutch", Missy Elliott
4. "Songs About Rain", Gary Allan
5. "No Tengo Dinero", Kumbia Kings f El Gran Silencio y Juan Gabriel