1. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (ATO)
It's a wonder I'm still moving after my first listen to this record, after coming face-to-face with a mix of musical strength and grace that launches My Morning Jacket from a promising band to a great one. The sprawling, epic, at times transcendent "Mahgeeta" is just the tip of the iceberg; It Still Moves is not only proof that My Morning Jacket deserve every ounce of hype they've ever gotten (even the troubling moment when it seemed like they'd be MTV darlings), but also that the Americana movement does still have some uncharted territory left to explore.
2. The Shins, Chutes too Narrow (Sub Pop)
Even with the benefit of hindsight, the Shins' 2001 debut Oh, Inverted World sounds like a band that had a lot of gears, but was tentative about using them. Not so with Chutes too Narrow. From the bouncy pop of "So Says I" to the easy pace of "Saint Simon" to the pedal-steel ache of "Gone for Good", the Shins now sound like a band that can pull off pretty much anything they try. In a lot of cases, such musical confidence would be enough, but here James Mercer's often exquisite lyrics make for a record with few flaws.
3. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day (New West)
Decoration Day isn't the attention-getter that Southern Rock Opera was, but in the long run it might be the more important DBT album. Addressing topics ranging from incest to drink to generation-spanning feuds, Decoration Day cements Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and fresh-faced newcomer Jason Isbell as southern songwriters to be reckoned with. Decoration Day initially seems to consist of a few highlights -- the epic title track, the vicious "Sink Hole", the slow consideration of "Outfit" -- but the more you listen to it, the more the album pulls you into its darkly studied world.
4. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
To be sure, this is the album that seduced even folks who don't normally like rap or hip-hop. Outkast are the closest thing hip-hop has to the Beatles, and this double-CD flashes all of their talents in dizzying fashion. Andre 3000's disc envisions a world where Prince was elected supreme ruler of the world, and Big Boi's side totally submerges itself in genre-busting hip-hop. The scary thing is that, as good as both of these solo discs are, they're nothing compared to what these two produce when they're working together.
5. The Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont)
More of that patented Pernice brand of well-crafted pop. Let's hope the well never runs dry.
6. Damien Rice, O (Vector)
These days we seem flush with singer songwriters, but when one comes through with undeniable passion and literacy, you can't help but do a double-take. Comparisons to David Gray make perfect sense but tell only half the story; Rice possesses a songwriting fearlessness and a sense for dramatics that seemed to have died with Jeff Buckley. Sometimes Rice's ambition gets the better of him, but he also has the good sense to make Lisa Hannigan his equal on many songs. Her aching vocal style is O's secret weapon, keeping things firmly rooted in recognizable emotion.
7. Warren Zevon, The Wind (Artemis)
It's true that even if Zevon hadn't died shortly after finishing The Wind that it would have ranked among his finest works. But he did pass away, and The Wind gains even more poignancy. Every time Zevon sings of leaving, he seems to be singing from a multitude of perspectives, and when he utters a simple plea like "Keep Me in Your Heart", you can practically hear the heartbreak that's masked by Zevon's trademark matter-of-factness.
8. Various Artists, A Mighty Wind Original Soundtrack Recording (Sony)
Christopher Guest and company take on folk music in their most subtle parody yet, and the soundtrack could pass for the real thing in a blind listening test. If you remember your folks listening to Joan Baez, early Dylan, or the Kingston Trio, you'll appreciate the genius of the Folksmen, the New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Mickey all the more. And the Folksmen's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" has to be heard to be believed.
9. Grandpaboy, "Dead Man Shake" (Anti-)
Paul Westerberg's alter ego outdoes Westerberg himself with this sloppy, off-the-cuff, often gleeful blues bash. Chuck Berry riffs, blues solos, country-blues finger pickin', and even a stab at Rat Pack smoothness come spilling out of Westerberg's basement studio at a breakneck pace. Westerberg's proper solo effort, Come Feel Me Tremble, has as much noise, but holds less fun. This is the record that proves Westerberg's still alive and kicking.
10. Gillian Welch, Soul Journey (Acony)
When Soul Journey first came out, I unfairly placed it in the shadow of Time, the Revelator. That's about like comparing the warmth of a birthday cake to the coldness of the grave. Whereas Revelator successfully found a timeless space between myth, history, and tradition, Soul Journey seeks warmth and immediacy. In retrospect, it's a testament to Welch's (and David Rawlings's) abilities that this record seems so effortless -- this one really grows on you.
Top 5 Songs
1. Outkast, "Hey Ya!"
Yeah, yeah, everybody's picking it, but damn, just listen to the thing!
"I gotta leave here my girl, get on with my lonely life / Just leave the ring on the rail, for the wheels to nullify" -- one of the best breakup songs in a long, long time.
3. Drive-By Truckers, "Decoration Day"
I'm used to people younger than myself crafting ungodly works, but someone in their 20's has no business crafting such a vivid (and ambivalent) tale of family pain and revenge.
4. My Morning Jacket, "Mahgeeta"
Before hearing this, you couldn't have told me something ethereal could have so much kick.
5. Over the Rhine, "What I'll Remember Most"
Elegant and seemingly much more simple than it really is, this song marks Over the Rhine hitting their stride again. One of their best since "Later Days" many, many years back.